The Associated Press’s Orwellian recommendations for journalists

June 22, 2023 • 10:00 am

If you’re going to use the adjective “Orwellian” to refer to authoritarianism and unsavory manipulation of people’s thoughts, you must have read at least two of his pieces: the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), free online from The Orwell Foundation. They are of course connected; both involve the psychological manipulation of people for bad political ends, the former by government actions and the latter by manipulation of words.  Here are two bits from his essay:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

. . . Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

I’m sure that investigative journalist Gerald Posner didn’t write this piece out of right-winged animus or transphobia (he used to be the investigative reporter for The Daily Beast), but rather out of outrage about how other people are trying to change language to achieve political ends. And, at any rate, what matters is not his politics, but the veracity of his reports, which you can check for yourself.  His issue is the language around coverage of transgender politics, and his object is the Associated Press Style Guide, which, as he notes, is

. . . . the leading style and usage guide for many newspapers, magazines, newsrooms, and public relations offices. Journalists and editors largely abide by its grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules and specific styles for everything from numbers to acronyms.  AP editors are supposed to regularly update the Stylebook in order to keep up with changes in language and societal norms.

Modern woke political language however, doesn’t undergo a natural evolution over time; rather, it is imposed from above, and here it’s imposed by the AP Style Guide.

Click to read the piece on his “Just the Facts” Substack site:

Posner is approaching the 3,000 word (!) article on “Transgender Coverage” as an investigative journalist, giving examples of recommended and un-recommended usages. But he does come to a conclusion: it’s ideological and inaccurate.  You can see the data at the “Transgender Coverage Topical Guide” entry at the AP Stylebook.

And here’s Posner’s take on it all. Most of it I agree with, but one or two of his criticisms seems to me not wrong, but a tad exaggerated.

The revised Transgender entry runs 3,000 words, setting forth what it says is the acceptable standard for journalists when “writ[ing] about and interview[ing] transgender people.”  It starts with what seems like a good rule, that reporters must use “accurate, sensitive and unbiased language.”

The editors then proceed to trash the concepts of accuracy and “no bias.” The guide dictates the use of language that in some cases is factually incorrect. Or, as Orwell might have said, the AP editors did their best “to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Language matters.  Unfortunately, those in charge of setting the rules for the use of it are titling the standards to affect the coverage.

Sometimes, the AP Stylebook contradicts established science, other times ignore inconvenient evidence to the contrary, and repeatedly adopts rules that endorse only one side of what is a vigorous ongoing controversy.

Here are two examples of bad recommendations and one that I think doesn’t matter all that much. Posner’s words are indented, and the AP Stylebook recommendations in bold, italic type. My words are flush left.


 “Use the term sex assigned at birth instead of biological sex, birth gender, was identified at birth as, born a girl and the like…. Avoid terms like biological sex, along with biological male and biological female.”

On the issue of biology being so passé, the AP is insistent. A dozen times the style guide reinforces that a person’s gender is “assigned” at birth.  Richard Ostling, a former AP national reporter (now a GetReligion contributor), notes that, “That’s central to LGBTQ+ insistence that each infant’s gender is arbitrarily imposed from outside and subject to change, so this word allies the news media with one outlook in an intense societal debate.”

Ditching biological sex in one species of animal but not in every other species is unconscionable.  Why is human “gender” (they of course mean “biological sex”) assigned at birth instead of recognized at birth? When I divide piles of fruit flies into sexes, I am not “assigning their sex”, but recognizing it based on sexually dimorphic characters that are nearly perfectly correlated with biological sex. (Remember biologists define sex by the nature of the reproductive system that produces either large, immobile gametes [“females’], or small, mobile gametes [“males’]). I’ve dissected gazillions of male and female flies, and I’ve never seen a “normal-appearing” male with ovaries. (We very rarely get gynandromorphs: flies that are part male and part female, produced when an X chromosome gets lost during cell division in an embryo. But these are developmental accidents, not a “third sex”, and gynandromorphs occur in many animal species).  It would be strange indeed if sex was defined and recognized in animals and plants—except in H. sapiens!

This wording in bold is, of course, there to reinforce the gender activists’ wrongheaded claim that sex a “spectrum” and not binary.  And they claim this because gender (social sex roles) are more of a spectrum—though still bimodal.  It’s the reverse naturalistic fallacy: what you want to be true in nature is what you must see in nature. This language is used to reinforce that fallacy.


If children meet guidelines and are showing signs of puberty, they can begin taking puberty blockers — fully reversible prescription medication that pauses sexual maturation, typically given in injections or skin implants.

The AP editors — without any supporting citation or caveat — set the rule that journalists writing transgender stories must remember that puberty blockers are “fully reversible.”  Mixing some incorrect science into the style guide might be simple enough but has serious consequences.  That is especially true when the science shows there is a litany of serious, long term adverse effects to children who have been on those drugs. I highlighted some of those side effects in my recent WJS piece, “The Truth About Puberty Blockers.”

At least the style guide admits that “the evidence is mixed” about whether hormone treatments and surgery resolve the “stress, depression and suicidal thoughts” to which “transgender youth and adults are prone.”

