The Economist: bland, trite and worthy?

I have been pondering a recent comment by Phillipp S Phogg to the effect that, if I may amplify it, what I write on the Hannibal Blog is sometimes more fun than what I write in The Economist. Or, as he put it:

the very opposite of the blandness (and dare I say, triteness?) which permeates some (but not all, I hasten to add!!) of the Economist’s erudite and worthy pages.

  • Bland
  • Trite
  • Worthy

Ouch. No publication, writer or editor would want to be caught anywhere near those adjectives–especially the devastatingly faint-praising worthy.

Well, one of the minor purposes of this blog (besides the main one, which is to talk about my book once it comes out) is to let those of you who are fans/foes of The Economist speak truth to power in a safe setting.

Furthermore, this is the time for me to admit that I myself occasionally feel as Phillip Phogg does. And that frustrates and saddens me.

It also makes me think deeply about such evergreen writerly topics as style, voice, tone, and storytelling, because that’s what this seems to be about.

The Economist appears to succeed in part because it promises and delivers to its readers analysis that is:

  • disciplined, not florid;
  • terse but deep;
  • occasionally quirky but not self-indulgent.

Permit me to contrast that with, say, The New Yorker, which promises, and mostly delivers, storytelling that is

What that means for me as a writer for The Economist is that I usually do the same research as writers for the New Yorker but then leave most, or even all, the “fun stuff” on the cutting floor to maintain the discipline of, say, a 600-word note.

This is frustrating. As a writer, I often know that I could spin a thrilling yarn out of my experiences during research but as a correspondent for The Economist I know that much of it is inadmissible. (There are exceptions, such a piece I have written about Socrates for our upcoming Christmas issue, which arose out of a thread here on the Hannibal Blog and is almost pure, unadulterated fun.)

One device that writers for the New Yorker (just to stay with that example) have but that we lack is the First Person, ie the “I”. I have said before that I consider the First Person “treacherous” for young writers because it subverts discipline. It is a good idea to learn to write without using “I” and “me”. That said, I have also discovered, on this blog and in my book manuscript, that the First Person makes certain things easier. One of those things is authenticity. Another is fun.

But it goes beyond the First Person and into storytelling. Occasionally, we do great storytelling in the pages of The Economist. But often we don’t, because that is not always the main objective.

I still love Ira Glass’s analysis of good storytelling. It requires, he said:

  • humanity
  • suspense
  • surprise
  • momentum (or “direction”)

But implicit in those elements is detail, also known as color. I have said before that color can be excessive and is best used sparingly, as in a good Rembrandt painting. But sparing does not mean monochrome.

Perhaps, when we fall short at The Economist it is because we overdo the sparing. Perhaps we should do more First Person narrating (which does not necessarily require us to give up our anonymity). Perhaps we should paint in more color.

In the next post, let me try to illustrate what I’ve been talking about in this post by looking at the back story behind one of my pieces in the current issue of The Economist.

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11 thoughts on “The Economist: bland, trite and worthy?

  1. No magazine is perfect, which is to say that they are all imperfect. But the Economist is less imperfect than almost all the others. How’s that for praise?!!

    The Economist knows the formula for success, and who can argue with that? The “paper” knows who it’s readers are – predominantly male, and of the business class (I’m guessing here, but it’s an educated guess), who prize the its disciplined and terse writing style (businessmen being always busy, don’t have time to read long and florid pieces), and all the valuable information and analyses in its pieces.

    But, if one’s taste leans to the more subjective, to the more colourful, one can now enjoy on the Economist’s web site, the blogs written by the likes of “Bagehot”, “Buttonwood”, “Banyen”, “Lexington”, and “Charlemagne”, as well as the ones under “Democracy in America”. Would it be too much to hope that blogs by “Kluth” will one day appear in this pantheon?

    Could it be that, by featuring blogs, the Economist is tacitly admitting that its normal disciplined terseness may not be everyone’s cup of tea (or mug of coffee), and wishes to create a more diverse readership?

    For what it’s worth, I’m beginning to tire of the prolixity of the likes of the New Yorker and the Atlantic, next to which I find the Economist’s economical (sic) writing style refreshing.

    And if in the mood for something less economical than the Economist, or less prolix than the New Yorker, I take an invigorating dip in the Economist’s sister publication, the quarterly Intelligent Life,which I recommend to any who haven’t tried it.

    • What I’m wondering is whether we could do with a bit more Intelligent Life and blogginess in The Economist. Not making it prolix but colorful. In short, writing better.

  2. I’ve tried to read The Economist, particularly since reading your blog, Andreas. So far I haven’t succeeded. The sameness of tone and layout, the red square and the title bothers me. That’s all … he he. But, hey, why should it work for me? I’m not in its target audience, as Mr Pip suggests.

    What would be your ideal audience, Andreas?

    For a weekly digest of world news, I go to the Guardian Weekly. I like its variety, texture and wit. And its paper.

    • I don’t blame you for “not succeeding”.

      The Economist’s audience does indeed skew male, but not necessarily “business”. Its audience is unusually young (early 30s median) and educated.

      As to my “ideal” audience: It would actually resemble the Hannibal Blog’s audience, from what I can tell. Humorous, curious, open-minded, inquisitive, nosy, literate, small ….

    • Yeh, nosy’s very good. And “small” … because of the effect of intimacy?

      Guess that’s a big advantage of being a blogger: one always gets one’s ideal audience! Which must make it like the first law of the “blogosphere.”

  3. “…speak truth to power in a safe setting.”

    This should be a mandatory exercise for anyone in a position of power. Sounds utopian; The head of state listening to the voices of people exposed to his-her rule.

    Listening to hearts and minds affected by government.

  4. Differences inviting to exercise the potential of more-over-less are ubiquitous. They are a given in our lives and we all get a share of the upside and the down side; top dog here underdog there.

    We all become heads of state when we focus on ultra local government; my dorm my kingdom.

    The opportunity to spare a life, in the many expressions this generosity might take, are legion.

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