Joe Queenan’s narcissistic verbal selfie symbolizes what’s wrong with contemporary feature writing

How soon would you get bored if every other song on the radio station included the exact same guitar riff, usually at the beginning of the tune? Not long I imagine. Nothing to fear: music producers and musicians would figure it out pretty quickly and come up with new riffs and other ways to make their songs interesting. Too bad that contemporary writers of features for newspapers, magazines and Internet media haven’t figure out yet that if you use the same verbal trick in every article, you’re going to end up with something bland and boring.

The trick is using an anecdote from the writer’s own life to begin or advance the text. Writer after writer persists on injecting an anecdote about themselves into articles. Are these writers so uncreative that they can’t figure out another way to start or move a piece along? I’ve said for years that it’s easy to write about oneself, but the professional writer can also write about other people and other things.  Far too many prose writers today feel compelled—no, obsessed—with throwing a verbal selfie into the article.

Here are some recent examples:

If you think I’m creating a storm from a few raindrops, consider that of the 20 non-editorials in the New York Times “Week in Review” section of February 9, 2014, nine included anecdotes from the lives of the writers.  One writer remembers his experiences skiing as a child in article about the scarcity of snow in traditional winter resorts because of global warming. Another writer remembers an ugly incident from her childhood in a discussion of the purported lack of multiracial characters on TV. A writer who’s a nurse mentions her own experience in an article about poor communication between physicians and their patients.  And on and on… Some of these “verbal selfies” are appropriate to the article, but many just slow things down or serve in place of what could have been a more apt or illuminating example.

There are many rhetorical devices that writers can employ to make their case or tell their story. Why do so many stick to this one tired trope? Some thoughts:

  • The writers are lazy or so overwhelmed with work that they look into their own often paltry experience instead of taking the time to do actual research and reporting.
  • College journalism professors have stressed this one technique of writing a feature article to the detriment of all others, and mediocre writers are unable to discover other techniques on their own (Hint: read Dante, Dickenson, Shui Hu Zhuan and other great writers).
  • The prevalence of injecting the self into reporting has increased in tandem with the growing selfishness of all of society and with the growing prevalence of adults continuing to enjoy childhood pleasures well into adulthood. The narcissism at the heart of the verbal or the photographic selfie also can explain the politics of selfishness and the desire of grown people to visit Disney theme parks and read Harry Potter fiction.

At least in all the articles I have referenced so far, the selfie that each writer throws into his or her piece advances the topic of the article.  But in Joe Queenan’s stunning display of narcissism in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “A Word to the Wise,” the selfie constitutes the entire article.

In “A Word of Advice…on Advice,” Queenan proposes that Americans love to get advice—from books, from newspaper columns, from the Internet, from experts, from other people—but that the advice often doesn’t help.  Queenan starts with three anecdotes of advice he did not take, followed by a glib anecdote of the last time he remembers taking advice: when he was hitchhiking at night and a trucker told him not to accept hitchhiking rides from truckers at night. Finally we get to an expert—the only expert he quotes in the article. The expert says that most people don’t take advice because they feel that the person giving it is acting superior or being high-handed. No studies, no reference to years of clinical cases. Just the statement. Of course, Queenan does qualify the expert for us: he’s psychologist who played guitar in a failed rock-and-roll band 43 years ago—with Queenan! I guess if he’s FOJQ (friend of Joe Queenan), he must know his stuff.

The remainder of the article drones on in the same vein: anecdotes from Queenan’s experience, advice Queenan has given others and glib statements that mostly support the conservative status quo that the Journal loves so much such as “At some level people know that, unless the good word comes from McKinsey or Warren Buffet, most off-the-cuff advice is useless.”  Queenan presents no reality on this issue outside of his own admittedly glib imagination. No studies. No textual analysis. No comparisons. No real world-renown expert. In fact, there is absolutely no content in the article. It’s a 2,329-word verbal selfie of Queenan.

After turning the article into his editor, I wonder if Queenan bought a pie from his local bakery, stuck his thumb through the crust, pulled out a plum and grinned broadly as he snapped a selfie with his smart phone.

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