The books we (at The Economist) wrote this year

I’m not the only one at The Economist to launch a book “this” year.

(As you know, my launch is technically on January 5th, but Hannibal and Me is already available for pre-order, so that counts as 2011.)

Here is a list of the books my colleagues and I wrote this year. A pretty broad range of genres and topics, wouldn’t you say?

Bill of Rights for Friends of Authors

1) Thesis

I was talking to my boss the other day about my imminent book launch. After a few glasses of wine, and in the company of other writers, he, an accomplished serial author with a very British sense of humor, told me, claiming to speak from experience, that

the only thing you’ll ever regret is that you didn’t prostitute yourself more.

He meant, of course, that I (and all authors) should, at least this once, get over the discretion that is native to people of manners, and just … market (verb). Because if we authors don’t, nobody else will, and we authors will be angry with ourselves later.

2) Antithesis

On the other hand, I have been around some authors who, for a period lasting months, turn into book-marketing robots, to the point where I can no longer have a normal conversation with them.

And so I understand fully the humanitarian need for limits.

3) Synthesis

So, in the spirit of mutual empathy between Authors and Friends of Authors, I (pictured above, seated) hereby promulgate a Bill of Rights — nay, a Magna Carta — to protect … you.

(Whoever you might be. But especially if you happen to be somebody I know, like, owe, am married to, have fathered, have been friends with…..)

Rights:

  1. There shall continue to be, as there have been since time immemorial, topics of conversation that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Author’s Book, and the Author shall respect said topics as such — ie, as inviolable.
  2. If the Author happens to moderate a panel about an interesting (or even a boring) topic unrelated to his Book, the Author shall refrain from name-dropping his Book in introducing the Panelists or while moderating their debate. If the Author violates this rule, the Audience shall be within its rights to boo Him off the stage, with the physical assistance of the Panelists.
  3. If thou had, in thy previous dealings with the Author, the sort of relationship in which thou could call Him a wanker, or to cast other aspersion upon Him with impunity and to humorous effect, thou shalt retain said privileges in perpetuity, whether that friggin’ Book of His is a hit or a flop, because that’s really not thy problem.
  4. When meeting the Author socially, especially if the meeting involves a Honig Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, thou mayest, with impunity, assert thy right to have a pleasant evening without being reminded of the darned Book at all.
  5. Thou shalt not blame, loathe or disdain the Author merely for marketing His Book to Others, being mindful that the Author is a prostitute only temporarily and on good advice, as wouldst thou be in His stead.
  6. Finally, thou hast the right, should thou find the Author’s presence insufferable nonetheless, physically to evade the Author for a period not exceeding the two months around the launch date, provided thou welcome the Author back into human society after the whole silly spectacle passeth into oblivion (which, remember, is a lot sooner than the Author thinks).

Ordinary words → extraordinary thoughts

One of my favorite quotes is by Arthur Schopenhauer. In German:

Man gebrauche gewöhnliche Worte und sage ungewöhnliche Dinge.

That could be translated several ways:

Take common words and say uncommon things.

Or:

One should take usual words and say unusual things.

Or:

Use ordinary words and say extraordinary things.

Doesn’t this say it all, for us writers and storytellers?

_________

PS: This could become a motto for The Hannibal Blog, especially in conjunction with Walt Whitman’s quote and Albert Einstein’s quote:

  1. Whitman gives us license to let our intellect roam freely without fear of the (inevitable) contradictions we bump into along the way;
  2. Einstein reminds us to search for the simplicity hiding beneath all that bewildering complexity, (as Alexander the Great and Carl Friedrich Gauss do, too);
  3. Schopenhauer reminds us to express what we found on Whitman’s journey with words of Einsteinian simplicity.

PPS: Schopenhauer is famous but not widely read anymore. I once had a little Schopenhauer phase. And since I did the work, you shouldn’t have to: All Schopenhauer did was to translate what we would consider Buddhism or Upanishadic Hinduism into German. So now you, too, know Schopenhauer.

