Too many words
Like the criticism leveled at Mozart in Amadeus, “Too many notes,” the criticism at KUEditing of a Garrison Keillor article in The New York Times is too many words—145 in the opening sentence.
Here’s what Doug Ward, a fine fellow and a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, said of it:
“I can only guess that the editors of the Times Book Review were either afraid to confront Keillor or were blinded by his fame. So the emperor was allowed to parade naked through the Book Review, creating a garish spectacle that had no place in print.
“The site was so abominable that it stopped me cold. I couldn’t read beyond the 145-word sentence, couldn’t read about the Harry Belafonte book Keillor was reviewing, couldn’t bring myself to read anything else in the Book Review.”
See what you think of it:
“Here is a gorgeous account of the large life of a Harlem boy, son of a Jamaican cleaning lady, Melvine Love, and a ship’s cook, Harold Bellan¬fanti, who endured the grind of poverty under the watchful eye of his proud mother and waited for his chances, prepared to be lucky, and made himself into the international calypso star and popular folk singer, huge in Las Vegas, also Europe, and a mainstay of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, a confidant of Dr. King’s, who lived for years in a U-shaped 21-room apartment on West End Avenue, but never forgot what he ran so hard to escape from, the four or five families squeezed into a few rooms, the smell of Caribbean food cooking, the shared bathroom, his father drunk, yelling, blood on his hands, beating his mother, and 'a terrible claustrophobic closet of fear.' ”
I read the sentence myself and didn’t scream, faint, or go blind. Though a bit lengthy for current tastes, it is grammatical and articulated. It is readable.
We may have lost some of our stamina as readers. Here, for example, is a 135-word paragraph plucked from William Hazlitt’s essay “On the Ignorance of the Learned”:
“An idler at school, on the other hand, is one who has high health and spirits, who has the free use of his limbs, with all his wits about him, who feels the circulation of his blood and the motion of his heart, who is ready to laugh and cry in a breath, and who had rather chase a ball or a butterfly, feel the open air in his face, look at the fields or the sky, follow a winding path, or enter with eagerness into all the little conflicts and interests of his acquaintances and friends, than doze over a musty spelling-book, repeat barbarous distichs after his master, sit so many hours pinioned to a writing-desk, and receive his reward for the loss of time and pleasure in paltry prize-medals at Christmas and Midsummer.”
And this is by no means unusually long for Hazlitt, who had a lot of breath in him.
My own long-standing advice to my charges and colleagues has been congruent with Professor Ward’s: Get to the point fast. I ask them, you know the sentence “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”? The creation of the universe has a ten-word lead. Why do you need more?
But still, one needn’t be doctrinaire. Perhaps it’s my familiarity with Mr. Keillor’s leisurely, long-spun monologues, but I can see some virtue in that opening sentence. He is, after all, reviewing a biography, and to sum up the elements of an entire life, and an eventful one at that, in 145 words is not a measly accomplishment.
I leave the point up to you, good people. What say you?