Speller-poets vs. reporters who ‘see through words’

imageTwitter has been abuzz with talk about The Price of Typos. Here’s the angle in the essay that most intrigues me:  the possible differences in the particular literary gifts of good and rotten spellers.

On the New York Times site, Virginia Heffernan says: “A writer with a mind that doesn’t register how words are spelled tends to see through the words he encounters—straight to the things, characters, ideas, images and emotions they conjure. A good speller, by contrast—the kind who never fails to clock the idiosyncratic orthography of ‘algorithm’ or ‘Albert Pujols’—tends to see language as a system. Good spellers are often drawn to poetry and wordplay, while bad spellers, for whom language is a conduit and not an end in itself, can excel at representation and reportage.”

A valid theory? Maybe. Maybe not. Fodder for brain scientists? Whatever the case, none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald (first photo) spelled “definite” as “definate,” and yet, in my non-expert opinion, he may have been as much a poet as any other American writer of prose, while also frequently showing a reporter’s eye. Of course, as a multilevel wordplayer, Fitzgerald was nothing compared to, say, Vladimir Nabokov, the stellar speller. Heffernan uses them as opposites to illustrate writerly differences. Fitzgerald worked  briefly as an adman but, as I recall, was never an actual newspaper reporter; instead, it’s the skill, the love of detail, that she and I are talking about.

imageI myself like not just Fitzgerald but also one of the most infamous spellers, er, nonspellers, of American literature—Theodore Dreiser (second picture), who was in fact a reporter at times and even wrote a memoir called Newspaper Days. Dreiser can commit atrocities if you consider him strictly as a stylist and demand absolutely uninterrupted brilliance, but as a reporter-type novelist, he infuses his works with gems such as the following description of one of the protagonist’s sidekicks in The Financier: “He had a thick growth of upstanding hair looking not unlike a rooster’s comb, a long and what threatened eventually to become a Punch-and-Judy chin, a slightly aquiline nose, high cheek-bones, and hollow, brown-skinned cheeks. His eyes were as clear and sharp as those of a lynx.”

If the Heffernan theory holds up, I can see not just literary but also city-room ramifications. While the Web may teem with bad spellers—I myself am somewhere between Dreiser and Nabokov as a speller, with no literary self-appraisals intended—it is increasingly important to spell well for newspaper work. After all, the copy desk is shrinking in the never-ending quest of newspaper chains to save dimes. But here’s the darker side for the bean-counters and allies. If the theory is true and if newspapers care more and more about journalists’ spelling skills—just as Jim Brady, Erik Wemple, Steve Buttry and colleagues so fervently did during their time at TBD—could they be depriving themselves of the services of some of the most talented reporters? I miss the Brady-era TBD but am confident that both Dreiser and Fitzgerald would never have lasted a day there, let alone have been hired in the first place.

Of course, journalistic and novelistic gifts are not the same thing. I can see both pluses and minuses in the TBD approach, even if, given my orthographic faults, I myself would have foundered there. But if newspapers and other news sites, amid their copy-desk cutbacks, nix the rotten spellers among job applicants, they just might be depriving readers of the surprises that could help boost Web traffic and make cutbacks a little less necessary.

Related: Congratulations to the Journal Register chain, the current employer of Jim Brady and Steve Buttry, on its sale to Alden Gobal Capital, which the Journal Register people say will give the chain more resources to work with. Hmm. Does this mean that  the company will keep copy desks, even (in case Fitzgerald II or Dreiser II comes along)? As an aside, nothing more, let me note that the chain owns the Morning Journal, in Lorain, where I worked, as well as the New Haven Register, one of the Connecticut papers that carried my revelations about Abe Ribicoff’s spookish investment.

Note: I’ve changed the post date from July 21, 2011, to October 29, 2011, to give this item more prominence on the home page.

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David Rothman

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