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.
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.
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
- florid (and not necessarily disciplined);
- often deep but above all long;
- occasionally quirky and unapologetically self-indulgent.
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:
- 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.