Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dear NYT, Please Stop with the Similes

In my morning reading of The New York Times, I came across an interesting article about the current debates about land use in Colorado that have arisen from the government's intent to sell public lands to natural gas drillers.  Doing so would damage regional economies in organic agriculture, wine-growing, and tourism because, frankly, one spill spells death to your organic farm or your tourist hotspot. Also, because of the strange land use laws in Colorado, individuals do not actually have rights to the minerals underneath their property, so the government can presumably make decisions without their consultation or compensation.  Salon's David Sirota has provided great commentary and reporting on this debate over the past year.  See here, here, and here.

However, my main gripe this morning is with the author's intent to inject awkward similes into his article.

"Last week, the forces of government and upset citizens collided like two weather fronts in a packed, stifling town meeting."

"They applauded as town council members pressed federal officials on drilling’s effect on the town’s air, water and economy — eliciting responses that were as unsatisfactory to the crowd as a bushel of mealy peaches."

First of all, similes tend to work better in poetry than in prose.  However, they can still bring depth and character to prose, especially in descriptions of individuals, landscapes, or events. One does not often encounter similes in newspaper journalism; however, rareness does not prove wrongness.

In this article, however, the similes do not advance my understanding.  To say that the two groups collided "like two weather fronts" does not give me a more dynamic understanding of what went on in the meeting.  Describing the meeting as "packed" and "stifling" does more to convey the intensity of the meeting than the rather tired simile.

The latter example is perhaps more egregious.  The author is clearly trying to be clever as he is discussing peach growers, but his words end up sounding trite because he is simply trying too hard to be clever.

I don't deny that similes can have value in newspaper reporting, and I think that extended metaphors can often be useful in editorials.  However, they should be used sparingly, only when prose fails to convey the complexity or fullness of an image necessary for the reader's understanding.

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