Review of
Cristopher Hitchens'


Subject: review of mortality

Mr. Milam,

In your review of Hitchens' Mortality you note that in a contribution from Hitchens' editor, the sentence "Christopher was not just brave in facing the illness that took him but brave in word and thought" appears. And you describe the sentence as one "that a good editor would have strangled in the crib." I frequently see commentary of this nature in regard to passages that I see nothing wrong with, and this is such a case. I'm curious: do you say an editor would have "strangled" it because it's bad writing, or because the sentence contradicts a major point that Hitchens made?

I ask the question not to be critical, but because I often can't make out the line between good and bad writing. If you consider that sentence to be bad writing, could you tell me why?

And for the record, I've never seen anything wrong with "It was a dark and stormy night."

--- Alex Duncan
Senior Programmer
FlightSafety Services

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Hi, Alex:

And thanks for your email.

There is nothing wrong with the sentence "Christopher was not just brave in facing the illness that took him but brave in word and thought." It is just that Carter is using that old wheeze about those of us who are disabled, or who have cancer (or any other wasting disease). He thinks for some weird reason that when these things come to pass we get magically transformed into John Wayne figures.

Hitchens wrote that when he was in chemotherapy, "the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you." And in the final pages of Mortality, he reports, "Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can't run away from." Perhaps it is best said by one of my friends, also disabled, who wrote: "We are only brave when we have a choice."

If I had to pick out an example of bad writing from all this, I would probably point at my own sentence suggesting that Carter's words "should have been strangled in the crib." This is known as a mixed metaphor, and is pretty silly because one cannot strangle a sentence, whether it's in a crib or out of a crib. And sentences don't usually hide in cribs unless they are being cribbed.

As for "It was a dark and stormy night," that might best be left on the cutting room floor. It is an ancient, hoary introduction to (presumably) an adventure story. As a dyed-in-the-wool cliché, like most clichés, instead of inviting us into the mystery, it tells us, forcefully, that there is nothing new under the sun.

--- L. W. Milam
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