A commenter on the Smart thread tries to take it in a whole new direction. To save you the trip, here’s the text:
Okay, I know this comment isn’t germane to the topic, but…I don’t know where else to go. Am I the only one who thinks Ben Smith’s writing is not just bad, but embarassingly bad? I can never make it through one of his columns. I typically skim through his sports columns to glean a little info on I.U. basketball or whatever…but I often don’t have the stomach for even skimming. I skim through his restaurant reviews only to see how often he’s going to address his wife as “Jules”. I’d write the J-G’s editors, but clearly they have no taste, else they would have fired his wannabe-Midwestern-Faulkner ass a long time ago. Warden can be even worse. Penhollow’s headed that way, too. What’s up? Have they no taste?
Ahem. OK, then, let’s bring it on. First, the stipulation that I like Ben Smith — a sportswriter for the Fort’s Journal Gazette, my paper’s competition — a lot; he’s a really nice guy in a business where you don’t always have to be. Second, keep in mind he’s mostly writing about sports, and high-school sports at that, and your heart has to go out to anyone trying to squeeze drama out of a high-school basketball game, and YES, I saw “Hoosiers” and NO, I didn’t cry, so just shut your piehole.
I like Ben. You have to know that. “It’s just that style,” said Alan, just now.
Yes, that style. Ben likes to write with great fanfare and flourish, and sometimes his reach exceeds his grasp. A writer’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s an editor for? The problem is, a good editor is hard to find. (Speaking as one who’s married to a good editor who’s been job-hunting for two years, sometimes a good editor finds it hard to get found. But enough about me.)
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Thirty-seven years now, and Kyle Orton is still a bug on a windshield back there, still getting slam-danced so hard his head snaps back and the breath catches in 111,000-plus throats.
Thirty-seven years now, and Brayton Edwards is still flaming Jacques Reeves (or just “Reeves”, perhaps, now that he’s lost his “Jacques”) like a charcoal briquette.
Thirty-seven years, and the Wave is rippling around the vast cavern of Michigan Stadium like a whisper of breeze lifting a lock of hair . . . and spatters of rain are coming down out of a sky going from the color of slate to the color of a thief’s heart . . . and the catcalls are beginning to float down now as Orton throws one last pass and the receiver carries it out of bounds and the clock runs out at last on another day to forget here for the Purdue Boilermakers.
That’s vintage Ben, right there. “Thirty-seven years,” the laid-on-thick similes (“like a breeze lifting a lock of hair”), the thundering tympani on the soundtrack (“breath catching in 111,000-plus throats”). This is one reason I rarely read sportswriters, because I tire of all this sweat popping out on a writer’s brow over what is, after all, a football game. My friend Jones, a sportswriter, is always sending me columns by Bill Simmons, one of the guys I do read. He’s got just the right touch (light, in case you haven’t guessed); I liked his review of “Seabiscuit,” which contained many amusing asides, like this:
There should be an Oscar category for actors who lose or gain an absurd amount of weight for a part, if only because it could lead to more goofy acceptance speeches from the completely and utterly insane Renee Zellweger. Who would be against this?
Back to Ben. He doesn’t always work for me, but you know what? I appreciate the effort; I only wish he had a better editor, who could rein in his excesses and encourage risk-taking in other ways. When I’m editing, I always go easier on writers who try and fail than those who don’t try at all. And there are so many of those, the non-tryers, the ones who will phone in (literally, sometimes) a few inches of crap, sprinkled with cliches and predictable quotes, and then stand around waiting for their Pulitzer Prize. And the Journal Gazette is a paper is sore need of more trying, as well as more good editors who can shape the trying into something you might want to read.
Do JG editors have no taste? No comment.
And P.S.: You’re wrong about Penhollow. Penhollow’s got it. He should be encouraged to let his big dog run more often, but he’s got it.
mtk said on October 27, 2003 at 6:02 pm
I just wanted to strongly second the statement that Ben truly *is* a very nice man in an industry where niceness isn’t always part of the package. (I worked at the JG with him years ago and found him professional and friendly always.) Also, I honestly loved this description: “the Wave is rippling around the vast cavern of Michigan Stadium like a whisper of breeze lifting a lock of hair.” As one who has puzzled over how to describe the way the Wave appears to someone who’s never been in the Big House for a game without resorting to water images, this one captured it for me — especially the oddly delicate-seeming product of 100,000+ screaming, lifting, rising and sitting fans. It’s far more gentle, for example, than waves at smaller stadiums simply because the venue is so doggone huge. Just my humble opinion. Then again, as a died-in-the-wool Wolverine fan, I’m overly charged up about anything that brings home a day at Michigan Stadium when the Blue are romping bigtime.
Nance said on October 27, 2003 at 6:17 pm
See? One writer, many opinions. And you know what opinions are worth.
P.S. “Dyed” in the wool.
