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Essay

Physician, Heal Thyself!

Those critics of my work who express their dislike of it by telling me I should “Say what I mean!” are very far from taking their own advice.

The last thing in the world such people want is for an intellectual like me to say what he means. That entails nuance. Irony. Qualifications. Shades of meaning. Even (God help us) humour. All anathema to those adherents to the “Dick and Jane” style guide.

What is it that they mean, then? What they mean is that I should rewrite my work so that it is immediately available to the average 8th-grade dropout. Simple words and simpler sentence structure. No paragraph longer than four sentences. No literary allusions or (God forbid) figures of speech such as similes and metaphors. And (again) no nuances, qualifications, or shades of meaning. In their view, anyone who doesn’t immediately opt for either black or white isn’t saying what she means. Grey is not a permissible colour in these people’s palettes.

In a word, they want me to dumb my writing down to somewhere near moron level.

Those kind, generous, but demanding editors who are really interested in having me say what I mean, more clearly, would never phrase their request in such a way. Such editors–how few of them there are, but how welcome they are when they do appear–tend to operate through hints and gentle nudges and indirection; their manner is almost always diffident. They point to a sentence or a paragraph and ask “Do you think you could put in a supporting fact here?” or “Would it be possible to say this more clearly?” I don’t always find such questions easy to answer. To me, the piece was good enough as it was. But invariably, once I’ve answered the question to the editor’s satisfaction, I’m amazed at how much stronger the piece is. What the editor has done is take a good piece and make it even better.

For such editors, I’ll happily endeavour to say what I mean. Anywhere. Anytime. If I can.

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