Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (New York Review Books Classics)
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Jessica Mitford was a member of one of England’s most legendary families (among her sisters were the novelist Nancy Mitford and the current Duchess of Devonshire) and one of the great muckraking journalists of modern times. Leaving England for America, she pursued a career as an investigative reporter and unrepentant gadfly, publicizing not only the misdeeds of, most famously, the funeral business (The American Way of Death, a bestseller) and the prison business (Kind and Usual Punishment), but also of writing schools and weight-loss programs. Mitford’s diligence, unfailing skepticism, and acid pen made her one of the great chroniclers of the mischief people get up to in the pursuit of profit and the name of good. Poison Penmanship collects seventeen of Mitford’s finest pieces—about everything from crummy spas to network-TV censorship—and fills them out with the story of how she got the scoop and, no less fascinating, how the story developed after publication. The book is a delight to read: few journalists have ever been as funny as Mitford, or as gifted at getting around in those dark, cobwebbed corners where modern America fashions its shiny promises. It’s also an unequaled and necessary manual of the fine art of investigative reporting.
this documentary, Mr. Gordon Thomas, how it had been received and whether there had been much adverse reaction. He said that to his astonishment the program, which is not on prime time, attracted seven and a half million viewers, compared to an average two and a half million who generally watch ABC-SCOPE. Newspaper comment and letters to the network were uniformly laudatory, he said; and not a single complaint was received: “Our publicity people have so far been unable to turn up any evidence of
straight in the eye from the pages of innumerable magazines, newspapers, fold-out advertisements, sometimes in black-and-white, sometimes in living color, sometimes posed in a group around a table, sometimes shown singly, pipe in hand in book-lined study or strolling through a woodsy countryside: the Guiding Faculty of the Famous Writers School.* Here is Bennett Cerf, most famous of them all, his kindly, humorous face aglow with sincerity, speaking to us in the first person from a mini-billboard
writers? Robert Byrne gives a gloomy account of the true state of the market for “good prose” and “trained talent.” He says that of all lines of work free-lance writing is one of the most precarious and worst paid (as who should know better than Bennett Cerf & Co.?). He cites a survey of the country’s top twenty-six magazines. Of 79,812 unsolicited article manuscripts, fewer than a thousand were accepted. Unsolicited fiction manuscripts fared far worse. Of 182,505 submitted, only 560 were
the details of its course to prospects and answer their questions in the same fashion; but perhaps that is just another fault of our civilization.) Professor Paul Engle, a poet who directed the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, is the only professional educator among the fifteen. But like his colleagues he pleads ignorance of the basics. The school’s admissions policy, its teaching methods and selling techniques are a closed book to him. “I’m the least informed of all people,” he
to press. Murder your darlings.” A marvelous piece of advice; thanks to Sir A. Q.-C., my wastepaper basket is a veritable Herod’s graveyard of slaughtered innocents. (Editor: Please delete last sentence.) The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, which first appeared in 1959, is now a standard high-school text; hence older readers may think it beneath their dignity to consult it. If so, they will be missing a rare treat and much valuable instruction. I only wish I had had