Friday, February 15, 2008

Ron Rosenbaum, Chuck Klosterman wants his writing style back

Today I was reading a thoroughly amusing analysis of SkyMall magazine by Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum. In the article, Rosenbaum attempts to disect what SkyMall has to say about American culture.

I began reading without looking at the author. After about three paragraphs, I thought, "Hey, is this Chuck Klosterman?" But it wasn't. I will be pretentious and quote myself; here are my previous thoughts on Klosterman's writing style:

"Chuck Klosterman writes in a style that is perhaps somewhat overdone these days, especially since the rise of the blog--pop-culture commentary elaborated upon by interjections of philosophy, history, and other 'literary' or 'high brow' disciplines."

Rosenbaum definitely seems to be going in that direction. He analyzes the abundance of watches featured in the magazine:

"But what did occur to me is that the appeal of watches in Skymall country has something to do with the notion of death—of your time running out.

"Something to do with the fact that when one is up in the air, however familiar, on some limbic level of the brain, one is aware of how absurd it is to be suspended eight miles high in a metal container, only some poorly understood laws of physics keeping you from plunging abruptly to certain death.

"In some still-not-entirely assimilated region of the limbic brain, one's time is about to run out every second, thus the attraction of all those devices that somehow contain time, tame time, break time down into tiny dials within dials—even the word dial contains the word (or, to be precise, sound) die. Consuming chrono-porn in midair seems to be a way of managing the existential anxiety—the denial of the dial—of flight."

I don't necessarily have a problem with similarities of style. Klosterman is a good writer, and I thought Rosenbaum's piece is well-written, entertaining, and thought-provoking on some levels. However, in attempting to be writers we want to create our own voice. How good of a writer can I be considered if what I write is indistinguishable from anyone else's writing? Even if the writing is technically sound, that does not necessarily make it good or memorable.

I've been thinking about this idea of writing style because I've been grading my technical writing group projects the last two days. There are two of them: one is very unified and reads as if one individual wrote the whole thing (which I hope is not the case); the other is disjointed and feels as if the group members put together their sections in autonomous vaccuums completely free of any interaction with each other.

The problem arises in how I explain this problem to the students. If I tell them that the paper is stylistically schizophrenic, will they even be able to realize why the sections don't align? They initially seemed like smart kids, but their paper is atrocious and now I have my doubts. I doubt that they read enough to be able to distinguish stylistic ideosyncracies.

As a final note on the Rosenbaum piece, I must give him extra credit for referencing Phil Collins' masterpiece, "In the Air Tonight." He discusses a chicken wing tray advertised in the magazine and his fascination with the slogan for this device, "Where the wings have no shame." Rosenbaum writes:

"Yes, I'm obsessed with the phrase 'Where the Wings Have No Shame.' And yes, I admit it has something to do with one of my favorite early U2 anthems, 'Where the Streets Have No Name.' It's a haunting song about one's deeply uncertain place in the world—aloft or not. Haunting in the way 'In the Air Tonight' is, no matter how much you dislike Phil Collins."

A while back I referenced "In the Air Tonight" along with 7Mary3's "Water's Edge" in a comment on Amanda Bales' page. She has given me flack about it several times since then. However, as Mr. Rosenbaum agrees, the song is awesome. The opinion has been published; therefore, it has become fact. That is the way things work, right?

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