The Two Worst 20th Century Influences on the English Language

Caleb — one who has known me longer than most of the rest of you — once described me as the kind of person who sits in a corner and bangs his head against a cement wall. I think that’s the most accurate short-hand for my behavior ever to come out of anyone’s mouth. It’s the only good explanation of why I still sometimes read The New Yorker.

I. The New Yorker. To wit,

How precious. Every New Yorker article has the same opening, scene-setting on some brownstone on some numbered street or cozy Ivy League town that its imagined readership would find familiar, or would like to find familiar. In this case, that dump New Haven. It’s enough to drive me insane. The New Yorker specializes in the third-person–zany-quirky-anecdote school of American writing.

One sub-zero Chicago Winter night, in an art-deco Evanston apartment, sucking on an ambien and lolling around in the bathtub, darknessatnoon got hit in the head with a block of cement. He had been reading one of his favorite authors — Jim Knipfel, blind, brain-damaged, writer for the New York Press — whom his path had yet to cross since they didn’t live in the same borough, not even the same city, actually, when he noticed Knipfel ending one of the trade-mark punk, picaresque, chapters of Slackjaw in the cozy fauxronic New Yorker style.

darknessatnoon proceeded to choke on his ambien, partially drowned in the tub, and, upon being revived in the ambulance, was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital where attending physicians diagnosed him with a concussion and discovered a history of similarly traumatic head injuries.

II. George Orwell

A few years back, I was an editorial intern at a ‘cutting edge’ theory journal. I used to say it was ‘theoretically a journal.’ Imagine the magazine scenes from High Art to get a good sense of the publication’s atmosphere of haute-pretentiousness, which the manuscript editor would try to downplay by blaring the Mekons on the stereo while the rest of us were trying to concentrate/read/gossip. While working there, I’d get my hands on bootleg drafts of essays that we wanted to publish, but which would be snatched away to one of the other two or three similar competitor publications (think an October, or a Critical Inquiry, or along the lines of Representations). The staff would quietly circulate copies of those essays while snickering at our editor-in-chief, XYZ, as he fumed at being scooped. One of the best pieces amounted to calling George Orwell a fascist. The author of this essay has been (unfairly) lambasted in the mainstream press for being impenetrable and evasive in his prose (Not really, though. He’s just a little on the lyrical side and deals with concepts a little too complex for journalistic summary). The prose here, however, was clear and direct. It attacked George Orwell’s pernicious, mean-spirited, little essay “Politics and the English Language” as being of it’s time. Meaning that the essay’s demand for a cleansing of the English language, written in 1946, was born of an age – a year – of ethnic cleansing. It was one of the most amazing rhetorical turns I’ve ever seen, aligning Orwell with the totalitarians – a guy who was so fond of calling other people totalitarians. I half remember the author of this essay pointing out Orwell’s own fascism as a point of praise, a literary quality, and knowing the author as I do, I’m not sure whether he meant it ironically or not. For some reason, I can’t find the essay anywhere and wonder if it was ever published.

Orwell himself writes that “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms…”I’m sorry, I thought we called a gap between one real and declared meaning IRONY, which is … you know … the great stylistic engine of Animal Farm (a book whose heavy-handedness gestures toward meaning could only escape the mentally retarded) or 1984, which I like to call Phillip K. Dick-lite. I’m not going to go so far as to steal from the eloquent Tucker Stone and steadfastly claim that George Orwell’s hands were made of blow jobs, even though everything he wrote did suck. Rather, it’s the haughty, snotty, Journalism school influence of his most famous essay that kills me. Every time I see that essay referenced as a rhetorical bludgeon against anyone who doesn’t write everything like they’re writing for the front page of a newspaper, it’s like the concrete wall bangs me in the head.

Items III & IV on this list would respectively be the Iowa School of Writing (it doesn’t matter if you graduated from Irvine Creative Writing — I’m looking at you Chabon — because the category is metaphorical) and Chris Claremont. As my friend Mark puts it, Iowa “exists simply as a mechanism for creating production units (which euphemistically get called “writers”) to meet the market demand for middlebrow aestheticism. Or alternatively you could think of it as the arts equivalent of a Walgreen’s middle management course.” V. might be the New York Times book review section, which has a greater influence and readership than Chris Claremont, but Claremont’s following is far more rabid, brain-dead and vicious than you might first expect whereas the Times is made to be tossed in the trash or left behind on a subway seat.

Also, I apologize for my sparse posting. I have stuff in the works. Winter just makes darknessatnoon really lazy at noon.

2 Responses to “The Two Worst 20th Century Influences on the English Language”

  1. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    Regarding The New Yorker style, it sets up a lure with too much information (“Edgewood Avenue,” “New Haven,” “seventy-five dollars a month”) that has absolutely nothing to do with what follows, namely that an old Clinton connection is now supporting Obama instead. [Aside: Well, what do you expect? Political loyalties generally don’t run too deep. Business as usual, no? But journalists try their best to disquise the fact that they’re desperate for stories and therefore must resort to puffery to make it seem as if there is any substance to what they have to say.]I see all of the above in my students’ papers–the openings signifying nothing, the puffery, and so on. Perhaps you’re right–The New Yorker might have been a major inspiration to the pseudo-sophisticated stylistics of saying nothing in a manner that would strike some (perhaps many) as–what?–eloquent? worldly?But what I actually appreciate most about your take-down of The New Yorker is your making a very direct and uncozy statement of truth: New Haven is a dump.

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    We allow for exceptions in our generalizations about The New Yorker. Namely, Hilton Als and Anthony Lane. I couldn’t name any of the others off the top of my head, though.

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