Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Yadda Yadda Yadda

There has to be a term from fine old Greek rhetoric texts describing the “technique” (self-abnegation by using quote marks? don’t’ fawn! – eds.) that I used in yesterday’s post. I am referring to that moment near the end when I threw in the reference to Homer after quoting the last part of Keats’ sonnet “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer” without having first mentioned the poet or the title. Keats’ poem used to be widely taught. It seemed condescending to make one of those parenthetical remarks I sometimes lay on my students: “The American Civil War – that would be the one between 1861 and 1865…” I chose to assume my readers (my many readers, the men graying at the temples, wounded by life but brave withal; the women lithe, reclining, carnal and even wanton, yet alive with intelligence) would get the reference without any help from me.

I let it flutter to the ground like a handkerchief. I walked away.

People quite rightly praise the interactivity between writer and reader that the Internet can provide. But all writing is interactive in the sense that the writer is trusting the reader to interpret the scratches on paper – the better the writer, the greater the sense reader and writer are engaging in mutual creation -- and one kind of interpreting of the scratches is getting the cultural references, the partial quotes, the shorthand references, of knowing the landscape already. I am convinced that a talent some columnists have is to write in such a way that many many readers understand them while allowing individual readers to feel that they are one of the few who understand the columnist’s vocabulary, his difficult sentences, his offhand, almost hidden, references to places and things. (Getting the columnist’s irony may be the most important manifestation of this.)

So the Yadda Yadda of my headline, which is a reference to the Seinfeld episode in which George’s girlfriend keeps using the phrase to sum up her various naughtinesses – her shoplifting, her screwing around on George. Of course, the Seinfeld joke is that George doesn’t really get what his girlfriend means, though he can’t admit it. He is not filling in the blanks. He is not a satisfactory audience.

But another idea occurs as I contemplate the Power of Yadda. I have been throwing in my little parenthetical editorial comments as a joke, as Mickey Kaus does in Kausfiles.(Look for better example. We hate Kaus as much as Kaus hates Kerry, and for that reason – eds.) Kaus has explained that he does this for the irony, for the humor because the point is that in blogland there are no editors. That’s the supposition, anyway, and it’s certainly true of millions and millions of blogs. (Kaus also does it as a way of puncturing his pomposity, of second-guessing himself, of creating a voice, yadda, yadda, yadda.)

Back on message: I have no editor. Newspaper columnists certainly do have editors, and if I had written my previous post for a newspaper, a smart copy editor – a smart young copy editor -- might have suggested that she/he very strongly doubts that anyone this side of drooling and complaining about bowel regularity would recognize Keats' poem, much less remember its name, much less give a damn. Columnists do get edited, for good AND for ill. I did a dozen or so interviews with newspaper columnists several years ago, when I first began to crabwalk toward this project. The better I knew the columnists, the more willing they were to discuss not the advantages of the smart editor – which advantages they were willing to concede – but the woe of having a tin-eared news-driven editor who did not understand that all column writing is a matter of voice, of at least some eccentricity and difficulty. Apparently, they were lumbered with news side copy editors who just didn’t get it. You don’t change words. You don’t invert sentence order. You don’t keep saying THE READER ISN’T GOING TO GET THIS WHEN THE COLUMNIST IS THE ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS WHO HIS GODDAMN READERS ARE.

One hopes.

When it comes to art or even craft, there is the dancer and there is the dance, and yadda yadda yadda. (I am, of course, referring to the famous line from Yeats’ poem “Among School Children,” which says, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” You knew that, and I knew that you knew. Let’s get together for drinks.)

So I have a passel o’ good questions for my columnists: 1) Do you consciously use (classy classical Greek rhetoric term TK [to come], which means deliberately omitting information you assume your reader will fill in and thus be engaged) in your columns? Why? 2) You can be too elliptical, too indirect, would you not concede? To what degree do your editors help you in finding that tipping point at which indirection becomes obscurity? And while we are on the subject, how often do your editors do your writing real lasting harm?

A semi-prominent columnist once told me that he lied to his copy editors, telling them that in no circumstances was his column to be changed in any way without his permission because that was the deal he had cut with the editor in chief. He said sometimes howling errors of fact crept into his column as a result.

But overall, he said, he came out well ahead.


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