Bad writing at the New Yorker

October 23, 2020 • 10:00 am

I’ve read only two issues of my six-month subscription to The New Yorker, and I’m already inclined to cancel it.  It’s not just that it’s woke, which it is—big time—but that it’s boring.  And the writing style of many (but not all) of the authors fits into a mold that I’ve beefed about before.  I refer to overwriting—a house style that distracts the reader from the topic.

In one of the most famous (and funniest) nasty book reviews I know of, H. L. Mencken’s review of Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure ClassMencken indicts Professor Veblen for purveying “a cent’s worth of information wrapped in a bale of polysyllables.” The issue with the New Yorker is related, but not identical. In their case, many authors take a cent’s worth of information and gussy it up with what the authors (and presumably the editors) consider lavish and stylish prose.  But it’s tiresome to see the authors show off this way, interposing what they see as their own cleverness between the subject and the reader.

Before last night’s debate, I opened the latest issue (I try to read nearly every article) and turned to the next piece in my sequence: a review of a book about Dolly Parton. “Great!”, I thought. “I want to find out what Dolly is all about.” Sadly, although there is information on Dolly, I knew much of it before, and what I found out about was contributing writer Lauren Michele Jackson‘s desire to flaunt her cleverness in prose.

I’m not sure if the article is free, but try clicking on the screenshot.

What I want to do is point out sentences that irritate me because they’re examples of Jackson showing off. Readers may not agree—after all, we all have different tastes in writing—but it irked me so much that the laws of physics ordained that I write this piece.  A note: the book Jackson is ostensibly reviewing is Sarah Smarsh’s “She Come by It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs” apparently a gemisch of biography, music, and feminism. The Amazon blurb says this:

Far beyond the recently resurrected “Jolene” or quintessential “9 to 5,” Parton’s songs for decades have validated women who go unheard: the poor woman, the pregnant teenager, the struggling mother disparaged as “trailer trash.” Parton’s broader career—from singing on the front porch of her family’s cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to achieving stardom in Nashville and Hollywood, from “girl singer” managed by powerful men to leader of a self-made business and philanthropy empire—offers a springboard to examining the intersections of gender, class, and culture.

Infused with Smarsh’s trademark insight, intelligence, and humanity, She Come By It Natural is a sympathetic tribute to the icon Dolly Parton and—call it whatever you like—the organic feminism she embodies.

Well, I have no objection to that purpose, and I’m not reviewing Smarsh’s book but Jackson’s writing about it. So here’s a few bits of Jackson’s prose that irritate me. In fact, I was so peeved that at times I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to say, and finished the “review” with a sense of relief.

. . . . the particulars of Parton’s life story are grafted onto those of white working-class women, usually matriarchs within Smarsh’s own family—women who, like Parton, might never see themselves in feminist discourse but have been “living feminism” all along. These are women tested by poverty and patriarchy, who do what needs to get done and escape when it’s time, even if the fleeing lands them in another bad situation that they’ll soon need to escape. They’re women who are wronged (“Dagger Through the Heart”) or possibly doing wrong (“I Can’t Be True”), finding a soundtrack to their own loves in “Love Is Like a Butterfly.” They are, in Smarsh’s view, Parton’s muses, with lives resembling the main characters of her jubilant and sad-ass tunes. Parton is a genius, but all those stories come from somewhere. And, though Parton left and made a mint, the women she might’ve been kept on living. They understand Parton like few can, and, for the most part, their contributions to progressive consciousness have gone unsung except by Parton.

“Jubilant and sad-ass tunes” is showoffy, and the last two sentences are fairly opaque. What does it mean to say that “Parton left and made a mint”? Yes, she made a lot of dough, but what did she leave? As far as the last sentence goes, it’s not bad writing but it’s trite, simply saying that “women who lived the rough life that Parton did when young resonate more with her songs.” And what does it mean to say, “The women she might’ve been kept on living.” Does Jackson mean that Parton continued to write songs about the alternative lives she should have had?


Money saved from the Cas Walker show and other spots was spent on the customary teen-age fare—clothes, makeup, and peroxide—and local celebrity attracted envy at school, where she was sometimes bullied. The morning after [high school] graduation, Parton boarded a Greyhound in hot pursuit of the usual dream.

Jackson doesn’t tell us where Parton was going (Knoxville? Nashville?), and I’m irked by “local celebrity, which has no antecedent, and by “hot pursuit of the usual dream”, which is trite. I would never use the phrase “hot pursuit”. And what is the usual dream? Finally, it’s a Greyhound bus, for crying out loud. Not everyone knows what a Greyhound is.


[Porter] Wagoner, another farmer’s kid turned musician, had become the host of a syndicated weekly TV show, and signed her on as a singing sidekick, for an eye-popping sixty thousand dollars a year. Lean and glittering in his Nudie suits (likely designed by the quietly iconic Manuel Cuevas), and two decades her elder, Wagoner became, in the singsong language of a country duet, the sometime father, sometime lover of his partner.

