“When did you stop beating your wife?”

“Through his mysterious and appealing lectures, they were guided away from the cold sobriety of genuine knowledge into the picturesque realms of pseudoscience….” (Grete de Francesco, “The Power of the Charlatan,” quoted by John Ganz in an opinion piece in the NYTimes)

When the title of this comment occurred to me, I thought it was from some old comedic shtick, akin to “Take my wife… please.” I have no idea when or where I first heard it. On impulse I Googled “When did you stop beating your wife?” It came up as an example of the “loaded question.”

For me, it symbolizes a type of headline that seems to be a staple of clickbait journalism: The provocative assertion posed interrogatively. It’s a come hither device to draw the surfer into an inflamed or tendentious opinion piece. It’s of a piece with headlines that taunt “You won’t believe…,” and those that scream words like “destroy” and “shred” to proclaim the outcome of a tweet skirmish.

I understand the drive to capture audience. It’s hard to write dispassionately and disinterestedly about a topic. Unvarnished reflection isn’t always shiny. The principled urge to write without embellishment fights with the yearning to be noticed.

My contrivance vice tends to be to let a soupçon of swagger creep in, a saucy dash of erudition, wit, or even modesty. Such strutting, besides playing the reader unfairly, compensates for under-confidence in the face of the sheer volume of quality blogging that’s out there.

I resolve to try to: (1) Strive for greater allusiveness and economy of expression; (2) Err oftener on the side of understatement; (3) Refrain from snuffing my own candle.

(Copyright 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.)

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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