Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:

  • “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
  • “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
  • “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”

Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd

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On Writing: Voice

giphyVoice and narrative, according to Terry McDonell in The Accidental Life, supersede pretty much everything a piece of writing offers to make it good — even word count.

As a magazine editor, who edited Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison, among others McDonell used word counts placed at the top of a manuscript page to “evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece.” Invariably, the writers he worked with would send features in either way over or way under the word count.

“None of this matters if the piece is good — and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length.”

But, what is this elusive Roadrunner of a thing writers chase after called voice?

It’s the sum of every writing strategy you use to makes you sound like you on the page, according Roy Peter Clark. It’s the distinct word choices and punctuation and rhythms and everything else that gives plagiarists fits when they try to pass your writing off as their own.

“Voice is a word critics often use in discussing narrative,” writes Ursula LeGuin in Steering the Craft. “It’s always metaphorical, since what’s written is voiceless. Often it signifies the authenticity of the writing (writing in your own voice; catching the true voice of a kind person; and so on).”

Certain voices are very distinct, easy to recognize:

We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window. The grain was just beginning to ripen and the fields were full of poppies. The pastureland was green, and there were fine trees, and sometimes big rivers and chateaux off in the trees.

That’s Hemingway, of course, from The Sun Also Rises. What’s always made Hemingway’s prose distinct to me was the repetition of “and”— the conjunction’s got rhythm.

What would just that first sentence sound like if punctuated with commas as we’re taught?

“We ate the sandwiches, drank the Chablis, and watched the country out of the window.”

It’s still vivid and descriptive, clearly the eye of a good writer giving us concrete details of a train ride, but something seems lost. Those “ands” make it Hemingway.

Another distinct word choice is “fine” referring to “trees”. It gives the trees an aesthetic quality. Hemingway does this often with words like “fine” and “good,” to the point of parody. In fact, parodists often throw in a lot of “fines” and “goods” in their parodies of his style.

Here’s another favorite voice of mine:

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, goodlooking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children — actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun.

That’s Susan Orlean, from her feature “Show Dogs,” collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. With this lede, it’s the commas that give the sentences punch, when the sentences are long enough to warrant commas.

But, what makes it distinctive is its surprise and humor. “If I were a bitch” jumps at you, makes you want to read more. It takes you a moment to realize Orlean is talking about a dog, one that by the end of the paragraph, you’re in love with, too. The surprise of “bitch” in the first sentence is sweetened and softened with “He almost never drools.” There, if not before, you can hear Orlean’s smile, a bit of a “gotcha!”

The use of subjunctive in the first sentence also stands out. It seems like a useful strategy to get the reader inside your frame mind, and into the world of the piece, if not overused. Orlean opens her classic piece “The American Man, Age Ten” with the subjunctive as well:

“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”

What an interesting twist at the end of the sentence, to go from speculating about marrying someone to marrying someone who wants to have matching superhero notebooks. We’ve gone from adult speculation about the world and right into the world of a 10-year-old boy in turn of a phrase.

Of course, by voice, some writers mean writing in a certain point-of-view, especially in fiction, when you’re telling a story from a character that isn’t you, or is just a shadow of you, even if you’re writing a roman `a clef.

Nonfiction writers use this kind of voice, too. Ian Frazier, for instance, parodies the language of a legal brief in his hilarious essay “Coyote v. Acme,” in which hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote sues the Acme Company, whose tricks and traps never trap the Roadrunner and leave Wile E. maimed, mangled, and otherwise bodily harmed.

My client, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, a resident of Arizona and contiguous states, does hereby bring suit for damages against the Acme Company, manufacturer and retail distributor of assorted merchandise, incorporated in Delaware and doing business in every state, district, and territory.

Sounds legit to me. That’s what voice does. It even gives a fake legal brief a sense of humor and makes it seem real.

So, work on your voice, until you can sing with authority and authenticity.

— Todd

Asimov’s, August 2015

In between reading the books stacked on my to-read pile, I like to catch up with magazines, especially short fiction to study and absorb as a writer myself. One of my favorites is Asimov’s Science Fiction, and I just finished the August 2015 issue.Asimovs-Science-Fiction-August-2015

One of the things in this issue that caught my attention was James Patrick Kelly‘s regular “On the Net” column in which he writes about the joys of getting your first acceptance, noting how he had run across a post by new writer Kelly Robson, “who announced that she had sold her first story to this magazine.” His piece is one of those that gives hope, as well as insight, to all of new writers waiting to do happy dances for first or second or fifth acceptances from Asimov’s or any other magazine willing to take your fiction.

That piece talks about the importance of market analysis, reading the stories and persistence, the faith writers have through hard work their stories will get accepted. I would say it’s a must-read piece for new writers.