Jackson doesn’t tell us who “Nudie” was (Nudie Cohn, a stylist who designed elaborate glittery outfits—including cowboy boots—for country music stars and singers like Elvis); instead, she name-drops Manuel Cuevas, a drop that makes no point whatsoever. This is the kind of name-dropping that cannot convey any useful information to the reader, who has no idea who Nudie or Manuel Cuevas was. What does “quietly iconic” mean?  “In the singsong language of a country duet” is showoffy and unclear: what, exactly, is “singsong language”, and how does it related to Wagoner’s multiple roles? Country duets are usually about love, not multiple roles.


By leaving, [Parton] entered the symbolic frequency shared by any woman who has broken free from a chauvinist, whether once tied by a ring, a child, or a contract.

What on earth is a “symbolic frequency”? I have no idea.  However, as a treat, I’ll put below the song Parton wrote as her farewell to Porter Wagoner, one of her finest compositions. Let’s proceed:

While Parton played the less than dutiful li’l lady, the second wave of feminism was happening all around her.

“Dutiful li’l lady” is enormously irritating. “L’il”? Really?

But wait! There’s more:

.In a delightful clip that has recently been making the rounds online, from an episode of the short-lived nineteen-eighties variety show “Dolly,” Parton leads Patti LaBelle in “a little rhythm” sounded, washboard style, from the clacking of their acrylic nails. Wearing similar puff-sleeved, sparkling black gowns, the two luminaries briefly harmonize a rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread,” the slave folk song, before collapsing into giggles. The moment can feel silly, but no doubt Smarsh would see its serious feminine brilliance. Acrylic nails, disparaged when seen on the hands of performers like Parton or Cardi B, may very well be responsible for some spectacular feats of songwriting.

I’ve put the clip below, which is fun, and the harmony is good. I can’t see it as “serious” feminine brilliance”, though.  But the last line, which tries to take nail clicking into the realm of the universal, is ridiculous. How, exactly, are acrylic nails responsible for some spectacular feats of songwriting? Is this a metaphor? If not, could Jackson give us an example of a spectacular nail-songs?


From there came the career superbloom that we associate with multiplatinum artists who cagily mix business and art. With the help of a new manager, Parton reinvigorated the celebrity portion of her stardom with a good brand plan, harvesting a popularity that already stretched across the Atlantic.

This is ugly writing: “superbloom”, “cagily” and “good brand plan”.

And here’s the last paragraph, which, according to New Yorker rules, must be clever.

At the time Smarsh wrote her book’s preface, dated March of this year, Parton hadn’t yet pledged anything toward the pandemic, but Smarsh was sure that she would, and Parton did—on April 2nd, she announced a donation of a million dollars to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for research into coronavirus treatments. All this could be feminism, or whatever Parton wants it to be—giving, giving back, walking in God’s light. When she’s fixing to change course, I trust she’ll let us know.

“Walking in God’s light”, presumably, reflects Parton’s religiosity, though in the entire article Jackson didn’t mentioned Dolly’s faith. I have no idea if she’s religious. And the last sentence is also irritating. “Fixing to change course” would presumably be the way Parton would say it, as “fixin”” is Southern argot for “planning to” or “about to.” But what does this last sentence mean? Change course in what way? How will she let us know, and why? Has she done that before?

As I said, these are just some of the irritating bits, and much of the article is fine.  I like Dolly Parton a lot—she seems genuine and in on the humor involved in her image—and for all I know Smarsh’s book is good. But Jackson needs a good editorial hand to keep her from intruding into the narrative, as well as to stop trying to make the particular into the universal—the most common flaw of New Yorker articles.

What a relief it was to turn to the next article: Anthony Lane’s review of a book about the poet John Berryman.. No show-offy writing, but prose that is simple, clear, and enlightening, yet stylish.

Since you’ve waded through my petulance, here’s Dolly singing “I Will Always Love You,” which I consider one of the best country songs ever. (Yes, she wrote it.) It comes right out of her life: it’s her farewell to Porter Wagoner when she left his show to strike out on her own. And this was performed on his show (he appears at the end):

22 thoughts on “Bad writing at the New Yorker

  1. I saw this on Arts & Letters Daily, and was going to check it out this weekend, but now I guess I won’t. It does sound overwritten. I’ll look for a different review of the book, which my wife might enjoy.

    My two favorite review lines I learned from a professor at UC: “This is a book in search of an article” and “This book fills a much-needed gap in the historical literature.”

  2. I love Dolly Parton. Great singer and wonderful human being. With a great sense of humor – “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”

    I love the work she did on Trios with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. In college, I used to just stare at the cover of Harris’ Pieces of the Sky. But Dolly really knocked it out of the park on the cover of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.

