Monday, February 18, 2008

Vulgarizing the New York Times

I wonder how much the editors at the New York Times are regretting their decision to hire William Kristol to write a weekly column for the paper? The stuff he's writing is simply awful. It's not just awful from an ideological standpoint (that was a given from the start) but from a purely literary perspective it is equally bad. For one thing, Kristol has no idea how to write for an audience of anything but mindless correligionaries. That much is clear. His columns come off as vulgar attempts to goad his readers as opposed to honest efforts to convince them of his thesis. And there is nothing of interest in them beyond that.

Consider today's column entitled "Democrats Should Read Kipling." It gets off to a seemingly good start, as Kristol brings in both George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling to help make his case. But this literary gambit soon vanishes into clouds of empty puffery and we discover that there's "no there there." Kipling and Orwell make an appearance in Kristol's column only so that he can drop a pair of impressive names that will be familiar and intriguing to the Times' haughty readers, but there is little substance to back up Kristol's appeal to these esteemed literary figures.

Kristol doesn't seem to realize that to pull this sort of thing off, a writer must be either surprising, ingenious, or instructive. He must surprise us by using the literary figure in a way we would not have thought possible. Alternatively, he must demonstrate ingenuity by using the literary figure in a completely inappropriate way, while leaving the reader with knowing smile ("Too clever by half, Mr. Kristol!"). Or, finally, he must genuinely instruct us, revealing aspects of the cited author's beliefs that we did not know and which are apposite to the discussion at hand. Kristol does none of this. He brings in Orwell and Kipling, uses them to support something that is more of a banality than an actual argument ("Kipling 'identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition.'") and then immediately throws them both away as he continues to make his rather scattershot mess of an argument. A clever columnist (say Christopher Hitchens) understands that, at he very least, if you are going to bring literary figures into the opening of your piece, you must return to them at the close to neatly and tidily wrap the argument up. But Kristol is not such a writer, and seems to think that just dropping Orwell and Kipling's names will imbue his ruminations with an undeserved degree of dignity.

Finally, there's the writing itself. There's no need to go into the gory details. Instead I'll simply cite directly from the piece:

If I may vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit: substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics.
Eeeew! Vulgarizing, indeed.

1 comment:

yellojkt said...

Vulgar is the right word for it. He did everything but include the crayon drawing he did on his seatback placemat.