Saturday, November 22, 2008

How to improve writing (no. 23 in a series)

David Frauenfelder, whose Breakfast with Pandora is fine reading for anyone interested in language and myth and storytelling, wonders what I would do with the following sentence, from a Los Angeles Times article by Rachel Abramowitz:

Of all the major American artists, [Woody] Allen has experienced one of the cruelest and most violent whipsaws of fortune, of tumbling from audience adulation to mass approbation.
David notes the various problems with this sentence: "preposition abuse," "false genitive," "a terrible mixed metaphor," "and to top it off, a hilarious malapropism at the end."

Preposition abuse: check. Of all . . . , one of . . . of fortune, of tumbling . . . . The repetition is awkward; the final of could be cut with no loss.

False genitive: check. The genetive or possessive case "marks a noun as modifying another noun." "[A]udience adulation" should be "audiences' adulation." (I'm grateful to know the name for this problem, which I correct often in my students' writing.)

A terrible mixed metaphor: check. P.R. Wilkinson's Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors (London: Routledge, 2002) defines whipsaw as "A double disadvantage; bad dilemma; something that cuts both ways and is injurious whatever you do [Amer]." Nothing to do with tumbling, and nothing to do with what happened to Allen. The writer may have been thinking of whiplash or backlash, though those tired metaphors too don't go well with "of fortune" or "tumbling."

A hilarious malapropism at the end: check. Approbation is "an act of approving formally or officially." David suggests that the writer was in search of opprobrium: "something that brings disgrace," "public disgrace or ill fame that follows from conduct considered grossly wrong or vicious."

So what to do with the original sentence? I'd revise to give a clearer sense that Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn generated more widespread interest than his movies. I'd also remove the pretension of "major American artists" and the melodrama of "fortune." Reversal of fortune is a trope that applies to, say, Oedipus or Lear. Such reversal follows from choices made with inadequate knowledge, by those who have no way to foresee what will befall them. It's reasonable though to anticipate disapproval when embarking on a relationship with the adopted daughter of one's long-time partner. My sentence:
Once celebrated by critics and fans, Allen is now a figure of scandal even among those who have never seen his films.
[This post is no. 23 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. And by the way, I like Woody Allen's films, or most of them.]

Related reading
All "How to improve writing" posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 17

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the breakdown, Michael, and especially for the rewrite, which shows that editing sometimes means mercy killing of the first sentence in order to effect a reincarnation in a new and more felicitous form.

Michael Leddy said...

Nice metaphor, David. The Phoenix Sentence Service.

Chaser said...

Once celebrated by critics and fans, Allen is now a pariah even among those who have never seen his films.

Anonymous said...

As a sentence, your revision, Michael, is preferable, but I'm not sure it holds up as a claim. My sense is that kid's today have only the foggiest recollection -- if they have any recollection at all -- of Woody Allen as a tabloid fixture. We are, after all, talking about the early 1990s. I'd even go one step further: I wonder how many people under the age of, say, 30 have ever even seen a Woody Allen film?

I'm reminded of a conversation I once had with an otherwise culturally literate graduate student working on her PhD in Film who had never seen Annie Hall, Allen's most popular film. And this was someone from the New York City area.

Michael Leddy said...

Lisa, yes.

You're probably right, Matt. I just asked my college-age kids (who haven't seen this post) whether the name Woody Allen meant anything to them scandal-wise, and they both knew the gist. But as my daughter added, "We're your kids."

A film person who's never seen Annie Hall — we all have our blank spots, but that's scary. I sometimes hear people who teach film talking in disbelief about what their students haven't seen.

Benjo said...

Matt, I think there is much greater familiarity with Woody Allen's work and life among (at least some elements of) the under-30 crowd than you might suspect. I'm 27, and can think of very, very few friends who don't have at least a basic familiarity with the Soon-Yi scandal, and even fewer who haven't seen at least a handful of his films. Of course, I went to an elite school and hang around rather artistic types. Still, though, I think he's been quite successful at bridging the generation gap.

Anonymous said...

Bejo: You might be right. Maybe I'm cynical. But that's what happens when you've seen every single one of Woody Allen's films (save for Vicky Christina Barcelona, which I'll watch when it comes out on DVD), many (if not most) of them multiple times.

