Dispatches: On the Prose of the New York Times

Here is a sentence that struck me last week from the Times:

NOTHING is perfect, but at times that most unlikely and hyperbolic of words does pop into my head. It did so repeatedly as I played Tekken: Dark Resurrection, a martial arts game from Namco Bandai that is a shining example of what works best on the PlayStation Portable hand-held game console.

Why is this bit of prose funny?  Well, like much funny stuff, it’s the result of a collision of usually disparate things.  In this case, the things are: 1) a video game with a campy, gothic name, and 2) the New York Times’ magisterial house style for criticism.  Note that the repeated references to an opinionated “I” (“pop into my head”) license the writer’s generalizations (“a shining example of what works best”).  Note also that the writer is fully aware of the ironic juxtaposition of the concept of perfection and the wares of Namco Bandai, and yet all the same desires to communicate just how good a video game this is.  And note, lastly, that despite the author’s self-aware use of mild irony, that the amusement we derive from reading it seems somehow to exceed the author’s intention.  Don’t you think?

This tone of bemusement, so familiar to coffee-mug wielding Times readers (“I read it for the crossword!”  “Me?  For the Style section.”), exists in a symbiotic relationship to the more po-faced tone the Times reserves for journalism.  By taking liberties with meaning, by using writerly effects in its criticism, the Times implies that such usages are restricted to those language artisans who populate the entertainment and opinion sections.  The great figures for this type of writing are probably A.O. Scott and Frank Rich, but there are many critics whose voice complicates and plays with the simpler tones of reportage: Frank Bruni, David Pogue, Virginia Heffernan (hmmm – these three all have Times blogs).  How can I draw together so many diverse writers, you ask?  Well, I think house style is among the least appreciated and most powerful forces in journalistic writing: ever notice how, upon beginning to write for the New Yorker, a writer’s distinctive voice seems to be waffle-ironed into conformity with that august publication’s trademark tone? 

Of course, the Times is a sophisticated complex of styles, but the founding opposition of the paper’s rhetorical identity is that between the “name” critics and the trustable, unplayed-with language of the straight reportage.  The bemusement that characterizes the criticism and the seriousness that characterizes the reportage imply two different ways of using language, as a pleasurable end and as a means to truth, respectively.  Yet underneath that opposition lies a greater commonality.  This is the drive to produce the historical record, a text that will be authoritative even when read years later.  Of course, the straight journalistic tone also produces surprising new juxtapositions, but they usually come off as striking rather than funny, as in this sentence also from last week:

Scott W., 64, a retired school teacher and real estate agent, relieved his occasional need for homosexual sex with anonymous encounters on East Hampton Beach without quite labeling himself as gay or bisexual.

Note here the impassive recording of a non-judgmental, just-the-facts stance towards anonymous hookups.  A stance that is a historically new entrant to mainstream public discourse arrives disguised as mere reportage.  This is the Times’ claim to distinctiveness: its prose, of both varieties, gives off the sense of being responsible to history (the success of this endeavor being, of course, rather questionable).  Thus a taxonomy emerges by which “serious” events, conflicts, and social shifts are reported unironically and with apparent recourse to facts, while restaurants, movies, and fashion trends are mediated by the clever and literary voices of critics.

Please don’t think that I take very seriously the Times’ self-seriousness – if nothing else, reading it demonstrates the importance of form (placement of article, size of accompanying photo, choice of headline and title) over what gets covered.  Actually, the standards of what constitutes magisterial, authoritative language shift constantly, with the entrance of new locutions and words and the obsolescence of others.  The house style of the Times, therefore, might be seen as purposely moving more slowly than the culture-at-large, in order to preserve the impression that it is an unchanging institution of prose, a bulwark against “lol” and “what up, dawg!”  (Of course, if Frank Bruni or Tony Scott ended a piece with “LOL” it would be a fully controlled laugh line – omg, Bruni just wrote “LOL” – lol!  rotfl!).

But this last point, about the Times and similar organs’ desire to retain a sense of unchangingness, to be our reference points, even as they record the daily newness of life, gets me back to Tekken: Dark Resurrection.  The reason that sentence was so funny to me was that it exceeded intentions: sure, it painted a chuckle-worthy portrait of a computer-game lover trying to find a way to express his delight for the great accomplishments in his field to a world that considers that field to be adolescent and silly.  Don’t you guys get it, these games are the real works of art our culture is producing today, etc., etc.  And of course, the ironic tone is a way to hedge these same claims as just a literary device.  But it’s funnier than that.  It’s funny because it’s such a perfect reenactment of the New York Times formula: the pretensions of the prose combined with the absurd and prosaic real.  All purported maturity aside, the Times needs Namco Bandai and Scott W.: they are the bolt of electricity that vivifies it.  A dark resurrection indeed.

See other Dispatches here.