Dictators and Tyrants
Semi-Intelligent Design

Writing and Thinking

It's easy to imagine Terkel's warm, soothing voice asking the questions as the kid from Hibbing sits nervously in the studio.  Terkel's about my age in this clip from an interview he did with Dylan in 1963, and he's been carrying on these kinds of conversations for a couple of decades.  Dylan is in his early myth-making phase, and you can pick up the untruths -- that he saw Woody Guthrie play in California when he was ten, that he lived in Mexico for awhile before he went to New York.  He doesn't repeat the bit about playing piano in a whorehouse in Denver, which was always one of my favorites.

But you also see how quickly he responds to Studs, and how quickly he trusts him.  This ain't no journalist trying to get a quick spin on the latest folk-craze thing.  This is somebody who understands, and who he can talk to, and open up with some.  With the current interest in all things Dylan occasioned by Chronicles and the Scorcese documentary, it's a perfect little bit to find tucked in at the end of Granta 90.  Once again, I shake my head in awe and admiration -- if I was ever going to be a real editor, my role model would be Ian Jack.

Jack has made Granta the very best English-language literary magazine in the world.  During the Fadiman years, American Scholar came very close, but I'm sorry to say that with her forced departure, the Scholar has declined somewhat.  It's still very good, but there's been a slight and subtle shift in tone -- it used to be all about the writing.  It has come to be about the content.  But content is everywhere -- we're drowning in the stuff.  Excellent writing gets tougher to find all the time.

What Jack seems to be doing with Granta, and what Fadiman did with the American Scholar, is to place content in the service of the writing.  To be sure, the content is often thrillingly wonderful, and Granta has the added challenge of organizing issues thematically, which pushes the content forward a little bit more; but the essence of the magazines is that every sentence sparkles.  I read Foreign Affairs regularly too -- that's for content, and means slogging through some of the most godawful dull and uninspired prose that any college professor teaching upper-level poli sci ever had to wade through.

Working in the web world makes good writing difficult, because good writing takes time. And sloppy writing enables sloppy thinking. "Web 2.0" actually speaks to something specific and so it  makes sense to me -- "Library 2.0" is sloganeering that signifies very little. "Open access" has become a label that can be slung around wildly with each walrus, queen or fuzzy-headed caterpillar given it just the meaning that they want it to have, and ignoring all other nuances. And don't get me started on the violence being done to the language by my president.

Writing ought to be a way of challenging oneself.  The words ought to poke back at you, cause you to sit up straight and ask yourself -- is this really what I mean?  Does this sentence really makes sense following that one?  Does that word really signify what I'm trying to get across?  But it appears that many people think they just have to transcribe the noise that rattles between their ears.  And noise is most of what comes across.


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