What follows is nitpicky and petty. I want it up as a reminder to myself to observe parallel structure, follow up on what my sentences say, engage difficult themes, and write with a sense of purpose.
With exquisite prose, Matthew Stevenson writes in Harper’s about a Bill O’Reilly book with sections which read like a “grade school paper.” I’ve been writing so badly for so long that I want to examine the passage he cites as an example. Maybe I can elevate my writing to the level of a third grader if I absorb the right lessons:
Unlike the coral and jungle of Peleliu, or the remote black volcanic soil of Iwo Jima, Okinawa is a well-populated island full of farmers. Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders. The verdant fields of okra and eggplant that should be carpeting the countryside have been trampled by soldiers, cratered by shelling and littered with the detritus of war: spent casings, empty food tins, burning vehicles, and, of course, dead bodies. (1)
My first reaction: *gulp*. I know this blog of mine doesn’t have passages a tenth as clear. Of course, if you read those above sentences aloud, it does sound like a grade schooler wrote it. The first sentence jumps from “coral and jungle” and “remote black volcanic soil” to “well-populated island full of farmers.” How one can be so deaf to parallelism is beyond me. Not only does “well-populated island” not fit, but “remote black volcanic soil” clunks along compared to “coral and jungle.” All one has to do is stick to the format one established; a description like “coral and jungle” for Peleliu could be matched by something like “soil and ash” for Iwo Jima.
The attempt to introduce the island as a distinct location devolves into this babyishness: “Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders.” Stevenson notes that “Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese” is factually wrong, but regardless, what purpose this detail serves I have no idea. It sounds like the kind of thing people scribble when they have no experience whatsoever in writing or media. To be clearer about why it’s so terrible, note that it follows a sentence which tries to get the reader to imagine the locale. That prior sentence has not been allowed to develop into anything more significant. O’Reilly and his co-author move on, knowing dollars await them. Each of his stupid books populates The New York Times bestseller lists for months, and he knows he can get away with anything. Americans buy books — they don’t read. Thus, the tragedy of a people completely overcome by fear, so much so that death feels a better escape than the arrival of the Americans, is treated like so: “Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders.” At this moment, I will simply comment that if this sentence does not seem to parallel the ones previous, or build on them in any logical way, you’re not alone in that opinion.
O’Reilly’s writing (and by extension America’s aesthetic standards, ability to grapple with history, ability to reason) gets substantially worse when it could almost be good. Ultimately, this is dogshit: “The verdant fields of okra and eggplant that should be carpeting the countryside have been trampled by soldiers, cratered by shelling and littered with the detritus of war: spent casings, empty food tins, burning vehicles, and, of course, dead bodies.” Like dogshit, it does have a purpose. It does get the reader to imagine what was lush farmland being devastated by war. The reader knows the middle of a battle is being discussed. Also, it needs to be picked up because it is a public health hazard. As quasi-poetic hack work, it undoes itself with a thud when it ends with “dead bodies.” The sentence itself should never have been written. People killed themselves before the battle started because they worried that it and what resulted would be worse than hell. Any writer with two cells for a brain knows they have to follow up on that theme, not just throw a lot of details down.
The fundamental problem of this kind of writing is that places, people, and things are brought forth without any sense of purpose. The principle at play seems to be “If I describe stuff, people will think I know what I’m talking about.” My complaints about parallelism and even theme do not do justice to the bigger problem of best-selling authors rambling at length and this, of all things, creating our historical consciousness. “The troops are great” and “WWII was a moral cause embraced by a moral generation” are the type of proposition that do not lend themselves to any serious purpose. They might be true, but if they dominate any attempt to come to grips with the past, they’re worse than useless. At least O’Reilly’s schlock has the virtue of being obviously bad, though in this climate, I suspect it lacks even that.
(1) Passage quoted is from Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. Full citation:
O’Reilly, Bill and Martin. Dugard. 2016. Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. New York: Henry Holt and Company.