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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Give Me Music, Not Correctness

Great writing sings. Rules be damned.

August 9, 2018

The greatest living celebrity profile writer is Taffy Brodesser-Akner. She has breathed life into a previously dormant form by writing not about celebrities so much as writing about the contemporary world through the lens of fame.

The core question of her work is essentially: What does it mean that this person is famous in this way, and for these reasons, and at this time? Her subject is 21st century America, viewed through the lens of famous individuals.

Like all great writers, after you’ve finished one of her articles, you’re not only better informed about the subject at hand, but have also experienced multiple opportunities for self reflection, as you consider challenges to your existing world view.

For example, I did not think I was interested in reading about Gwyneth Paltrow in her capacity as CEO of her Goop lifestyle brand, but Brodesser-Akner’s profile is an absolute masterpiece, and having read it now several times, I have a much better understanding of how and why people like Paltrow and movements like Goop gain traction in our cutlure. 

After finishing the profile, I went to Twitter and shared an extract of a paragraph I found particularly brilliant, a description of Paltrow preparing a dinner that would be shared by Bodesser-Akner, Paltrow, and Paltrow’s fiancé, producer Brad Falchuk.





The use of “devastating” to describe Paltrow’s kitchen, somehow turning an adjective into something specific and meaningful is worthy of 1500 words all by itself. It is literally perfect in the way it carries a mélange of emotions. It is “devastating” in the sense of being stunning, or mind-blowing, but at the same time, Brodesser-Akner is also implying that it’s too much for mere – non-Goop – mortals to grasp.

And of course, “devastating” carries a whole raft of negative connotations as well. Brodesser-Akner is reminding us that people like Gwyneth Paltrow seem genetically engineered to make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves, a feeling reinforced by her using identical phrasing in back to back sentences noting Paltrow is preparing the meal without the need of an apron.

As a teacher of writing, I know there’s not much I can do to direct students to write a paragraph that good, but what I can do is help them develop the sensitivity of their reading instrument in order to better recognize, appreciate, and understand these moments of brilliance.

Our ability to appreciate great writing is a pre-requisite for someday writing something great ourselves. My hope, my belief is that if our receptors are powerful, this may ultimately translate into our own prose.

Call me a nerd, but I get chills just thinking about how great that paragraph is. It’s an artist at the top of her game.

Or not.

According to Brodesser-Akner, in the aftermath of the publishing of the profile, she heard from 14 “brave men” who came “forward to point out the ‘repetitive sentence typo’ about her apron/cooking in my GP story, which could not have been there for emphasis. So relieved you’re all there to catch me. Truly.”

She later reported the count of “brave men” had increased to 32.

While I felt for Taffy Brodesser-Akner, in that it is a always painful to receive feedback which demonstrates you have been misunderstood, I also felt sorry for those brave men who think a highly skilled, incredibly effective rhetorical move is actually a typo.

It’s a kind of willful blindness, or in this specific case, tone-deafness since they’re apparently unable to hear the music of Brodesser-Akner’s prose. I wonder if they’re able to even catch the sarcasm of her tweet.

I cannot definitively pinpoint the source of their shortcoming, but I have to believe it has something to do with a privileging of “correctness” when it comes to responding to writing, a lack of appreciation of audience, and choices made for specific reasons inside a rhetorical situation. The reasons why the brave men decided to go ahead and email the author to alert her to a non-existent mistake is for sure rooted in sexism. I can’t imagine the boundless self-confidence it would take to read that paragraph, knowing that Brodesser-Akner is a highly successful, highly regarded author, publishing in the New York Times Magazine, with its veritable army of editors and fact checkers, and still think the sentence had been published in error.

Through a lens of correctness, a repeated sentence must be a mistake, but if you’ve been taught to hear, if you are situated appropriately as a member of a potentially receptive audience, rather than judge of correctness, Brodesser-Akner’s paragraph is beautiful music.

Learning to hear one’s prose is one of the most important skills I try to inculcate in students. In class, I read passages aloud often, and implore students to read their own work before turning it in. When they find a paragraph or piece they like, I encourage them to read those out loud so they can hear the moves being made, many of which will defy any rules or notions of correctness.

You can get away with all kinds of offenses against grammatical rules if you can make music with your sentences.

It’s sad that those “brave men” couldn’t hear the notes, but in the end, I suppose it’s their loss.




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