Sunday, December 10, 2006

Reading for Character

Among the various reasons I stopped subscribing to The Atlantic—the continuous inclusion of Christopher Hitchens’s articles, that interminable travelogue by Bernard Henri-Lévy—was a little feature called “The Close Read.” Its subtitle was What Makes Good Writing Good. It could also have been called Unremarkable Samples from Books that No One Will Remember in Two Months, Including Me; or—and this is just an ungenerous hunch of mine—Passages from Books by People I Know.

Various people wrote it, and I don’t much blame them for failing to turn this misbegotten idea into a success. I can’t imagine what I would have done with it. When I copy down passages from fiction, they are usually essayistic, and contain ideas I want to remember, not (necessarily) great writing. And the bits that seem strangely beautiful almost always lose their magic when they’re taken out of context; I read them later and have no idea why I copied them down.

I recently got an idea, though, for a similar feature that I could actually write; it would be called Reading for Character, or maybe Reading for an Author’s Mood. Most people can get a sense of what a writer is like from reading a few pages of creative work, but it’s usually impossible to pinpoint what passages created this impression. They’re rarely the most memorable sections, or the ones worth copying down; a writer has his guard up at these points, or (if we’re lucky) inspiration has struck and he’s picking up a transmission from somewhere else.

Where you can get this sense is from sentences written with partial attention: narrative connective tissue, transitions, things that could as easily be written one way as another. Decisions made here are of so little importance to the quality of the final work that they are only attributable to character. I read a passage recently that provides a good example. It’s from a perfectly okay movie review by Stephen Holden in the New York Times of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman.

This intimate, compelling film, which opens today at the Film Forum in Manhattan, confirms what any astute viewer of his films has probably guessed: that they are intensely autobiographical.
I didn’t remember this sentence at all after I read the review, but at the end I got the impression that Stephen Holden was not someone I liked—that he was, at least when he wrote this review, a bit of an ass. I went back to read it again to figure out why I felt this way, since he didn’t say anything that actually offended me. And I settled on this sentence. Why would you write “any astute viewer”? That sentence could easily have been written “what viewers of his films have probably guessed” – or “what most viewers of his film have guessed.” Either would have been a much more generous sentiment, and probably more accurate.

I like the “probably” on top of it, too, because that implies that even some astute viewers have missed what Stephen Holden sees as elementary. He probably never meant to imply any of these things; he wrote the sentence without thinking, and he happened to be in a pompous mood, which may or may not be a permanent condition with him. Incidentally, I was reading some old work e-mails of mine and realized that I sounded like (and actually was) a jerk. Once I said that I “had no idea” what someone’s e-mail address was; it would have been just as simple, and more sensible, to say that I didn’t know what it was.

Why did I write that? It implied that my boss was being stupid for expecting me to know what this person’s e-mail address was, which I suppose was what I thought, completely unfairly, because I hated my job on that day and it crept into my language. Work e-mails are usually forgotten in an hour, and seen as utilitarian and characterless, but I bet you can trace someone’s outlook on life more easily and accurately there than in, for lack of a better word, expressive communications, which tend to put on more layers of artifice.

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