The effects of puberty blockers, as we are coming to learn, are almost certainly not “fully reversible.” Nor are they without side effects. Nor are they able to “pause” puberty fully and innocuously while a child makes up its mind. This language is straight-out deceptive, and again plays into the agenda of extreme gender activists, who argue that there’s no harm involved in stopping sexual maturation while you decide whether to assume a gender different from the one you have.


“[In reporting on transgender people in sports] Don’t refer to male or female hormones. All people have the same hormones; only their levels vary. If discussion of hormones is needed, name the specific hormone(s)…. If transgender players of any gender are banned from playing on teams in line with their gender, say that.”

This is embarrassingly disingenuous. Men and women do indeed produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone but the ways their bodies manufacture those hormones means they have completely different blood concentrations and interactions with organs and muscles.

By ignoring the differences between male and female hormones is to ignore the differences that are key to why biological males have a physical advantage over biological females in athletics. Bone size and strength, greater muscle mass, and higher rates of metabolizing and releasing energy cannot be fully reversed after puberty. Males are, among with biological advantages, are more powerful at kicking and hitting; jumping higher; extra endurance; faster swimming and running speeds.

The results of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020 showed that different hormones between transmen and transwomen made a significant difference in “body composition and athletic performance.”

I think by now people know this, but the levels of testosterone and estrogen do differ on average between males and premenopausal females, with average testosterone levels very different and the distributions virtually nonoverlapping.  Posner is right that hiding hormone names is a way to minimize the profound effects that different levels of testosterone and (to a lesser extent) estrogen have on secondary sex traits, especially those involved in sports like size and musculature.  But I don’t really care if they use “testosterone” instead of “male hormone” because, as the AP says, both hormones are found in both sexes. So long as writers emphasize the effect that different levels of these hormones (especially “T”) have on secondary sex traits, I’m satisfied.

I do recommend, by the way, that you read Carole Hooven’s book T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. It’s a good, accurate, and enlightening read.

There are others recommendations from the A.P. that you can read and assess, and Posner finishes with the AP’s suggestions about how to use phrases that actually “present still contested concepts as settled,” like that it’s fine to use “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women,”

Posner finishes with a two-sentence zinger that sums up his take on these Orwellian attempts to control language. He puts the AP recommendation in bold italics:

Of course, these rules are often more about following an ideology than acting as the premier style guide. If anyone doubts that, “Do not use the term transgenderism, which frames transgender identity as an ideology.”

Teaching writing to college students

January 4, 2023 • 10:15 am

The essay below in The Chronicle of Higher Education (click screenshot below to read) is a beef about the poor quality of writing turned out by University of Chicago students, and about the futile efforts of the university’s Writing Program to improve student prose. It’s written by Blake Smith, identified as “a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia,” and someone who found, in teaching a “core” class for undergraduates, found that his students didn’t write at all well. I too experienced a lot of bad writing teaching undergraduates, as most of my exam questions were thought questions, short essays, and stuff that required writing. On the other hand, a science teacher isn’t looking for scintillating prose in such answers, so I never bothered to correct the English. But it was just as bad on the lab reports, and it was up to the teaching assistants (t.a.s) to correct writing if they wished.

Blake discovered his own problem quickly:

I think this is true in general, though I have no idea whether the ability of college students to write has decreased over the years.

If you’re a science major, you’re almost never given the chance to have your writing vetted, and it’s even worse of you get a science degree from a foreign university that requires almost no non-science courses your degree.

The result was that some of our grad students, though smart as whips, couldn’t turn out readable prose, which is definitely a skill you need as an academic, especially for writing grant proposals. Scientific papers are expected to be turgid, though I’ve always tried to emphasize that they don’t have to be, and if you want someone to read your papers you should write them in an engaging manner. Doug Futuyma and David Sloan Wilson are my exemplars of people who know how to write a science paper.

Decent writing, though not stylish prose, is also required when writing grant proposals, for if you don’t describe clearly what you’re going to do and why, but muddy up the whole thing with jargon, you reduce your chances of being funded. I therefore decided to teach a one-quarter class to the ecology and evolution students about how to write well and clearly.

It was a miserable failure, mainly because I didn’t know how to teach writing! I learned to write tolerably well not by taking formal courses, but by reading, and figuring out why I liked something.  There are sources of advice for good writing (I recommend Orwell’s Essay “Politics and the English Language” (free online) and especially Steve Pinker’s recent book A Sense of Style, which didn’t get much publicity), but if you teach yourself, as I did, then you don’t really know learn to teach others. I imagine it would be very hard to teach good writing unless you’re starting with people who’s pretty good at the outset. By the time you get to college, you’ve already developed the ability to write decently or poorly.

Anyway, below Smith’s beef. I’ll give a few quotes, but the thing that surprised me was that how poorly written his own essay was, especially for one who assesses writing.

