Get me rewrite
After roughly forty years, I am letting my subscription to Newsweek expire. It is not just that its content has thinned as its advertising has shrunk—I still subscribe to The Sun despite the same phenomenon. It’s that I have no confidence in its recent embrace of longer-form articles.
I offer you a specimen of the mediocrity that passes for imaginative writing in contemporary American journalism, the opening paragraph of an article in the most recent issue about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York:
As a cold, gray Saturday afternoon fades into evening, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—jeans, pale pink sweater, no makeup—sits tucked into a blue velvet armchair in her Capitol Hill office, trying to retain her composure as she talks through the events of the previous week. "To have something so horrific happen to someone so good and so promising," she says, blue eyes welling with tears, "it hit me very hard."
Senator Gillibrand is speaking of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. I have no doubt that her emotion is real, but the setting in which Michelle Cottle has placed it makes it look mawkish.
This paragraph has all the marks of the standard opening of a feature story that has been a cliche for at least a generation.
Item: We have the obligatory scene-setting, the blue velvet chair in the Capitol Hill office. This is like the table in the hotel restaurant where the noted author/actor/whatever we are interviewing is eating scrambled eggs for breakfast. (Scrambled eggs! For breakfast! Imagine! Of course, we’re at breakfast because our publication didn’t rate a lunch or dinner interview, but let that pass.) We’re alone with the senator in her very private office. Ooh.
Item: We note what the subject is wearing, the “jeans, pale sweater, no makeup.” If the subject were a man, we would note his jeans/suit, necktie/lack of necktie. But she’s a woman, so we have to know the answer to the makeup question.
Item: We present the obligatory quote/note of emotion to supply the human identification with the subject. And, in a vulgarity straight from the tradition of women’s magazine fiction, her blue eyes well with tears.
I don’t know what is in the second paragraph of that article. I never got that far.
Writing in The American Scholar in 1995 in an article, “The Press and the Prose,” Jacques Barzun cautioned against “fake fictional style”: “ ‘The sky is streaked with violet and the cocktails have turned watery by the time the Senator, a late arrival, clambers onto the dock.’ Now, I don’t want to read that. I want the traditional, first-paragraph lead, which when well done is infinitely better than this feeble imitation of story openings in the old Saturday Evening Post.”
Feeble imitation of fictional technique is the hallmark of contemporary journalism, and Ms. Cottle’s opening paragraph is a classic example: artificial, banal, and cheap. I should pay to read that?