PPPS: I can’t help but wonder what feedback my own publisher would have given Schopenhauer apropos of … his author photo!

Declaration of bad writing

When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one Writer to parody the Words which are written by most others, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle him, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that he should produce a representative Sample of the Words which impel him to the Mocking. He holds these Truths to be self-evident:

  • that what follows is bad writing indeed and will make you cringe or smirk,
  • that it is bad not in an egregious (and thus unrepresentative) way but in a small, ordinary, quotidian, commonplace (ie, representative ) way,
  • that it serves as partial proof to the thesis advanced in the previous post about Writing with Fear (although the role of fear as the cause deserves to be developed in a later post).

I) The run-of-the-mill press release/PR email

Below I reproduce, the first PR email I saw in my inbox this morning. It is chosen for being the day’s first, not for being the day’s worst.

Hi, Andreas –

I’m reaching out with a new executive leadership announcement from [COMPANY]. [COMPANY] is continuing its expansion into the [OMITTED] sector with the addition of several new members to its key management team. … [COMPANY] announced today that it has added several key members to its senior management team. …

Exegesis:

  1. For heaven’s sake, stop “reaching out” already. You can ask me, remind me, alert me, tell me, or you can simply … tell me without telling me that you will tell me, but keep your hands to yourself. Reaching out is in 2011 what proactive leveraging was circa 1995. (My colleague on The Economist’s language blog has covered this adequately.)
  2. How is “continuing an expansion” different from “expanding”?
  3. Since you mention the company’s “key management team”, please clarify which management team(s) is (are) non-key.
  4. Thanks for repeating the phrase, thus adding depth. I notice that the “key members” are now being added to the “senior management team”. Are they key but junior? Or key and senior? Are any of the senior ones non-key?

II) Examples chosen by Johnny

The subsequent examples are taken from our Style Guide, which is written by Johnny Grimmond, who has long been both a key and a senior editor of The Economist.

(Johnny has made three other explicit appearances here on The Hannibal Blog — when he clarified like vs as, when he decried bad editing as ‘desophistication’,  and when he busted me for using “co-equal” — and one veiled appearance, when he was just being British as an after-dinner speaker.)

Herewith:

1) Pompous blather

From the Style Guide’s entry for Community (a concept to which I also devoted a post):

If further warning is needed, remember that community is one of those words that tend to crop up in the company of the meaningless jargon and vacuous expressions beloved of bombastic bureaucrats. Here is John Negroponte, appearing before the American Senate:

“Teamwork will remain my north star as director of national intelligence–not just for my immediate office but for the entire intelligence community. My objective will be to foster proactive co-operation among the 15 IC elements and thereby optimise this nation’s extraordinary human and technical resources in collecting and analysing intelligence. We can only make the United States more secure if we approach intelligence reform as value-added, not zero-sum….”

This short passage might be the motherlode of bad expression (“foster”, “proactive”, “optimise”, “resources”, “value-added”, “zero-sum”,…). And yet it is actually ordinary enough still to be representative.

Here is another example, this one from the entry for Jargon:

The appointee … should have a proven track record of operating at a senior level within a multi-site international business, preferably within a service- or brand-oriented environment…

Johnny seems to have found this in a job advertisement by … The Economist Group! I’m guessing that gave him a frisson.

Next example:

At a national level, the department engaged stakeholders positively … This helped… to improve stakeholder buy-in to agreed changes…

This phrase came out of a report from the British civil service.

In the next passage, an esteemed think tank, Chatham House, explained that

The City Safe T3 Resilience Project is a cross-sector initiative bringing together experts … to enable multi-tier practitioner-oriented collaboration on resilience and counter-terrorism challenges and opportunities.

In the next passage, some British policy maker tried to say that teachers who agree to test their students will get money from the government. Here is how:

The grants will incentivise administrators and educators to apply relevant metrics to assess achievement in the competencies they seek to develop.

Try to guess what this phrase was supposed to express:

A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit.

Answer: Go-karting lessons sponsored by the Luton Educational Authority (London).