As for newbie Kelly Robson’s story “Two-Year Man,” it’s definitely worthy of placement with such established writers as Kristine Kathryn Rusch, whose time travel story “The First Step” is a heart-wrencher about an absent father coming to terms with missing out on his son’s life.

Robson’s story is set in a near-future, Eastern-Europeanish-bleak Vienna and concerns itself with a couple picking out the best of thrown away children and hoping to keep their relationship together.

How Many Words Must a Writer Write Down To Know He or She Has Written a Novel?

Word Count

Word Count

I once read somewhere Mark Twain kept a running word count in the margins of his manuscripts. Word counts are probably a weird obsession held largely by writers. We survive by them. Sometimes we’re paid by the number of words we write. Sometimes we use the count to measure a good day’s work, whether those words add up to a few sentences or several pages.

Word counts also tell us—somewhat arbitrarily—what sort of work we have written. Is it a Tweet (which actually is even more micro, down to the character)? Is it an essay? A short story? A novella? A novel?

A few months ago, a writer friend of mine Gerald Warfield and I shoptalked about just such things. We couldn’t come up with a solid answer. But a blog post from Writer’s Digest gives some novel advice at least, breaking down some average word counts for novels of different lengths.

The link is here. Of course, it’s not the end-all declaration of authority, but it must count for something.

—Todd

Franzen in Time

I’m not a big fan of Jonathan Franzen, but it’s nice to see a good writer make the cover of the Aug. 23 issue of Time in our post-literate age. His latest novel Freedom is out this month, nine years after The Corrections.

The Time piece is a nice profile of the writer and a preview of the book. Here’s a passage I liked on the significance of the novel, on reading in general in a multi-media saturated culture driven to constant distraction:

There are any number of reasons to want novels to survive. The way Franzen thinks about it is that books can do things, socially useful things, that other media can’t. He cites . . . the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of busyness: that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and handheld games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been.

Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. ‘We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,’ Franzen says. ‘The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.’

Booking Through Thursday: My Own Question

Today’s Booking Through Thursday asks readers to ask their own question. My question is about online media in general more than it is about books:

Do you prefer online publications (newspapers, magazines, etc.) or reading devices like the Kindle to actual print?

I think this question in one way or another has been asked before, but it was recently brought to my mind again as I tried to navigate the online edition of the Austin American-Statesman, and found it, well, really unwieldy. There was little pleasure in it.  The experience made me crave a hand-held paper newspaper. (I just went to the page to make a link to it and found another annoyance — a drop-down ad that flowed over links to stories.  You have to close it to make it go away.)

At the same time, I like the additional features such as videos, Twitter pages, blogs, etc.

But, I really hope I never see the day that I use a Kindle, especially if it’s being monitored by marketers waiting to plunge deeper into our private life.

I like online previews, though. It’s nice to get a sense of a book by reading a few pages before buying it or checking it out of the library.

The Sunday Salon: Well Wishing to Garrison Keillor

Earlier this week humorist Garrison Keillor had a stroke. According to reports yesterday, he’s now at home recovering. Which is good news to hear. It’s also good to hear Keillor plans to carry on with  “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show.

I also hope he plans to continue writing for Salon. His columns underscore his trademark understated humor and insight, as a recent piece on the New Media/Old Media divide demonstrates.

I think he’s spot on here about a chief illness making Old Media sick:

I’m an old media guy and I love newspapers, but they were brought down by a long period of gluttonous profits when they were run as monopolies by large, phlegmatic, semi-literate men who endowed schools of journalism that labored mightily to stamp out any style or originality and to create a cadre of reliable transcribers.

As someone enamored of Old Media, it’s a shame seeing it crumbling; it’s a shame especially to see the demise of stylish — and substantive — magazine features. Of seeing once-great magazines like Rolling Stone shrink — it literally shrunk in size, but its features have been shrinking for years. Could you imagine a 6,000-word piece by a literary journalist like Tom Wolfe in Rolling Stone‘s pages now?

The style and compactness of some features now would make Hemingway feel constipated,  and his prose transmogrify into something Faulknerian.

And what will the next version of Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” be? “Paris Hilton Has a Brain Cell”?

Keillor’s also spot on about one of New Media’s chief cancers — tumors of information on superficialities:

What the new media age also means is that there won’t be newspapers to send reporters to cover the next war, but there will be 6 million teenage girls blogging about their plans for the weekend. There will be no TV networks to put on dramas in which actors in costume strut and orate and gesticulate, but you can see home video of dogs and anybody’s high school graduation anywhere in America. We will be a nation of unpaid freelance journalists and memoirists.

This, of course, as Keillor adds, may not be that bad. Maybe in a decade all our brains will be able to handle will be videos of dogs or reading updates on teenage girls’ plans. And we’ll be unable to laugh along with Jay Leno when some college graduate can’t identify the Gettysburg Address. We’ll scratch our heads along with the graduate, and go on to the next text message.

I wish Garrison Keillor good health.