Who will criticize the critics? [with 2 minor updates]

Some Redstate hack called Leon H. Wolf has written a savage hit piece review of Meghan McCain’s Dirty, Sexy Politics which is exciting warblings of appreciation among a few other like-minded right-wing opiners.

On a different day, I might find its vitriol funny (YMMV, even this late in the day), but he loses me very quickly with his gratuitous ad homs and evident political bias against the inconvenient Ms. McCain. For example:

In the final analysis, however, I determined that most of Meghan’s flaws – such as her unbearable narcissism, delusions of persecution, anti-religious bigotry, and mendacity – couldn’t be chalked up to her manifestly below-average intelligence.  These are blameworthy traits born of a malfunctioning moral compass, and they are laid bare in spades on every page of Dirty, Sexy Politics.  Furthermore, it is important to address them because Meghan McCain’s book is an active attempt to split the Republican Party in two and thereby destroy its ability to win elections.  And even though she is an idiot, she is a useful idiot in the hands of the media and other assorted Democrats, who also want to achieve this goal.

What’s more, judging by certain sections of his rant, he seems to know fuck all about the process of producing a book. He intones:

The most obvious problem with Dirty, Sexy Politics is that grammatically, the book appears to be the work of a high school sophomore.  To be more accurate, it appears to be the first draft of an essay written for a high school English class; the one turned in before the teacher makes all the pretty red marks in the margin that helpfully keep students from turning in final papers riddled with comma abuse, sentence fragments, and incorrect punctuation.  Each subsequent page of this book contains one grisly crime against the English language after another.

Dear Mr. Wolf—I have spent the last twenty years or so as an editor. I have learned a few things during that time. One is that teachers have some damn odd ideas about the English language that aren’t borne out by the reality of publishing (repeat after me: “You cannot use a comma before ‘and.’”) or English as she is spoke or wrote in the wild.

Another thing I have learned is that academics—in particular professors—can be among the sloppiest, least consistent, and most worryingly borderline illiterate writers that have ever sat before a keyboard. And that’s before you even go near their references. They rank second only to doctors as the class of authors that rings alarm bells for any copy-editor. (Journalists come in a close third, in case you were wondering.) He continues:

When I finished reading Dirty, Sexy Politics, I flipped to the acknowledgements section to find the name of the person who edited this travesty, so as to warn incompetent authors of the future away from utilizing this person’s services, but no such person was identified therein. Either this book had no editor, or the editor assigned to the original manuscript threw up his or her hands three pages in and decided to let the original stand as some sort of bizarre performance art, like Joaquin Phoenix’s appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.  At this point, either explanation seems equally likely to me.  What is abundantly clear, however, is that absolutely no one of even marginal competence checked this book for errors, factual or grammatical.

Well, for a start, it’s not common practice for authors to credit their copy-editors (if they even know who they are). It can happen, and it can be a pleasant gesture when they do so, but the absence of such an acknowledgement is no indication of anything untoward.

In defense of whoever it was that did work on this book prior to publication, I can tell you that the growing practice among publishers—especially in the genre that includes Ms. McCain’s book—is to pare costs and deadlines to the bone. It’s like hiring a craftsperson to do up your kitchen. Give them carte blanche and as long as they need, and even a grim roofless shell can usually be turned into an attractive dinette or grand walkthrough eaterie; give them a stupidly low budget and insist it has to be done yesterday, and what do you expect?

So if errors such as you feel you’ve identified have ended up in the final published work, the fault is not Ms. McCain’s, it’s the publisher’s, so your ire would be more appropriately directed there.

But what has sparked your ire? Is it really the lack of language skills, as you claim? You try to back your argument up with evidence:

Some examples are in order. In one passage, Meghan explains the travails of life in the following ragtag collection of sentence fragments, sewn haphazardly together with enough commas for an entire Tolstoy novel:

Our room was crowded with our stuff – a total mess, totally trashed with blog equipment, photo stuff, cameras, and all our makeup, clothes, our huge suitcases. We were like animals, like bears who have to litter and mess up their cave to feel it is theirs.

Maybe too long spent hacking in the linguistic undergrowth has dulled my senses, but I find that quite an innocuous paragraph. One could dress it up with all sorts of punctuatory tricks if one wished, but such fancy style nuances imposed on what is quite a prosaic passage would almost certainly end up distracting from what narrative flow there is, and at worst, could lead to a ridiculously filigree effect.

