Sunday, June 1, 2008

'Shock' Treatment

Did you know that Jill Tarter, the astronomer who inspired the Jodie Foster character in “Contact,” has a “shock” of silver hair? And, more important, do you care?

The author of a front-page Los Angeles Times story today thinks you do -- or at least that his mentioning it will enhance your appreciation of his article. There’s just one problem. “Shock of hair,” as I’ve written here before, is so clichéd as to be basically meaningless -- code for, “I want you think you’re reading a skillfully descriptive article even though I haven’t bothered to think about whether my words have any visual impact at all.”

Usually when I read the term “shock of hair,” I get the distinct impression that the writer is just going for a sound -- a rhythm to words with little to no descriptive power. Either the writer’s brain is on autopilot or he’s writing with his ear instead of with his eye (a fine choice for poetry but downright rude when trying to pass your words off as visually descriptive). At last, with today’s Los Angeles Times cover story, I believe I’ve found proof.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s third entry for “shock” describes it as “a thick, bushy or tangled mass, as of hair.”

So I searched Google images for Jill Tarter. I found a lot of pictures. Yup, she has silver hair all right -- thin silver hair. It’s not thick. It’s not bushy. It’s not tangled.

Perhaps sensing his word was a mild overstatement, the writer had tacked on a little qualifier: “a shock of silver hair cut short.” But, even if hair cut short can still appear thick, bushy, or tangled, does the word “shock” retain any descriptive power at all?

No, this word tells you that the writer was more interested in sounding fancy than in doing his job of creating meaning for the reader. And, lest you think I’m putting too much stock in one little word, I offer exhibits A and B.

A. Early in the piece, the writer introduces a scientist named Rick Forster, whom he describes as having “the long beard of a man who has spent years in the solitude of the forest.” Turn to page 24 and there’s a picture of Forster -- a man whose neatly trimmed beard is just an inch or two too long to qualify as “short.” Not quite the ZZ Top whiskers the writer had suggested.

B. Backing up to the very first sentence, the writer had described the scientists’ telescope dishes as “sprouting up amid the soaring ponderosa pines.” The writer was gambling, of course, that readers would pay no more attention to his words than he did. Why would anyone cram satellite dish radio listening devices between tall trees? I’m reminded of a TV commercial for satellite broadband service that proclaims, “All you need is a clear view of the southern sky.”

Two pictures accompanying the article solve the mystery. Far from sprouting up “amid soaring ponderosa pines,” the dozen satellite dishes in the cover photo are spread out over a vast, mostly open stretch of land, with a just two bushy trees visible in between. Only by scrolling through the supplemental online photos can we actually see what the writer meant. Apparently, the dishes sit in an open expanse circled by hills, and that's where the trees are.

More maddening yet: It was, overall, a good article by a clearly talented writer. Yet he felt the need to resort to hammy showboating -- as if either the subject matter wasn't interesting enough on its own or his readers are too dimwitted to appreciate an article about science unless it's sprinkled with cartoonish descriptions and references to E.T. and Alice in Wonderland.

I’m not sure why these things irk me so much. Perhaps it’s because I find descriptive writing very difficult. Pressed to think of a better word than “shock” to describe, say, Christopher Dodd’s hair, I find myself at a loss. Bush of hair? Tuft? Pile? Mass? Bolt? Mane (also clichéd)?

But just because I can’t come up with anything better doesn’t mean I must accept a word that’s just plain wrong. Tarter is not “a plain-spoken woman with a shock of silver hair cut short.” She’s a plain-spoken woman with short silver hair. Is it really so awful to just say so?


Joel said...

Good call. You remind me of what I hate about so much prose, especially so many novels and feature pieces. It's like they're trying too hard. And I admit that I have been guilty myself.

It's one thing to have fun with the words, but when one is so ostentatiously (a fittingly ironically ostentatious word, no?) working to convince one's readers or one's self (is the grammar okay there?) of one's erudition or mastery of description, it just hurts--the readers, I mean.

The best not only manage to say what's true (instead of merely melodramatic or otherwise showy) but they do it with a sort of seeming effortlessness and unconsciousness.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about good verbal art (from John Stuart Mill):
"Eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard."

June Casagrande said...

Well said.

