Thursday, August 07, 2003

Distilling the Poetry of Fact

"Updike, for his part, worked within the established conventions [of the New Yorker Magazine], but stretched them. 'It was perfectly obvious,' recalled Brendan Gill, 'that he was writing better Talk stories than anyone who had ever written them.' His data compilations on Antarctica, pigeons, and (audaciously) the universe were attempts to distill a poetry of fact."
--From About Town--The New Yorker and the World It Made, by Ben Yagoda

I find it instructive, every now and again, to go back through various books I've read and glimpse at those portions I've underlined or otherwise marked up. Over the years, I've evolved a kind of personal annotation system which I've recently come to realize hasn't really varied too much over about 25 years of serious reading, whether I was reading for pleasure, to mine the book for material or even for the purpose of reviewing it.

If a passage--anything from a few lines to an entire page--caught my interest, I would put a bracket around it in the margins. If it were especially interesting, or I wanted to signal to myself special interest in a smaller portion, I'd underline it. And really special stuff got stars next to it, perhaps even a few stars. Finally, impossibly vivid or sublime stuff that just screamed out at me got an exclamation point or two. Which of course made it hard to borrow a book from the library. But the aforementioned unauthorized biography of the New Yorker is especially good on this count. Besides that sublime observation on John Updike, I found these other little gems when I revisited it recently after having read it only a year or two before:

On editor William Shawn's management style, an impossibly zen-like blend of dysfunction and freedom-instilling restraint: "Shawn didn't just hire writers--he annointed them, as if to enter a secret and particularly holy religious order. Once selected, they found they were expected to find their own path to salvation." (I gave this one a bracket).

On writer Phillip Hamburger's recollection of sparring with Shawn over punctuation when going through a story proof: "he insisted that a hyphen was gramatically required in a certain word at the end of an article. I argued forcibly that the hyphen--the mere presence of the hyphen--would destroy the sentence. 'That's a ruinous hyphen,' I said. I wanted two separate words, and no hypen. I was quite worked up over the hyphen. Shawn was calm and cool. 'Perhaps you had better sit outside my office and think it over,' he said. From time to time he would pop his head out. 'Have you changed your mind?' he asked. This continued from about ten at night until close to two-thirty the next morning. Shawn finally said, sadly, 'All right. No hyphen. But you are wrong.'" (a bracket and two exclamation points).

On Truman Capote's method of reporting profiles: "Capote pursued a cunning, effective and prescient strategy: he never concealed his journalistic presence, but he generally disregarded the statements his characters made on the record, concentrating instead on the ways they revealed themselves when they assumed they weren't being observed." (an underlining, a bracketing, one exclamation point and four stars).

Blogging Coverage. The blogging phenomenon continues to be heavily covered by the general media as well as the media's trade press. And here are three recent pieces I've found especially compelling, for varying reasons. This Los Angeles Magazine piece does a good job of covering Mickey Kaus and his Kausfiles, which began as an indy blog before being merged into Slate. Like so many of the best, most serious non-fiction writers in the U.S., he cut his teeth at the Washington Monthly and later the New Republic during its '80s heyday, when Mike Kinsley "spawned an everything-you-know-is-wrong journalism, a mode of both speaking from the left and interrogating many of the left's preconceptions." This piece makes the interesting assertion that the blog culture tends to operate not unlike the cool clique in high school, in which "everybody starts talking about what the cool kids are saying." I think the writer nails it by observing that Kaus has pioneered a new kind of hybrid coverage: presenting "news while interpreting it--really, it presents news by interpreting it."

Editor & Publisher Mag has just posted this interesting interview with the online editor of a mid-sized paper, the Spokesman-Review in Washington State, which has recently added no fewer than nine blogs to its site. But what really caught my eye was this: this fellow, Ken Sands, sits on the board of the extremely influential Associated Press Managing Editors, which he rightly describes as being composed of "middle-aged print publication managers who don't seem to know yet what to make of online journalism." And yet, according Mr. Sands, they've just added a second board slot for an online person. I'd call that slow but steady headway (and have I mentioned that our own Society of Professional Journalists' chapter has recently decided to do not one but two programs in the coming year about online subjects?).

Finally, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal edit page, came this piece about politicians' blogs. It makes the case that politicians aren't cut out for blogging, because "blogging, in short, thrives on sarcasm." Well, I think that's just flatly, demonstrably, wrong as a general statement. Certainly in my cohort, there's a heck of a lot more earnestness than sarcasm. Still, as a former-cynic-turned-skeptic (a crucial distinction which I think too few people appreciate) I'm prepared to admit that my circle may not be representative. After all, none of my college friends did drugs or fooled around much with the opposite sex (though we somehow managed to have a helluva good time anyway).


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