The Book Club

Was Halberstam’s Editor Afraid To Criticize Him?

Dear Ted,

Here’s what’s really been upsetting me about War in a Time of Peace. You hint at it when you say, quite reasonably, that “an editor who wasn’t afraid of Halberstam could have done some judicious pruning.” Judicious pruning? Someone needed to take a machete and go on a murderous anti-verbiage rampage, whopping out whole sections of the forest. 

Part of the problem is organizational: Halberstam is taking on so much at once that his subjects crowd into each other and his insights, sharp as they may be, tend to get displayed several times in several different places until we want to say, enough! You’ve already made the point that Bush 1 was a modest man who was unable to parlay his achievements into a second term!  (I did love the detail, though, about how Bush regularly made his speechwriters remove the word “I” from speeches, so that the great stylist Peggy Noonan was forced to change “I moved to Texas and soon we joined the Republican Party” to “Moved to Texas, joined the Republican Party.”) Things that Halberstam starts talking about in one place–the long shadow of Vietnam over a particular figure, to take the most frequent example–come back again when he mentions that person 200 pages later. I kept feeling that I was reading in circles with a narrative that did not have the discipline to focus more fully on what it was trying to say at any one point.

The book is also marred in places by shockingly sloppy writing. Halberstam is well-known for his prose style, which can be ornate, dense, breathless, full of superlatives and flourishes. It often works, I think: It reflects his material and goes hand-in-hand with the excitement and enthusiasm he has for his subjects and for their importance in the world. But here, while it does have its moments of clarity and lyricism, it too often sounds flabby and careless. Antecedents are muddied so you have to work hard, in the middle of a sentence, to figure out whom he’s referring to. Commas are used like salt, sprinkled everywhere, to make long run-on sentences that don’t immediately track. Paragraphs start one way, go on to make other points, and then end the same way they started. “That” and “which” are sometimes used interchangeably and often incorrectly. Halberstam repeats some of his good material because of pure inattention, as when he calls Milosevic “one of those men coughed up by history in its more cataclysmic moments.” I thought that was a great description, but then 20 pages later, Clinton is called “as gifted a straddler of complicated issues as the political system had coughed up in years.”

Some of the language is simply lazy and bloated. Here, for instance, is Halberstam’s introduction to Clinton’s burgeoning domestic scandal:

In early 1998, at exactly the same time that Kosovo was beginning to explode in violence, back in Washington the various groups that had been pursuing the president for several years on whether he had made sexual advances toward a woman named Paula Jones stumbled onto what might have been, in terms of White House promiscuity, a mother lode.

And here the author is, several pages later, describing White House distraction during the Lewinsky scandal:

All of this meant that the middle of Clinton’s second term, instead of being devoted to new initiatives, ones postponed during the first term because of lack of political leverage and pressing economic problems, was devoted to hunkering down to fight of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, a man of uncommon zealotry, and the hard-right Republicans in the Congress, not all of whom had been as faithful to their wives as their political righteousness would indicate.

I’m reading an advance reader’s edition–the uncorrected proofs from the publisher–and I’m sure that some of the obvious mistakes will have been corrected for the real edition that appears in stores. But it’s safe to assume that the bulk of the editing has already been done. And I’m wondering what it was that prevented someone from sitting down with Halberstam and making him rewrite passages, move things around, and cut out sections of his unwieldy book. Is his editor afraid to criticize him? Is Halberstam unwilling to be rigorously edited at this stage in his career, or is he so wedded to his material that he can’t let go of things that are extraneous? Did the publisher want to hurry the book along so that it would appear on the fall list and be poised in stores in time for Christmas? I have no idea. But this sloppiness mars the book and does a terrible disservice to its distinguished author.

Did this bother you as much as it did me? Or am I turning into one of these people who spends her old age writing letters to the phone company, complaining about the sloppy writing in their new product leaflets?

All best,