On hasty writing and reading

I was struck by Louis Menand’s comment in his review of Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite (New Yorker, July 9 & 16, 2012), that “…’Cronkite’ (HarperCollins), is long and hastily written… (88).” I wasn’t surprised, though, for US culture is Menand’s turf, and his own output, if the measurement means anything, is dwarfed by Brinkley’s in a ratio of about 4:1. Voluminous output doesn’t prove haste. Some writers are long distance runners. But after two decades of churning out a book a year, one’s writing might start to limp. Journalism with daily deadlines often produces its own unique values.

Occasionally, I read something I think might have been hastily written. Hasty writing might result in a piece that is inaccurate, sloppy, shallow, or simply difficult to read. Hasty sounds short, but hasty writing might be too long or too short. I recently started Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America” (DoubleDay, 2010). On page 32, we are told that Bob’s father, Abe, “had a good job working as a senior manager for the Standard Oil Company, and he ran the company union.” But then, in the very next paragraph, we are told that as Bob’s father “…was in the appliance business, his family became the first in town to own a television, in 1952.” What happened to the “good job” with Standard Oil? And how is it that a corporate manager ran the employee union? But I don’t think Wilentz’s book was hastily written, necessarily. The problem is hinted at in his rambling introduction, where he tries to explain the difficulty and danger inherent in writing a history so vast one risks falling into encyclopedic mode.

Janet Groth’s “The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker” (Algonquin, 2012) is a lovely book, and, I suspect, not hastily written, but, again, some writers have a talent for producing smooth running prose that runs for miles and miles without a bump or the need for a rest stop. Janet’s chapter on Joe Mitchell is a comment on haste, for Mitchell seems to have rolled to a complete stop, and for a couple of decades lingered on the side of the road, unwilling to succumb to haste just to get a word out. But enough of that metaphor. The language of “The Receptionist” I suspect is labored over to produce a period sound, a sound that doesn’t always strike my ear as natural, but that language seems appropriate to the era and the subject, and provides a stunning canvas for the memoirist’s vitalic paints.

The blog, as a mode, is a hothouse for hasty writing. I note this particularly in some of the academic blogs I follow, where the language is not so much written but talked into the post, talked in a rambling, lecture-like way, and the posts are almost always too long. These are writers who never had to write for a living, nor consider a general interest audience.

A non-academic and enjoyable blog I’ve been following, titled “The Literary Man” (and associated, obscurely, apparently, since it’s an anonymous blog – and I don’t usually follow the anonymous or pseudonymous, since it’s difficult enough discerning what’s really going on even when one knows the writer – with The New Yorker; and I wonder what Janet would think of the blog’s title, considering her 40 or so male writers on the 18th floor to the 6 or so female), recently posted a kind of poster-post titled “What’s a book hangover?” A book hangover, the post tells us, is the ache produced when looking up to find one has finished reading the book one was so into, suddenly caste adrift back in the real world.

Being “into” a book is a good feeling. Perhaps that’s why I keep so many going at once, in no haste to finish any of them.