2) Political correctness

Political correctness has it own entry in our Style Guide, but I will instead quote from the entry for Euphemisms, because I think Johnny just says it all here:

Avoid, where possible, euphemisms and circumlocutions, especially those promoted by interest groups keen to please their clients or organisations anxious to avoid embarrassment. This does not mean that good writers should be insensitive of giving offence: on the contrary, if you are to be persuasive, you would do well to be courteous. But a good writer owes something to plain speech, the English language and the truth, as well as to manners. Political correctness can go.

Female teenagers are girls, not women. Living with mobility impairment probably means wheelchair-bound. Developing countries are often stagnating or even regressing (try poor) countries. The underprivileged may be disadvantaged, but are more likely just poor (the very concept of underprivilege is absurd, since it implies that some people receive less than their fair share of something that is by definition an advantage or prerogative). Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. The Pentagon’s enhanced interrogation is torture …

Writing with fear, continued

Two years ago, I wrote a post called Fear and the English language. It was my twist on George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, in which Orwell, in his timeless way, indicts and mocks modern writing.

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness,” Orwell said.

But why is this so? Because we are afraid, I concluded (after interrogating my own brain as it writes). We are afraid of the consequences of our words — of being misunderstood or attacked — so we make the words less clear. We use our words to erect barriers to meaning so we can hide behind those barriers.

This is cowardice. And it leads to bad writing, and bad speaking.

That covers most of verbal communication: the corporate memo, the annual report, the government publication, the politically correct academic thesis, the conference call with dial-in numbers, etc etc.

Well, that old post seems to have resonated, especially with those of you who also write for a living.

One of you, Eliot Brockner, emailed me this:

… I just read a post of yours from a few years ago titled “Fear and the English Language” and felt compelled to write you because of its relevance and timeliness in my own thoughts and struggles to grow as a writer. I think part of the problem is that what I write on a day-to-day basis by nature involves writing with fear. The company I work for covers operational threats to our clients’ businesses (I cover Latin America). To account for any possibility or event, I must use words that make for bad writing – ‘may’, ‘possibly’, ‘likely’. Even though our content is event driven, very little of what we write is concrete

My problem is that because this type of writing takes up most of my time, my own freelance work – my blog, my writing for other digital publications, even my own personal writing – is suffering. Having to account for so many possibilities in my professional writing is clouding my clarity of thought, and without clarity of thought, clarity of writing is impossible

How do you break this mold? If you are writing with fear, how do you stop? I’m having trouble reconciling the professional and personal writing worlds.

So Eliot poses the obvious next question: How do you stop writing with fear?

I gave Eliot the honest answer, which is that I have no good answer. (Remember, this is a blog, and most of the time I post stuff that is on my mind, unresolved, not stuff that I have already resolved.) But I promised that I would open it up here, to “crowd-source” it. So weigh in below.

As I ponder Eliot’s challenge, I follow a chaotically dialectical mental trajectory as follows:

1) Arise, inner Hero

Psychologically, writing usually begins as a Quest.

I capitalize Quest to remind you of the archetypes in the thought of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. In a writerly Quest, the (usually youthful) writer necessarily sees him or herself as a Hero/Heroine. I had a long-running thread on heroism here on The Hannibal Blog, so let me just pluck from that series two very clean and simple kinds of hero:

One kind of writer, after reading Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, seethes with bravery and becomes Theseus after he moves the boulder and finds his father’s sword: He wants to go out and prove himself, to slay villains on the way to Athens and then the Minotaur.

Another kind of young writer becomes The White Rose and decides to challenge evil with courageous words, by telling truth to power, by not shutting up, risk be damned.

To pick, somewhat arbitrarily, two analogous examples from our time:

In Hitchens’s case, we see a self-conscious hero dazzling us with his word prowess right from the first line of anything he writes. He knows he will have enemies (the whole point is to make enemies!), so he tilts at them with a cavalier smirk, with utterly gratuitous bravado, and says “bring it on.” Whatever you think of him, whether or not you agree with him, he regularly overcomes his fear and writes well. Orwell would approve.

