July 02, 2004

Self-exposure at the NY Times

Today's NY Times has one of the most egregious violations of Elmore Leonard's Fourth Rule of Writing that I've ever seen in a news article.

It's in John F. Burns' piece on "the opening of court proceedings on Thursday against 12 of the highest-ranking officials of Iraq's ousted dictatorship". I enjoyed the article, which is unusually long for the Times. It's organized as a series of accounts of the interactions between the court and the former officials being arraigned, with a great deal of subjective evaluation of the defendants' demeanor. The last former official in the parade is Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in using chemical and biological weapons against the Kurds.

Burns describes Ali's reaction to the charges this way:

"I'm happy with the accusations, because I'm innocent of them, and as you will see, justice will prevail," he said, in an even tone that had something of the quality of a man concerned that he has been overcharged for his car repair, but unwilling to make much of it.

Nice simile. But St. Elmore told us

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Now, "in an even tone that had something of the quality of a man concerned that he has been overcharged for his car repair, but unwilling to make much of it" is not an adverb, in the sense of a single word modifying a verb or adjective. But it's a prepositional phrase used adverbially, modifying "said".

And if the single adverbial word gravely is enough to "expose" the writer and "[distract] ... and interrupt the rhythm of the exchange", how much worse is it to use a 30-word adverbial phrase?

I like Elmore Leonard's writing, but I also like to read novelists who "expose themselves" in the way that he advises against. One of the champions of self-exposure is Henry James, who often stitches together a few scraps of dialog with acres of inner fustian:

She had wound up with a laugh of enjoyment over her embroidery of her idea--an enjoyment that her face communicated to Strether, who almost wished none the less at this moment that she would let poor Waymarsh alone. HE knew more or less what she meant; but the fact wasn't a reason for her not pretending to Waymarsh that he didn't. It was craven of him perhaps, but he would, for the high amenity of the occasion, have liked Waymarsh not to be so sure of his wit. Her recognition of it gave him away and, before she had done with him or with that article, would give him worse. What was he, all the same, to do? He looked across the box at his friend; their eyes met; something queer and stiff, something that bore on the situation but that it was better not to touch, passed in silence between them. Well, the effect of it for Strether was an abrupt reaction, a final impatience of his own tendency to temporise. Where was that taking him anyway? It was one of the quiet instants that sometimes settle more matters than the outbreaks dear to the historic muse. The only qualification of the quietness was the synthetic "Oh hang it!" into which Strether's share of the silence soundlessly flowered. It represented, this mute ejaculation, a final impulse to burn his ships. These ships, to the historic muse, may seem of course mere cockles, but when he presently spoke to Miss Gostrey it was with the sense at least of applying the torch. "Is it then a conspiracy?"

But is this where NY Times courtroom reporting is heading?


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 2, 2004 10:28 AM

"Elmore Leonard's Fourth Rule of Writing"

a.k.a. the "Tom Swifty" - see the Turkey City Lexicon (http://www.sfwa.org/writing/turkeycity.html). However, the Henry James example might be viewed as a literary equivalent of "Bogus Alternatives".

Posted by: Ray Girvan at July 2, 2004 09:28 PM