Thursday, June 14, 2012

A pulp writing trick, Christopher Hitchens

I once read some advice on writing from an old pulp fiction writer, Lester Dent. He was the main writer of the Doc Savage stories. He tells how to sound like you know more than you do. In this example, he suggests getting an Egyptian phrasebook:
The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book, finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.
I was reminded of this when I read this in an interview with Norman Finklestein. He talks about people who are good writers but are not qualified to write about politics. He describes Christopher Hitchens using the same trick:
...They’re not interested in the subject matter, they’re interested in a clever turn of phrase. Their model was someone like Christopher Hitchens, whose whole art was: You take three little arcane facts and spin a whole article or essay around it. He’d start an essay on Pakistan by saying, “Oh, Pakistan literally means LAND OF THE PURE!” And you’d think, Oh, he really knows something about Pakistan! 
So, you come to Paul Berman, who writes Terror and Liberalism. He finds in the street two pirated volumes of [Sayyid] Qutb, and suddenly he becomes an expert on Islamic texts. Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution when he was in the iron cart, going from front to front in the Russian civil war. Berman was walking along Atlantic Avenue and saw two pirated editions, and now he’s an expert in Qutb, whose collected works comes to 40 volumes, if memory serves. It’s just so silly. It’s so unserious.

 Read the whole interview here:

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