Friday, September 12, 2008

Four Opening Sentences from the New Yorker, Four Opening Sentences from the Atlantic

I'm fascinated with sentences. I'm also fascinated with the New Yorker. The latter not necessarily in a good way. And that's all the context I can offer to explain why today I'm asking you to compare some opening sentences from the Atlantic magazine to some from the New Yorker.

Here are the first sentences of four feature articles in the October 2008 Atlantic:

  1. For a military accustomed to quick, easy victories, the trials and tribulations of the Iraq War have come as a rude awakening.
  2. These are boom times for wind power.
  3. In a much-ridiculed speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, Newt Gingrich hailed beach volleyball as the embodiment of all that makes America great.
  4. June was the deadliest month for the U.S. military in Afghanistan since the invasion in October 2001.
Now here are the first sentences of three feature articles and one 'Talk of the Town' piece in the Sept. 8, 2008, New Yorker.

  1. Alec Baldwin, who stars in "30 Rock," the NBC sitcom that has revived his career and done noting to lift his spirits, has the unbending, straight-armed gait of someone trying to prevent clothes from rubbing against sunburned skin.
  2. Early in 2007, when David Petraeus became Commanding General of United States and international forces in Iraq, he had in mind a strategy to manage the political pressures he would face because of the unpopularity of the war, then four years old, and of its author, George W. Bush.
  3. In the autumn of 1998, when Karl Rove was contriving to make Governor George W. Bush President and to build a lasting Republican majority, he came upon "The Catholic Voter Project," a study of voting behavior in national elections since the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960.
  4. Rosalind Wyman--seventy-seven years old; doughty feminist; political fund-raiser and philanthropist; hostess to J.F.K., Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, and Hollywood types too numerous to count; youngest elected member of the Los Angeles City Council (at the age of twenty-two); first woman to run a national political convention (the Democrats in San Francisco, 1984)--may well be the most indomitable member of Hillary Clinton's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Suits.

Now, I know that a number of you may be looking at this and trying -- perhaps without sufficient linguistic expertise -- to understand the dynamic at play. So allow me, if you would, to offer my professional-wordsmith assessment:

What the f***?!?!?

There's a lot of good stuff said about the New Yorker -- much of it true. Many people also find the magazine pretentious. But, seems to me, the well-heeded viscera might tell of something else. Something a little toxic. As if the act of opening a copy of the New Yorker were distant cousin to the act of receiving a snake bite.

I can never quite nail down what's "wrong" with this magazine. For one thing, I don't read it enough to fairly assess it on even a superficial level. But it's always seemed to me as if they're mocking their readers. They start with a piece of conventional wisdom (like "short sentences are good"), openly defy and transcend it, then serve it up to their readers as if it were evidence of their readers' inherent superiority. But deep in the heart of an anthropomorphized New Yorker, the magazine know it's just a gimmick. So the joke's on the readers.

I'm not even willing to say that the above New Yorker sentences are bad. On the contrary, at times they seem very effective (as do many similarly leviathan-like sentences throughout the Alec Baldwin piece). Other times, the sentences seem almost to serve no purpose other than to prove the writer is so agile he can set up hurdles just for the joy (and spectacle) of clearing them.

Of course, everything I'm saying is biased by jealousy over the fact that I can't get published in the New Yorker. Give me a byline there and I'll change my tune real quick-like. But even adjusting for my jealousy, it's clear that there's something funky going on that the word "pretentious" doesn't quite capture.

* * *

P.S. This issue of the Atlantic has at least one article that begins with a New Yorker-esque length sentence. But nowhere near enough to balance with the New Yorker's. The Alec Baldwin article, for example, was riddled with long sentences that heaped modifier upon modifier upon parenthetical insertion. Also, there were lots of quotations that really begged for prior set-up but didn't get explained until after the closing quote. These post-quotation quotation set-ups were jarring enough that, in the end, I decided they didn't work. They came off not as showy but as inept.

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Fritinancy said...

Very interesting analysis! I agree that the New Yorker often lapses into windy self-parody (which doesn't stop me from reading it cover to cover every week). However, the magazine's critics often break the mold. In the Sept. 15 issue, Nancy Franklin begins her review of the GOP convention with this lede: "Barack who?"

Joel said...

Well put.

What did we do before "WTF?"? It's entered my vocabulary only recently but sometimes it's just the only thing that makes any sense. Indeed--and, oh yes, I am serious about this--it's one of favorite prayers of late. "WTF, Lord. WTF?"

I'm not sophisticated enough to even envy the New Yorker. I am, however, a big fan of long sentences (and a mostly recovering practitioner; I imagine it's like any addiction, though: I fall back into it so easily). They do require something extra from the reader, and I fear that some day we'll find ourselves, idunno, facing some unforeseen cultural crisis and lacking any of a whole class of brain cells that might be our extrication. And they can be fun. Perverse, sado-masochistic fun, but fun nonetheless.

I love the Baldwin sentence. The other three are growing on me, but, I confess, with them, I had to read them a second time before they quite clicked.

That having been said, the Atlantic sentences are more powerful, seem more polished and just plain work better (at least than the three latter NY offerings).

I'm not sure if this is true (or true for anyone else but me), but part of the argument I'd make for long sentences is that they often offer a better picture of the way the mind works. They might be a rawer revelation of the writer's soul. But that argument cuts both ways. And, ultimately, if you're just writing for yourself, you're engaging in one of the worst forms of onanism. It's probably best that we expose our souls in smaller doses. Not that we should be deceptive. But most of us don't want to overwhelm our audience. Most of us want our attempt at communication to actually break through the interference.

There may be times when we rightly expect the reader to work harder. There may be contexts in which it's not only tolerable but preferable to let the words spread out in all of their rambley goodness.

But if that's all I ever do, there's something wrong. Whether my problem is sloppiness or stubbornness, there's something wrong. If I don't expend my share of effort to make the exchange easier for my partner, folks might be right in calling me a selfish and arrogant ass.

But, yaknow, it's okay, the LHC is gonna rip a hole in the fabric of the universe and we're all gonna die anyway. ;-)

June Casagrande said...

"Self-parody." Well put!

June Casagrande said...


So true. And it should be noted, I WRITE in long sentences. I just always edit others' long sentences. (As a reader, I like 'em short. As a writer, I get a little too wrapped up in myself and sometimes stumble over my meanings.)

The thing that bothers me about this stuff is that I believe, ideally, writing should be all about the reader. But, if my nose knows, this New Yorker style isn't about the reader. It's all about them.

They could have written" "Alec Baldwin has the unbending, straight-armed gait of someone trying to prevent clothes from rubbing against sunburned skin."

But instead they chose to insert a modifier of Baldwin, the relative clause "who stars in '30 Rock.'" Then they gave the modifier its own modifier, "the NBC sitcom." They gave THAT modifier its OWN modifier (another relative clause and a compound one at that): "that has revived his career but done nothing to lift his spirits."

It's hot-dogging.


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