Now a lot of the essay is just a critique of the U of C’s writing program, and I know little about it. I’ll just give his words, whose are grouped into paragraphs that I see as rather clumsy:

To find out why the lauded writing and core programs were failing students, I acquired the course materials for HUMA 5000, “Pedagogies of Writing,” the course in which graduate students learn to become tutors for the writing-intensive core class for freshmen. I was appalled at what I read. The course was organized around graduate students’ acquisition of a bespoke jargon for analyzing undergraduates’ writing. Would-be writing instructors learned that a paper is a means of expressing a “point” through stages of argumentation — “stasis,” “destabilization,” “grounds,” “reasoning,” “warrant,” etc. They were trained to read introductions (called “indexes” in the course material) for keywords (“themes”) that could then be tracked throughout the rest of the paper (following “lexical strings”). A good paper, they were told, has strong themes presented upfront to prepare readers for the trajectory of its argument — or, as the writing center gracefully put it, “In our sessions, we have diagnosed coherence based upon the presence or absence of strings of repeated themes.” Undergraduate writers might, if they dared, choose not to front-end their themes, but one should warn them that “deconstructing the logos — opening space for the play of the signifier — is likely to make prose harder to read.”

Although its longtime head eschews “rules,” Chicago’s writing center puts between writers and writing an opaque mesh of neologisms, injunctions, and its own shoddy prose. It is as if the sort of advice that could be usefully given by writing tutors were embarrassingly simple and unintellectual, and needed, for the sake of the self-esteem of those running the center, to be converted into a proprietary brand of pseudo-learned nonsense. The most helpful comments I received on my writing over the course of my education were the apparently simple, even crude, comments of my graduate adviser, who punctuated my cumbersome drafts with remarks like “huh?” and “be clearer!” These do not “sound smart” or appeal to any loftier principle than a common understanding of ordinary English; their authority rests not on a set of concepts about the function of “lexical strings” or “warrant” but on the recipient’s belief that the person who says them is, in her own right, a writer.

Many of the instructors working at or trained by the writing center are not writers in this sense. They have never, perhaps, written anything that anyone has ever read for pleasure. Even if they have, their authority in the classroom does not rest on this work, which they do not show students.

. . . Much of what passes for scholarship in venues like The Writing Center Journal in recent years consists of appeals to transform the supposedly oppressive writing center into a site of radical contestation, either conceived in racialized or anti-capitalist terms. It is as though instructors at writing centers, chafing at their low status within their institutions and fields, and resenting that they are often called upon to bring students up to speed rather than to do what is perceived as more serious intellectual work, try to give some gravitas to their positions by charging the simple but difficult work of writing with a complicated new conceptual vocabulary or pompous assertions of their own social importance. As Anne Ellen Geller and Harry Denny explain, writing-center administrators find themselves “on the outside of academic culture looking in, yearning to contribute and complicate conversations.” At the University of Chicago, certainly, they have managed to complicate.

Again, I can’t say whether what Smith says is true. But did you notice that his own essay isn’t exactly a model of clarity and engaging prose?

Anyway, Smith found that the best thing he did was pass around one of his own essays to students and ask them to identify the good bits and the bad ones. And, I suppose, that’s the way one should teach writing: by giving students examples of good and bad prose and let them figure out, with guidance, how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I’ll close by saying that students these days do need to be taught how to write, as it’s a skill you can use throughout your life, but they don’t seem to be getting that expertise. Here’s Smith’s last sentence, which I present not because it says something profound, but because it is not good writing:

Nor does it matter whether an instructor is himself a good writer, or how he understands the relationship between writing and thinking in his own work. The individuality of style, as a pursuit of the beautiful at once personal and public, and the individuality of the instructor as writer, with his own fraught, anxious, and only ever occasionally easy or triumphant relationship to writing, are effaced. To teach and to learn how to write, instead of being an intense relationship of imitation, critique, and emulation directed toward admired writers and texts, becomes instead a technical process of “diagnosing coherence based upon the presence or absence of strings of repeated themes.” From the simple truth that to teach writing one must be oneself a writer — one with the time and institutional incentives to care about students’ writing — thickening networks of pseudo-experts try to avert our collective attention.

There are too many long sentences and big words, as well as jumbled phrases (what is a “thickening network”?). As Orwell said in the essay cited above:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expediteamelioratepredictextraneousderacinatedclandestinesub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.

On beyond zebra!

h/t: Anna

Sullivan on Orwell on Language

June 5, 2021 • 11:00 am

George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is one of my favorite essays of all time (you could do worse, though, than read all his collected essays, many of them masterpieces). It not only teaches one how to write clearly, but shows how political writers deliberately use obfuscation and euphemism to blur language for ideological ends, hiding political brutality and base motives. You can read it here, and should, like me, do so at least once a year. It will improve your prose. There’s a reason why Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called Why Orwell Matters in 2003.

Andrew Sullivan is also a fan of that essay, as all writers should be, and highlights it in one section of his weekly column (click on screenshot below). But he gives it a modern twist, showing how the kind of obscurantist writing decried by Orwell is still with us—pervasive in the works of the Woke.

Reviving Orwell’s thoughts in light of modern politics was a great idea. He’d have a few harsh words to say about the woke!