In Krugman’s case, he sees (in much less intense form) in American Conservatism what the White Rose saw in Nazism: a curse to be opposed with relentlessly clear polemical writing. He does not hedge, he does not mince, he does not dilute or duck or hide. Whatever you think of him, whether or not you agree with him, he regularly overcomes his fear and writes well. Orwell would approve.

So Eliot, you could try to be a Hitchens/Theseus or a Krugman/White Rose. To hell with clients, employers, editors, readers: excise those hedge words, make those tenses active, replace those Norman words with Saxon ones, make those thoughts as clear as they want to be.

2) Sit down, you’re no hero

But wait, Eliot: What if you’re not a Theseus or a White Rose?

Oh, and by the way, when Theseus became unpopular in Athens, somebody threw him off a cliff. And the members of the White Rose were beheaded. So what if you pick a heroic fight and … lose? You’ll still have to pay the bills and rent or mortgage.

So let’s remember that good writing is rare precisely because it is dangerous. Somebody who leaps to mind is Satoshi Kanazawa, the scientist we debated so passionately in the previous post. In our discussion, we mainly argued about his academic freedom, his integrity as a scientist, his rights and privileges in the pursuit of truth. Those are the appropriate questions.

But I also see in him the struggle we are talking about in this post. He did not want to dilute his hypotheses into the usual term-paper bilge. He wanted to make the words simple and clear. As ever, simplicity and clarity in writing make the words stronger and more powerful. And that’s what sealed his fate when he wrote the title of the blog post that suspended his career:

Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women, But Black Men Are Rated Better Looking Than Other Men?

Give Eliot or me five minutes, and either of us could edit Kanazawa’s original post in such a way that nobody would take offense. How? By hiding the hypothesis behind hedges, passive tenses and qualifiers so deep that you wouldn’t even be able to find it. Kanazawa’s post would then be titled:

Preliminary implications of factor analysis on the aesthetic variance observed among gender and race phenotypes

(This sort of thing happens all the time, by the way: Coincidentally, I found another old post of mine in which I lament the New York Times doing this, with another topic vaguely mixing science, sex and race.)

The writing would be awful, yes. Orwell would not approve, except in his ironic Orwellian way. But Orwell does not own Psychology Today or run the LSE. Satoshi Kanazawa might still be blogging. This could all have turned out differently.

So maybe, Eliot, you and I are right to be circumspect. Let’s write, you know, fine, not too well. Let’s save the good stuff for later, for a special day. We would be in good company: Even Mark Twain concluded that you can only write honestly when you’ve got nothing left to lose:

Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending.

3) If you can’t be a Hero, don’t write at all

But that’s not satisfying. I didn’t become a writer to write badly. If this is the way it is, Eliot, let’s rather not write at all.

And again, Eliot, you and I would be in excellent company: Socrates refused to write anything at all, because the written word cannot defend itself, whereas the spoken word (in his opinion) can. As soon as you write something down, said Socrates, the words will be misunderstood or distorted, by the dumb or the malicious, and your words

must remain solemnly silent.

4) If you must write, at least pick your battles

Clausewitz

But that’s not satisfying either. We became writers because we love writing, and because we do occasionally have something to say.

So perhaps, we must integrate all these strands into something practical. This brings to mind Clausewitz and the distinction between tactics and strategy.

Let’s distinguish between means and ends, between important battles and distractions and diversions, between the individual words and the intended meaning, between each instance of writing and an entire writing career.

I suspect, Eliot, that we would then:

  • sometimes follow Socrates and choose not to write at all,
  • sometimes follow Twain and choose not to write yet,
  • sometimes compromise and choose words that make smaller targets but retain power,
  • sometimes go heroic and stumble, as Kanazawa did, then get up again and keep going, and
  • sometimes revert to our inner Theseus or White Rose, decide that now is the time for our arete — all consequences be damned — and write really fucking well.

Two other takes on Socrates + a lesson

Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei – ‘this way’, or ‘follow me’.

