“A person whose financial requirements are modest and whose curiosity, skepticism, and indifference to reputation are outsized is a person at risk of becoming a journalist.”
That’s Louis Menand, in “Browbeaten: Dwight Macdonald’s war on Midcult.” Bloggers come from somewhere similar but adjacent—like the relationship between Vancouver and Seattle—though too few have well-developed senses of curiosity and skepticism.
The rest of the article is boring and historical, but one reason to read the New Yorker is that one never knows when a fabulous sentence worth stealing will appear. The article about Timothy Ferris, for example, says of his dwelling: “There was, inevitably, a framed arty photograph of a naked woman.” He sounds capitally tedious. That word, “inevitably:” it’s perfect. We get the author’s skepticism. We know exactly the kind of person Ferris is (and, I wonder: the kind of person I am?). The skepticism of the word “arty” is perfect; so is picking “naked,” which makes one sound merely revealed and pornographic, over “nude,” which glistens with the sheen of art instead of the sheen of Playboy magazine. The sentence is so good I stole a variant on it for a novel (no one notices if you steal in small proportions, except for James Wood, and if I’m at the point where James Wood notices such theft, I’ll consider myself lucky). In fact, speaking of Wood, there’s a section of How Fiction Works where he speaks of “a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’:”
‘He was a gentlemen with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’ [Ford Maddox] Ford comments: ‘that gentlemen is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’
Ford is right. Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking, as it were; and – a corollary of this – the reader can get as much from small, short-lived, even rather flat characters as from large, round, towering heroes and heroines.
Yes, yes, yes, yes: I worry so much about making sure characters are gotten in now, but it’s never quite right, is it? I can imagine Rebecca Mead, who wrote about Ferris, or Menand above, sweating over those sentences, wondering: are they right? Do you put a comma between “framed” and “arty?” Is “outsized” the right word? The comma question could go either way. “Outsized” could be “severe,” like a storm warning. But those sentences still feel so wonderfully, deliciously right, even embedded in articles that otherwise let one flip to the next, searching, as a surfer will flit from blog to blog.