Harold Ross and the Virtue of Clarity

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 10.40.02 AMFrom “Harold Ross—The Impresario,” by A.J. Liebling:

A lot has been written about Ross as an editor of manuscript, as distinguished from Ross the editor-impresario. There should be different words for the two functions in English as there are in French—directeur for the boss and redacteur for the fellow who works on the copy. Ross did both, but he impressed me less as redacteur than directeur. His great demand was clarity. This is a fine and necessary quality, but you can go just so far with it. You cannot make subtlety or complexity clear to an extraordinarily dull reader, but Ross in editing would make himself advocatus asinorum. He would ask scores of marginal questions, including many to which he full well knew the answers, on the off chance that unless all were pre-explained in the text some particularly stupid woman might pick up a New Yorker in a dentist’s waiting room and be puzzled. Out of the swarm of questions there were always a few that improved the piece—on an average, I should say, about 2 1/4 percent, and none that did any harm, because you could ignore the silliest and leave Shawn to talk him out of the rest.

I never thought this quest for clarity naive. It was part of a method he had thought out for putting his “book” across in the early days. If the silliest New Yorker readers could go through a piece on a “sophisticated” subject and understand every word, they would think themselves extremely intelligent and renew their subscription….The writer got his way in the end. Just because he was a great editor, Ross knew when to back down.
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Published in the April 13, 1959, issue of the New Yorker.

Comments

  1. “some particularly stupid woman might pick up a New Yorker in a dentist’s waiting room and be puzzled”? As opposed to the particularly stupid men of which there seems to be no shortage!

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