Barry said on October 27, 2003 at 6:27 pm
Look, I’ll cut you some slack and accept your qualified defense of Smith’s writing as a good and honorable thing for a friend to do. Perhaps I chose the wrong forum in which to address this issue. Before addressing it here, I’d checked out the J-G’s website and found a forum in which to discuss Smith’s writing (it’s filled with drivel) and I even looked for your private e-mail address on this site so that I could seek your opinion on what I might do to…I don’t know, persuade the editors to do something about Smith’s writing.
I’m a nice guy, really…but I’ve loathed Smith’s writing for going on 10 years. It seems to me that he once was a decent writer, but at some point, for some reason ([unkind speculation deleted by author of this message (Barry)]?), he started loading his writing with stupid metaphors, faux-“down home” exclamatories, and just plain junk.
I’ve read the local papers for nearly as long as I’ve been a reader. I’m nearly 32 and I remember when you started writing for the N-S, Nance. I was disappointed because I enjoyed the columnist who preceded you in the N-S’s pages. I quickly grew fond of your writing, though, despite my dislike of your politics. 20 years later, I still enjoy your writing, so much so that when you left the N-S, I troubled to find you on the web. Hell, I was so smitten with your writing that I had my sister get your autograph for me when you gave a talk at IPFW in the late ’80s. (I was a geeky kid.)
Perhaps you’re right, perhaps Smith wouldn’t be so unreadable if he had an editor with cojones to call him on this schlock. I’m not sure that you’re right, but the newspaper biz is your trade, not mine, so I’ll defer to your expertise. But Smith’s writing has been schlockily, embarassingly unreadable for 10 years or more and I doubt that anything’s going to change that soon, if ever, which is very unfortunate for me, and like-minded readers.
Re Penhollow: I used to like his writing well enough, but it’s grown very sloppy of late (see yesterday’s (10/26/03) Rants & Raves), and I fear he’s headed down the same road that Smith (unfortunately) pioneered a decade a go or so.
michael golden said on October 27, 2003 at 6:44 pm
I know I’m not from Fort Wayne but I’m going to put my two cents in anyway. From the snippet you provide, Nance, “florid” is a weak word to describe Mr. Smith’s prose. I know you’re being loyal to a friend and I know you don’t like sports writing in general. There is no shame in loyalty, in fact, there should be more of it but there are also some fine sportswriters. Good writing is good writing. I would eagerly look forward to Mr. Smith’s entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. He’s a potential winner.
alex said on October 27, 2003 at 7:04 pm
In defense of Ben and Jules as restaurant reviewers, they’re no worse than their predecessor, really. It’s a tough beat. After all, the reviewees are the paper’s advertisers, and you can’t say a restaurant’s truly crappy even when it is. You also have a finite number of restaurants in a town that size, so of course reviewers will talk about places nobody wants to read about or eat at. The good ones could all be covered in maybe two installments.
Nance said on October 27, 2003 at 7:19 pm
Barry, Michael, I’ll say this: Ben, like Yours Truly, is a writer that readers either love or hate. I have a friend who practically foams at the mouth when he discusses Ben columns, but I know lots of people, especially local sports fans, think he’s great.
But I also have to say, I never cared for that format of their restaurant reviews, and who the hell are they kidding with this “Ben and Julie” stuff? Everyone knows who they are, and restaurant critics should be anonymous if nothing else, otherwise they get spotted and suddenly the portions are extra-large and prepared by the chef himself. Ben has his picture in the paper regularly! Back to the format — I gather it’s supposed to read like two people having a chat over the food, or immediately after the meal, and that could work if they made it sound more like conversation, but right now, it’s as though two people passed a laptop back and forth between them. They need to keep the exchanges shorter and tighter and snappy! Snappier! One line, two lines, the way people actually talk over food. Then I think it would work better.
And Colleen — they put in that stuff about the 4-year-old because that’s one thing parents like to know: How kid-friendly is this place?
But Alex is right. B&J, flawed as they are, are such an improvement on the woman they replaced it isn’t even a contest.
Mindy said on October 27, 2003 at 8:04 pm
Yes, Alex is right indeed on both counts. B & J are a great improvement over the previous restaurant critic. And since they can hardly write a bad review about a place even when its deserved, it’s a shame that the column can’t be what it’s supposed to be.
Bob said on October 27, 2003 at 8:20 pm
I’ve said it before, and I’m not embarrassed to say again that sometimes I enjoy reading Ben Smith’s writing. I don’t give a damn for sports; I’m the farthest thing from an athlete, armchair or otherwise, that you’ll ever meet. I enjoy Ben’s writing when he spins a tale of personal challenges met and triumphs achieved. So what if he’s dramatic, sometimes? There’s merit in getting swept away with your story; it’s better than the putrescent apathy that exudes from so many people when dealing with anything other than their favorite team or jock.”
Marci said on October 28, 2003 at 10:13 am
Heh. Whatever happened to the previous food critic, anyway?
Nance said on October 28, 2003 at 10:42 am
She retired. Lives in Chicago now.