First, though, let’s look at the five principles of good writing Orwell lists at the end of his essay:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Then Sullivan gives several abstracts of Woke writing that violate many of these guidelines. I won’t reproduce his critique at length (it’s pretty funny in parts), nor mention the other people who violate these principles (e.g., the group Sullivan calls the “alphabet people” obsessed with gender nouns).

Here’s one example of bad modern writing discussed by Sullivan:

I was just reading about the panic that occurred in the American Medical Association, when their journal’s deputy editor argued on a podcast that socio-economic factors were more significant in poor outcomes for non-whites than “structural racism.” As you might imagine, any kind of questioning of this orthodoxy required the defenestration of the deputy editor and the resignation of the editor-in-chief. The episode was withdrawn from public viewing, and the top editor replaced it with a Maoist apology/confession before he accepted his own fate.

But I was most struck by the statement put out in response by a group called “The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine.” Here it is:

The podcast and associated promotional message are extremely problematic for minoritized members of our medical community. Racism was created with intention and must therefore be undone with intention. Structural racism has deeply permeated the field of medicine and must be actively dissolved through proper antiracist education and purposeful equitable policy creation. The delivery of messages suggesting that racism is non-existent and therefore non-problematic within the medical field is harmful to both our underrepresented minoritized physicians and the marginalized communities served in this country.

Consider the language for a moment. I don’t want to single out this group — they are merely representative of countless others, all engaged in the recitation of certain doctrines, and I just want an example. But I do want to say that this paragraph is effectively dead, drained of almost any meaning, nailed to the perch of pious pabulum. It is prose, in Orwell’s words, that “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

It is chock-full of long, compounded nouns and adjectives, riddled with the passive voice, lurching and leaning, like a passenger walking the aisle on a moving train, on pre-packaged phrases to keep itself going.

Notice the unnecessary longevity: a tweet becomes an “associated promotional message.” Notice the deadness of the neologisms: “minoritized”, “marginalized”, “non-problematic”. As Orwell noted: “the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalizeimpermissibleextramaritalnon-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.” Go back and see if you can put the words “minoritized” or “non-problematic” into everyday English.

His second target is Ibram X. Kendi, who also comes in for it in Sullivan’s “Dissents of the Week” section for proposing a Department of Racism that could vet and reject any U.S. law on the grounds that it creates inequity. But you can read that for yourself. Here’s his critique of Kendi’s language:

I caught a glimpse of Ibram X. Kendi’s recent appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the annual woke, oxygen-deprived hajj for the left-media elites. He was asked to define racism — something you’d think he’d have thought a bit about. This was his response: “Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” He does this a lot. He repeats Yoda-stye formulae: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy … If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” These maxims pepper his tomes like deep thoughts in a self-help book. When he proposes specific action to counter racism, for example, he suggests: “Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.” “Always vote for the leftist” is a bit blunter.

Orwell had Kendi’s number: “The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.” And that conformity is proven by the gawking, moneyed, largely white, Atlantic subscribers hanging on every one of this lightweight’s meaningless words — as if they really were in church.

You can tell from Sullivan’s snide remarks about the Aspen Ideas Festival—which I once attended—and about Atlantic subscribers that he’s pretty ticked off, and in good form.

So what do we do about this abuse of the English language? Sullivan recommends, correctly, that we call it out and ask for clarification:

And that is the only recourse an average citizen has when buried by this avalanche of abstraction: ask the language-launderers what they are really talking about. When some doofus apologizes for the “terrible pain” they have caused to the whatever community, ask them to give a specific example of that “pain.” When someone says “structural racism,” ask: what actual “structures” are you referring to? How do they actually work? Give concrete examples.

When someone calls American society “white supremacy”, ask them how you could show that America is not a form of “white supremacy”. When someone uses the word “Latinx”, ask them which country does that refer to. When someone says something is “problematic”, ask them to whom? When you’re told you’re meeting with members of the BIPOC or AANHPI communities, ask them first to translate and then why this is in any way relevant, and why every single member of those communities are expected to have the same opinion. And when you’re told that today is IDAHOBIT Day, ask them if you can speak to Frodo.

The term “structural racism” is my personal bugaboo, as it’s become a synonym for just “racism”, with the “structural” tacked on to add gravitas and a supposed intensity of malfeasance. But “structural” racism is racism built into some institution or structure, like laws or rules, not simple acts of bigotry. As for “pain,” well, I accept very few of these claims as accurate. “Pain” has become another word for “offense” or even “manufactured offense.”

But I will stop here lest I begin ranting, for Sullivan’s rant is enough. Read it.

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):

My favorite excerpts from English literature

March 29, 2020 • 10:00 am

I’ve been reading two books on great prose by—yes—author Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want To Write Them, and What to Read and Why. I am not reading them to learn how to write better, as they’re all about fiction, a genre I don’t dare to essay, but it’s fascinating to see what writing an accomplished writer loves most, and why. (She particularly likes Chekhov’s short stories, which I also love, but now want to read them all.)

