Michael Kinsley's takedown of Double Down is a plea for plain English | Bleader

Michael Kinsley's takedown of Double Down is a plea for plain English

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What would George Orwell say about Double Down?
  • Monsterspade
  • What would George Orwell say about Double Down?
Michael Kinsley savaged the writing in the new book Double Down Sunday, on the cover of the New York Times Book Review—but what does that matter? Double Down, a juicy account of the 2012 presidential campaign by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, is hurtling toward the best-seller lists, and has already been optioned to HBO, proving again that at least with nonfiction, what you write about counts a lot more than how you write it.

Critics are debating whether Double Down illuminates, or just dishes gossip, but I'm not addressing its substance today. I'm merely marveling at some of the damning evidence Kinsley presented that the writing is unintentionally hilarious, although Kinsley, editor at large of the New Republic, didn't seem amused. (This isn't a review of Double Down. I haven't read the book, and in light of Kinsley's review, probably will spare myself the pleasure.)

It's been said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but neither form flourishes in Double Down, to read Kinsley's examples. A main gripe of Kinsley is that the authors quadrupled down on Roget's, their philosophy apparently being, Why use a simple word when there are so many pretentious options?

Kinsley listed some of the ones dumped on readers in Double Down: acuminate, appetent, pyretic, hoggery, noisomeness, coriaceous, vomitous, and freneticism. "There’s nothing wrong with fancy words if they help to refine your meaning," Kinsley observed. "In the hands of Halperin and Heilemann, though, they have the opposite effect."

Instead of saying that Rick Santorum got trounced in a 2006 reelection bid, the authors write that he lost by a "chasmal" 18-point margin. Someone's advocacy for governor Chris Christie as Mitt Romney's running mate was "suasive" (persuasive).

It's not just some of the words that clang, Kinsley wrote, but also the similes and metaphors. To wit: John McCain endorsing Romney was "as likely as a terrier reciting Tennyson."

Hm. Well, that is unlikely.

Then there's the alliteration. When McCain does endorse Romney, it's "based on a mixture of caprice, calculation and comparative chagrin.”

And here's my favorite of Kinsley's examples, also in the alliterative genus. Romney wasn't fond of the family of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, the Double Down authors inform readers, and the Huntsmans “vice versa’d the vitriol.”

These writing choices bring to mind George Orwell's plea for clarity and simplicity in his famous essay "Politics and the English Language." In Double Down, Orwell's tips get advice versa'd.

And like a bad beat of music, now I can't get the damn vitriol phrase out of my head. I find myself considering how I might deploy it:

"Ever since he became mayor, Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union have vice versa'd the vitriol."

"There's no love lost between the Bears and Packers, and fans are eager for the two teams to get out on the field and vice versa the vitriol."

I suppose the phrase can also be used positively. If someone treats me nicely, I can vice versa the valentine. I might want to do that even with a person who's different from me, because opposites attract. And vice versa.

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