Dish and Quips
Britishisation of American Magazines
Christopher Hitchens’ Brit-bred erudition and acidity go over well with editors on this side of the pond. Talent helps.
Damn the British. Far too many of their journalists are exceptionally gifted, able to craft some of the most articulate prose imaginable. And America’s top magazine editors know it. Take the editor’s note in the February issue of Vanity Fair, in which Graydon Carter ponders the supernatural abilities of his British columnist, the notorious Christopher Hitchens: "I remember a lunch at a local French restaurant years ago when I was editing another publication. I may have played with a glass of wine to be convivial. Hitchens had five good-size glasses of red, followed by a couple of tumblers of scotch as a palate cleanser. I came back to the office on fumes; Hitchens was completely unaffected by the intake. We sat him down at a borrowed desk in front of an old electric typewriter and he banged out 1,500 words on some subject or other. And it was so beautifully written as to make you want to cry."
So, how do the Brits do it? Hitchens himself came to visit the attic classroom at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on a cold February afternoon to explain his secret formula. Squinting with tired, red eyes through the grayish haze of his constant cigarette smoke, he told the journalism students, "You can’t produce a magazine from nobody’s point of view — it must have conviction." With an accent that somehow emits both boredom and accusation, he was challenging the students to write with passion, something he does in his columns for Vanity Fair and The Nation. "British magazine writers are taught to write with a point of view. You’re not supposed to be neutral. Be judgmental. Interest, enlighten, outrage and offend others. You’re there to do for the reader what they can’t do for themselves. Journalism cannot go too far."
This was something new and exciting to the group of American journalism students who had been taught from day one that journalists should remain above the fray, objective and unswervingly neutral. But how has this man whose writing is so often belligerent and insulting (he called Mother Teresa "the ghoul of Calcutta") managed not only to survive but to thrive in a land of politically correct and largely humorless mainstream journalistic traditions? It would seem that because he is British, Hitchens brings things to the table that American journalists cannot or will not.
Hitchens and other Brits — with their humor and irreverence ("I do not intend to say anything nice about Reading Lyrics, the new magnum opus edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball," writes Englishman Mark Steyn in The National Review, "because Mr. Gottlieb, one of the grand panjandrums of American letters, was snotty about me in The New York Times."), not to mention their colossal vocabularies — have become a valuable commodity to an industry threatened by the Internet, cable TV and continuing problems with the cult of objectivity.
Indeed, most major American magazines have, at one time or another, imported British editors, staff and freelance journalists. Just to name a few, we’ve had: Harold Evans at U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic Monthly; Anna Wintour, Plum Sykes and Grace Coddington at Vogue; Alexander Chancellor, Rebecca Mead, Henry Porter and Anthony Lane at The New Yorker; Sara Giles, Andrew Cockburn, Anthony Haden-Guest, Lynn Barber, Chris Garrett and Christopher Hitchens at Vanity Fair; Liz Tilberis at Harper’s Bazaar; Anthea Disney at TV Guide; Andrew Sullivan at The New Republic; Chris Heath and Steven Daly at Rolling Stone; James Truman, William Shaw and Will Self at Details; John O’Sullivan and Mark Steyn at the National Review; and last, but certainly not least, the infamous Tina Brown, who has left her indelible mark at The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and now Talk.
The `70s and `80s saw the greatest influx of Fleet Street editors and journalists. The so-called "British Invasion" arrived just in time to shake things up in American print journalism, which had been sliding into the doldrums. According to Helen Benedict, a Brit who teaches journalism at Columbia University, magazines and newspapers had declined since the journalistic heyday of Vietnam and Watergate. "Magazines were booming in the `60s and early `70s because of the social revolution and New Journalism. Those were fertile and exciting times," says Benedict. "But then there was a backlash when people like Hunter S. Thompson pushed it too far, and there was no truth anymore. Finally, in the `80s and `90s, the Internet and cable TV were hard on magazines and newspapers. They were dying."
Anthea Disney, who has been in the U.S. for 25 years and is now an executive with NewsCorp, says this slide in American print media coincided with the rise of a new group of talented British journalists making their mark in Britain — and they inevitably caught America’s eye. "In the U.S., there was a desire in magazines and some newspapers to be rejuvenated. They were tired and wanted to become fresh," explains Disney. "They looked to England and saw a feisty group struggling to do something different and put its head above the crowd."