Isn’t that a great little detail? When strung together densely in one single narrative, these details transport you to a place and a time, to Athens during the life of Socrates. Kudos to Bettany Hughes for achieving such intensity in The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life.

And oh, what an Athens it was. This is the Athens of aromas and stink; of sweat, blood and sperm; of tanners pissing on their hides and Adonises oiling themselves for war games; of parades, assemblies and battles; of sex, slavery and domesticity; of democratic group-think, individual liberty and massacre; of humanity at its highest and simultaneously its lowest; of strutting health and vile disease.

Regarding disease, for example, is it not obvious that a plague such as the one that fell on war-torn Athens during Socrates’ prime must have influenced the subsequent events and the worldview of Socrates and his compatriots?

[W]ithin a year the disease danced its way through the caged population of Athens and across the hot streets; 80,000 died. At a cautious estimate, at least one-third of the city was wiped out. It had started in 431 BC.

Imagine one third of Americans, 100 million, dying in one year from a plague.

But we also need the lighter moments. For example, that time (beloved by artists, as above and below) when Socrates’s wife doused him with piss:

Xanthippe, raging after one argument with her maddening philosopher spouse, pours the contents of a bedpan over Socrates’ head; ‘I always knew that rain would follow thunder,’ sighs the philosopher, resignedly mopping his brow.

So Hughes accomplished something big: She brought that world-historical character, Socrates, to life. It’s a scandal how dull ‘philosophers’ (as opposed to historians) usually make Socrates. We needed this ‘biography’. She makes reading about Socrates easy and fun and personal. That is what I tried to do with Hannibal and the other characters in my own book.

(And, by the way, a reminder: Don’t ever assume that a thread on The Hannibal Blog has ended just because it slumbers for a few months. Both the series on Socrates and that on the Great Thinkers will continue. I have big plans for them.)

Another recent book on Socrates and the great philosophers is Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. It tackles a selection of thinkers, one per chapter:

  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Diogenes
  • Aristotle
  • Seneca
  • Augustine
  • Montaigne
  • Descartes
  • Rousseau
  • Kant
  • Emerson
  • Nietzsche

Since three of my own favorites were on the list, I bought the book. (The three, each with his own tag here on The Hannibal Blog, are Socrates, Diogenes and Nietzsche.)

Miller, too, sets out to write a biography (as opposed to a philosophical essay). His conceit, if I may paraphrase it, is to examine the lives of those who examined their lives.

Put differently, he wants to see how various philosophers lived and whether they just ‘talked the talk or also walked the walk’. Did their lives reflect their love of wisdom (= philo-sophy), or where they hypocrites?

Socrates, in this exercise, comes off splendidly. He embodied the love of wisdom and lived accordingly, searching for the good and treasuring simplicity. From Miller:

Socrates prided himself on living plainly and “used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink; and that he was nearest to the gods when he had the fewest wants.” … Abjuring the material trappings of his class, he became notorious for his disdain of worldly goods. “Often when he looked at the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, ‘How many things I can do without!’ ” He took care to exercise regularly, but his appearance was shabby. He expressed no interest in seeing the world at large, leaving the city only to fulfill his military obligations.

And, of course, he died for his principles.

Diogenes, whom I admire so much for his extreme simplicity/freedom, arguably became the caricature of this Socratic lifestyle:

While Diogenes regarded Plato as a hypocrite, Plato saw Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad”—and by Plato’s standards, he certainly was.

Masturbating in public and living in a barrel can give you that kind of reputation.

Plato and Aristotle arguably started that other trend, that of the hypocrite philosopher, talking/writing sophisticated words while, one way or another, selling out in private life. By the time you get to Rousseau, the hypocrisy becomes hard to stomach (I’ll leave that for another post some day.)

Storytelling lesson: unity vs fragmentation

But that’s not what I was mainly pondering after reading these two books, one after the other. Instead, I was reflecting why one author succeeded in a big way, and the other possibly failed in a small way.