Also, I'm 28, and I only know 3 people under 30 who are hardcore Woody Allen fans: the first is a Jewish writer from Brooklyn, the second is a comedy writer in Los Angeles, the third is my brother.

Lee said...

Michael, you and I often disagree about editing. Mercy killing can become overkill, where the flavour of the whole is lost.

Mixed metaphors can be perfectly effective - so much for the rulebook - and an interesting form of layering. In any case 'whipsaw' has acquired a secondary meaning, used often regarding investments, of a sharp price reversal. And I prefer the so-called false genitive in many instances where the 'true one' would be awkward. However, I agree that the prepositions are unwieldy and 'approbation' obviously an error.

Michael Leddy said...

I don't mind losing the tone of the original sentence, Lee, which seems to me contrived and pretentious.

I didn't know about investors' use of "whipsaw." Is the whipsaw the change in price, or the loss of money? I found this definition: "To lose money in a volatile market by buying before rapid drops and selling before rapid rises." What that sort of change has to do with Woody Allen's reputation, I don't know.

I see "whipsaw" as a gaudy substitute for "reversal," but as I say in my post, I don't think "reversal of fortune" is a good trope when consequences seem predictable.

Lee said...

All writing is contrived, even the plainest.

Consequences seem predictable? Perhaps, since we've become such a PC society.

I suggest that accusations of pretension have become predictable, if rather smug. However, I'm sure you don't mean it that way.

Lee said...


'A quick price movement followed by a sharp price change in the opposite direction. An investor expecting a continuation in the direction of a security's price movement is likely to experience whipsaw in a volatile market. This risk is very important to short-term traders but inconsequential to long-term investors.'

Wall Street Words: An A to Z Guide to Investment Terms for Today's Investor, David L. Scott

Michael Leddy said...

To engage in a sexual relationship with the adopted child of your long-time partner is to invite disapproval and disgrace upon discovery. That seems reasonable to say, and it makes Allen's situation different from that of Oedipus (who did not know what he was doing).

Few people speak of good prose as "contrived," but if that word's a problem, how about "labored" or "overwritten"? It really baffles me that you would find the original sentence better than the revision.

I don't know what you mean about predictable accusations. There are exactly two blog posts here in which I've used "pretension" or "pretentious" to characterize prose (I checked via the search box, upper left).

macon d said...

i much prefer your edit. as for woody, he's waaaaay too white for me. as in, unwittingly white.

Lee said...

I love to baffle people!

However, I never found the original better than your version, just that you lost something important in the translation - and that some of your points were either incorrect or, well, curmudgeonly. My comment about pretension was a general one, not just related to your posts; the accusation of pretension has become something of a snobbish trope.

Amusingly, I've just come across an excellent example of the use of 'whipsaw' as a metaphor in the sense you originally cited, one which I suspect you'll approve of. At least I do, but then, I think Philip Roth is a terrific stylist:

'The truth about us is endless. As are the lies. Caught between, I thought. Denounced by the high-minded, reviled by the righteous - then exterminated by the criminally crazed. Excommunicated by the saved, the elect, the ever-present evangelists of the mores of the moment, then polished off by a demon of ruthlessness. Both human exigencies found their conjunction in him. The pure and the impure, in all their vehemence, on the move, akin in their common need of the enemy. Whipsawed, I thought. Whipsawed by the inimical teeth of this world. By the antagonism that is the world.'

(Roth, The Human Stain)

And yes, in case you're wondering, the irony of this choice is not lost on me. Roth is a delightful social critic who spent years teaching at university.

Michael Leddy said...

In Roth's passage, "whipsaw" is meaningful. That makes a difference!

Pretension and cant are all around, and I see nothing curmudgeonly or snobbish about saying so, in the spirit of "Politics and the English Language."

Lee said...

Michael, I couldn't agree more that pretension and cant are all around. Are you absolutely sure you're not guilty of them? I know that I am. The more I write, the more I become aware of the need for self-criticism. And it's one of the reasons I've just about stopped blogging.

Michael Leddy said...

"[P]retension and cant are all around. Are you absolutely sure you're not guilty of them?"

Heck, no.