How Well Do They Write?

I relish engaging with people like David French, though the engagement is usually rhetorical.  One-sided.  I read, I contemplate, I criticize, no one notices (not that they should).  On the one occasion that we interacted briefly, I mentioned that I appreciate his commentary and find it insightful and essential.  I do.

I reached out to French after I read his criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates for National Review.  Coates is probably my favorite writer under fifty (I would say he’s my favorite writer alive if Joan Didion weren’t).  It seems that French finds Coates intolerant and incurious.

“There was a striking moment in the publicly released transcript of the internal Atlantic forum with Jeffrey Goldberg and Coates.  Speaking of his now-famous essay on reparations, Coates says that ‘there was, like, no other conservative person I would have answered’ other than Kevin Williamson.  In all of conservatism, only one man met his threshold for engagement – and that was mainly because he viewed Kevin as a sufficiently gifted writer.”

French skips rocks, but the reality lies somewhere deeper.

Coates does engage with conservative criticism of his work, even with writers from French’s own publication.  Though, occasionally and for good reason, he questions the good faith of the criticism.  It's hard in a thousand words or less to breach months of reporting, tomes of research, and the 20,000-word cover story assembled from their parts.  It's also hard to take seriously those who think it easy.

Maybe I'm not as surprised as French that in conservative media Coates found only Williamson’s writing satisfying in that respect.  Coates comments on this in the transcript French cites:

“I’m from a place where I can take my lessons from people and not agree with a damn thing they’re saying. You know, that’s just me. You know, reporting is one thing; that’s important. But the writing is actually really, really important for me. And I thought, when [Williamson] was on, he’s really, really good actually. Like, the writing is really, really good. I don’t take that back, although I do want to kind of have that thought experiment again. But that was at least my impression at the time.”

This particular sentiment doesn’t surprise me.  Coates learns from people with whom he disagrees.  That most of what he learns is argument and craft seems completely normal.  That he finds few people in one political movement that write so well seems more normal still.  In his book about the craft of writing Verlyn Klinkenborg states of jargon-filled and cliche-ridden writing:

“True, you can sound quite grown-up, quite authoritative, in the manner of college professors and journalists and experts in every field.  (You may be a college professor, a journalist, or an expert in some field.)  How well do they write? How much do you enjoy reading them?”

Often not well.  Often very little.

The list of conservative writers and journalists that I read for their perspective is long.  The list of conservative writers and journalists that I read for the power of their prose and creativity of their argument is much shorter.  I read Ross Douthat’s entire book but scribbled nothing from it into the notebook I use to preserve powerful words (a line from early in Yuval Levin’s most recent book earned the distinction).  My list of liberal writers and journalists is perhaps longer but not by much.  Most punditry just isn’t that powerfully written.  Investigative reporting can be, but where do I find 15,000 carefully researched words on the case against reparations?

I understand quite deeply the impulse to read the words of powerful writers even when I don’t agree with them.  Joan Didion is a libertarian whose writing about feminism hooks my eyebrow, but I hang on every comma.  Coates himself has written words that catch in my throat like stale bread.

In an earlier criticism of Coates, French marks the most controversial portion of Coates’s best-selling memoir Between the World and Me, wherein he recalls reacting indifferently to the mourning of police after 9/11.  I won’t dwell on the words other than to nod to French.  My mother read Coates’s book and took offense to that passage even while she appreciated the book as a whole.  On this, French is right.

James Baldwin wrote that “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast into the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.”  Coates’s words were callous, but I need not suppress disgust with his reaction to understand the line he draws between being seen as less than human and returning the favor.  It’s a passage that I understand as a writer, but have never been able to reconcile morally. I won’t try to.

Histories have their own purpose; fiction and essays as well.  Political writing has little form beyond the shape of its ideas.

There’s a point where writers read for more than politics.  Ideas are often inseparable from the words that express them.  George Orwell made that connection time and again.  Words and ideas are less like clay and subject to a sculpture and more like bourbon and lemon to a sour.  It's not terribly unusual for a writer to seek out people who express themselves not just cogently, but beautifully.  Morality is more complex, but strong argument lives in strong prose.

Searching the page for that strength means grappling with writing even when the subject matter is uncomfortable or when we're repulsed by the conclusion because the strength of the prose demands it.  It also makes for a smaller circle because the threshold for debate is set much higher.  I understand why French sees this as an essential arrogance but I don’t agree.