Who is Alice? What is she?

From yesterday’s NYT, a long obit by William Grimes, with two different heads

(on-line) Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89

(in print) Nelle Harper-Lee, 1926-2016: ‘Mockingbird’ Author, Elusive Voice of the Small-Town South

In the print edition, the story begins on p. 1, continues on p. 14, and continues further on p. 15. Lee’s sister Alice is mentioned in passing on p. 14 (details below), and then 20 sizable paragraphs later, on p. 15, we get:

[Ex] She lived with Alice, who practiced law in her 90s and died in 2014 at 103.

And of course I totally failed to recognize who Alice was — to me she was a new character who just dropped out of the sky — so I had to track back through the story to find her introduction. The practice of newspaper journalism that caused my problem could be called No Recharacterization: people in a story are named and characterized at first appearance, but thereafter are referred to only by a short-form name (Prefix + LN, LN alone, or in certain cases FN alone), with no re-description or re-introduction. As I wrote in an earlier posting on journalistic conventions, this practice

diverges from the usual practices of story-telling (also adopted by many writers of non-fiction), where people are re-introduced into the discourse if they have dropped from topicality.

The addition of the two words her sister to [Ex] would have averted the problem, but (as I noted in the earlier posting, many newspaper people regard No Recharacterization

as absolutely [inviolable]: it’s what newspaper writing requires.

Details. From p. 14 in the print edition, the first mention of Alice, in this reference to Lee’s

father, who hoped that she, like her sister Alice, might become a lawyer and enter the family firm

So Alice’s name enters things in a subordinate clause, in a sentence about Harper Lee’s father; that is, Alice was not at all topical in the discourse. So it’s no surprise that 20 paragraphs later, she struck me as a mystery character.

My earlier posting looked at a rather more complex case, involving not only No Recharacterization but a journalistic practice I’ll call Human-Interest Hook. From the earlier posting:

Newspaper and magazine stories often have a human-interest lead-in, about a specific person or group involved in the story; that’s designed to engage the readers’ interest, before the real subject of the piece, the hard news or analysis, kicks in.

In the earlier posting has to do with a story in The Economist about the very large number of people imprisoned in the U.S., often for long periods of time. This rather abstract topic was humanized in the publication by leading with a report about a specific person, a man named David Peace who had been imprisoned in Texas for quite some time. Then the piece shifts to the true topic, and experienced readers will expect David Peace not to appear again in the story.

But he comes back, some time later as simply Mr. Peace, and then again, some time later, at the end of the story, similarly identified. I was caught unawares both times.

Comments on that posting included one by editor Martyn Cornell, who complained about some related annoying journalistic practices, plus this note on No Recharacterization:

On the reintroduction of people we last heard from several hundred words previously, it IS difficult to find a way of reminding the reader who this person is without it sounding clunky, and those reminders do break up the flow: there isn’t an elegant solution, which is probably why most writers/editors ignore the problem.

Maybe this was the case in the Economist story, where a fair amount of description would have to be provided to bring David Peace back to topicality for the readers. But in the NYT case, two words would be enough, and you wouldn’t have to do anything to bring the earlier mention to the readers’ attention; it’s not important for readers to know that Alice Lee had been mentioned earlier in the story.



5 Responses to “Who is Alice? What is she?”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I don’t know how much time I’ve spent while reading long articles in The New Yorker looking back through the article to see who a suddenly-reintroduced name refers to.

  2. Julian Lander Says:

    I had exactly the same experience with the NY Time obit of Ms. Lee that you did. I wasn’t able to find the original mention of Alice, but did vaguely recall hearing about her either when she (Alice) died or when there was discussion over the publication of _Go Set a Watchman_, so I let it slide. But it _was_ confusing.

  3. javava2012 Says:

    The beauty of articles/obits whatever published online is that you can do a word search to quickly determine who suddenly-reappearing characters are.
    I’m surprised you didn’t comment on a fairly significant difference in the two NYT headlines you cited: One said ‘Harper Lee,’ the other had it as ‘Harper-Lee.’ It would appear that the deceased preferred the former, or at least was so accepting of it that Nelle was hardly mentioned, and no one, to my (scant) knowledge, was corrected on the addition of the hyphen. ‘Odd how the NYT erred there one way or another.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’m sorry that what I chose to post about (and not to post about — every posting involves decisions as to which of many possibilities to focus on) disappointed you so. Maybe you should stop reading my blog. Or maybe you could just add your own observations, without telling me how I had failed to post about what you thought I should have.

  4. Michael Vnuk Says:

    I also briefly wondered who Alice was when I read the same sectin of the obit. The ‘lived with’ bit has many different connotations which threw me off track. I think the part that said Alice ‘practiced law’ helped me connect her with the Alice mentioned a long way back. Adding ‘her sister’ is an eminently suitable way of reintroducing her.

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