Writing Right with Dmitri: Preaching to the Choir
Is writing about political events or major issues worthwhile? Depends on whom you ask. It also depends on whom you're writing for.
I don't watch that Faux News channel because it gives me a headache. But then, I don't watch any news channel, because they all give me a headache. I prefer to read the news from publications that display their goods online. That way, I don't have to look at the carnage or listen to whiny politicians, or put up with commercial breaks. '10,000 dead from a monstrous tsunami. And now, a word from our sponsor. Friends, are you headed to the beach this summer? Be sure to take along Superscreen X50, the great new tanning lotion…'
As I said, I don't watch those news shows with commentators who have opinions about everything. But I do watch the highlights from Stephen Colbert's Late Show the next day online. (I'm old now, I go to bed early, sue me.) The other night, Colbert had one of those famous commentators on. I chuckled. Colbert's been harassing that man for years now. On his other programme, The Colbert Report, Colbert regularly pretended to agree with everything the guy said. Which he didn't. Which made the audience howl, and the commentator get madder than a wet hen.
Now, however, Mr Colbert is not on the Comedy Central channel any more. He's on a network which is very particular about not annoying large parts of the audience, such as the ones who like this particular commentator. And who may agree with him about, say, gun control. So Colbert was extremely nice to the commentator when he came on the show. It made me laugh to see the man's facial expression: wary. Very wary. As if he were in the room with a dangerous and unpredictable snake that might strike at any moment.
See for yourself. Now, first off, Stephen Colbert kind of fits the description of me by a journalist friend: 'You wouldn't hurt a fly, but you're devastatingly honest.' Colbert's sort of like that, too. So I don't blame Mr O'Reilly for the expression on his face. But this raises a question when we talk about our writing: Are we 'preaching to the choir'?
Mr O'Reilly has really dedicated fans. It's obvious that often, the commentator plays to his own personal peanut gallery, exaggerating his views for crowd-pleasing effect. And when he's on Colbert's programme – no matter how much the new showrunner tries to tone the host down – O'Reilly has to know he has a hostile crowd in front of him. In fact, Colbert had to chide them for booing and insist they let the man have his say. Colbert, on the other hand, also has fans who tend to agree with him. Does this colour what they say, and how they say it?
When you write, are you mentally aiming to reach only people who already agree with you? If so, that will affect the way you write. Consider the writings of Tom (not Thomas) Wolfe, such as his essay 'Radical Chic'. Wolfe was writing for a particular audience: upscale, educated New Yorkers in the 1960s. He's being scornful and downright snarky about the Bernsteins' pretense (as he sees it) of championing radical movements. He knows his readers are going to eat up this combination of political analysis and celebrity gossip, and he milks it for all its worth. The essay is worth reading (and deconstructing) for its practical lessons in non-objective writing.
On the other hand, reach way back in history and read another Tom, Mr Thomas Paine. Paine's Age of Reason explains why he believes what he believes about religion. He knows it's an unpopular view for its time – in fact, Jefferson talked him out of publishing it for several years. Paine knows he probably has a readership that is hostile to his ideas. So he works harder at writing about them.
Now, there's room in the writing world for both kinds of writing. There's nothing wrong with preaching to the choir, unless what you really wanted to do was convert the heathen. Be aware, however, that the two exercises require completely different techniques. To walk up to someone with a differing view and start shouting your favourite slogans is unlikely to get a friendly response. (More likely a punch in the nose.) So when you watch those commentators, or your favourite satire show, or read what's in the papers, take note of how it's done. Scribble down a few ideas.
You may not be writing political commentary. You may merely be describing life in your neck of the woods. But keep in mind that not everyone lives, acts, or thinks alike. Stop and think about what you need to explain. And do it with consideration for the 'outsider'. That way, you'll win more readers. I've never been to Trinidad, and am unlikely to, ever, but I know more about it than I would otherwise have known thanks to V.S. Naipaul. He writes about his childhood home in such an inviting way that I feel immediately welcome.
Want to practice? Be my guest. Be sure to tell us what audience you're aiming at, so we can get an idea of how persuasive you are.
PS After re-reading 'Radical Chic', which I hadn't read since my university days, I had a number of questions, one of which was, 'How well did the author know his subject, Leonard Bernstein?' As it turns out, not at all, which surprised me. (I assumed Wolfe had been invited to the 'party' on purpose. It turns out he used a bit of a ruse to get in.) I stumbled across this gem (for writing analysis purposes): 'Annotation Tuesday! Tom Wolfe and radical chic'. I recommend it – you can scroll down and read the Q&A because they're in a different typeface, and highlighted. It's fascinating to see what Tom Wolfe thought he was writing – and compare it to what I thought I read.