    1. in re … … ” love the work she did on
      Trios with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, ”
      I wholly concur, Mr George. THE most favored
      ever of the TRIOs’ works for me ? THUS =
      ” Lover’s Return ” of

      Utterly, from her and these of her two comadres ?
      = r e s o n a t e s with its mandolin – twang
      and ” O no … … I cannot take your hand. ”
      For my braining, I just substitute its ” g*d ”
      with the lyric, instead, of ” life. ”

      And a darling Dolly one done up with the
      Pentatonix folks’ a cappella – wise ?
      = her signature one of ” Jolene ” of thus:


  3. What you read was a translation. The original was in Postmodernism steeped in Progressivist duty.

    The editor took one look at it and said, “Nice job, but we can’t publish it like an essay in ‘Cultural Heuristics 201’ that you wrote as a sophomore at Berkley. Here at New Yorker we still have to nod at the remains of capitalism. I mean, we still have to sell the rag. Now go make it sound like H. L. Mencken.”

    The writer did so. But they don’t know how to do it very well.

  4. Poor Jerry!
    I quite agree – she is not a graceful & to-the-point writer. The variation between dashed interjections or asides, & braCkets, is peculiar it seems to me. Honestly, I have never been sure when one ought to use the one or the other…

    1. Funny you should mention parentheses and “dashed asides,” as I just used them in my following comment. I usually use parentheses when something is an “aside” and dashes when I’m describing something in the middle of a sentence. Dashes and parentheses also often allow me to avoid using semicolons.

  5. I only read the first two cited examples (the subject of the review wasn’t interesting enough to me to read on), but I didn’t find them to be especially showy or pretentious. Of course, that’s not to say that The New Yorker isn’t filled with such tripe, because it certainly is. I usually gauge this kind of thing by the number of superfluous and obscure words used. I think that style of writing — using impenetrable language and making sentences as long as possible — is a byproduct of woke thinking and academics. If you read just about any woke paper coming out of universities, you find that they’re written to sound as “smart” as possible while saying almost nothing and contain run-on sentences that would put James Joyce to shame.

    1. The extracts from the review are similar to the overwritten, breathless fanboy blurbs with their knowing insider references to impress readers, occasionally encountered in music magazines and ‘Best of…’ CD blurbs.

      What did she leave? Poverty and patriarchy are earlier referred to with verbs such as ‘escape’ and ‘fleeing’; I, a non-American know what a ‘Greyhound’ with a capital ‘G’ means; ‘other spots’ is presumably the antecedent of ‘local celebrity’.

      So the review, IMO, is not quite as obscure as PCC(e) implies, but otherwise I agree with his verdict.

  6. Agree with Jerry about the writing. I was taught to stay away from too many adjectives, so purple prose tends to annoy me, too.

    Factoid about Dolly: she wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You in the same day. Wow.


  7. I’m a longtime subscriber to WIRED, also part of the Condé Nast magazine collection. I’ve noticed a big increase in what I think of as navel-gazing articles. Minimal reporting, just a lot of “let me tell you about my life”. (Example: a dad’s deep thoughts about playing Fortnite with his 11-year-old daughter.) Zzzz. I’ve chalked it up to pandemic reality. “I’m stuck at home, let me tell you about my soup collection.”

  8. Perhaps it’s an example of CRT – Critical Review Theory. A theory which is mine.

    Unless you are getting some additional insight and explanation of how the original subject matter hangs together, it’s just some clever-cloggs showing off.

  9. This post reminds me of a line from the West Wing. President Bartlett was describing his father’s attitude about discussions around the dinner table: “If you didn’t use 26 words when 10 would do, then you just weren’t trying.”

  10. I also disliked the article, primarily for the reasons PCC gave, but also because it excessively trashed Porter Wagoner, who deserves to remembered as more than a jealous ex who tried to hold Dolly back.

    I won’t get into the personal issues between him and Dolly, aside from pointing out that Dolly’s version of events (slavishly accepted by this review) is not chronologically accurate, but Wagoner was one of the great country stars and left a lot of great music behind.

    For a good place to start, check out “The Rubber Room,” a CD compilation of Wagoner’s darkest and most twisted recordings. Country music has always been drawn to adult material, but this compilation goes beyond the norm. Mental insanity, adultery, murder, suicide, murder-suicide, alcoholism, homelessness, child abuse, serial killers driven mad by racism—“The Rubber Room” has them all!

    For a sample, here’s Porter’s spooky rendition of “The First Mrs. Jones”:

  11. Dolly Parton’s America is a podcast which I found on Spotify… 8 episodes worth and tells her story. To my mind if America must insist on voting actors and reality show host as Presidents… ask her to have a shot, we outsiders would be grateful.

  12. I’ve noticed this before. Contemporary journalists are not only woke, they can’t write. I figure that it must be that in journalism schools they spend too much time with political indoctrination and too little with writing.

  13. This didn’t seem to be bad or ridiculous.

    She sings the songs of working women, which is good. Rural women have an especially hard time, have to work super hard for little but love their families as their gold. Many are soothed and enjoy listening to songs like this.

    I went through Tinkers by Harding until the end. It was a sophisticated piece that you would probably need training to actually comprehend or to fully appreciate. I could understand it, but it was torture.

    Sometimes, I struggle with Poe and have to read the stories a few times.

  14. I agree. I truly wonder if Dolly herself would approve of the sentiments expressed by the author. I think this is an example of Jackson’s own biased commentary, rather than an objective look at Parton’s career and intentions.

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