The Bruni Bible; or How to Write a New York Times Editorial

Frank Bruni’s accession to the position of New York Times editorialist was announced in May by Andrew Rosenthal (no relation to former chief editor A.M. Rosenthal) (just kidding, he’s his son).  The op-ed page editor suggested that Bruni was qualified by virtue of his ability to provide a “sharp, opinionated look at a big event of the last week, from a different or unexpected angle, or a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed, or something entirely different,” presumably involving a medium-sized event.  Further lending gravitas is that fact that the former restaurant critic’s NYT career has “spanned…part of a papacy.”  (This is true of many events, but it does sound impressive: “We’ve been sitting here for part of a papacy, waiting for our appetizers!  This service is atrocious!”)

In the six months that followed, the papacy-spanning pundit has been called “a pretty bad columnist,” denounced as inane, unreadable, and an unqualified poseur, vilified for his lack of arithmetic skills and contempt for substantive issues; it’s even been suggested that he doesn’t know he’s writing for the Times at all.

But I believe he does.  Oh, he knows it all too well.  Whatever his faults of relevance or coherence, Bruni’s work is distinguished for its firm grasp of the New York Times house style — that mélange of  dad-joke whimsy, inspiring truisms, fake sociology, celebrity snark, magnificent scorn for the lowbrow,  and horse-race election reporting, all united by a pervading tone of NPR blandness and upper-middle-class obliviousness.  Frank Bruni’s writing could appear scrawled on a bathroom wall, or crumpled in a bottle that washed up on the beach, or blazoned in the sky in letters of fire, and you’d still be like “is that from the New York Times?”  (Although you might mistake it for Gentzlinger.)

So by understanding Bruni’s literary techniques, we’ll understand the essence of the Times editorial page.  In no particular order, here they are.

“Humor”

Some topics are painful and emotional, difficult to comprehend with the rational mind.  Like war, and death, and man’s inhumanity to man.  Humor is a way to leaven the seriousness and bring people together.  Frank Bruni isn’t afraid to bring humor to controversial subjects.   For instance, the Harry Potter books:  He decided not to read them.  He chronicles the results of this fateful decision in one of his first editorials.

“For a while I half wondered if some swine flu had wrought epidermal havoc in barnyards near and far. Why all the chatter about Hogwarts?”

This is funny, yet tragic.  Bruni’s trauma was so profound, he lost his ability to connect phonetic sounds with semantic meanings. He was trapped in a solipsistic hell, unable to understand human speech or participate in the human community!  Just like that one guy in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (?).

Many years pass (this is a sweeping narrative), and Bruni’s neurological disorder clears up.  Yet he still experiences life as an outsider — an alienated Byronic hero, brooding mysteriously on his isolation from the suffocating mores of conventional society.

“Having taken a pass on Potter, I was sticking to my guns, or perhaps I should say wands.”  Perhaps you should.  If you said that, you’d be taking a dead metaphor and replacing one word in it with a different word that’s related to the subject you’re talking about, thus creating a humorously incongruous series of words.  “Sticking to my wands.”  Look at that.  It looks strange!  That’ll show those mindless conformists.

Bruni later suggests that when a new trend arises, one should “wait out the phenomenon” in order to “separate the wheat from the ‘Jersey Shore.'”  By now he’s learned his lesson from that “sticking to my wands” thing.  He’s through doubting himself — if he thinks of a humorously unique and funky combination of words, he’s going to go for the gusto!  You might — in fact, definitely should, and are probably doing so now — say that he’s taken the English language by the horns, thrown down the pun gauntlet, and cast linguistic caution to the winds of creativity.  (Also,  Jersey Shore is bad.)

Humor isn’t always about pain and grief.  Sometimes, it is an exuberant celebration of the human spirit — an expression of Rabelasian joy in sexuality, the unruly physical body, and the subversion of puritanical moral codes.  For instance, check out this line:

“Bladder late than never.”

Urethra hell of a guy, Bruni!  “Anal” of us agree!

Personal anecdotes

Sharing a well-chosen, relevant anecdote is a great way to personalize the big issues of our time.  If you can’t think of any big issues or relevant anecdotes, you could just write a blog post about things that annoy you.  The Harry Potter saga, again, will serve as an example.  Bruni didn’t want to be the only guy who ignores a trend, so he “canvassed [his] intimates” (I didn’t know that was legal) to find out whether they’re the same way.

“My friend T…insists that even a few months ago he still believed ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ was a neo-punk band, but I’m reasonably sure he’s just showing off. ”  That’s such a confusing way to do it, though.  Is he trying to show off how old he is by feigning cluelessness about punk subgenre terminology?

“And my friend M. has not become an adherent of SoulCycle, the New York indoor cycling cult.”  This is the most obscure example of Heroic Fad Resistance ever.  I would love to hear this woman painstakingly explain what SoulCycle is, so she can brag about how she isn’t an adherent.  People would be like “I thought that was a neo-rap band!”

