Sunday, November 04, 2007

There's bad. And then there's ...

... Albom Bad. Gaze on the majesty of this lede:

The pass was a cannon shot, a third-down wing and a prayer, it traveled at least 40 yards in the air, went high into the lights and came low out of the glare, it spiraled to a backpedaling Mario Manningham in the end zone who leapt up to meet it, hands held high. He caught the ball and, as the defender fell in front of him, gravity took Manningham down until he landed smack on the chests of every Michigan State fan around the country who thought, finally, this was the one they would win.

You might be asking yourself: Does anybody edit this stuff? And the answer appears to be "yes." At least in some strange way. Here -- judging by the dates on the Web postings -- is an earlier run at this pinnacle of prose; at a guess, it'd be the one that went in the bulldog or whatever outstate edition gets the early start time downtown:

The ball was a heave, a third-down prayer, it went high into the lights and came low out of the glare and spiraled to a backpedaling Mario Manningham in the end zone. He leaped high, saw the defender fall in front of him, caught the ball, and landed smack-down hard on the chest of every Michigan State fan who thought finally, finally, this was the one they would win.

Well, things certainly do change between editions, don't they? The comma splices get splicier. The mixed metaphor becomes a veritable melting pot -- or is it a salad bar? -- of metaphor (sorry, Mitch, if the cannon shot went high in the lights and came low out of the glare, it had either a split personality or a small jet engine). The adjectival dogpile gets deeper in places, shallower in others: "landed smack-down hard on the chest" becomes "landed smack on the chest." Hard to say whether things got better, but they certainly are different.

Here's another telltale sign. Late version:
"Blue again?" you could hear them gasp, after this 28-24 late rally victory by Michigan.

Early version:
“Blue again?” you could hear them moan, after this 28-24 heartbreaker.

Which was it you could hear them doing, gasping or moaning? Or does one side of the stadium gasp while the other moans? Or do these words not really have any independent meaning? They don't really represent noises; they're just noises themselves that do or don't fit the prose?

Good revision, like good editing, is difficult to pick out of the background noise. In retrospect, it seems so natural that it's easy to mistake it for -- well, for something easy. Superfluous padding falls away. Weak points get fortified. Connections that were evident to the writer are re-tied so they're evident to the reader as well. Knobs get twiddled so that whispers can be heard in the last row and still sound like whispers. It isn't, in short, just a matter of throwing some more mud at the wall to see if you like the pattern better.

This isn't hasty writing that gets better with reflection and polishing. It's hasty writing that gets hastier. Does nobody up or down the food chain feel up to suggesting that emperor's a little on the buck-nekkid side today?



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. It almost turned into verse there in the last drafts, all those prayers-aire-glares... No. No, it didn't.

That's really awful prose.

2:53 PM, November 04, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But isn't criticizing Mitch Albom columns a little like fishing with dynamite, too easy to be morally sound?

John McIntyre

6:41 PM, November 04, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

I'm pained. Surely the moral rigor of the critique is evident in its strict Rawlsian perspective. From behind the veil of ignorance, for example, the question of whether someone who would change 'moan' to 'gasp' in his own prose had _actually attended_ the game at which the two indistinguishable noises occurred would never arise. At least, not based on the writer's track record or anything.

9:40 PM, November 04, 2007  
Anonymous rayb said...

This might be rearranging dech chairs on a vessel about to change it's attitude to the vertical, but wouldn't the singular "chest" have been better than the later version with "chests?" And just why couldn't someone leave well-enough alone and let that "heave" and "prayer" combo stay. Much too purple as is the rest, but at least it had the same tenor of forlorn hopefulness. Same with the "gasp" born as "moan?" Not to pat Mr. Albom on the back, but both changes sound more like another person's hands on the keys. They're both tonal changes for the worse.

11:42 PM, November 04, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

The moan-gasp thing sounds _more_ like it could have been introduced from the outside (which is how the doc sees it). But for a couple reasons, I think the others are likely to be different. One is the power issue; I wasn't there, but I'm guessing it's pretty hard to overrule Albom on prose issues. The other is the direction copydesk changes usually take. I can see shrinking the metaphor, but not extending it (again, especially with a designated prose star).

The chest/chests thing, on reflection, does look like something that a lowly rimster could do to an Albom column on "grammar" grounds. I wouldn't consider 'em very good grammar grounds, but I can see somebody making the case.

7:31 PM, November 05, 2007  

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