responses from readers

Here at the Kugelmass Episodes, we try to respond to all comments, and they’ve been both helpful and plentiful of late. The full title of this post is Today’s mail: strayed thoughts, grammar copulas, looking down the inkwell of a gunter, and signoffs o’ the times.

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Starting with yesterday’s post, on PowerPoint and The New York Times: Alert reader Aaron wrote in to observe, quite correctly, that a sentence I described as having been written in “passive voice” was merely using the verb “to appear” as a “linking verb,” also known as a copula. He also recommended checking out The Language Log. It’s a great point of entry into the fascinating world of geeking out about grammar, and I mean that sincerely.

However, I oppose everything that Aaron’s comment stands for except its accuracy. Frankly, the correction is a trivial one, because the salient issue is the implied, but unspecified, person to whom The New York Times “appears to be” in catastrophic shape. This is frequently a problem in passive sentences: “The Duke of Vespertine Manor was murdered,” but who committed the crime? In any case, I was able to change the wording quite easily, without having to retract my rhetorical analysis. Jackson writes, “With current trends, it appears the NYT will be unable to continue as a stand-alone business by 2015.” This is good rhetoric by way of bad style. It appears to be a slightly tentative claim, even though it isn’t, for all practical purposes. “With current trends” conceals Jackson’s dependence on a suspiciously linear model, in which 2012 is supposed to be exactly like 2011. The phrase “stand-alone business” conceals the steps the paper might take to remain solvent, and makes the paper seem to be both isolated and teetering on the brink.

Meanwhile, why didn’t Aaron seem aware that his useful correction only obliged me to re-word a couple sentences? It’s immensely frustrating to observe how many guys (they are all, every one of them, male) use blogs in this particular way — that is, to fortify their complacency. To dig into the grammatical details without addressing the content in an equally serious way is, quite simply, to act in bad faith. I’m happy to correct any errors that I make (assuming I understand a given commenter’s objection). Can Eric Jackson say the same?

Aaron writes:

The rest of the piece seems to be advocating doing away with a medium because of the sins of a few users. It’s like advocating banning comments because of the horror that is the YouTube comments section. But at least those criticisms may be based on actual things that the author did, as opposed to misunderstandings of grammar.

The analogy with commenting fails in two ways. First of all, just like PowerPoint, YouTube is structured in a certain way and has a culture of its own. This heavily determines what kinds of comments users will make. If the comments suck, that’s not because everyone who watches YouTube videos is an idiot; the fault lies not with ourselves, but with our sites. Second, every blogger on Earth can point to (and link) at least one interesting, intelligent comment thread. Who would even want to defend PowerPoint to a reasonably skeptical audience, using concrete examples? PowerPoint gives us a convenient way of showing indispensable graphics to a large audience, but only a tiny minority of presenters use it in this limited way.

Most use it just like Jackson, who could have summed up his argument in three sentences on a blank sheet of white paper: “The New York Times is currently losing money. Barring an unlikely economic upswing of major proportions, the NYT will have to find ways to increase either revenue, capital, or both. Otherwise it will be bankrupt by 2015.” He could have been clearer, but why would he want to? Doing so would increase his exposure, giving him nothing in return. Jackson is using PowerPoint in precisely the way it is designed to be used. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with using PowerPoint (instead of a slide projector) to show a picture of a fish in a marine biology class. But that’s irrelevant to the culture of PowerPoint, which has made the “virtual slideshow” an integral part of the American professional world. That culture has everything to do with pop psychological theories of “attention span,” as well as worrisome theories about memory, concision, and making an impression on an audience (whether or not they ought to be impressed). When do the copywriters in Mad Men look at slideshows? When it’s actually relevant because they’re picking out graphics for an ad. That’s something we ought to miss a lot more than whiskey before 5pm.

I know that I’m making a quantitative claim (“most” versus “only a tiny minority”), and in doing so, I’m inevitably drawing on my own experiences in school and at work. I’m also thinking of conversations with friends, but I’m not citing a study of ten thousand slideshows. I’m always willing to consider a counter-example, but it can’t be a hypothetical one. Jackson’s slideshow is there for all to see.

(If, God only knows why, someone’s worried that I’m using verbs like “appear” and “conceal” myself, keep in mind that the referent is clear in context: the viewer of a given slide. Furthermore, I’m evaluating the language, not the audience.)

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In response to Victor Paladino’s helpful, indignant comment on my email post: you’re right, people shouldn’t legislate how others should signoff at the end of a letter, and by all appearances, they don’t. That’s the subtle power of humor. You can use it to apply social pressure without “forcing” anybody to do anything. As I write in the post, I’m mostly in favor of this approach, but it can backfire too.

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Over at Craft Your Drafts, Laryssa Wirstiuk has put up a splendid post about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I discussed here. She makes the insightful point that Strayed, like fellow memoirist John Fram, encourages writers to compete over who’s led the most hardcore life, implying that whoever loses this battle must have less to say. She also balances her critiques with lyrical, eloquent counter-examples, in the form of excerpts from Mark Doty and Joan Didion. It’s clear, and clean, as sugar-free jazz.

Wirstiuk’s post also reminded me to look up Christy Vannoy’s incredibly funny satire of creative nonfiction, “A Personal Essay By A Personal Essay,” published on the McSweeney’s site. Well worth your time.

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I’ve replied to Bernard Katz’s new comment about the translation of Gunter Grass. He proposed changing “last drop of ink” to “last ink,” which is closer to the original German and the echo (in German) of “last blood.” Here’s my reply:

I try to find equivalent expressions; I think that’s best way I can articulate my approach to a translation. I don’t consider myself free to improvise very much — that’s why, even if I’m grumbling about what the poet did, I’ll change my own wording if it turns out to be revisionist. Of course, in a lot of subtle ways, I’m just working from the results of the translators I like best, including Richard Howard, Stephen Mitchell, and Pevear/Volokhonsky.

I think highlighting the allusion to “last blood” is a very solid reading of the line. In English at least, it’s evoked by either “last ink” or “last drop of ink.” The trouble with “last ink” as “last blood” is that it might shade too close to “last blood” and thus “First Blood,” a common phrase in American action films, and the title of a Rambo movie.

Alas, what a regrettably melodramatic image, all the same.

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Thanks for writing in, everyone!

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