Hughes, in The Hemlock Cup, succeeded big. She tackled an intimidating subject (intimidating because Socrates is not exactly an under-covered subject) in an innovative way and rose to the challenge by presenting one single, unified tale, no part of which a committed reader would dare to omit or skip.

By contrast, Miller, in Examined Lives, put forth a list, then broke his narrative into discrete chapters for each person on the list.

There is a problem with such lists: Why this list, and not some other list? Why Augustine and not Aquinas? Why Descartes and not Spinoza? Why Montaigne and not Montesquieu? Et cetera.

The result is that the reader, as he progresses, is increasingly tempted to skip the chapters that don’t interest him to speed ahead to those chapters that do interest him. I confess that I did that. Life is short, and I was a bit bored on some pages.

A good author reins in his readers as a charioteer steers his horses. He has readers asking the questions he, the author, is asking, not some other question (such as: where is Hegel?).

What could Miller have done differently? He could have woven the various lives together so that each chapter was about a theme, not an philosopher, and the various philosophers that interest him reappear at the right places.

My choice

You should take this with a grain of salt, because I have a reason to be thinking such thoughts.

A few years ago, when I first contemplated the book I wanted to write, I also envisioned it as a collection of chapters about various individuals that interested me (around the theme of triumph and disaster being impostors). (Hannibal was to have one chapter, Scipio one, Einstein one, Roosevelt one, et cetera.)

When I pitched that to an agent, he suggested that a better (but also more challenging) book would thread the lives together into one unfolding story, so that readers would not be tempted to disassemble the book and cherry-pick among the chapters. That structure would also force me to do the hard work of actually teasing out the themes concealed in these lives.

I took that advice. You can soon (on January 5th) decide whether I succeeded at it or not. For now, I simply observe with fascination how other authors approach this choice.

My opinion about my opinion

Debate in progress

A while ago, I had a little email exchange with one of my editors in London (The Economist’s HQ). I had written an article and the question was whether or not I should also write a Leader (ie, an editorial). In other words, should The Economist, through my words, opine, and how exactly?

The editor wrote to me:

I was very intrigued by the idea, and there was a lot of interest in the meeting. The problem is the prescription. I think you’re inclined to [subject omitted]; but I’m not inclined to go as far as that….

As you see, I excised the actual topic of discussion, because it is utterly irrelevant to my point here. Here is what I replied:

I’ve actually (as usual) got no clear “prescriptions” in my mind at all. I just made up some stuff to pitch a Leader outline to you. I’m always surprised by how interested we at The Economist are in our own opinions. Personally, I’m 99% interested in understanding the problem, and quite flexible in the other 1%…

Because the editor and I know each other well, I knew my cavalier tone would not be misunderstood. (In the end, there was no space in that week for that Leader anyway.) But then I realized that my point was perhaps more fundamental. How so?

The searcher and the preacher as archetype

You know you’re in trouble when somebody begins a monologue with “There are two kinds of people…”. But we might indeed stipulate that, yes, there are two kinds of people: searchers and preachers. You might even consider them Jungian archetypes (about which we haven’t talked for a while).

The preacher:

  • This sort really, really cares what he or she believes (rather than knows).
  • It matters to him what his opinion is, and also what your opinion is. That is because, to preachers, individuals are defined by their opinions.
  • Whether the opinions are based on good information or bad, whether they conform to reality or not, whether they acknowledge or exclude good alternatives — all this is by no means irrelevant, but of at best minor interest to a preacher.

The searcher:

  • He might or might not be interested in his own opinions, because he is forever in the process of forming one. This process (essentially one of learning) is much more interesting than any opinion that might temporarily emerge from it.
  • The searcher is also, as Walt Whitman might say, aware of the internal contradictions in any given opinion and quite intrigued by them, in an almost flirtatious way.
  • Much more important is the search for good information and the discrimination against bad, and a proper understanding of all conceivable alternative views.
  • If the preacher secretly hopes to achieve consensus on a single “story”, the searcher always hopes that all “other stories” keep circulating simultaneously. (As in: the Single versus the Other Story.)