“My friend J. persuasively faked fandom of ‘Lost,’ thus evading censure from genuinely addicted peers.”  I don’t believe this ever happened.  However, I find it revealing that this is the sort of thing Bruni thinks would be outrageously zany if it did happen.  Where anyone else would make a joke about, like, snorting coke off Vegas strippers, Bruni is inserting his friends into watered-down Seinfeld scripts.

Koans

You’re not really making people think unless you’re challenging conventional wisdom.  I’ve assembled five enlightenment-inducing Frank Bruni quotes, than mixed them in with some thoughts of my own.  Can you pick out Bruni’s bon mots from the fakes?  Hold your computer upside down to see the answers!

A. “By being closest, it’s farthest away.”

B. “The more we think, the less thoughtful we become.”

C. “By getting there faster, we really arrive nowhere at all.”

D.  “While I was eating food, food was also eating me.”

E. “The stillness in stillness is not the true stillness.”

F. “She means nothing and can thus mean everything.”

G.  “We’ve become so accessible we’re often inaccessible.”

H. “It’s easy to be pessimistic about optimism.”

I. “It’s easy to forget to remember, but almost impossible to remember to forget.”

J. “You are what you’re not.”

˙ʇxǝʇ ʇsıoɐp lɐuoıʇıpɐɹʇ :ǝ ˙ǝsǝɥʇ ǝʇoɹʍ ı : ı ‘p ‘ɔ ‘q ˙ıunɹq ʞuɐɹɟ : ɾ ‘ɥ ‘ƃ ‘ɟ ‘ɐ

Celebrity quips

The writer’s life is a lonely one.  Sometimes it feels like no one’s out there.  There’s only one way to be sure people are paying attention to what you write: celebrity quips.  Celebrities are an inherently fun and hilarious topic that resonates with the youth generation.  Politics is the exact opposite of those things, because it’s boring, and the youth generation doesn’t care about it, so if you are writing a political column, mention celebrities as often as you can.

Luckily, some of them have memorable quirks, or have been involved in noteworthy scandals.  For instance, did you know that Kim Kardashian was “naked in a sex video,” that Christian Bale is “lean” is his “extreme-acting roles,” and that Tom Hanks was in a movie that flopped?  Bruni does, because he’s a total gossip buff.

“Wasn’t everything about Jackson unorthodox? Freaky, even?” Why does everyone steal my ideas?  Thinking Michael Jackson was freaky is my thing!  Anyway, by being the most freaky celebrity, wasn’t Jackson actually the least freaky, in a world where freaky has become the new normal?

A great way to stay relevant is to not just learn about celebrities, but actually see their movies, then write a column about them.  Bruni saw Bridesmaids, and he thought it was “a side-splitting, end-of-discussion retort to the writer Christopher Hitchens’s impudent assertion a while back that women just weren’t funny.”   Now he’s stealing ideas from Manohla Dargis!  For real, she said that exact thing.  People, Christopher Hitchens is never to going see Bridesmaids.  The guy already thinks women aren’t funny; he’s not going to go check out every new female-directed comedy just so he can prove himself wrong.  Also, isn’t he dead? (DAMMIT why didn’t I post this before he actually died?  That joke would have been so much funnier!)

Fake Freakonomics

Another hallmark of the Bruni-Brooks-Friedman-etc. style is a vague interest in statistics and brain studies, a sort of Malcolm Gladwell-lite fascination with “big ideas” and scientific insights into How We Think.  This allows the pundit to appear smart, while looking down upon the struggles of politicians and activists with Olympian disdain, since — fools that they are! — they all share the same cognitive biases.

In “True Believers All of Us,” he explains that “Liberals think magically, too, becoming so attached to a certain approach that they wind up advocating it less as option than as panacea.”  For instance, liberals think government spending is good, so they’re cognitively biased in favor of thinking it’s a good idea, and they don’t want to think it’s a bad idea.  Without science’s new insights into the prevalence of cognitive bias, we’d never have noticed that.  (Science!)

“It has always been thus, all around the world and all through history.”  Another case in point.  Before today’s world of cutting-edge cognitive research, a sentence like that would have barely seen the light of day before earning its author a D from a freshman writing teacher.  Now it’s up on the New York Times website for all the world to see, laughing at the haters, making ahistorical and transcultural generalizations about human behavior.  I emailed that sentence to Shitmystudentswrite.tumblr.com, like “did you lose something?”, and they were like “No dude.  Don’t you understand social psychology?”

“In government and so much else there are a multitude of options to weigh, a plenitude of roads to take take and a tendency to puff up the one actually taken.”  I was dubious of this claim, because I was always taught that there are four options and three roads to weigh in government; one and a half of each, maximum, in everything else.  But it must be true, because it’s confirmed in a quote by Jon A. Krosnick, “a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies attitude formation.”  Will none of my preconceptions go unchallenged?

