Chandrahas Choudhury, who’s all but usurped The Middle Stage from Amit Varma, wrote this post recently about Joseph Mitchell’s pieces for the New Yorker, essays that combined good reportage with high-quality writing. It makes me want to get back to a subject I’ve long considered blogging about but have repeatedly put off: good journalism vs good writing, the ways in which the two can overlap and how, so often, they have absolutely nothing to do with each other but are still thought of as the same thing.
There are so many different aspects to this debate, it’s difficult to know where to begin and how to end. But it keeps coming up in one form or the other - from having to read the poorly written, indifferently subbed copy on the front pages of most newspapers, to conversations with journo colleagues who fancy themselves as writers (and talk about “my style”) when they can barely string one gramatically correct sentence together, to discussions with bemused friends who have been exposed to much higher standards of feature writing in other countries (sorry if that sounds snobbish but there it is) and can’t understand why articles have to be completely rewritten by the desk out here.
First, a personal aside so I can try to sift my own prejudices from more general observations. I’ve had a very ambivalent relationship with the profession I’m in, one that’s often bordered on condescension towards it. This is partly because the standards of writing and reportage are both so low (especially in features, and especially in Delhi) that for someone with writerly aspirations it’s easy to think of reporting as a job that merely involves collecting information and putting it together, while not worrying about things like language or style. It’s partly also because of my own strange career trajectory - technically speaking I’ve been in business journalism for over two years now, without ever considering myself a business journalist. I tend to be a little streamlined in my interests and what’s happening in the corporate world doesn’t usually figure among those.
In the last few months things have been good. I’ve been handling the books section of my paper as an add-on, and even my more regular work - on our weekend features supplement - has become more interesting because the supplement has been revamped to make it lighter, less corporate and more lifestyle-ish. Much more space now for profiles on interesting people, film and music, etc.
But for over a year before that I was doing a lot of stuff I just wasn’t interested in - industry stories on shoes and tiles and such, and during those months I thought of myself as a hack journo. I would do these half-hearted interviews, collect little chunks of info, create separate, unstructured paragraphs out of them and then find a lazy linking device between paras that would turn the whole mess into a 1200-word “feature story”. (Also, when writing about a topic I’m not all that clued in to, I don’t want to be over-clever and risk putting foot in mouth, I’d much rather just get the facts down as efficiently as possible.) So the best that could be said about the writing on these pieces was that there were no typos. And when the editor rewrote something, or even gave the story a whole new intro I didn’t care a whit. This wasn’t my writing after all, it was my reporting. I got the byline not for stylish turn of phrase but because of the work I had done in collecting and assembling information. (Meanwhile, just to ensure I didn’t die of boredom or something I would do the occasional book or film review on the side.)
Anyway, that’s my story - and like I said, things have now changed for the better. In some of the more interesting people profiles I’ve done lately, I’ve felt the satisfaction of combining information with a fluid, personal writing style; I’ve actually enjoyed writing the story. Which is of course how it should be in a perfect world.
But Indian journalism, generally speaking, is not that perfect world. One of the reasons is that English isn’t the first language (or sometimes even the second language) for many of the people working as reporters in English-language newspapers and magazines. Many news reporters in particular get where they are by dint of hard work and a talent for digging out stories and wheedling information out of people. Those talents are the first requirements for their job and fluency in the language comes a very distant second. Some of the finest, most efficient reporters I’ve worked with have been people who could barely even speak English. The good thing was, they knew it and didn’t have any ego hassles about the desk rewriting their copy. They understood their limitations and, in the best-case scenarios, there was even a covert understanding that they would file their copies early so the desk would have more time to structure the language.
When it works that way, fine. The problem arises when some people refuse to accept that their writing is awkward or ungrammatical, and start interfering with what the desk is up to. It’s mind-boggling the number of such people there are, the ones who go on about their “style of writing” and who are encouraged in these delusions by equally clueless friends and relatives. (This is especially annoying because back in the days when I was doing clinical reportage-oriented articles, I would baulk and snap if a family member - or a PR person - said “what a well-written story”.) And when one of these sorts makes it to a relatively senior level, from where they can be hegemonist with deskies, well, that’s a recipe for trouble. It helps explain the level of copy-editing in most of our newspapers.
One valid argument is that while writing skills needn’t be a priority for reporters working in news, they are important for feature writers. Sometimes it does work that way: talented writers looking at a career in journalism more often than not gravitate towards features. But the lines do keep blurring; after all, it’s not like news reporters are recruited straight out of one gene pool while feature writers are drawn from another gene pool with superior writing skills, and then the two are kept separately in airtight compartments. There’s a lot of movement in journalism, job profiles keep changing and shifts often occur from one department to another.
Like I said earlier, this post doesn’t have a definite beginning or end, there’s plenty more one can say on the subject and I might keep adding to it as and when I feel like. Meanwhile, I can only hope there are even a few people in the profession with the inclination and skill to take up Chandrahas’s suggestion for contemplative essays on ice-cream selles, or stray dogs, or autorickshawdrivers.