Safire/Buckley: Worst Good Writers Ever?

Speaking of the dangers of reading only people you agree with (and I believe we were), Sam Kean of 3quarksdaily insists that, while he hated the writing of William F. Buckley and William Safire, it wasn’t because they were conservatives.

Most people who disliked Safire and Buckley lumped them together because their writing could be overtly, at times even grubbily, political. But that wasn’t it for me either. I don’t mind political dust-ups and enjoy reading (not watching on television, mind you, reading) people of all orientations, left, right, wherever. Reading only what you agree with narrows you.

No, says Kean, “whenever I felt my blood hit 100°C during one of their columns, it wasn’t because I took offense with their views-I took offense with their grammar, their vocabulary, their goddamn syntax.”

Kean felt the two men were ruined by “the journalistic environment” in which they came of age as writers, which is interesting, because I’ve so often heard it said that writing for a daily is about the best training there is for a writer. (Although usually it was ex-reporters saying this, come to think of it.) But he makes a good point:

People who bitch nowadays about how poetry and short stories are workshopped to within a comma of their lives really need to spend a year writing for a publication and trying to slip anything cute by an editor, or writing speeches by committee for a public figure. That’s editing; that’s homogenizing and submission. …

When you really care about words and sentences, as [Buckley and Safire] did, seeing them hacked up hurts. …

What better way to hold onto your prose, to make sure that no one ever strikes a letter, than to make it so exasperatingly exact that in some sense it can’t be edited? Hyper-correctness became a style, a strategy, because perhaps that’s all that was left to them.

And here’s Kean’s description of the style:

[T]here’s a kind of literary-political righty that enjoys being perversely old-fashioned. This often shades over into a urge to distress if not shock people-a desire no less potent than in those radical “artists” who work in bodily fluids or set up exhibits featuring themselves masturbating to sounds of crying children. The writer-righties transgress via regress. They’re imps in bowties, good at getting a rise out of people and pimping emotions.

I’m just surprised Kean never once mentions George Will as another prime example.

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