And yes, of course, we’re all a bit of both, but in different proportions. Personally, for once, I’m not that confused about what I am: a searcher.

Which is to say: I have lots of opinions, but the opinion I’m proudest of is my opinion about my opinions. Generally, I’m quite suspicious of them. I interrogate them, and they answer back. Fascinating conversations.

Quite a few of us at The Economist are, individually, searchers. And yet, The Economist itself, as a whole, is clearly in the preacher camp. An interesting point to ponder.

For one week, not writing but speaking

It’s been an exhausting but satisfying and edifying week. I spent all of it speaking, rather than writing, and I learned a lot about the difference.

I) The written word

The occasion was my Special Report on “Democracy in California”, which was on the cover of the previous issue of The Economist, a cover as cheeky as one might expect of us (see above). The cover of the actual report (which is an insert of 11,000 words, eight chapters) looks like this:

It’s my fifth Special Report (we used to call those things “Surveys”). I usually urge people to read a Special Report on paper, or as a PDF, because it is really one single narrative, with each chapter leading to the next and none meant to be read in isolation. Online readers often land on one chapter and don’t realize it is part of something bigger.

Here are the chapters:

  1. The People’s Will
  2. Direct Democracy: Origin of the Species (I had the most fun with this one)
  3. Proposition 13: War by Initiative
  4. Stateside and abroad (this is a short box comparing other states and countries)
  5. California’s Legislature: The withering branch
  6. Education: A lesson in mediocrity
  7. How voters decide: What do you know? (The second-most fun, and most suprising)
  8. What next: Burn the wagons

I tried to remember and list all the sources here, but it’s inevitable that I forgot somebody, so apologies.

II) The spoken word

Once the report was published, two of my colleagues — Amy Jaick and Dayna De Simone, our brand enhancement geniuses — ferried me around California to “market” the report.

As you might remember, I’ve long been pondering the difference between the written and the spoken word, so it was constantly on my mind this week. The two are really completely different. You can write well but speak awfully, or speak well but write awfully. (You can also be good or bad at both, of course).

All of which is to say that this was really a great warm-up for the speaking I’ll probably be doing in January when my book comes out.

In particular, I now appreciate the importance and difficulty of being a good “accordion”. Which is to say: You have to be able to expand and contract at will — ie, to speak equally well about (in this case) all 11,000 written words in

  • 1 minute,
  • 2 minutes,
  • 10 minutes,
  • 30 minutes and
  • 1 hour.

And that takes quite a bit of practice, especially since I don’t believe in using any written notes at all.

The only reason, as far as I can tell, why somebody might want to hear a writer speak (as opposed to just reading his writing) is spontaneity, which equals authenticity. If you’re speaking from written notes, how can you be spontaneous? Whenever I’m in an audience and a speaker uses written notes, the oratory is dead and boring.

So I speak “naked”, as it were, which can, admittedly, be a bit nerve-racking. I did get sidetracked a couple of times. But as the week went on I got better at my pacing. Every talk was partly the same and partly different, and Amy and Dayna gave me great feedback on what worked and what didn’t, so that “the speech” kept improving.

And the reaction from the various audiences was fantastic. At every event, we ended up having a lively debate. I was learning a lot from the audience. And learning is really my main hobby. So I guess it was a good week.

At which end good writing turns bad

I) Amateurs: lose the top

Amateur writers often make the mistake of not cutting out their own “throat-clearing” in the first couple of paragraphs.

What is throat-clearing? It is what we in the biz sometimes call the verbiage that most ordinary people seem to consider necessary prologue before they say anything of consequence. “Laying the ground”, “setting the scene,” and so forth.

90% of the time, any piece of amateur writing can therefore be improved simply by lopping off — wholesale and mercilessly — the beginning. Somewhere in the text, the writer does have a point to make, and that‘s the place to start.

(Somehow, the amateur writer himself usually cannot find that place.)

