09 December 2009

Holiday leftovers

[bungee jumper]In the comments section of the Eric Asimov article to which I linked a few days ago, there were some interesting responses. Most, it seems, agreed with the central premise that wine writing constantly revisiting the same ground is as tedious to read as it is to write. (NB: it’s much more tedious to write. Says the writer.)

Some, of course, disagreed. Journalists need to know their audience, and the audience is not knowledgeable…or so the argument runs. Since is this is the standard position taken by editors of wine columns, the argument is well known to writers, and to a certain extent the source of much of wine writers’ angst as they endlessly revise well-worn subject matter, decorating it with different adjectives and newer vintages, but still adorning the same steaming pile of tedium. (Says the writer, with more than a bit of whine in his voice.)

And then there was a middle ground, in which some tropes were indeed found to be tiresome, but others were worthwhile and even necessary. Here, for example, is Asimov himself defending one of them:

I’m with you — except on holiday columns. Have to distinguish between no-longer-relevant boilerplate and service pieces that readers continue to find useful. You would think, for example, that in the age of Google a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey would no longer be necessary. Yet people still want this, preferably a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. Same with the annual wine column. The trick is to find new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion, and perhaps new and different wines to recommend, though the wisdom remains the same.

My first instinct is to ask whether – “in the age of Google” – people still look to the pre-Thanksgiving newspaper or magazine for their turkey recipe and wine recommendation in anywhere near the numbers they used to. I rather suspect that those seeking a current newspaper or magazine (print or electronic) source are declining, while the number looking at Epicurious or just Googling is rather ascendant. So while Asimov’s argument may be true now (and may, for all I know, not), I see nothing to support the notion that it will be true much longer.

The second is to wonder what the “new and different ways to frame the recurring discussion” would be, having become cynical enough to think that we’re pretty much sold out of frames at this point. What we’re left with is recommending different wines, which Asimov has done, to the point where just about every wine that can be recommended to go with bird and bloating, has been recommended to go with stuffing and the stuffed. Is that really reframing the discussion, or is that simply narrowing the consumer’s choice to “everything”…in which case: how is this helping, exactly?

And the third is to ask something that I’ve always wondered: where’s Paul Krugman’s annual pre-holiday mutual fund gift article, which leads nicely into his annual tax advice column and his very popular “American companies to watch for July 4th” feature? Where’s George Vecsey’s fantasy football roster, his table tennis power rankings, his list of the ten most gut-busting YouTube videos of terrified cats on soccer pitches? I mean, certainly these articles are all very popular and perhaps even necessary for them to write, since they get written by someone over and over again, right? And shouldn’t they be writing gentle into that good column, for the novice who might know what a dollar or a base are, but might be intimidated or confused by talk of derivatives or slugging percentages, not to mention the completely impenetrable Austrian school or Moneyball?

Oddly, it seems that neither their audiences nor their editors think so.

For example, read this. Everyone follow that? Anyone lost at any point? Any terms that might have benefited from definition, references sitting there without explanation, assertions made without the entire history of economic theory appended as a supportive footnote? Yeah, I thought so.

Now read this. If you’re a devoted baseball fan, that probably all makes sense. If not – even if you’re seen a baseball game or ten – well, it probably makes only marginally more sense than this, an article on cricket.

So where is the push…from editors, the audience, or even the writers themselves…for repetition of themes, for simplified language, for an abandonment of jargon and expertise in favor of a theoretical common man’s understanding in any of these opinion pieces?

There isn’t one, of course. So why is wine different?

It isn’t. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

But, more on this later…in which it will be necessary to face up to and defeat the enemy of wine writing, the cancer at its heart, the bane of all it can and should be: the destructive and yet inexplicably popular compulsion to “demystify.”


Salil said...

Top piece, agree fully - though I'm shocked at the thought of you actually visiting a cricket site.

thor iverson said...

Don't worry, I ran away at the first opportunity. ;-)