Monday, December 29, 2008

Nobody Knows the Trouble With Whom He's Seen With

It was a column about grammar. So of course it caught my eye. But it was the stuff between the lines that raised my ire.

In today's New York Times, university professor and dean Stanley Fish tells a story about a frustrating experience with an AT&T customer-service rep who said, "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"

Bad grammar? You betcha. Worth writing a column about? I'd say so. Validly disturbing to a grammarphile? Sure. The premise of Fish's article poses no problem for me. But he began the column like this:
When you live in two places and decamp from one to the other every six months or so, there are any number of things that have to be done. (I know that at least 50 readers will want to rebuke me for complaining about problems only the privileged can have, but perhaps we can agree to get past that.)

There are several ways one could take this, but here's a particularly noteworthy one: He's telling readers — readers — to shut up and listen.

In the new book I'm working on, I talk a lot about the difference between what I call reader-serving writing and writer-serving writing. It's a concept that began to gel in my mind back when I was a newspaper reporter/editor and people would ask me and my colleagues to write stories "for them" or "to help them." For example, someone who was getting screwed by a landlord would try to convince our paper to write a story about him to help him get justice.

But here's what they didn't get: Our readers were not a captive audience whose attention should be exploited to achieve other ends — no matter how meaningful those ends. Our readers were not a tool to be used in the pursuit of justice. The readers were the boss. Really. Only if the story was first and foremost for the readers did we have any business running it.

There's lots of potential reader value in a column about bad grammar and bad customer service. Yet Mr. Fish couldn't deliver. He was too steeped in an attitude of "let them eat cake while I bitch about the only frustrations that matter: mine." I base this not on his second sentence alone.

Exhibit B: Fish (surprise, surprise) couldn't let the bad grammar go. He told the rep her mistake and, when that got him no satisfaction, he tried to go over her head.

Exhibit C: Fish also wrote about how AT&T gave him the runaround and failed to set up his voice mail, as he requested. This is reader-serving in its universality — we've all been there and we can all rant and cheer along with a well-delivered tirade on the subject. But think for a minute about the hubris of the guy who thinks that his getting bad customer service is so noteworthy it belongs in print. There are people who have died from bad customer service. Literally. Consider the damage a poorly run health-insurance claims department can do when mishandled red tape delays some poor person's chemotherapy. Yet Fish thought the injustice he suffered — they failed to set up his voice mail! — was worth writing about.

Exhibit D: In a day and age when so many people are losing their homes that it's taking down the whole economy, Fish had the huevos to deliver a preemptive "shut up" to anyone who would take issue with his whine about having two houses. Here's how a reader-serving writer would have dealt with his situation: Reader-serving writers omit distracting details. If you want to write an article about pothole repair in your town and you gained a lot of insights while talking to friends at an A.A. meeting, you might be better off just calling them friends and leaving it at that. By mentioning they're A.A. friends, you're raising questions you don't plan to answer. Fish didn't have to mention the two-house business. He could just as easily have told his tragic tale of delayed voice mail service without slapping the reader in the second sentence. Such omissions are not just ethical. They're standard. Every article ever written omits certain details deemed outside of the scope of the article or the reader's interest. When motivated by a desire to serve the reader, it's the right thing to do.

Exhibit E: Fish is credited as the author of a book called Save the World on Your Own Time. When I check, I see this:
Fish's lively polemic skewers the popular perspective that universities have an obligation to foster ethical, social, and political virtues ...

I haven't read the book, but the premise seems to be that colleges should teach and not preach. I'll buy that. I know nothing about academic administration, but, unless I'm missing something, I'd say this is a right position. But when I look at Fish's title, I smell a rat. The title is written in the imperative. It's a command. Which leads us to wonder: Who's he talking to? and leaves us with only one possible answer: His own reader.

It's quite possible that this title is just for effect and that the contents of the book are as valid and reader-serving as any other treatise on any other subject. Were it not for his New York Times column, I would assume that was the case. But this is one of the parts that, summed up, form something bigger than the whole. It's like me writing a book titled, "Stop driving SUVs because you're rudely obstructing my view of traffic." Readers are not people you boss around, Mr. Fish. When you're writing, they're your boss.

Exhibit F, from Fish's column:
I reached someone who assured me that I would have voice mail the next day, and he turned out to be right. But by that time I was beyond caring. I told him that I had decided to write a column about my AT&T adventures and that, in fairness, I thought I should talk to someone in the corporate structure.

It's quite possible that "fairness" and journalistic principles governed his decision to tell an AT&T rep that he was writing a column. However, it's also possible that he was using readers as a tool — a blunt instrument with which to intimidate and clobber his enemies. We can't know. But here's what I can know: Fish doesn't get that every reader is a reader you should be grateful for any more than he gets what's wrong with a column about the sufferings of a dude with two houses in an economy with record foreclosures.

My closing argument: Fish is an A-hole. And I hope very much that you found some value in this rant, otherwise, I'm right there with him.

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