Specimen of Rotten Writing

Thomas Russell Wingate
October 2009

[Excerpts from In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History (2003) by Adam Bellow (son of Saul Bellow)]

What was he thinking when he wrote this?

The Kennedy machine descended like a flying saucer atop the federal pyramid and sank its tentacles deep into the machinery of government.

This is not so bad—it hardly could be—but it’s not so good, either.

The problem, then, is not that nepotism continues to be practiced, but that it is often practiced badly or haphazardly. The solution is not to keep banging it with a hammer like a glob of mercury but to bring it out into the open and subject it to the highest possible standards.

Who ever heard of “a hammer like a glob of mercury”? Perhaps he meant “banging nepotism with a hammer as one bangs a glob of mercury.” But how does one bang nepotism (a practice and an abstraction) with a hammer (a thing) in the way one bangs a liquid metal? And why does one bang a liquid metal? Wouldn’t that spatter the glob? Wouldn’t that damage the hammer, which is of a metal lighter than mercury? And if the glob of mercury was not out in the open, where was it and why was it there? And aren’t globs of mercury already sufficiently pure? If nepotism is to be of the highest standards, how would these differ from the lower standards we seem to have now?

But if nepotism is in some respects a two-way street, it is also a one-way transaction; no immediate return can be expected beyond the normal obligation of children to care for their aged parents. To the extent that nepotism takes place in the context of a family enterprise, however, the spirit of it requires that its benefits be passed on to the next generation.

Is this “one-way prose” or is it “two-way prose”? If one obtains a return on a transaction, is that like the return one might make on a street? (If one has gone south, one returns by going north.)

“The spirit of it requires that its benefits be passed on…” The spirit of what? The family, the context, the enterprise, the nepotism? And does that spirit have anything to say about how losses should be borne, transmitted, allocated, or avoided?

How, we are left to wonder, does “the spirit” differ from “the normal obligation”? And if the obligation is normal, why should we bring it out in the open and hit it with a hammer?
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