Sunday, June 3, 2007

Twinkie, Deconstructed, rewritten

My daughter, glancing at Steve Ettlinger's Twinkie, Deconstructed (2007) in the library, pronounced it "Unreadable." She may be right. The subtitle alone is off-putting:

My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats
Publishers rely upon ever-lengthening subtitles to press (yes, press) content into the reader's face. But there's a clumsy dissonance between the terse, elegant title (which assumes at least a pop-culture grasp of deconstruction) and the self-promoting, astonished, grandiose tone of what follows: My Journey; Yes, Mined; What America Eats. (What America will soon be eating, at least in my house, is an Amy's California Burger.)

Skipping the Acknowledgments, I stopped at the first two paragraphs of "A Note to the Reader":
One could be forgiven for thinking that all one might have to do to find out what goes into a Hostess® Twinkies® "Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling" is to simply ask the company that makes them. But it is not that simple.

In fact, Interstate Bakeries Corporation, one of the country's largest wholesale bakeries, which owns Hostess®, Drake's® Cakes (Yodels, Devil Dogs, Yankee Doodles, and Ring Dings), Wonder® Bread, Home Pride®, Dolly Madison Bakery®, Butternut®, Merita®, and Cotton's® Holsum, among other familiar brands, was initially receptive to my requests for tours and interviews. However, after about twenty-four hours of contemplation, the company declined via phone, citing its preference to help writers who are merely reminiscing about their sweet childhood memories.
"One could be forgiven": A cliché, and one that makes no sense if the reader has read the book's subtitle.

"One could be forgiven . . . one might have to do": Repeating one is tedious.

"[A]ll one might have to do . . . is to simply ask": Is should be would be.

"[A] Hostess® Twinkies® . . . the company that makes them": Agreement is all askew: a (singular) Twinkies® (plural) Golden Sponge Cake (singular). If "a Hostess® Twinkies® Golden Sponge Cake" is singular, there's also a problem with them.

"[S]imply ask . . . not that simple": The repetition is clumsy. What does it mean to simply ask anyway? Write a letter? Make a phone call? Knock on a door? Use small words?

"In fact": This transition makes no sense in light of the sentence that precedes it. The phrase leads the reader to expect a fact that contradicts the preceding sentence's hypothesis: You might think it would be easy. In fact, it is not.

"Hostess®, Drake's® Cakes (Yodels, Devil Dogs, Yankee Doodles, and Ring Dings), Wonder® Bread, Home Pride®, Dolly Madison Bakery®, Butternut®, Merita®, and Cotton's® Holsum": The second paragraph of the book is not the best place to present a reader with this inventory. As is, the list raises unnecessary questions: why don't Yodels, for instance, get the registered trademark sign?

"[A]bout twenty-four hours of contemplation": Was the company contemplating, like a monk? Was anyone? For twenty-four hours?

"[T]he company declined via phone": A company cannot use the phone. Via phone is also odd because we don't know how the author made contact. Was there a friendly visit, followed by a curt phone call?

"[M]erely reminiscing about their sweet childhood memories": Merely reminiscing about sweet treats? Merely? So much for Proust! Another problem: there's redundancy in the idea of reminiscing about memories.

Here's what I think is a plausible revision of these two paragraphs:
One might think that finding out what goes into Hostess® Twinkies® would require no more than asking the company that makes them. But it was not that simple.

Interstate Bakeries Corporation, one of the country's largest wholesale bakeries, was initially receptive to my requests for tours and interviews. But one day after I visited IBC headquarters, a company representative called me to decline, citing the company's preference to help writers who reminisce about childhood foods.
Looking closely at these sentences reminds me that with contemporary non-fiction, it's often smart to try (via the library), not buy.

And now, America (my America) eats.

[This post is no. 13 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of published prose.]
All "How to improve writing" posts (via del.icio.us)
Twinkie, Deconstructed (the website for the book)

comments: 3

Lee said...

Though your revision is a definite improvement in some ways - I wonder if it's wrong to change the tone of the original quite so much - I'd hate to see what you'd do to Proust!

steve ettlinger said...

I'm impressed with your editing! I always like seeing others' takes on my writing, which itself is not published until several editors have had their way with it.

I agree with your points.

I also hope you'll manage to at least consider the subject, if not read chapter 15, which is the best-written one.

Thanks.

Steve Ettlinger (author)

Michael Leddy said...

I'll read chapter 15. The book has a great premise, and it's a book that I wanted to like.