I decided to put together my favorite bits of prose—those bits that are especially lovely—and post them here, though the post will be rather long. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of my favorites, but the excepts below are especially poetic, and some of them I can’t read without tearing up. These are selections only from literature written in English; I’ve left out, for example, my favorite Russian literature, as that has been translated.

I’d invite readers to submit their own selections, but that would make the comments too long. Instead, you might just tell us what work or what passage moves you in the way these pieces move me.  Here we go:


As I’ve said repeatedly, what I consider the most beautiful thing ever written in English is Joyce’s short story (or novella) The Dead, the last piece in his collection Dubliners.  It is perfect in every way, but the ending is both perfect and incomparably beautiful. It comes after an evening when the protagonist, Gabriel, has been to a Christmas party at his aunts’ house, and has been his usual self-absorbed and pretentious self. His wife Greta reacts strongly to a song that somebody sings at the party (“The Lass of Aughrim”), and when they go back to their Dublin hotel, Gabriel asks Greta why she reacted to the song that way. She tells him that it was sung to her when she was just a lass by her great love Michael Furey, who died after having come to her house in the rain when he was ill, a visit that caused his death. Gabriel learns at that point that his marriage has always been more or less a sham, for Greta loved Michael in a way that she could never love him. As Greta falls asleep, Gabriel ponders his tepid life and pompous demeanor in this beautiful ending, one of Joyce’s famous “epiphanies”. The last paragraph is pure poetry.

She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

As I posted recently, I much admire Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, but especially love the beginning, which limns the feel of India in just a few words, just as Karen Blixen does for Africa in the excerpt below. This is the beginning of the first of Scott’s four novels, The Jewel in the Crown:

The ending of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is justifiably famous, as Gatsby ponders the necessary but futile ambition that drives people to fulfill their dreams. He compares the green light on the dock belonging to the house of Daisy, his love, with the dreams of the sailors who first came to America:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitzgerald’s writing is also gorgeous in his largely unread book Tender is the Night.  The scene at the dinner party, for instance, when the table seems to rise with the fellow-feeling of the guests, is fantastic.

Although I love the writing of Thomas Wolfe, I must admit that at times it’s long-winded and pompous. Literature professors have repeatedly mocked my affection for his big books, regarding it as puerile. And yet he’s worth reading for the times when he hits his stride, as in his “poem to October” from Of Time and the River. (If you want to read a complete piece of Wolfe that stands on its own as great literature, read The Child by Tiger, a fictionalized account of a lynching that really happened in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.)

Nobody could evoke the feeling and weathers of America better than Wolfe, as he does here. Every word is essential and adds to the atmosphere.

Now October has come again which in our land is different from October in the other lands.  The ripe, the golden month has come again, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.  Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living on the earth turn home again. The country is so big that you cannot say that the country has the same October. In Maine, the frost comes sharp and quick as driven nails, just for a week or so the woods, all of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light, falling upon you as you walk the woods, falling about you like small pieces of the sun so that you cannot say where that sunlight shakes and flutters on the ground, and where the leaves. . .

October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run.  The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.

The corn is shocked: it sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples—this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all:  the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.

Finally we have Karen Blixen, who published under the male name Isak Dinesen, and of course is famous for her autobiographical work Out of Africa. This is the only nonfiction here, but the writing is as good as anything in literature. It’s even more remarkable when you realize that her native language was not English but Danish. (It’s just as remarkable as Conrad’s great writing in English, his second language after Polish).
I have two excerpts from Out of Africa. The first is the opening when she describes her farm and its environs. You will have heard this. Some of it was recited by Meryl Streep at the beginning of the eponymous movie.

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet. like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt. like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like full-rigged ships with their sails furled, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtles; in some places the scent was so strong that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found or plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs – only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it. was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.

And this piece, like the ending of The Dead, always makes me tear up, no matter how many times I read it. Blixen’s great love, Denys Finch Hatton, died in a plane crash during their romance in Africa. She was shattered, and they buried Finch Hatton in the hills overlooking the plain. Here she describes his grave and how the lions came to sit on it.  The last three sentences are a work of genius.

I often drove out to Denys’s grave. In a bee-line, it was not more than five miles from my house, but round by the road it was fifteen. The grave was a thousand feet higher up than my house, the air was different here, as clear as a glass of water; light sweet winds lifted your hair when you took off your hat; over the peaks of the hills, the clouds came wandering from the East, drew their live shadow over the wide undulating land, and were dissolved and disappeared over the Rift Valley.

I bought at the dhuka a yard of the white cloth which the Natives call Americani, and Farah and I raised three tall poles in the ground behind the grave, and nailed the cloth on to them, then from my house I could distinguish the exact spot of the grave, like a little white point in the green hill.

The long rains had been heavy, and I was afraid that the grass would grow up and cover the grave so that its place would be lost. Therefore one day we took up all the whitewashed stones along my drive, the same that Karomenya had had trouble in pulling up and carrying to the front door; we loaded them into my box-body car and drove them up into the hills. We cut down the grass round the grave, and set the stones in a square to mark it; now the place could always be found.