II) Pros: lose the bottom

Professional writers might have the opposite problem: they often don’t know when to stop. Or perhaps they do know when to stop, but someone or something forces them to go on just a bit longer. And thus they ruin fantastic texts with banal or ridiculous “conclusions”, “summaries”, “recommendations” or other thought detritus.

David Greenberg

David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, makes this point in an amusing essay by using lots of famous books as examples.

How often, he says, some weighty, riveting, stirring text (we are mainly talking about socially or politically aware non-fiction) comes to ruin in its last chapter because

no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, [it] finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book… [No] one, it seems, has an exit strategy… [and] hard-headed criticism yield[s] suddenly to unwarranted optimism…

When politicians, whether aspiring or recovering, produce such drivel, we might not be surprised. Of course somebody like Al Gore might develop a good argument that evidence and logic have been driven from public debate (The Assault on Reason), and then conclude that

I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail.

But when real writers do this sort of thing, it is a genuine pity. So why do they do it?

Greenberg thinks that

One reason is that editors expect them. The journalist Michelle Goldberg conceived her first book, “Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism” (2006), as a work of reportage on a subculture of growing political influence. She hardly felt qualified to lay out an agenda for curbing the power of the religious right, but “one of my editors insisted I do it,” she recalled in a recent interview. Inevitably, reviewers called her on it…

In other cases, he thinks

authors have themselves to blame. Having immersed themselves in a subject, almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems. …

And me? Some of you may recall the little game I played for about two years with my own editor at Riverhead. He kept pressing me to add a final chapter of “lessons”. I kept demurring.

In the end, he won. Ie, I did add a chapter of lessons. As it happens, I surprised myself by liking that chapter. (It’s instead my second chapter that I like least and worry about most.) Who knows. I might already have fallen prey to Greenberg’s hubris. Fortunately, the book will be out soon, and all sorts of reviewers will volunteer their honesty with the requisite brutality.

Responding to my cold reader

At this (quite advanced) stage in the book-publishing process, there is suddenly a lot to do, always urgently and usually without prior notice.

For instance, another dead-tree copy of the manuscript just landed on my desk, marked up in old-fashioned ink. Apparently, the cold reader had had his go.

The cold reader? Who knew? I normally prefer my readers warm.

It appears that Riverhead has sent the manuscript to someone who is anonymous to me (“cold”, I suppose) for perusal. His or her comments were not “large” (about the sweep of the story, or the logic of an argument, say), but very detailed queries about language.

All regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know me as a pedant (or word-lover, to be generous). I am rarely caught out in word matters. But it does happen, and I find that fun.

So here are a few things the cold reader pointed out, and then a few instances in which I overruled him/her.

  1. If something “ascends up to,” it actually simply “ascends to”.
  2. “Aquiline faces” are actually faces with “aquiline noses.”
  3. A “crevice” is not a “crevasse”, and Hannibal in the Alps better have passed the latter, or we would be mighty bored.
  4. “Projecting a perception of invincibility” is simply “projecting invincibility”. (Can’t believe that one happened to me!)
  5. A line of soldiers marching “only a couple of men deep” is actually marching “a couple of men wide.” Duh.
  6. Scipio could not have stood there, “his posture erect and lithe.” No, he stood there, “his posture erect, his body lithe.”
  7. If Scipio and Cato (or whoever) “mixed like oil and water”, then they did not mix, like oil and water.
  8. Being “suspicious” is not the same as being “suspect”. (Duh. Must have been late at night.)
  9. Do I really need to spend hours going through my books to find out whether Lucius was Scipio’s only brother? Oh yes, because, that determines whether it is “his brother Lucius” or “his brother, Lucius”.

Here are a few of the comments I overruled (getting a little frisson out of the STET every time):

  1. No, Meriwether Lewis’s father was not fighting “Native American” tribes. He was fighting “Indian” tribes. It’s about context.
  2. Hannibal might have contemplated a “bold evacuation of Italy.” But he could not have contemplated a “bold evacuation of his troops from Italy.” Why would he want to rip out the innards of his own soldiers?

😉