Tortured analogies

Analogies are like dad jokes, but in metaphor form.

In “Familiarity Breeds Newt,” we’re told that “In accordance with the rhythm of the Republican contest so far, it’s time to ask when Newt Gingrich, the unlikely race car of the moment, will run out of gas.”

Yes… it is time to imagine Newt Gingrich as a car, and public popularity as gasoline.  I was just about to do that, but I couldn’t figure out if the track the car is on should represent taxpayer dollars, the mainstream media, or America’s highway system.  Maybe the gas station attendant is the media?

From an editorial that’s also about Kim Kardashian:  “The Congressional super committee…is supposed to slash-slash-slash at the federal deficit like Edward Scissorhands working over a block of ice, but apparently its 12 members have been frozen at the block-of-ice stage.”  Sounds like those committee members are a little too chilled out!  It would be “ice” to see more progress on America’s long-term fiscal well-being!

In “Gall in High Places” Bruni turns his attention once again to the candidates.  Rick Perry’s “poignant search for syllables wasn’t entirely unlike my pathetic search for my keys. He should try looking between the couch cushions.”  I think he should try looking in the dictionary!  Between shit and syphilis, because that’s the only place he’s going to find sympathy for his inarticulate debate performance!  Or maybe he should read Frank Bruni’s column, which does seem kinda sympathetic, and also has syllables… wait, what were we talking about?

Huntsman: A Nice Guy Finishing Last” describes the woes of the underdog Republican candidate.  “Forget 9-9-9; someone call 9-1-1. Huntsman has flat-lined.”  What if I accidentally remembered 9-9-9, forgot 9/11, and performed 69 on 11/11/11?  Also, isn’t forgetting the only way to truly remember?

“[Voters] flirted with Michele Bachmann and then two-stepped with Rick Perry before high-fiving Herman Cain.”  When what voters really wanted was to… ummmm… who’s a politician voters would want to have sex with?  Do people still care about Rahm Emanuel?  It’s too bad I already made a 69 reference.  This joke is going nowhere.  Great. First Hitchens dies, now this.

“For all [Romney’s] painstaking tailoring, passion is a suit that even now fits him awkwardly. It doesn’t accommodate his chromosomal pocket kerchief.”  Eep.  What does a chromosomal kerchief mean in the San Francisco Hanky Code?  Voters better be careful who they flirt with!  You go in for a fist bump with Tim Pawlenty, the next thing you know, Mitt Romney is canvassing your intimates with a cattle prod.

Chicken soup for the soul

Bruni has a lot of touching thoughts to share.  In “Homecomings and Regrets,” he asks himself ruefully whether he “[took] proper note” of his life experiences while they were happening.  For example, “I wonder how, during the two years when I called Rome home and wandered frequently through the Villa Borghese park, I never noticed an especially lush, shady patch near the Galleria Borghese that I stumbled across recently, on a return trip.”

We can all relate.  But the best example of Bruni’s deep thoughts is his paean to Tim Tebow, the oft-mocked quarterback who’s “powered by conviction and operating on faith.”

“The mile-high messiah has a gospel for us all.”  I’m not really looking for a “messiah” or a “gospel,” but if I were, I probably wouldn’t seek one out in an industry that has an official lite beer and an official corn chip.  Synthetic fabrics are also a dealbreaker.  I’d probably just pick John Waters or something.

Bruni acknowledges Tebow is “weepy,” but says “the intensity of the derision strikes me as unwarranted, in that it outdoes anything directed at, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused repeatedly of sexual assault.”  I never thought I’d say this, but maybe it’s because rape isn’t that inherently funny a topic?  What with the traumatized victims, and how it’s an unspeakably terrifying crime, and so on.  I mean, I hate to sound like the P.C. police… Lord knows I’ve kidded around in my time about how much Ben Roethlinsburger loves to rape… goddammit Mile-High Messiah, you’re making me look like a hypocrite!

Tebow has a gift for winning.  “This gift usually involves hope, confidence and a special composure, all of which keep a person in the game long enough, with enough energy and stability, so that a fickle entity known as luck might break his or her way.”  So if a person has enough luck and confidence, they’ll win?  Say, somebody should tell that to those Occupy Wall Street whiners!

“It boils down to stubborn optimism and bequeaths a spark. A swagger. An edge.”  Now it sounds like he derived his winning spark from Axe Body Spray and Monster Energy Drink.  Get a grip, dude.

“Tebow…told his teammates, ‘Believe in me.’ And he must have done so with a persuasive charisma.”  I think it has more to do with his awesome locker-room blowjobs, am I right folks?

Obligatory apology:  I’m sorry I haven’t updated this blog for part of a papacy.  We live in a crazy world where “passions ping around a digital universe“; it’s easy to lose track of things.  Follow me on Twitter for frequent, yet brief updates.

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