As I went so often to the grave, and took the children of my household with me, it became a familiar place to them; they could show the way out there to the people who came to see it. They built a small bower in the bush of the hill near it. In the course of the summer, Ali bin Salim, whose friend Denys had been, came from Mombasa to go out and lie on the grave and weep, in the Arab way.

One day I found Hugh Martin by the grave, and we sat in the grass and talked for a long time. Hugh Martin had taken Denys’s death much to heart. If any human being at all had held a place in his queer seclusive existence, it would have been Denys. An ideal is a strange thing, you would never have given Hugh credit for harbouring the idea of one, neither would you have thought that the loss of it would have affected him, like, somehow, the loss of a vital organ. But since Denys’s death he had aged and changed much, his face was blotched and drawn. All the same he preserved his placid, smiling likeness to a Chinese Idol, as if he knew of something exceedingly satisfactory, that was hidden to the general. He told me now that he had, in the night, suddenly struck upon the right epitaph for Denys. I think that he had got it from an ancient Greek author, he quoted it to me in Greek, then translated it in order that I should understand it. It went: “Though in death fire be mixed with my dust yet care I not. For with me now all is well.”

Later on, Denys’s brother, Lord Winchilsea, had an obelisk set on his grave, with an inscription out of “The Ancient Mariner,” which was a poem that Denys had much admired. I myself had never heard it until Denys quoted it to me,—the first time was, I remember, as we were going to Bilea’s wedding. I have not seen the obelisk; it was put up after I had left Africa.

In England there is also a monument to Denys. His old schoolfellows, in memory of him, built a stone bridge over a small stream between two fields at Eton. On one of the balustrades is inscribed his name, and the dates of his stay at Eton, and on the other the words: “Famous in these fields and by his many friends much beloved.”

Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of his life; it is an optical illusion that it seemed to wind and swerve,—the surroundings swerved. The bow-string was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.

After I had left Africa, Gustav Mohr wrote to me of a strange thing that had happened by Denys’ grave, the like of which I have never heard. “The Masai,” he wrote, “have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch-Hatton’s grave in the Hills. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time. Some of the Indians who have passed the place in their lorries on the way to Kajado have also seen them. After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace, I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there they can have a view over the plain, and the cattle and game on it.”

It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys’s grave and make him an African monument. “And renowned be thy grave.” Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.

Neologism wanted

January 15, 2020 • 12:30 pm

I’m looking for readers to help invent a new word, since the concept I want to encapsulate isn’t represented by any words or phrases I know.

And here’s the concept. You’re all familiar with the ploy that theologians use when you criticize their ideas. Many of them—most notably Edward Feser, but also Alvin Plantinga and others—will respond by saying, “You haven’t read the best and most thorough exposition of my ideas, in books X, Y, and Z.” And if you read and criticize those works, they just shunt you on to other works.

It’s a never-ending trip down the illusory Rabbit Hole of Fuzzy Thought. They’ll even pull this stunt with other theologians, as when Catholic theologian Edward Feser argued with David Bentley Hart in 2015 about whether dogs go to Heaven—one of the more hilarious theological disputes I’ve documented. Feser, who said “no way dogs can get through the Pearly Gates,” told his opponent Hart that he’d better read Thomas Aquinas to settle the issue. Can you believe that people get paid to argue about such stuff?

Now, I find, advocates of panpsychism are pulling the same trick, saying that you can’t criticize their dumb ideas unless you read every book that’s ever been written about the Consciousness of the Inanimate. I keep reading and don’t find a “there” there, but am still being told to dig deeper. Fool that I am, I often comply, but it’s a futile endeavor.

So here’s my request:  Come up with a word or short phrase (two words) that describes the never-ending requests of those theologians or philosophers who require that that you keep reading ever more books and papers before you’re qualified to criticize their views.

If I find a word or phrase that I want to use, the winner will get a book of their choice among my two trade books, and with a cat or other animal of your choice drawn in along with an autograph. (A winner is not guaranteed, but do your best.)

Deadline: 5 p.m. Wednesday, January 22. You have one week.

Illustration from Feser’s post castigating Hart


Lionel Shriver removed as judge of literary competition for questioning a diversity algorithm

June 13, 2018 • 11:30 am

Four days ago I reported on a piece author Lionel Shriver published in the Spectator: a criticism of UK Penguin/Random House’s (PRH) striving for diversity in its authors and employees in the form of a questionnaire. The piece, called “When Diversity Means Uniformity,” accused PRH of being “drunk on virtue”, and pointing out two problems with this quest for diversity (granted, the questionnaire was bizarre):

I see two issues here. First: diversity, both the word and the concept, has crimped. It serves a strict, narrow agenda that has little or nothing to do with the productive dynamism of living and working alongside people with widely different upbringings and beliefs. Only particular and, if you will, privileged backgrounds count. Which is why Apple’s African-American diversity tsar, Denise Young Smith, got hammered last October after submitting, ‘There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.’ She hadn’t bowed to the newly shackled definition of the word, which has now been effectively removed from the language as a general-purpose noun.

