I'm fascinated with sentences. I'm also fascinated with the New Yorker. The latter not necessarily in a good way. And that's all the context I can offer to explain why today I'm asking you to compare some opening sentences from the Atlantic magazine to some from the New Yorker.
Here are the first sentences of four feature articles in the October 2008 Atlantic:
- For a military accustomed to quick, easy victories, the trials and tribulations of the Iraq War have come as a rude awakening.
- These are boom times for wind power.
- In a much-ridiculed speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, Newt Gingrich hailed beach volleyball as the embodiment of all that makes America great.
- June was the deadliest month for the U.S. military in Afghanistan since the invasion in October 2001.
Now here are the first sentences of three feature articles and one 'Talk of the Town' piece in the Sept. 8, 2008, New Yorker.
- Alec Baldwin, who stars in "30 Rock," the NBC sitcom that has revived his career and done noting to lift his spirits, has the unbending, straight-armed gait of someone trying to prevent clothes from rubbing against sunburned skin.
- Early in 2007, when David Petraeus became Commanding General of United States and international forces in Iraq, he had in mind a strategy to manage the political pressures he would face because of the unpopularity of the war, then four years old, and of its author, George W. Bush.
- In the autumn of 1998, when Karl Rove was contriving to make Governor George W. Bush President and to build a lasting Republican majority, he came upon "The Catholic Voter Project," a study of voting behavior in national elections since the Kennedy-Nixon contest of 1960.
- Rosalind Wyman -- seventy-seven years old; doughty feminist; political fund-raiser and philanthropist; hostess to J.F.K., Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, and Hollywood types too numerous to count; youngest elected member of the Los Angeles City Council (at the age of twenty-two); first woman to run a national political convention (the Democrats in San Francisco, 1984) -- may well be the most indomitable member of Hillary Clinton's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Suits.
Now, I know that a number of you may be looking at this and trying -- perhaps without sufficient linguistic expertise -- to understand the dynamic at play. So allow me, if you would, to offer my professional-wordsmith assessment:
What the f***?!?!?
There's a lot of good stuff said about the New Yorker -- much of it true. Many people also find the magazine pretentious. But, seems to me, the well-heeded viscera might tell of something else. Something a little toxic. As if the act of opening a copy of the New Yorker were distant cousin to the act of receiving a snake bite.
I can never quite nail down what's "wrong" with this magazine. For one thing, I don't read it enough to fairly assess it on even a superficial level. But it's always seemed to me as if they're mocking their readers. They start with a piece of conventional wisdom (like "short sentences are good"), openly defy and transcend it, then serve it up to their readers as if it were evidence of their readers' inherent superiority. But deep in the heart of an anthropomorphized New Yorker, the magazine know it's just a gimmick. So the joke's on the readers.
I'm not even willing to say that the above New Yorker sentences are bad. On the contrary, at times they seem very effective (as do many similarly leviathan-like sentences throughout the Alec Baldwin piece). Other times, the sentences seem almost to serve no purpose other than to prove the writer is so agile he can set up hurdles just for the joy (and spectacle) of clearing them.
Of course, everything I'm saying is biased by jealousy over the fact that I can't get published in the New Yorker. Give me a byline there and I'll change my tune real quick-like. But even adjusting for my jealousy, it's clear that there's something funky going on that the word "pretentious" doesn't quite capture.
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P.S. This issue of the Atlantic has at least one article that begins with a New Yorker-esque length sentence. But nowhere near enough to balance with the New Yorker's. The Alec Baldwin article, for example, was riddled with long sentences that heaped modifier upon modifier upon parenthetical insertion. Also, there were lots of quotations that really begged for prior set-up but didn't get explained until after the closing quote. These post-quotation quotation set-ups were jarring enough that, in the end, I decided they didn't work. They came off not as showy but as inept.
Causes June Casagrande Supports
Planned Parenthood, ClimateCrisis.net, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Pet Orphans of Southern California, KIVA