The Shitty Poetry of New York Times Headlines

June 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

It may be a recency bias on my part, but I feel like over the years the New York Times‘s headlines have picked up a certain florid bent wherever a headline can possibly bear it.

Instead of “Studies of Human Microbiome Yield New Insights”, we get: “Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden”. (The first, substantial headline shows up in Google results and in a browser’s title bar. The second, flowery one shows up on the nytimes.com front page.)

Instead of “Noise Complaints On the Rise At Work”, we get: “From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz”.

Really, a cry? A cry pierces the office buzz? Why is it necessary for a newspaper to doll up the headlines with this trite flowery diction? The stylization isn’t even remotely interesting — it’s really cheap, almost arbitrary prettification. “Noise” becomes “buzz”, “complaint” becomes “cry”, “office” becomes “cubicles” — everything in the translation from prose to poetry is straightforward and bland.

Often you can see the flowery stuff tacked on at the end of a serviceable headline, just to disappoint you:

“Food Trucks in Paris? U.S. Cuisine Finds Open Minds, and Mouths”

“Theater Review: A Fresh Breeze in Pastoral Russia”

Here are a few more examples, so you know I’m not cherry-picking. All of these headlines have appeared in the last thirty days:

  • In Its First Life, an Oil Platform; in Its Next, a Reef?
  • Critic’s Notebook: Trappings of Art, From Tank to Coffin
  • Out There: A Career Waiting for E.T. to Phone
  • Books of The Times: Sexy Drug Dealers Have Parents, Too
  • Design Notebook: Slipping Into Something More Comfortable
  • Domestic Lives: Unencumbered, Even by Regret
  • Collecting: From Savior to Orphan
  • A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full
  • When a Boy Found a Familiar Feel in a Pat of the Head of State
  • Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill  [ugh, the alliteration]

You might have noticed the preponderance of colons in these. You know the old pattern for academic paper titles or lectures, where a plain title and a self-conscious jokey title balance teetering on either side of a colon? Something like: “Gender Ambiguity in Macbeth’s Three Witches: Crones With Cocks”. This is a common pattern for insecure, uneasy writers who are queasy about their concessions to attention-grabbing (or who, being academics and professionals, are hopelessly awkward in the marketing part).

Like I said above, there’s often one utilitarian headline for page titles (and search results) and a second flowery one. To me, this hedge looks like a form of search engine optimization — you can search for the plain summary headline in Google, but readers browsing the front page get the more eye-catching one. So it’s, naturally, a marketing/audience thing. But boy, am I insulted by their take on what I want to read. The purple touches here are like a socialite’s condescending take on what the masses would find poetic and earnest.

I wish the Times would cut it out. This hedge between journalism and pop writing makes them look bad at both. How refreshing (and how rare) when you read the writing of a confident voice, who actually draws strength from the directness and precision and — not paradoxically at all — the richness of their writing. Does this purple stuff actually sell??

I was happy to stumble on this efficient palate-cleanser from the same newspaper: Healthy Women Advised Not to Take Calcium and Vitamin D to Prevent Fractures. Now that’s journalism.

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Blurbing “Hamlet”

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here, in its entirety, is the promotional blurb on the back of the Barnes & Noble edition of Hamlet:

Shakespeare’s compelling treatment of guilt and revenge in Hamlet has fascinated playgoers and readers for 400 years.

I’m no marketing expert, but this has got to be one of the limpest pitches I’ve ever read. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the intrigue? Where’s the richness, the savor? First off, by calling it “compelling” you’re already pathetically underselling it. Second, “guilt” and “revenge” are such trite theme-words that they pave over the real fun of the book — all of its complexity, and the layers of jesting and deceit in Hamlet’s brooding. Third, the whole “fascinated readers for 400 years” thing is so fusty and dusty that they’re clearly writing a space-filling deferral to the book’s age and authority instead of trying to sell it.

Obviously, Barnes & Noble is printing and binding this book merely because they know people need to buy a copy of Hamlet now and then, and this fills the bill. The whole thing is so obligatory. There’s another point about the classics here, which is that over time the reputation of good books gets reduced to the most fusty and dutiful trivialization possible. Hamlet as a revenge story is like pitching Titanic as a survival tale, or as man vs. machine.

Because the reputation of great books in our culture is so bloodless and shallow, their very pervasiveness serves to make them look duller and more pretentious to the world. By the time a student gets to a free intellectual environment (maybe college, probably not high school) where a book gets taught on the strength of its artistic vitality, its creative genius, the student already “knows” the book’s greatness is of a boring and highfalutin nature.

In the decades and centuries after a work of art emerges, its reputation — because complex and subtle ideas don’t travel well through a culture — gets simplified and ossified and worn down little by little until you’re left with something paltry like “Hamlet is a revenge story.” By then it’s been chewed up and spit out by history so there’s nothing left for an avid young(-at-heart) reader to discover and digest. The increase of a work of art’s reputation through time is like a game of telephone where each repetition of what makes it great is a little duller and more staid than the last. So if you want to know what makes Hamlet good — like really, for real good — you have to look past its reputation. In this case, that means opening it and reading it.

P.S. For comparison, I wanted to see the promotional tagline for a modern story, one that was sufficiently Hamlet-like, so I went to the IMDB page for The Lion King and found this one:

Life’s greatest adventure is finding your place in the Circle of Life.

Not bad! This suggests the movie’s grandeur and is true to the broadness of its themes. It’s also good to see that “adventure” in there — every great story is an exploratory enterprise. Without obligatory centuries of reputation accrued behind a book, marketers have the freedom to be true to a story’s vitality.

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