Second: dazzled by this very highest of social goods, many of our institutions have ceased to understand what they are for. Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’être as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision. Thus from now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer from that email that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.

I wouldn’t have written it exactly that way, partciularly the antepenultimate sentence. But it’s a fair point, and worthy of discussion. Are we striving for equal representation or equal opportunity? That is the most important question that progressive liberals need to answer for themselves, along with “does unequal representation mean unequal opportunity?”

Well, there are always professional consequences to bucking the tropes of Control Leftism, and Shriver is about to pay one—not that it’s going to hurt her much. Mslexia, a British magazine aimed at women authors, is holding a short story competition for women from any country with a £5,000 top prize. Shriver was going to be a judge.

Not any longer:

Translation: Mslexia has to have a safe space for authors, and by questioning a “proportional representation” view of diversity, Shriver has violated that. So she’s out.

Somehow I suspect that the strong-minded Ms. Shriver won’t mind; in fact, she’ll probably write a snarky piece about it. But this just goes to show how those who are Ideologically Impure get punished. Shriver is now is a non person, or rather a person who doesn’t create a “safe space for all women writers.”

Of course Mslexia can choose whomever they want as a judge. But removing Shriver as a judge isn’t going to improve the quality of the entries and winners; Shriver, I suspect, would judge submissions on their merit. Why would she not? No, this is, pure and simple, a form of virtue signaling by Mslexia.  It’s not as if some women weren’t going to submit their stories because they’d be judged by Shriver.

h/t: BJ

One space or two after a sentence?

May 7, 2018 • 10:00 am

I have arrived in Paris, the weather is gorgeous, and I look forward to reacquainting myself with what I consider the world’s most beautiful city. If I had a gazillion dollars, I’d buy myself a pied-à-terre in the Sixth Arrondissement, near where I lived for six months in 1989-1990, but overlooking the Seine and the Louvre.

But we have more important issues to consider: when typing, do we use one space or two between sentences?

I use two, as that’s the way I was taught in 10th-grade typing class (an alternative to “shop”—woodshop—and a choice I’ve never regretted). But there’s a bitter argument about this issue, and no strong consensus. I will use one space between sentences in this first paragraph.

Now two spaces in this one.  The Washington Post has an article about this kerfuffle (click on screenshot).  Its answer, which purports to be “scientific” is “TWO SPACES AFTER A SENTENCE!”

(One space). Science? How could it do that? Well, the Post reports on an article that tested reading ease with different spaces. Here’s the result:

The researchers then clamped each student’s head into place, and used an Eyelink 1000 to record where they looked as they silently read 20 paragraphs. The paragraphs were written in various styles: one-spaced, two-spaced,  and strange combinations like two spaces after commas,  but only one after periods.  And vice versa, too.

And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better.  It makes reading slightly easier.  Congratulations, Yale University professor Nicholas A. Christakis.  Sorry, Lifehacker.

Christakis’s tweet (remember him?) pushing the two-space approach:

But it’s not that clear-cut!:

Actually, Lifehacker’s one-space purist Nick Douglas pointed out some important caveats to the study’s conclusion.

Most notably, the test subjects read paragraphs in Courier New, a fixed-width font similar to the old typewriters, and rarely used on modern computers.

Johnson, one of the authors, told Douglas that the fixed-width font was standard for eye-tracking tests, and the benefits of two-spacing should carry over to any modern font.

Douglas found more solace in the fact that the benefits of two-spacing, as described in the study, appear to be very minor.

Reading speed only improved marginally, the paper found, and only for the 21 “two-spacers,” who naturally typed with two spaces between sentences.  The majority of one-spacers, on the other hand, read at pretty much the same speed either way.  And reading comprehension was unaffected for everyone, regardless of how many spaces followed a period.

The major reason to use two spaces, the researchers wrote, was to make the reading process smoother, not faster.  Everyone tended to spend fewer milliseconds staring at periods when a little extra blank space followed it.

(Putting two spaces after a comma,  if you’re wondering,  slowed down reading speed,  so don’t do that.)

(One space.) Amusingly, the authors report that they submitted their paper to the journal with two spaces between sentences. The journal changed every one to a single space.

(Two spaces.)  The article is below.  I haven’t downloaded it as I’m at O’Hare writing this, and all you can see is the abstract (which is in Cristakis’s tweet above) but it’s a sign of how venal Springer is that they want $39.95 for a pdf of this article!  Do weigh in below about whether you’re on the one-space or two-space side.


Johnson, R. L. et al. 2018. Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during readingAtten Percept Psychophys. 2018 Apr 24. doi: 10.3758/s13414-018-1527-6. [Epub ahead of print]

Springer, you suck!

