New York Times columnist Joe Nocera visits Kelly Writers House

The Daily Pennsylvanian
December 6, 2011

Stirring up controversy comes easily to Joe Nocera.

The New York Times business columnist came to the Kelly Writers House last night to speak on his writing style, hardships and voice. Students, faculty, staff and journalists — including Rolling Stone contributing editor and Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing professor Anthony DeCurtis — listened as the 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist in Commentary dished on unknown juice. The event wasn’t taped so that Nocera could be “frank and honest,” KWH Faculty Director and English professor Al Filreis said.

When he called Tea Party Republicans terrorists this summer, Nocera was met with outraged readers. “I was wrong, and I apologized. You know, that’s life. It’s best to counter with intelligence and facts, not name-calling.”

But his controversial statements aren’t intentional. “I don’t view myself as someone who’s contrary for the sake of being contrary,” Nocera said. “But I view myself as somebody who has views that aren’t necessarily shared by liberal or conservative brethren, and I don’t really care.”

Then again, “I’m willing to sacrifice some readership for unpredictability,” he said.

Another trademark of Nocera is his conversational tone. “My whole shtick is to make it sound like I’m talking to you, not writing to you. It took me a while to get loosened up enough to feel like I wasn’t trying too hard to be intellectual or snarky or sarcastic, but now I’m me. I’m loose, free and conversational. I don’t do it with fancy words or sentences that knock your socks off. I do it with rhythm.”

One phrase he avoids comes in a package of five words: “This is a story about,” which he says is the world’s worst phrase. “_Wall Street Journal_ uses it everyday — we do too, but they do it more,” he groans.

Questions from audience members included “Are you more business or writing?” and “Which is the easiest form to write?” His responses: “I’m a good writer, but not a literary writer,” and 800-word pieces are the best.

One student asked, “How do you get through to a difficult person in an interview?” to which he replied, “Sometimes they’re just material.”

“I’m not trying to get through to anybody. Michael Dell is the world’s most boring human being, but you wouldn’t know that by reading about him since he’s an entrepreneur.”

“I ask them questions, they give me answers,” he continued. “I go back to my office. I try to forget that they’re human beings — I’m exaggerating somewhat here — and then I think of them as material. That’s weirdly helpful.”

1985 Wharton graduate Stacey Gillis Weber and her husband Jeff are the donors behind this annual program that brings influential writers from the world of finance.

“We saw these kids were brilliant analysts but couldn’t write,” Weber said. “The great thing about Wharton is that there are a lot of people who can go out and do wonderful things but there weren’t a lot of them who were deeply connected to writing.”

Filreis agreed, “We need the suits and the creative people to come together, and what better way than to invite Joe over?”

People can argue with his controversial writing, but he still gets respect. “They call you back if you say you work for The New York Times,” he laughs.

Later, his cell phone rings — it’s his editor.