I call it self-serving writing or writer-serving writing. And it's SO easy to fall into. I mean, you're sitting all alone with your keyboard -- as if the work really were all about you -- and you're completely removed from the one person who really matters: the reader.

I'm hyperconscious of it in others because I've tried so hard and so unsuccessfully to exorcise it from my own writing.

Re "one's self": Under my Webster's definition of "oneself," it says, "also 'one's self.'" I didn't know that! So thanks. I learned something.

Re the John Stuart Mill quote: I'm reluctant to admit I'm not sure I get it -- the second part at least. Thoughts?

Joel said...

On the Mill quote, in simple terms, to me, it's the difference between being showy (speaking "to be heard" just as one might dress "to be seen") and simply saying what is. Eloquence is showiness. Poetry is simplicity. Eloquence cares more how it looks. Poetry cares more that it's true (and in many senses). That may not be the way everyone perceives poetry. I believe it's at least sort of the way Mill did and I tend to agree with him.

Poetry is overheard in that it's as though we're listening in on the writer's thoughts v. listening to what the writer is trying to say to us. I realize that this is debatable, but to me we are better off--the writing is clearer and more meaningful--when the writer almost forgets there is an audience. Hence, unconscious and effortless v. strained.

I agree with what you're saying about the writer in some ways forgetting his reader (and that that's a bad thing); on the other hand, part of the problem can be an acute performer's consciousness of the audience. You alluded to this at least a couple of times in the original post: e.g., "[Errant writer:] I want you to think you're reading a skillfully descriptive article . . ." and "the writer was more interested in sounding fancy than in doing his job of creating meaning . . ."

The writer hasn't completely forgotten the audience. Indeed, I would argue that he's too conscious of his readers but in the wrong ways. And, as you say, he's forgotten who serves whom. He wants to impress his audience more than he wants to enlighten them.

That's what I'd call eloquence--granted, in it's worst, bastardized form. He would have done better to focus on a clear apprehension and simple statement (the kind of thing one might say to oneself). The beauty and clarity--the uncovering of what is--one might achieve in that moment is what I would call poetry.

I've decided that two qualities that distinguish good writing from bad are truth and transparency. I won't elaborate on truth too much because, though I don't assume we have the same understanding of it, I think we all have a generally similar idea that will function well enough. By transparency I mean the unpretentious, unadorned, honest (i.e., "this is how I think and feel" and not "this is what I want you to believe I think and feel") disclosure. When I'm transparent, I let you see inside my heart and head and--if I've discovered something--I let you see a thing as it is (or at least, as I see it). When I'm not transparent, I'm doing an awkward dance to hide myself from you and to spiff up what I fear is my boring and inconsequential discovery. Transparency takes away the layers that hide a thing from our perception. A bastardized eloquence just throws more layers on, packages and otherwise obscures what it ought to be revealing.

I'm not saying that one doesn't have to do some packaging. Indeed, fitting an idea into a box that can be received and opened by the reader is arguably what good prose is all about. But even if we accept this idea of communication as "packaged" thought, (dynamic equivalence), I think we can still agree that the package shouldn't get in the way of what it contains.

As far as poetry as distinguished from prose, to me the difference has less to do with how fancy the form is than with how pure the expression is. Overwrought expression might rhyme and be rhythmical but, to my ear, that doesn't make it poetic; that just makes it gaudy. I give a poet more freedom to be herself, to be perhaps obtuse and certainly idiosyncratic, but I don't give her special license to be pretentious. Good poetry, as I perceive it, might require a little (or a lot of) work from the reader, because it's like getting inside someone's head ("like" because it should really be getting inside someone's heart). But it's not good poetry if I'm wasting all of my time slogging through mere ornamentation; that's not the kind of work I'm talking about. The kind of work I mean is that process by which I come into step with an other soul, by which I learn who someone really is. Regular prose might be defined as transaction. Poetry is relationship. Now, I definitely believe that rhythm and rhyme and various other forms of beauty and play are often part of that, just as flowers and candlelit dinners and naked sacraments and, yeah, poems are part of the purest human relationship.

There's a lot more to the Mill quote, and a lot more that I might say about the meaning of poetry, the essence of writing, and the nature of art, etc., but I've surely used up more than my quota already.


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