“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” So claimed T. S. Eliot in his iconic essay “Hamlet and His Problems.” And what’s true of Hamlet is doubly true for the New York Times‘ Modern Love column. This recurring essay feature aspires to represent emotion in the form of art, but with a 2000-word length limit, plus there’s no sex scenes or cussing allowed. To put things into perspective, this it what it sounds like when an essayist describes their love story in literal language: “We went to the beach and swam, held hands at the Fourth of July fireworks, went on roller coasters at Six Flags, ate Thanksgiving dinner with each other’s families, exchanged gifts on Christmas. We cried when I had to leave for long periods of time.” Fascinating. No, this will not do: If you wish to interest the world in your banal tale of romantic disappointment, you must take Eliot’s advice. You need a metaphor. You need a symbol. You need an objective correlative for those ineffable emotions. Like this: Continue reading “Crazy Love III”
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.
It may sometimes seem like women face an impossible task: Whether it’s motherhood, professional life or just walking down the street, ladies are vulnerable to the conflicting demands and judgmental expectations of society. A woman is liable to be judged on tiny details — of speech, behavior, even the clothes she wears — and must negotiate the conflicting dangers of being labeled too butch or too feminine, too assertive or too timid, too prudish or too sexy.
But if you think that sounds hard, it’s nothing compared to what New York Times writers have to deal with. Just look at the first sentence of Ruth La Ferla’s article “Women Enjoy the Cool Comfort of Summer Dresses“: “Trends come and go, but the dress persists, secure in its status as a metaphor.”
The New York Times has a strange idea of fun. They seem eager to give me, the reader, tips on enjoyable things to do with my free time. But the activities suggested aren’t always so relevant to my interests. I could become an influential industry bigwig, then spend years befriending club promoters and buying $1000 “bottle service” to earn myself a permanent spot on the guest list at a trendy night club. I could go to an exhibition of designer nightstands featuring such artists as Sting. (“I liked the idea to let men conjure up their story for the nightstand. It’s almost role reversal,” says the curator.) Or stop in at a racist country club to sample a delicacy called a “frozen tomato” that consists of “essentially tomato ice cream (except, instead of cream, it’s got cream cheese, cottage cheese and mayonnaise), served in a round scoop on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of more mayonnaise on top).” I could collect Victorian taxidermy, or knit Brobdignagian cozies for public statuary.
Still, for every bizarre activity that they praise, there is another relatively harmless pastime they disparage. Why? Maybe it’s too lowbrow. Maybe it’s because the fans of said pastime are presumed to be illiterate proles who don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Or maybe it’s for the opposite reason — the pastime is question has gotten too popular with the hip, trend-chasing urbanites whom the writers fondly imagine comprise their core readership. There must be something dangerous about it. But what? In a selection of recent articles, we’ll explore how Times scribes find fear in the benign.
Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle. Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.” It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires. It’s a human universal! That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.
Are trend pieces the only option? No. If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.” Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers. Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references. You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about. Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.” Science is great!
Some of the problems with the New York Times are nebulous and diffuse. The writers’ tone can seem kind of smug and suck-uppy. They write about rich people too much. They care way too much about iPhones and hipsters and artisanal axes and stuff. Yet none of these things are wrong, exactly. It’s not incorrect to write that a man in TriBeCa is crafting beautiful handmade “urban axes,” as indeed he is. Yet some claims and ideas in the Times aren’t just annoying; they’re concretely, satisfyingly wrong. That is what we’ll be looking at today. How many kinds of wrongness are there in Times articles, and what form do they take?
Michael Leviton is a New York musician and author who has a children’s book forthcoming from Hyperion next year. The video above gives you an idea of his worldview: It features accordion and glockenspiel, warbly soprano vocals, and lyrics about how all the normal beautiful people are having fun in the summertime but the speaker is lonely and disillusioned because he’s so quirky, unique and sensitive. The video contributes to the atmosphere, spinning a nostalgic yarn about a 1940’s sailor who falls in love with an emaciated mermaid and is lured by her coquetry to a watery grave. I posted it on my Facebook page, and one music fan was moved to comment on the song’s “incoherent lyrics, extremely amateurish singing, and worst of all, an acoustic guitar (technically ukulele) with which absolutely nothing interesting is done,” observing that “Benjamin Franklin invented electricity for a reason.” I think it sounds like an imitation of parody of a Stephen Merritt/Belle and Sebastien cover band. You might like it, though!
Why am I telling you about Michael Leviton? Because he is the author of the latest “Modern Love,” and the subject of this post. But before looking at his writing, let me shift gears for a moment. Why do people write embarrassing stuff about themselves? Everyone has done dumb stuff they feel bad about, but why publish it for all the world? It’s hard to say. Yet autobiography, memoir and standup comedy would all be impossible without the speaker’s penitential urge to be bracingly honest. No one wants to read a story about how you went to Stanford, didn’t do drugs, got a job at a financial firm, bought a Prius, and married someone just as upwardly mobile as you. Or maybe they do, if you’re in the New York Times wedding pages, but that doesn’t make it interesting. So it’s lucky we have some writers who feel compelled to tell the ugly truth.