And besides, copy-editors learn from bitter experience that (a) fiddling with punctuation unnecessarily costs usually severely rationed time and money that could often be better spent attending to other more pressing matters; (b) authors can be very touchy about such issues, and most importantly (c) the people who are likely to buy this book—and I suppose there must be some—want to hear Meghan McCain’s voice, not that of an overreaching copy-editor who insists on trying to turn a simple diaristic account into an oeuvre to rival Proust. Not all editors are failed writers; the ones that are failed writers are the most dangerous.

Now, I could play tit for tat and nutpick some choice egregious bloopers from your own efforts, and this could no doubt go back and forth if you ever read this. Oh what the heck, if pickiness is in order:

As if this were not enough, Meghan frequently uses words and terms incorrectly, and fails to make even the barest effort at connecting thoughts together.

“Words” and “terms”? My goodness, what a heaving smorgasbord of delights Ms. McCain and your good self have set before us. (I’d also stylistically prefer the construction “... effort to connect ...” to “... effort at connecting ...” on most days with a “y” in them, but I can live with it if you insist.)

But d’you see? D’you see how tiresome this so quickly becomes? I’ve probably lost you by now (and I might say “Good riddance,” but that would be unkind).

And you, sir, have seen fit to inflict 5,506 words of this on your reader—5,506!—and I confess that I never made it to the end of your turgid, smug, self-seeking, and ultimately quite wrongheaded screed.

Well, I lie. I did skip to the end:

On the whole, I am simply not a talented enough writer to express how truly horrible this book was. The last line of the book implores readers not to let Meghan “pick up this torch alone.” I can honestly say that I was encouraged throughout to pick up a torch in order to burn my copy of Dirty, Sexy Politics, even though I was reading it on a Kindle. There is no reason that anyone who is not getting paid to review this book should ever, ever spend money on it. If you simply must have large doses of poorly-written fictional tripe written by a narcissistic person who hates conservatives and everything they stand for, read Mike Lupica instead. At least he’s smart enough to know which side he’s on.

You will not find me quibbling with the first sentence of that paragraph. But the last pares back the veneer of grammatical concern trolling that had sought to mask the bone I wished to pick with you.

Some time ago (in particular in South Africa’s apartheid era), there was a counter-movement that agitated to keep politics out of sport.

I am quite prepared to believe that Ms. McCain’s book is a honker of the first water—given the standard of political memoirs nowadays, that would come as no surprise. But I implore you, sir, if you have any decency in you at all: Derrida notwithstanding, keep politics out of style!

UPDATE: It seems I’m not the only one who felt driven to review this, er, review and found it wanting: there’s a neat and quite damning dissection at Your Analytic Analeptic.

Another Update: Memeorandum hasn’t updated its link in the first para above, but here are some of the other RW blogs that have taken up the gnarly cudgel against the treacherous McCain to date:

Clay Waters / NewsBusters.org: The NY Times Splashes in the Shallow End with Meghan McCain …
Betsy Newmark / Betsy’s Page: Cruising the Web —  Hmmm - going to an Ivy League college might …
Orin Kerr / The Volokh Conspiracy: This Counts as a Negative Review

Not all the comments sections are unanimously in favor of Wolf’s hatchet job.

And the next time we criticize Palin or her hacks for crimes against the English language, I don’t expect any of these assholes to pipe up in defense and complain about linguistic elitism. And as for sexism? Well, WOW!

Posted by YAFB on 09/13/10 at 08:11 PM • Permalink

Categories: Geek SpeakI Don't Know Much About Art, But I Know What I LikePoliticsElection '08St. McSameNuttersOur Stupid MediaPoliblogsSkull Hampers

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In the final analysis, however, I determined that most of Meghan’s flaws – such as her unbearable narcissism, delusions of persecution, anti-religious bigotry, and mendacity – couldn’t be chalked up to her manifestly below-average intelligence.

Now tell me that doesn’t sound like he’s writing about Sarah Palin—or just about any Republican politician. Project much?

The entire book is riddled with inappropriate comma use,” writes the professorial Wolf

Goodness, Leon, what a little fussbudget you are.

Watching the RW creeps go after Meghan for shallowness and poor punctuation has got to be one of the most delicious laughs progressives have had for a while. Wait, has Sarah’s ghost tweeter twittered her review yet?

Isn’t there a law that all speeling and grammar flames must contain spelling and grammar errors?

Oh, believe me, MikeJ, I pulled my punches in scrutinizing Wolf’s tiresome tirade for such things, partly because there was enough material for a 5,000-word post on that aspect alone and there are quite enough words in the world already, and partly because I get more than enough of that in the day job, and I doubt he’d have paid me.

Someone should show this review to John McCain and ask his opinion.

I do loves me a good pedantic rant.

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