NYT's Alessandra Stanley Explains Her Terrible Writing Technique

Alessandra Stanley, chief television critic for the New York Times and panel moderator (Photo by J. Countess/WireImage)
Alessandra Stanley, chief television critic for the New York Times and panel moderator (Photo by J. Countess/WireImage)

If you happened to be hanging out on the internet last Friday, somewhere near the intersection of Pop-Cultural-Criticism and Oh-No-How-Did-This-Get-Written-What-A-Dumpster-Fire, you might have heard about New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley's latest foray into failure, "Wrought In Their Creator's Image" -- her attempt at reviewing the upcoming Viola Davis vehicle "How To Get Away With Murder."

Stanley wrongfoots her way onto multiple rakes before the reader's gaze drops below the second paragraph. For starters, she is somehow of the belief that Shonda Rhimes is the creator of "How To Get Away With Murder." Alas, no: that honorific belongs to Peter Nowalk. Oh, and then there's Stanley's lede: "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'”

Oof. It didn't take long for those familiar with Rhimes' work -- and for Rhimes herself -- to object to this weird statement. The blowback was justified. If there's one impression of Rhimes that forms when you sample her work, read interviews with her or listen to her most ardent fans discuss the joys of watching her shows with one another, it's that Rhimes -- far from angry -- is fun. A boatload of fun. Time magazine's television critic James Poniewozik offers a much more accurate distillation of Rhimes' essence in a piece Time just pulled out from behind its paywall, no doubt to show Stanley how this work is done:

It’s no coincidence that the logo of Shonda Rhimes’ production company, ShondaLand, is a roller coaster built around a heart. Fast, sexy and entertaining, her prime-time sagas are twisty, funky constructions built of licorice whips and cotton candy. And like an amusement-park attraction, they could well come with a list of warnings: May cause narrative whiplash. Beware of injury from jaw hitting the floor. Management not responsible if you wear out the O, M and G keys on your mobile device.

In short, anyone hoping that Rhimes' shows are going to consistently deliver the television equivalent of a Sister Souljah album is bound to be disappointed. It's almost as if the dividing line between a critic like Poniewozik and a flounderer like Stanley is that Poniewozik actually watches the shows he's assigned to review.

This is hardly the first time Stanley's work ethic has been questioned. Her litany of errors, most of them unforced, has been well-documented. And most if not all of those errors would never have happened had Stanley simply bothered to look things up and make sure she got them right. (For example: she could have correctly identified the creator of "How To Get Away With Murder" as Peter Nowalk.)

The good news, I guess, is that New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has sided with those aggrieved by this Shonda shonde and concluded: "The readers and commentators are correct to protest this story. Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that was – at best – astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch."

Stanley's response to Sullivan's dispatch very helpfully identified a part of her subpar writerly process: "I didn’t think Times readers would take the opening sentence literally," writes Stanley, "because I so often write arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow."

Oh? Well, here is where I can maybe be of some use. Stop doing that, Alessandra Stanley! That is a really stupid way to write.

You see, most English-language readers have come to expect that a piece of criticism will begin with some sort of thesis -- some indication that there is a point being made and a trajectory that heads, inexorably, to that point. By writing "arch, provocative ledes" that you then "undercut" in the ensuing paragraphs, you are doing some sort of weird, anti-writing nonsense. What you should be doing is writing "arch, provocative ledes" that you then go on to justify having written by backing them up with insight and evidence. If you went into this piece thinking, "I'm going to start off by saying Shonda Rhimes is an angry black woman and then skillfully undermine myself as I go along," you need to understand that this was a stupid strategy, almost the Platonic ideal of pointlessness.

Stanley provides Sullivan with other examples of times she used this "start with a provocative idea and then slowly destroy it" technique. For which nobody asked.

How did she come up with this concept, by the way? Perhaps she was trying to join other hacks who have attempted something counterintuitive, like Slate's Jonah Weiner did when he wrote "Creed Is Good," about Creed, a bad band that is definitely not good. But Weiner didn't go on to "undercut or mitigate" his original thought. By God, he was going to stick up for Creed right through to the bitter end. Weiner's piece was also anchored in some shared understanding of the subject -- in his case, the rock cognoscenti's wide dismissal of Creed. Saying that Shonda Rhimes is an "angry black woman" doesn't work in the counter-intuition game, because there's no intuitive constant to brush back against.

Perhaps Stanley's intention is to invent some new style of criticism? Rules are meant to be broken, after all. The problem, though, is that the best rule-breakers earn it by mastering the rules in the first place, and Stanley is a television critic who thinks Ray Romano's career-making vehicle was a show called "All About Raymond." (And one who doesn't understand that Peter Nowalk created this "How To Get Away With Murder" show -- I can't stress enough how easy that fact is to obtain!)

Maybe the whole point here was to do a sort of bit of trickery where you write that Rhimes is an angry black woman, and then wait for her to respond to your nonsense, and then when she does, you wink and say, "U MAD SHONDA?" That would be clever -- to confirm your thesis after the fact by provoking Rhimes into seeming angry. But Stanley doesn't seem clever. She seems lazy. Or rather, she is.

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