Why I (Usually) Hate Writing for the Media


by Justin E. H. Smith

Trying to get a point across in public writing, whether established or clickbait media (a distinction of vanishing significance), with just the nuance, force, and connotations you intend, is like trying to perform a violin solo underwater. You can be as virtuosic as you like, but the medium you’re playing in is going to distort the signal to the point that your effort becomes a vain expenditure, and the result of it comes across as a dull, warped, and muted sound wave to which silence would have been preferable.

Most people who have not written for the media do not know that contributors are prevented from choosing the title of their own ‘piece’, and often see it for the first time only when it is already in ‘print’ (i.e., usually, already circulating on social media). At the low end of journalism, where I try not to go, this droit d’éditeur of framing the article by choice of title and subheading can result in true offenses against the intention and person of the author. But the title is only the first of many denaturing changes imposed in the course of editing, a process by which the author’s own voice is removed as if it were a weed, and replaced with a monocultured word-lawn spreading imperiously out from the rules about semi-colons and double quotation marks that are justified in the name of ‘house style’. Style is an expansible and contractible notion, and typically is interpreted to mean, in the current media landscape, not just the conventions of punctuation, but absolutely everything touched upon in old Strunk and White.

Does anyone really believe that editors make texts better when they ‘come back at you’ with ‘some edits’, when they say, ‘How about moving this paragraph to the intro?’ or ‘What if we were to add a transitional sentence here?’ (not to mention their endless campaign to extirpate polysyllables, hapax legomena, suspicious foreignisms, and anything, as they sometimes like to say, that ‘your grandmother would not understand’). It may be that writers too often imagine themselves as Nabokov or Naipaul, in complete control of every letter and mark. But just because a writer is not Nabokov or Naipaul, it does not automatically follow that the editor with whom he is paired is William Shawn or Bob Silvers. Is the one self-image not as unfounded as the other? Shouldn’t an editor have to prove, somehow, the authority by which editorial decisions come down? And if we recall the link between authority and authorship, if the editor is in fact in possession of it, why doesn’t he just write the thing himself?

(Incidentally, why is it that every American conservative I’ve ever met, of a certain age and a certain intellectual conceit, insists on staging a monologue about how great the New Yorker’s editors were in the old days, and how everything went ‘downhill’ with Tina Brown? Who taught them to do this? Who cares? Who, honestly, can keep track of who edited what in decades past?)

My complaint might seem petulant, but there is a very good practical reason, if the ad quem of the whole thing is good copy, for editors either to restrict themselves to light modifications in accordance with house style, or to simply reject a writer’s submission as sub-par. When a writer is subjected to multiple volleys of edits with gruesome red track-changes lines and incomprehensible marginal comments, what invariably happens, no matter how much good will and humility the author has at the outset, is that this latter human being, qua human being, begins to feel alienated from the work, no longer sees it as written in his or her voice, in his or her person, and comes to find it nearly impossible to do the necessary, focused, line-by-line rereading it would take to yield a final piece of work that holds together. And so mistakes inevitably slip through, turns of phrase that are a little off, non-sequiturs that the author knows, when they show up in print, were not there in the original draft, but for which only the author, and not the unnamed editor, will ever face any repercussions.

And who is this grandmother anyway? Mine are both long dead, but if they were alive it is still not for them that I would be writing, unless, I suppose, they wanted to make the effort. That’s their problem, not mine. Market incentives compel every editor to pretend to their authors, with a straight face, that anything but the dullest everyday English is unnecessarily ‘precious’, ‘snobbish’, etc. They are required to ignore the obvious truth spoken by Geoffrey Hill of poetry, but which applies no less well to prose: “In my view,” Hill says, “difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools.” In another interview Hill dilates further on the question: “We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most ‘intellectual’ piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?”

In an ordinary day, fragments of a dozen or so languages swirl around in my head, French and English in particular weave around each other like threads, just as they did for a millennium before I ever came along to enjoy my share of them; and Germanic, Slavic, and Turkic words and phrases get woven in too, like strands of gold in thick brocade. These are the things I have attended to in my life, and I find that I would like to share them. I find that it is democratic to do so: to drop fragments of languages into a text that the reader might not (yet) know, simply because these fragments exist, they contribute to the richness of the world. They are jewels. To be told by an editor that it is ‘snobbish’ to put these jewels on display is in fact undemocratic: it is a symptom of the neoliberal market-incentivised inanition of our social life together.

These concerns would be less present for me, I imagine, if my purpose in writing in the media were to share opinions of which I am a stable representative: that there should be tariffs on steel, or that there should not be; that it is good to throw milkshakes at fascist politicians, because they deserve it, or bad, because it stokes the rising climate of violence and imperils everyone. In some cases I do have opinions, but it is not my primary concern to spend my life advocating for them. My concern is elsewhere: to model uncertainty and ambiguity, to reclaim these from shame, and to seek out exactly the right words for adequately conveying the experience of them. In this respect it has always been a bad match between me and the media, which treat all ideas as if they were the assignment for a high-school debate club, as if the only way to engage with an idea were by having an ‘angle’ on it.

Because in my salaried work I am a professor of philosophy, it is understood by many, especially my professional peers, that the sort of writing I am engaged in is ‘public philosophy’. But one cannot do public philosophy in a media environment structured in the way I have described. It is impossible. What one can do is advocacy, but we have known full well since antiquity that that is not philosophy.

The truth is I have understood all of this for a long time, and I go on making editorial compromises with media interested only in their bottom line simply because I am interested in mine too: I need the supplementary income. If this were not a concern, I would just post everything I feel the need to express right at Perhaps that day will come. Perhaps I will force it to come through this public airing of my grievances. At the same time, I note that there are a few publications, closer to the boutique end of the media world, whose editors have had the grace and decency to edit me with a very light hand (I mention here in particular The Point and TANK). My sincere thanks to them. There is of course a direct correlation between exposure and compromise, and the higher one climbs in the ladder of visibility, the more one can expect to be forced to express oneself through clichés and dumb punchy position-taking. My hope is to stay in the shade-covered side streets of the boutique district as much as possible in the future.

DISCLAIMER: Every editor I have every worked with is, personally and individually, wonderful. I am concerned here about broad structural problems, not about individuals


Piece crossposted with