Lionel Shriver’s full speech on literature and cultural appropriation

September 19, 2016 • 10:30 am

On September 11 I wrote about an article in the Guardian by black Australian Muslim author Yasmin Abdel-Magied. Her piece, “As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her,” describes how Abdel-Magied was deeply triggered by a speech by novelist Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin and other books) at the Brisbane Writer’s festival.  In fact, Abdel-Magied was so offended that she walked out of Shriver’s talk. She was offended for two reasons: the pervasive “cultural appropriation” of white writers (Persons of No Color) dealing with the lives and experiences of minorities, and the fact that by writing about such minorities, PONCs were in fact denying minorities the right to publish their own novels. Abdel Magied:

Rather than focus on the ultimate question around how we can know an experience we have not had, the argument became a tirade. It became about the fact that a white man should be able to write the experience of a young Nigerian woman and if he sells millions and does a “decent” job — in the eyes of a white woman — he should not be questioned or pilloried in any way. It became about mocking those who ask people to seek permission to use their stories. It became a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction. (For more, Yen-Rong, a volunteer at the festival, wrote a summary on her personal blog about it.)

It was a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.

As the chuckles of the audience swelled around me, reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern, I breathed in deeply, trying to make sense of what I was hearing. The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my “place” in the world.

. . . In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality. The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal. And in demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”

. . . The kind of disrespect for others infused in Lionel Shriver’s keynote is the same force that sees people vote for Pauline Hanson. It’s the reason our First Peoples are still fighting for recognition, and it’s the reason we continue to stomach offshore immigration prisons. It’s the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.

Those are strong accusations, bordering at last on Shriver’s being complicit in racism and bigotry. But did her speech justify these accusations? Was it so offensive that Abdel-Magied was justified in walking out?

The answer is no, as you can see by reading the transcript of Shriver’s full speech just published in the Guardian, “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad.” Here you see a thoughtful defense of writing about others different from you, as well as an awareness that so doing will step on some toes and raise criticism. But the arrogance and condescension described by Abdel-Magied aren’t evident, nor is there any notion that Shriver is trying to deny minorities a place in literature.

I’m aware that people like sound bites and short pieces these days, but I urge you to read Shriver’s full speech and think about it. It’s not only thoughtful but eloquent. Here are a few excerpts:

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

For who is the ultimate arbiter of whether and what an author can write about groups different from themselves? Is Abdel-Magied the one to give permission to write about blacks, women, or Muslims—or all three at once? Certainly she can protest what she sees as appropriation or racism, but what if others don’t? As I mentioned earlier, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel by a white man (William Styron) about a black man, was criticized by some blacks but lauded by others.

Shriver then mounts a spirited defense of “fictional appropriation”:

This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?

The fiction writer, that’s who.

This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.

. . . What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.

Now minorities might demand that stories about their culture must “be authentic,” but if you think about it that is bogus. As Shriver notes, there is no uniform “authentic” experience within an ethnic group, just as you can’t tell a lot about a person based on their ethnicity alone. And what “authenticity” is there in the magical realism of Alice Walker or Salman Rushdie?

What Abdel-Magied is insisting, I think, is that “minority” literature must be a literature of oppression, and others who were oppressed cannot write about it with authenticity.  But I doubt that, for after all there is such a thing as research (the kind Steinbeck did before writing about “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath), and if the writer fails to convey some semblance of reality—one that would draw the reader into the book—that book will fail.

The insistence that a sense of authenticity derives only from the “lived experience” of the oppressed goes against all fiction, and, says Shriver, leads to a form of noxious “identity fiction” that demarcates certain areas as off limits to others (Shriver has, after all, been strongly criticized by some reviewer for writing about others, like Armenians):

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post [Shriver’s novel The Mandibles was criticized in The Washington Post for portraying a black character as degraded] is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

Near the end, Shriver talks about the falsity of assuming a homogenous identity of any group, and the presumption that members of that group not only are the best ones to write about it, but, when others do, push minorities to the margins (I take strong issue with that given the popularity of recent novels as well as nonfiction books about minorities):

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.

You may disagree with the above, or with other things that Shriver said, but I don’t think you can characterize her talk as “a tirade. . reeking with the stench of privilege.” It is a thoughtful analysis of the role of a fiction writer in a culturally diverse world.

And Abdel-Magied? She couldn’t even stand to listen to Shriver, and stomped out of the auditorium in tears.  Abdel-Magied’s victim narrative had already been formed before Shriver’s speech, and she couldn’t bear to hear anything that contravened it. That’s a pity, for there’s a conversation to be had. Instead, Abdel-Magied wrote an overheated screed in the Guardian accusing Shriver of fomenting racism and bigotry. Without listening to her entire talk!

Well, Abdel-Magied has the right to express her views as she wants, but the kind of literary world she wants is bowdlerized, with people setting themselves up as authorities about who is authorized to write about what.

And, by the way, let me take this opportunity to tout one of my own favorite novels, which deals with the situation of the British in India, and their treatment of Indians right before Partition, with sensitivity and grace. It’s The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, which, along with its Booker-Prize-winning sequel Staying On, I consider the greatest unappreciated novel in English of the last century. (Christopher Hitchens seems to have agreed.)



A writer who doesn’t proofread

June 3, 2016 • 2:30 pm

I’m not quite sure who this fellow is, but he’s apparently a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California at Riverside. It’s thus a bit disturbing that a writer doesn’t proofread his own personal self-promotion page. I count at least five errors on this section of his introduction page:

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