John Kenneth Galbraith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Intellectual Journey: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom; Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, 3/27/86 by Harry Kreisler

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The Art of Good Writing

When one looks at the corpus of your work, it's quite clear that good writing -- lucid, clear, precise -- is very important to your various vocations that you have held. In a way, you were primarily a writer. I wanted to ask you first, what do you think it takes to be a good writer?

I hope you are right; that's certainly been part of my aim in life. It certainly took service under a good editor at one time.

I was an editor of Fortune under Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Inc., who was one of the most ruthless editors that I have ever known, that anyone has ever known. Henry could look over a sheet of copy and say, "This can go, and this can go, and this can go," and you would be left with eight to ten lines which said everything that you had said in twenty lines before. And I can still, to this day, not write a page without the feeling that Henry Luce is looking over my shoulder and saying, "That can go."

One extraordinary part of good writing is to avoid excess, which many writers do not understand. The next thing, which of course is obvious, is to be aware of the music, the symphony of words, and to make written expression acceptable to the ear. How successfully and how one does that, I don't know. But certainly it is something that has always been a concern of mine. I worked on it very hard in one of my first widely read books, The Great Crash of 1929, and I was enormously pleased when it was so reviewed. The Great Crash is an ambiguous title, I must say, one should always watch titles. I saw this many times. I looked once to see if a copy was in the LaGuardia Airport bookstore in New York and the lady there said, "That's not a title you could sell in an airport."

The third thing is never to assume that your first draft is right. The first draft, when you're writing, involves the terrible problem of thought combined with the terrible problem of composition. And it is only in the second and third and fourth drafts that you really escape that original pain and have the opportunity to get it right. Again, I'm repeating myself; I've said many times that I do not put that note of spontaneity that my critics like into anything but the fifth draft. It may have a slightly artificial sound as a consequence of that.

The final thing, in economics, is to have one great truth always in mind. That is, that there are no propositions in economics that can't be stated in clear, plain language. There just aren't.

In an essay that you wrote about writing, on the occasion of turning down, a visiting position in Rhetoric here at Berkeley, you commented on the use of humor. I am going to read to you what you said and ask you how it applies to Galbraith. You wrote, "Recognize the grave risk in a resort to humor. Avoid humor; nothing so undermines a point as its association with a wisecrack."

Well, this was an ironical comment.

There's no question that in all writing humor is a very delicate instrument. It fades over into obviousness, absurdity, very quickly. And you'll always use it at risk. Secondly, there is no form of irony in the world that won't be taken seriously. I once wrote a piece of which I was at the time very proud (I maybe shouldn't go back and read it again), arguing somewhat ironically that socialism in the United States was the result of organized sports. It takes people at a vulnerable age and makes teamwork, more than individual work, the thing. It subjects people to the authority of the team captain or the coach, and as I say, this is at an age where people are vulnerable. And therefore, team sports are the breeding grounds for socialism and must be watched very carefully. And I had an organization in the piece -- this ran in Harper's -- called "the CIA": the Congress for Individualist Athletics. It was written under a pseudonym because I was then an ambassador, I couldn't write under my own name. One day the postman struggled into my room at Harvard with a pile of letters this thick that had been sent on from Harper's from people who, well, they fell into three classes:

Well, it's an example of the dangers of using irony. Under the best of circumstances, many people are going to take it seriously. But in any case, that's a rather long answer to a short question. Those would be the four principles, if anybody can remember them, that I would urge on a writer. Probably the two that should be most widely urged are to go over the drafts endlessly, and to have a good editor.

You were somewhat critical of writing in the social sciences. Is that a fair statement?

Oh sure. A lot of the writing in the social sciences is bad writing, is unnecessarily obscure. A lot of it is designed to give the impression that the individual so writing has a level of sophistication which separates him from the masses, and possibly separates him from his colleagues. And quite a bit of it is just unnecessarily verbose.

Writing is a way to get at truth. You wrote a novel, The Triumph, about our foreign policy. Why did you do that? Do you think it gave you a vehicle to say things you couldn't otherwise say?

I wrote a couple of novels and I must say, looking back, I would say the time when I was writing those novels was, perhaps, the happiest of my life. (One of them was not a novel, but an O. Henry type of thing which took a lot of related adventures of an individual by the name of Herschel McClanders and put them together.) You move into a world of your own creation. You live in that world. And you can also make a point in a novel, you can make a point in fiction, you have the availability of truth in fiction that you do not have in the real world. The Triumph was a novel; thanks to President Reagan it has just been re-issued, it was a novel about Central America, a country vaguely like Haiti -- some aspects of Haiti, some aspects of the Dominican Republic, some aspects of Nicaragua (more of Nicaragua than any of the other two). An old dictator like Somoza or Trujillo has reached the end of the road, and a middle-of-the-road social democratic government comes into power. And this arouses the alarm of the State Department because there is a minister of education who is suspected of being a communist. This is something like our present fears that Nicaragua is going to export its communism to Texas -- a very great fear. The new government is denied aid, denied assistance, denied recognition; the ambassador is recalled. And then finally that government falls and things look up. They bring back the old dictator's son, who is a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He is installed in office. He's given aid, he's given military support. He calls to his support a lot of young officers and it develops that this bastard has become a communist at the University of Michigan! And, as I say, there is a certain relevance of this story such that President Reagan, not entirely to my delight, has caused the publisher to re-issue the novel after some fifteen, sixteen years. I couldn't be more pleased. Well, I couldn't be pleased with the circumstance that brings it about.

Next page: U.S.'s Third World Policy during the Cold War

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