Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Most Inarticulate Buffalo In The World

Last month, I linked to a masterful interview with Daniel Mendelsohn. Here's another beaut, from the same magazine, with critic and editor Dwight Garner. It's chock-a-block with great anecdotes and insights. A sample:
Editing taught me the importance of quoting well. I’d like to think if there’s one thing that I do halfway decently, it’s quote others. It was Montaigne, I think, who compared quoting well to arranging other people’s flowers. I like writers who quote well and bring stray insight into their pieces. It’s like they’re pulling stars out of the sky.
When I was just starting out, one of the things I disliked most about journalists (and critics) is that you could learn more by talking to them for five minutes than you could by reading a year’s worth of their pieces. Their articles and essays seemed to me like masterpieces of indirection, of plausible deniability. I want to sound like I’m talking to a close, literate friend. In fact, I’m lucky to have had an amazing and ongoing email correspondence, across more than 15 years, with a great friend who is a writer. I want my reviews to sound not so different from the emails we pop back and forth. I want to be direct, and I want to make fine distinctions, and when appropriate I want to be funny. Humour is undervalued in criticism.
I was on a panel earlier this year with a well-known writer, and I was delighted when he announced about his favourite novels, “I’m a sentence queen.” He likes books that are alive on a cellular level, sentence-to-sentence. I’m suspect I’m a sentence queen, too, mostly. A terrific story is a terrific thing. But give me a great voice.
I’m envious of people who can open their mouths and have perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs come out. When I’m speaking in public—even right now, frankly—I’m inwardly wincing at every word that pops out of my mouth. I want to retract them all immediately, and re-phrase. Like so many people who write, I started because I wanted to gain possession of the things in my head that, when I opened my mouth, came out all wrong. Words are like little kids; you don’t want to send them out of the house until they’re dressed and have brushed their teeth. At a lectern I’m a fumbler, the most inarticulate buffalo in the world.
When I worked at the Book Review, we had a rule. A potential reviewer might say to us, “I can’t review X’s book because I know her.” We’d reply with this question: “Do you know the names of her children?” That was the litmus test. If you don’t know the names of someone’s kids, how close can you be?
When I was an editor at the Book Review, the idea of writing for the Times would make some writers freeze up. You’d assign them a book, then you’d talk to him or her on the phone a few weeks later and they’d say, “Why did you send me this steaming pile of dog waste? This book is criminally bad.” Then the review would come in and it would be eight paragraphs of the most tedious plot summary topped by a word like “lyrical.” I was often in the position of gently reminding reviewers, “You’re not writing this for the author’s mother. You’re writing it for the tens if not hundreds of thousands of serious and inquisitive people out there who will be reading you.”

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