To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

I don’t quite know why I’m so grief-striken at what Christopher Hitchens (whom I’ve never met) is going through, aside from his being a fellow human, but this article hits me where I live. Perhaps the reason I’m choked up reading it is that I love to talk and have to write. As for Hitchens himself, the highest praise I can give him is that I always enjoy hearing him talk even when I abominate what he is saying.

There has been a good deal of merited attention given lately to Christopher Hitchens’s new memoirs, Hitch 22 — deserved, that is, by the description within its many pages of a number of incidents that are amusing, and often in words that are entertaining. Different people approve and recoil from different parts of it, but it seems everybody is talking about it.

One of the things that “everybody” will have his or her own viewpoint on is the the rightness of his many attacks: how we feel about his savaging of Kissinger, Mother Theresa, Clinton, or God will depend entirely on how we feel about each of those entirely incommensurate subjects. Even some of us who are willing to let him rail against the Deity, however, will bridle at this, as flagged in a thoughtful review:

[Hitchens] also relishes Kingsley [Amis]’s insistence that the only critical tool anyone really needs is the word ‘good’ and its variants (running from ‘bloody good’ to ‘some good’ to ‘no good’ to ‘absolutely no bloody good at all’). So Jane Austen, both men agreed, is ‘not all that good’. The reason Kingsley gave, with which Hitchens concurs, is that she had an ‘inclination to take a long time over what is of minor importance and a short time over what is major’.

Could there possibly be a more egregious example of simple-minded criticism? Such a charge against a writer, if true, would seem to indicate the possession by that author of a literary virtuosity of the first rank. Hitchens all but boasts of his lack of musical taste or interest. Could any musician or lover of music mistake number of words for a hierarchy of values? Can anyone who dismisses Jane Austen’s artistic sorcery — which is perennially compared, and not entirely fatuously, with that of Mozart — based on a mere counting of words, be blamed for being wrong about anything else whatsoever? As my elderly Southern relatives would have said, casting their eyes down to the floor, “He just doesn’t know any better, bless his heart.”

Perhaps part of the point for Hitchens pertains to the issue of virility — one about which he is alternately defensive, defiant, and refreshingly enlightened in his memoir. But, if that is his hangup, let this commenter from a blog be the sufficient answer:

I’m a 64-year-old married male, a retired Navy pilot and Vietnam vet, who was first introduced to Jane Austen in high school and have reread all of her novels annually ever since. I always start with Mansfield Park, the work that continues to generate the most questions, and finish with Pride and Prejudice, the most enjoyable. Jane was a genius whose understanding of men was equal to her understanding of women. Her heroes were as manly as her heroines were womanly, and she treated the wimps, the hand-wringers, the cowards, and the effete with disdain. Any real man would love Jane Austen.

A large public is daily at a further remove from the literary temper of a Martin Amis who could refuse to read 1984 because Orwell used the worn expression “ruggedly handsome features” on the first page. The editor of The Onion — of all people well-placed to suvey the Zeitgeist (if that word hasn’t itself become a cliché in English) — attacks the meme-menace with a will.

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