By beginning her essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” with very strong and judgmental language, Francine Prose surely wanted to appear as impassioned, honest, forthright, concerned, alarmed, disturbed, and straightforward. Surely she wanted to “hook” her readers by making them feel immediately that her subject was important and that she had justifiably strong views about it.
Readers not already sympathetic to Prose’s argument, however, may be turned off by the opening of the essay (as well as by the entire essay itself). They may find Prose’s tone condescending, smug, elitist, and arrogant. Writing as someone who basically agrees with much of what Prose says, I have to admit that I found the tone of the essay somewhat off-putting. I was rooting for Prose and hoping that she would make a rhetorically persuasive (as well as logically compelling) case. Often, however, I found myself feeling that she had engaged in rhetorical overkill and would not convince readers already inclined (as I am) to agree with her. I have to confess that I winced a few times while reading her piece. I felt that she was often shooting herself in her metaphorical foot.
Consider, for instance, the opening sentences of the essay:
Like most parents who have, against all odds, preserved a lively and still evolving passion for good books, I find myself, each September, increasingly appalled by the dismal lists of texts that my sons are doomed to waste a school year reading. What I get as compensation is a measure of insight into why our society has come to admire Montel Williams and Ricki Lake so much more than Dante and Homer.
The phrase “against all odds” can make Prose seem (to those inclined to agree with her) heroic in her “passion for good books,” but to other readers the phrase may seem hyperbolic. (Against all odds? Would “against great odds” be more persuasive?)
Likewise, those who might already be sympathetic to Prose might admire her own “passion for good books,” while more skeptical readers might find this phrase somewhat self-congratulatory. The words “appalled” and “dismal” might seem appropriate word choices to people as worried about trends in American education as Prose seems to be. But those very same words might strike other readers as a bit melodramatic – designed, again, to call attention to Prose’s own good taste and to mock the supposedly shabby tastes of others. Meanwhile, the word “doomed” may suggest a loving mother’s concern for the welfare of her children, but the same word may again strike some reader as exaggerated. Finally, the contrast between Dante and Home (on the one hand) and Montel Williams and Ricki Lake (on the other) might seem justifiably hard-hitting to some but might strike others as overblown.
Much depends, of course, on the intended audience of Prose’s essay. If she was writing in order to stir up and energize people who might already agree with her, then perhaps her prose would seem effective to such readers. If, however, she was hoping to change the minds of people in the educational establishment, she might have been advised to adopt a more restrained and reasonable tone. Few people will listen carefully and thoughtfully to anyone who seems to be insulting them. Unfortunately, Prose runs the risk of being tuned out even before her argument has really gotten under way.