Friday, 12 June 2009

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Mother Jones and the National Review on the dubious quality of Sotomayor’s prose: “This apple’s the worst orange I’ve ever tasted.” This past week, the attacks on Sotomayor have turned from what she’s said to how she’s said it. Conservatives began by hammering away at the “weird, unidiomatic constructions and errors of punctuation and grammar [in] her infamous 2001 ‘Wise Latina’ speech.” Now, I advocate writing conference papers that “contain few expensive words and no Faulknerian feats of subordination” on the grounds that no human being—not even the academic ones—can parse grammatically complex arrangements of jargon on the fly, so I’m more attuned than most to the fact that what passes for grammatical in English as she is spoke doesn’t pass muster in English as she is wrote. You can imagine, then, why I chafed at Heather McDonald’s criticism of Sotomayor’s unscripted speeches for containing errors endemic to spoken language. Just because an unscripted speech is transcribed after the fact doesn’t make it written; or, as per my talk, just because it can be put to paper doesn’t mean it was meant to be read there. Judging the quality of her prose from her speeches, as McDonald and fellow Bench Memos writer Ed Whelan did, is an intellectually dishonest exercise for the simple reason that nobody (outside of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) speaks in paragraphs. Not that this stops the other member of the Bench Memos team, Matthew J. Franck, from claiming Sotomayor “writes” sentences that were clearly spoken aloud; or that those sentences “begin with a thought and trail off without saying much of anything after all, or double back and contradict themselves,” i.e. that the transcription of her unscripted speech transcribed sentences that were clearly spoken aloud. When I taught literary journalism, I always included Mark Singer’s profile of Errol Morris on the syllabus because it works both as an introduction to New Yorker-style profiles and a meta-methodological essay on how to approach transcriptions critically and responsibly. Here’s Singer transcribing Florence Rasmussen’s speech in Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978): If I could only get out. Drive my car. I’d get another car. Ya . . . and my son, if he was only better to me. After I bought him that car. He’s got a nice car. I bought it myself just a short time ago. I don’t know. These kids—the more you do for them . . . He’ s my grandson, but I raised him from two years old . . . I don’t see him very often. And he just got the car. I didn’t pay for all of it. I gave him four hundred dollars. Singer responds to her outpouring by noting that [w]ith an arresting instinct for symmetry, Florence Rasmussen manages to contradict most of what she has to say. It seems that she knows certain things, but then, in the next moment, she trots out contrary information[:] I’d like to drive my car; but I might not even have a car any longer, might have to buy a new one. I bought my son—O.K., he’s not my son, he’s my grandson—a new car;...

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