Friday, August 20, 2010

Here's one from the "literacy is doomed" files...

Former True/Slant blogger and cultural critic Mark Dery has a pretty good final True/Slant column (the site was recently sold to Forbes and most of the blogs, including that of former Field & Stream editor and noted vampire combat expert Scott Bowen, were shut down) that speaks to the woeful state of publishing, writing, reading and original thought in modern culture.

It's a long read but a good one (and yes, I am aware of the irony, in a blog post decrying the decline of long-form writing, of calling a 2,000-or-so word article a "long read").

I stumbled across it while reading an interesting story on Salon about how "news stories" from content mills like Associated Content are now showing up as first-page results on Google News searches. Yay for content mills! Resistance is futile!

Like many writers, Dery laments the passing of actual writing. A few good passages...

The unspoken goal, in too much American journalism, is not to tell people what they don’t know, or never even imagined they might want to know, but to tell people what they already know, since it logically follows that anything they don’t know is too weird to survive in what we Americans, in our inimitably irony-free way, like to call the Marketplace of Ideas. It’s this failure of editorial nerve, driven by a cringing fear of scaring off advertisers, that has rendered largely extinct the sort of narrative nonfiction Weschler elsewhere describes as “pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject, and through the sheer narrative energy of the writing, you’d find yourself becoming caught and then held, completely immersed, lost to the world for hours at a time…”

And one must tell people things they already know in language they already use—PowerPoint prose that is easily bullet-ized in the reader’s mind. Like William F. Buckley, I never scrupled at sending my reader to the OED if a sesquipedalian word was the best word for the job. Nor did I feel any obligation to smilingly submit to the intellectual straitjacket that constrains too much American journalism, namely, the presumption that a writer’s allusions and references should be bounded by the cultural literacy of Kim Kardashian.

"...But one thing is certain, and sad: the grim insistence that writers of every genre prioritize, above all else, the demands of chief product officers with one eye on the balance sheet and the other on the stock ticker guarantees that beguiling “pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject” will be fewer and further between, and wonder in shorter supply. Just when we need it most, the act of thinking aloud in public will fall victim to cost-benefit analyses, condemned for the sublime uselessness that makes it so useful."

We will, of course, continue to have books and we will continue to have magazines. And online magazines. And news sites. And blogs. And maybe even a few newspapers. But the question is, will they be worth reading? And I guess the cynical, hopeless answer to that question is "of course they'll be worth reading, because we'll all be so friggin' stupid we won't know the difference."

And how do I know that? Simple. I'm married to a high school English teacher...


  1. Dery can at least spell "straitjacket," which enhances his authorial ethos to no end, as far as I am concerned, so I will go read the piece, even though it smacks of "declinism."

  2. I'm depressed as hell right now, but I still feel no need to succumb to the doom. We're in a transition. Transitions are never fun. But I highly doubt it's the end of good writing. Hang on. Enjoy the ride. Better yet, claw your way to the front seat of the roller coaster.

  3. Great writing will prosper in the new order of blogs and social media. Unfortunately for most of us, it'll be so buried amidst the crap that it will require a new sort of reader to seek it out... and patience... patience is another lost art, alongside thinking for oneself and taking personal responsibility for our actions and the results of them. These are what we see declining in the "right here right now" cultural standard.

    Great writing has always been exceptional. You're not going to find it every time you open a book, magazine, or web page. Mostly you'll find the banal, the uninteresting, or the painfully bad. But every once in a while, you'll see something, read it, and exclaim, "damn! I'm glad I read that!"

    It's supposed to be rare. Therein lies the value.

  4. You three are all entirely too cheerful and upbeat...can't a guy wallow in gloom and doom?