April’s run of The Session (hosted by Heather of Beer Hobo) brought out some well-informed conceits about beer, writing, and writing about beer. The commentary cut a pretty large swath through the grain fields of our culture, and I was pleased to see a lot of energetic opinions on how to elevate and evolve past the current trends in beer journalism. If you’re interested in reading more about beer as a nonfiction topic from some of the best sources in the business, Heather’s round-up is here.
Despite a few wonderful essays and some really thoughtful, constructive feedback for us writers, there was little discussion about the quality of the writing. Alan McLeod flirted with it at the end of his entry, but no one really cut deep into the tender meaty importance of writing in a syntactically, grammatically, structurally, and thematically engaging manner. If we have a problem in the beer writing community, I’m willing to bet that the problem isn’t the beer, or the community.
I could go on about sloppy writers who clumsily wield grammar like a linguistic sledge hammer, smashing clauses into phrases with about as much grace as a sloshed rhinoceros, but that wouldn’t be productive. If you’re going to be a writer (and yes, if you run a blog you’re a writer, like it or not), you have to learn how to use your tools. No excuses, no exceptions.
In place of getting into the literal literary nuts and bolts, we’ll pull our topic from the shadowy side of the discourse, illuminate that insidious and sneaky monster that permeates lots of modern writing: Sentimentalism.
We all know the word sentimental, and know the malformed lump of negative connotation on its back. It’s often thrown in as an declarative insult, “Stop being so sentimental.” Sentimentalism relies on opinion and feeling, coming from the writer’s innate emotion, often eschewing logic, reason, and repeatable fact. It’s the easy way out from a communication and creativity perspective; you can have an experience, form an opinion, then write about it. No extra research or parallel thinking needed. Hell, I’m doing that exact thing right now.
But sentimentalism, generally, doesn’t make for good writing. It makes for ephemeral jolts of subjectivity, none of which provide much context, none of which manage to dive very deep beneath the surface to expand, entertain, or educate. It’s brain-dumping in its purest form, the literary embodiment of “I think what I have to say matters, so I’m going to say it, regardless of qualification or contradictory evidence.” There are some writers who can use this style to great effect (especially in humor, see: David Sedaris) but for the most part, sentimentalism is the nonfiction writing plague of our generation.
It’s sort of the inborn cry of the internet denizens dashed in ink, a sense of entitlement brought to life with awkward phrases and unsupported assertions. Modern nonfiction slides ever towards the municipal landfill partly because we have fewer qualified gatekeepers (read: newspapers and magazines, and editors at both), significantly more avenues of publication that slip past any critical review, but also because a lot of young, new writers think that any opinion they have is valid, and worth writing 400 words about, in odd, self-fulfilling homage.
Honor thy elders
If we look at some nonfiction masters, we’ll find very little of how they feel about their topics. The best writing (that survives the test of time-based irrelevance) stands proudly objective; letting the facts and details portray the emotion and power of the scene, all without clunky attempts to two-hand shove insight into the reader’s path. In Susan Orlean’s 1992 Esquire piece, “The American Male at Age Ten,” she never directly tells us what she thinks about Colin Duffy, her opinions on how he’s being raised, or her take on the social commentary oozing out of his budding pubescence. Instead, she lets Colin and his actions speak on the page by showing us who he is and how he lives. Not even a hint of sentiment, and yet, the piece is powerful and speaks volumes about our society’s treatment of young boys.
Some might argue that you can get away with not having feelings and opinions in a long-form journalistic piece, but that it wouldn’t work in other, more complicated context. To them I offer Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a story so teeming with the potential to get sentimental that emotion-termites have eaten away most of the pages of my paperback copy. And yet, despite the surging, unfair realities of death in her life, Didion presents grief in a detached, objective manner, very rarely indulging in her own turmoil, and giving the reader fascinating (if heartbreaking) insight into the grieving process. The book succeeds in teaching the reader about life, death, grief, and love, because her intentional lack of direct editorial makes her messages approachable, universal, not just relevant to the prosaic bits and pieces of how it went down for her.
Still not convinced? Then just pick up any John McPhee, any David Quammen, any Michael Pollan, any Laura Hillenbrand. Go on a mystical vision quest to find direct, clear opinion from the writer. You won’t find much, if any, because the best writers don’t use it. They’re aware and capable enough to know that a story needs to stand alone without crutches made of empty sentiment.
So how do we avoid it?
Let me clarify: I’m not suggesting that beer writing should be robotic nonsense, completely void of feeling or emotion. That’s almost as bad as touchy-feely Buzzfeed fluff. There are times when you can’t avoid smearing your greasy soul all over the page, and times when that may be the perfect thing to do. Using it effectively goes back to the Composition 101 theory of “showing vs. telling.” Ninety nine times out of one hundred, a sentimental piece of writing is telling the reader how to feel about something, instead of showing them and letting them discover the meaning on their own. I may very well be guilty of doing that in this post, reinforcing my point.
When you draw from a sentimental core to write a beer review (or anything, actually), you’re attaching to it all of your own likes and dislikes, history and experiences, all while steeping it in environmental and mental circumstances that probably couldn’t be recreated by you, never mind a complete stranger. This is why I dislike ~90% of traditional beer reviews. Not because the format itself is flawed, or because the collection of flavor and aroma data for a beer is a bad thing, but because most of these reviews are unabashedly telling the reader what to think. The implication is that the writer’s opinion is as good as fact, and that without establishing any specific authority, you’re just supposed to go along with what they say just because they were able to say it. Very Cartesian, really.
This may sound odd, but your job as a beer writer is not to tell me about beer. At least not directly. Telling a person reading a beer blog about a beer in a review is like describing the nuances of a piece of plywood to a master carpenter; you’re going to bore the carpenter, and he doesn’t really care about that aspect of the wood, anyway. Your job is to connect a reader to the beer in a way they don’t expect, show them what it meant to you (or didn’t, if you hated it) and let them draw a conclusion. Do your best to actively avoid inserting your own take and viewpoint, and focus more on capturing the context that exists outside of the glass.
Warning: pulling this off may require the use of snooty literary things like metaphors and imagery. Use them anyway. Your writing, and your readers, will be happier.