Friday, August 31, 2012

Why would The Economist cut its best writing?

I know all the pieces in the Economist are unsigned but from time to time they produce passages of prose that you want to read more than once. A few days ago they published on their website an obituary of Neil Armstrong, which contained this paragraph:
Perhaps the most unexpected consequence of the moon flights was a transformation of attitudes towards Earth itself. Space was indeed beautiful, but it was beauty of a severe, geometrical sort. Planets and stars swept through the cosmos in obedience to Isaac Newton’s mathematical clockwork, a spectacle more likely to inspire awe than love. Earth was a magnificent contrast, a jewel hung in utter darkness, an exuberant riot of chaos and life in a haunting, abyssal emptiness. The sight had a profound effect on the astronauts, and photos of the whole Earth, which had never been seen before, nourished the nascent green movement.
I found the thought really striking and the image of the jewel hung in utter darkness particularly memorable. I tweeted about it. Quite a few people agreed and re-tweeted it.

This morning I was reading the print edition and there's the obituary. It's been cut, partly for fit, but also presumably to dampen down its lyricism. The above paragraph now reads:

Yet the flights had one huge unintended consequence: they transformed attitiudes towards Earth itself. He too had been astonished to see his own planet "quite beautiful", remote and very blue, covered with a white lace of clouds. 
I know Samuel Johnson said you should read your work back, find the bit you like best and strike it out, but this is ridiculous.


  1. That "jewel hung in utter darkness":

    cf Carl Sagan: earth considered from space: "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam".

  2. Call me a philistine - but I've never got that Samuel Johnson line.

  3. Well, he was no doubt being controversial but I've always assumed that what he was pointing out is that writers are often in love with the parts of their work that their readers don't get.

  4. Has to be more than subbing, has to be two different writers, whichever very talented scribbler wrote the original obit would rather give up the day job than write something as pedestrian as "He too had been astonished to see his own planet "quite beautiful", remote and very blue, covered with a white lace of clouds." Remote and very blue? Different writer entirely, they just nicked the first line.

  5. Dreadful, truly dreadful.

    Presumably it's policy at The Economist to look out for anything outstandingly written and replace it with a piece of writing as tedious and clumsy as possible.

    'This is briliant'. 'We can't have that, make it worse immediately'.

    No wonder I've never bought it and never will.

  6. Firstly let me say that Samuel Johnson should have had his writing license revoked as a child. And his talking license. Really any form of communication at all.

    That being said, the Economist is effectively a technical journal coopted by the masses. Florid writing isn't what they do for a living. The first quote is gorgeous, don't get me wrong, but it isn't on message.