You Got PAID To Write That?

There’s lots of substantive stuff about which I could post today, and I probably will do so later. For now, though, I want to ridicule this New York Times story.

I’m no wordsmith and I’m sure that I lack the cultural sophistication of the author, but I still think this is one of the most overblown, condescending and just plain annoying pieces of writing I have read in some time.

Let’s start with he introductory paragraph.

Regionalist stories often double as time travel. If you want to see the 19th century, when couriers crisscrossed polyglot cities with important messages, longshoremen worked at the docks, and newspaper headlines supplied the morning news, check out Manhattan today. And if you’re interested in the 1950s – when high school football players were titans, private doubts haunted them and cheerleaders gave them comfort – you might visit Hoover, Ala., the Colonial Williamsburg of the Eisenhower era.

Huh? Maybe it’s ’cause I’ze just a dumb sou’ner, but I had to read that two or three times before I had any idea what it meant, and I’m still not sure I get it. The author says stories often double as time travel. Well, sure they do. Lots of stories are set in different times. So nothing confusing about the first sentence. But then she starts talking about travelling to different places. True enough, some locations do have an old-timey feel. But how that proves the initial point – that stories double as time travel – is for better logicians than me to figure out.

The last sentence, though, is where I really got stuck. I’ve been to Hoover, and there are no horses, buggies, blacksmith shops, guys in powdered wigs, or anything else associated with today’s Williamsburg, never-mind the Williamsburg of the Eisenhower era. I have also been to Williamsburg, and I don’t recall seeing any football players, never-mind titanic ones. I just do not see anything similar between Hoover today and Williamsburg in the 1950’s.

Unless what she meant is that in the same way Williamsburg preserves colonial history, Hoover preserves 1950’s era America. Of course Hoover did not exist in 1950, which would undermine that argument. But you can’t expect reporters to investigate facts before turning a phrase. So maybe that is what the author meant.  Who knows. We’ll just have to accept the confusion and continue.

My handy on-line dictionary defines “bombastic” as “Characterized by language that is elevated and sometimes pompous in style.” Though I’ve never heard a person use the phrase, guardians of Southern Culture such as Turner South or Southern Living would probably offer “high falutin” as the southern translation of bombastic. You could also say the author is putting on airs, but as a genuine writer for the New York Times, I’m sure the airs are perfectly natural. Anyway, whatever term suits you, the next sentence of the story illustrates the concept:

Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, is home to the Buccaneers, a superb high school football team and the subject of an understated but obscurely devastating reality series that continues tonight with its third episode on MTV.

“Understated but obscurely devastating?” First of all, nothing on MTV could ever be properly described as understated. That’s like saying a joke on Blue Collar TV was subtle. Second, what in the world is “obscurely devastating” supposed to mean? That which is doing the devastating is doing it in an obscure manner? I can understand how something obscure could do some devastation, but once the devastation occurs, the obscurity is lost. Think of the Phillie’s Ryan Howard: Two years ago an unknown minor leaguer, today, closing in on sixty home runs. Then, he was obscure, now, he is devastating. But he’s not both at once.

Next is the obligatory racial self-righteousness.

“Two-a-Days” tries halfheartedly to present Hoover football as interracial, like the NFL, but the camera doesn’t rest on the featured black players for long.

I can kick my dog, but no-one else can. Likewise, I can criticise my state, but uppity out of town writers ought to mind their own faults.

Also running through the story is the snide assumption that football is a nasty, violent game that does serious damage to all who play it. In another example of grandiloquence, the author states of two players that

with their solemn expressions and gladiator physicality they evince existential confusion about why they have allowed their young lives to be consumed by such a brutal game.

Hoover football players – state champions all – “evince existential confusion.” And George Bush reads Camus. I think the appliciable psychological term is projection.  

The finale is more of the “football is nasty and violent” crap.

Hoover High School’s ex-players weigh in here, and it turns out they also think about football all the time, though they seem to have quit for various sane reasons. Now, as they scarf french fries, they recall the smell of the grass and the sound of the coach’s whistle. They’re a much more talkative, companionable bunch than the boys who are still playing. Maybe they’re not as tired or sore.

But they’re also plainly obsessed with the implications of their leaving the team. Was it cowardice? Laughing ruefully, one recalls the coach’s take on quitting: “If you quit this football team,” he remembers the coach saying, “you’re the guy who lets his friend die in `Saving Private Ryan.'”

“At the bottom of the stairs,” another adds.

The first guy has a belated comeback. “It’s, like, `Coach! This isn’t war. This is football.'”

Got it? Football bad, make you dumb, mean, violent, give you post-traumatic stress syndrome. Right. That’s why thousands of people have played the game and then looked back on it as an amazing time of fun, discipline, and camaraderie that taught them lessons applicable to all of life.

While we are indulging stereotypes, professional writers got beat up in school, stayed home for prom night, and now compensate by pretending they never really wanted to be cool anyway. 

Of course that isn’t true. Nor am I one of these folks who hates the Times. I like it actually. I don’t read it regularly because it is too expensive, but it is an excellent paper. This story, though, evinces something, and it ain’t existential confusion.

(Update: Read this post for a more thoughtful critique of the story.)

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One Comment on “You Got PAID To Write That?”

  1. swissarmytoothpick17 Says:

    An English teacher of mine once stated: all poetry is about poetry. In the same sense, all prose is about prose. The story was written in the fashion it was to meet the expectations of its audience: readers of the New York Times. Three years from now, when the same writer has left the NYT for a small paper in, say, Hoover, AL, what are the odds her style will take a different form? What was going on here was simply writing to meet a writing need.


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