Thursday, January 13, 2011

On Writing and Speechifying

The natural temptation for many, after Obama’s speech last night, was to compare and contrast it with Palin’s little message—with her invocation of “blood libel”—and to note that one looked Presidential and the other didn’t. That may or may not be so, but I thought a more fruitful comparison was to be made in terms of writing: Palin’s speech fell from lazy writing; Obama’s was powered by intelligent writing.

I hate to speculate, but I’m pretty sure I know why the “blood libel” line was put in there. Palin (or whomever) had a little speech written up and Palin (or whomever) decided that the description of liberals’ attacks on her in regards to the Loughner event as a libel was too weak, and Palin (or whomever) decided that “blood libel” sounded so much stronger and just put it in not realizing what it meant. It’s wrong, but understandable; ultimately, it’s an error of writing: writers, when they feel something strongly but don’t quite have the language to express that meaning, often resort to stale language doused with superfluous strengtheners when the proper thing to do was to come up with original, good language in the first place.

The contrast here is with Barack Obama’s speech, which was pretty excellent—though I’m not sure whether it measured up to his other great speeches. What was evident in the Arizona speech, as has been evident in all of his speeches, was the effective use of simple language. (James Wood wrote an analysis a couple of years ago that shows just that.) If you read Obama’s speeches on the page, you may be struck by the relatively simple use of words and sentence structures. You remember the speeches soaring, but it turns out they are actually gliding. And that’s the way with most great writing, I think—go back and reread a great book with great writing, and while you might remember flowery language I am quite certain you will find simpler arrangements. Great writing is more mysterious than the mere use of big words.

1 comment:

  1. i don't think they chose the adjective after thinking that libel wasn't strong enough; they chose it because it became a right wing meme and they wanted to parlay it into their own purposes.

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