The feistiness and humor of much British writing is what seems to attract so many Americans. Consider this passage from The Earl of Arran’s column: "I have several surnames. I am Arran, Sudley, Saunders of the Deeps — rather pretty that one — and Sir Arthur Gore…I wake up each morning and say to myself, ‘Who shall I be today? I feel rather Sir Arthurish.’ Each name has a different character. Saunders is a rather raffish fellow, vaguely beatnick, who would like to smoke reefers if he dared. Sir Arthur is a sporting squire, swashbuckling, port-drinking and, I’m afraid, rather naughty. Sudley is the courtesy name which with infinite generosity I have lent my elder son. I don’t know him at all, but he seems a nice fellow."
But besides that special brand of humor and the obvious reason that we share the same language, what do the Brits have that sparkles like a rough diamond from across the pond? "I think there is something about the British approach that produces the ‘journalism with attitude’ that characterizes some of the current Britain successes in America," explains David Smith, a reporter with The Sunday Times in London. "American journalists are schooled in a strict ‘facts are sacred’ method, in which everything must be second-sourced, and the opinion of the journalist should not be allowed to intrude. This is also the case for the most formal of journalistic training in Britain, but plenty of other people make it into journalism without going down that formal route. As a result, there are probably more free spirits around in British journalism, and these tend to be the kind of people we export to you."
Hitchens, who agrees with Disney that people like Tina Brown were brought in to rescue American magazines, has his own theories as to why we sought out Brits. "Part of it has to do with what Australians call the ‘cultural cringe’: a deference to what is imagined as a superior sense of wit and history. Part of it is because the magazine idea is originally British-modeled and part of a London tradition. And part of it, I suspect, is because bringing in an outsider allows managers to sidestep inner-office rivalries," he says.
The stereotype of the British bad-boy journalist, who insults and spouts unsolicited points of view and acts crotchety, is well-earned and supported. "There is a culture of opinion in England," says Disney. "The British public expects an opinion — they would be bored if there weren’t one." (Hitchens, the king of opinions, wrote of Ronald Reagan when he was president, "In this corner of my library, I can readily put my hand on every damn-fool remark, cretinous simplification, historical falsehood, fatuous self-contradiction, ‘deniable’ racist innuendo, pig-ignorant anecdote, sly misrepresentation, and senile discourtesy ever uttered by the village idiot now in occupation of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. … Ronald Wilson Reagan is not (just) a hapless blooper merchant. He is a conscious, habitual liar.")
Thanks to the political culture of the U.K. and despite historically strict libel laws, England’s culture of opinion and criticism goes way back. Consider this snippet from a 1910 column by Spencer Leigh Hughes: "One can imagine a peripatetic tub-thumper, hired to defend the House of Lords, saying that the Whigs, with all their faults, were sound on the Constitution, they respected our institutions, they would have been appalled had they heard the atrocious sentiments of ‘your Lord George’ or ‘your Winston Churchill.’ (The cheap orator always says ‘your’ this or that when he wishes to express the utmost disdain.)"
Benedict says of British journalism and politics, "Journalism in Britain is openly aligned with one party or another. You’re allowed to be opinionated. The newspapers are argumentative, and the magazines are often funny, malicious and full of gossip. Satire is a big tradition in England. Spy magazine was an imitation of this British style of journalism, but it failed. American editors like opinionated writing, but not the readers. They are too earnest."
Then there’s the issue of good editing. "I do think that there is a tradition of journalism this side of the Atlantic that means that people write more briefly, and more crisply, and in a more structured fashion," says Jean Aitchison, the Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford in England. "I’m always astonished at how some U.S. papers ramble on. At its best, such rambling explores a topic in greater depth. At its worst, it’s just boring verbosity — words pouring out to fill empty spaces on pages."
Stuart Miller of PRNewswire in Britain attributes Britain’s journalistic word economy to historic factors. "It is possible to say that U.K. journalism is still affected, believe it or not, by World War II. Paper rationing during this period meant that every article written had to be as tight as possible," says Stuart. "This tradition continued after the war, and many new journalists learned the ropes the hard way with an older sub-editor cutting virtually 90 percent of their copy, deeming it unnecessary and verbose. This baptism by fire meant that new reporters learned quickly or changed professions. It is claimed that this still has a trickle-down effect and has helped maintain standards in U.K. journalism over the years."
So then we must ask: where do they acquire this ability to write, edit and support complex arguments so skillfully? Is their talent innate or learned? If we are to suppose innate, then we could consider the way they use our shared language. To many an ear, British English sounds more clever than American English. (Once, the British author Jessica Mitford’s lawyer husband, an American, told a seminar that
his wife was going to talk about pornography and the law. She corrected him: "Yes, but I prefer to call it sex and the First Amendment. It sounds much jollier that way.")
Could those tiny differences — the haughty vowels and errant nouns — be helping the Brits to express themselves so eloquently? Could the U.K.’s long history of oral and lyrical tradition — of bards and limericks and Shakespeare — have oozed into the genetics of the islands, to the point where captivating narratives and artfully crafted prose leap effortlessly from their tongues and pens alike?
According to Bob Levine, a linguistics professor at Ohio State University, the answer does not lie in either linguistics or lyrical traditions. "It has nothing to do with a different linguistic tradition. The main differences in British and American English are not syntactical but phonological. There is almost no difference in syntax or morphology — they are minutely different. If you were to put something written by an American next to something written by a Brit and remove the most obvious vocabulary differences, you couldn’t tell
a difference," says Levine. (Of course, he talks like an American.)
The answer would seem to lie in the way Britain’s children are taught to be thinking and writing machines — by reading ravenously and learning to write and defend their suppositions from an early age. People in the U.K. have a long tradition of being bookworms, perhaps because of the gloomy weather, and so they consume novels like addicts. And then they are made to memorize passages and poetry — and write and write and write. "In my generation, a great deal of emphasis was placed on writing, and all the time. When I compare my third grade writing with that of my children, it’s like night and day," says Benedict, whose children are being schooled in the U.S. "When we were nine years old, our spelling, grammar and penmanship were excellent. Creative writing was a big part of English class. We wrote short stories and developed a good style. We also had to memorize a lot of Shakespeare."
The strenuous writing only escalates at the university level, especially at such institutions as Oxford and Cambridge, where a tutorial system ensures an intimidating one-on-one analysis of each subject. In the tutorial system, the professor assigns an examination-style question to the student, hands him or her a lengthy bibliography from which to work, and expects the student to return the next week, ready to discuss and vigorously defend the eight pages he or she has written on the subject, thus learning to think, write and debate. And this happens week after week. "At Oxford and Cambridge, students have to write a lot — about four to five thousand words a week. Then they have to read their essays out to a tutor. In the Oxford-Cambridge tutorial system, a student’s work is highly scrutinized. The Oxford training is very good for developing self-criticism," explains John Carey, an English literature professor at Oxford.
Levine, who has been teaching at Ohio State University for 13 years, contrasts this with American students and universities. "In North America, kids get admitted to college who can barely spell their names. Kids in the U.S. have to be trained to do basic composition at the university level. Kids in Britain can write lucid, concise, sharp, pointed prose. They are expected to turn out good prose at nine or ten years old. We don’t do anything remotely like that in the U.S."
"At Oxford and Cambridge, you do quickly develop an aggressive manner," says Carey. "You never repeat what you’re told in lectures. You must be sharp, aggressive and original if you want to be noticed. Defending your point of view is a vital part of the education with a tutor." Indeed, Hitchens says he was schooled in public debate, which is now virtually absent from the American curriculum.
Levine says America’s public schools used to produce journalists who could dazzle their readers with their prose, before educational standards in expository writing and rhetoric sank to their current abominable state. "Americans like Walter Lippmann, Dwight Macdonald, and Irving Howe could write as beautiful an English prose, but they belonged to a different generation. They were part of the New Deal era, before education declined in America," he explains. He says the decline began around 40 years ago.
It would seem that in recent years, the U.S., instead of adopting the educational system that creates great writers, just imports https://www.nyrm.org/files/2001/features/them. but here’s a scary thought: could the British be on the road to educational ruin? According to Carey and Benedict, the quality of education in Britain is declining, too. "Margaret Thatcher destroyed the public schools. She took away a lot of money," says Benedict. "The quality has suffered."
"By and large, creative writing isn’t taught anymore," says Carey. "In fact, in schools and colleges, educators have been worrying about the state of writing. The visual culture has made reading unpopular. The schools put out quite a lot of semi-literates. Knowing what a verb and an adjective are is becoming much more rare. There are kids who don’t know anything about writing. I can’t imagine that the U.S. is worse than Britain."
What could this mean for the future of American journalism? If Britain lost the educational system that feeds and waters its exceptional journalists, who would cross the pond to challenge our cult of objectivity — to incite our own journalists to "interest, enlighten, outrage and offend" the general public with opinionated prose, adding some much needed spice to our cooling pot of neutral and politically correct musings? Perhaps the time has come to cultivate more homegrown talent in our own school systems rather than just importing it.