“So I have two opposing beliefs that exist side by side—one, that communication is possible; two, that communication is impossible—and I swing back and forth, writing or not writing.” —Stephen Dobyns, Best Words, Best Order
I’m just going to dive into this post, because if I try to “catch up” with everything that has happened since October, I will never get the job done.
Stephen Dobyns sums up the way I often feel about blogging. The task of ordering my thoughts around the subject matter, and writing them down in the best way I possibly can, takes so much time and energy, it’s almost like having a second (third?) job. And yet, that is the only way to truly communicate something. The point of writing, after all, is to communicate: to take an experience, a thought, a feeling, and express it as succinctly as possible, so that you manage to move that experience or idea (nearly, though never entirely, because everyone interprets words differently) from your own head and into the head of a reader.
If I can’t afford the time and effort to craft a well-written post, then why write at all? Quick, lazy writing—pock-marked with clichés, superlatives, and the sort of fatuous declarations that are thrown around the internet so indiscriminately these days, they have lost all meaning—reaches no one. It does nobody any good and may as well not exist. Poor writing is self-centered and self-serving. It is also disrespectful. It insults the reader’s intelligence, often reveals the writer’s poor grasp of their tools, and it wastes both parties’ time.
Despite all the care taken to arrange words so that they convey something precise, communication still fails, sometimes. Writers are not the only people guilty of being lazy and careless with words. Readers can also fall short of their roles and speed their way heedlessly through words, misinterpreting them or failing to appreciate that someone has, to the best of their abilities, chosen these particular words, and has put them in this particular order, for a reason.
They say writing, as a profession, is dying, and I believe that.
“Literary fiction used to be central to the culture. No more: in the digital age, not only is the physical book in decline, but the very idea of ‘difficult’ reading is being challenged.”
—from The novel is dead (this time its for real), by Will Self for The Guardian
Forget the debate between ‘dead tree’ vs. ebooks, and how the ease with which anybody can now ‘publish’ a book (because there are no financial risks involved in backing and promoting a lousy writer, whose work is a mere digital file that can be replicated ad infinitum) will make the difficult profession and demanding craft of writing extinct. I believe that even ebooks will die out, eventually, as both writers and readers get lazier, do whatever comes easiest. Any attempts to actually teach critical reading or serious writing in schools will come to be seen as “bullying” the children into learning something that is neither ‘fun’ nor profitable.
The visual image is the real king, these days, because it demands less of its audience. It is instantly gratifying, it titillates with colors and shapes (and subject matter), it does not require an education, a vocabulary, memory (in order to make sense of succeeding paragraphs, one must be able to recall what was said in the preceding ones)…it does not even require knowing a language. It’s wonderful in that way. It will cross boundaries of language, geography, culture, education and class, in a heartbeat. It’s a wonderful thing, the image—quick and easy to take in—though perhaps responding, relating, and consuming only images will be as detrimental to our mental health as consuming only packets of chips and bite-sized morsels of processed food would be to our bodies.
But nobody’s worried about that, because the great thing about this worldwide and systematic decline in critical reading OR quality writing is that if we are ALL uniformly dumber, then we really aren’t dumb anymore, are we? We may have taken a step backward, but we’ve all taken it together, and anything more demanding ceases to exist as something we have lost, or as something to be regained, because we simply won’t be aware that it ever was. The reference point blips out soundlessly, like the tree nobody was around to hear fall over in the forest.
I am on my way out of the devolving world, and the intellectual futures of people who made something like Fifty Shades of Grey a bestseller—with its appallingly bad metaphors, its “sex will make bad writing palatable to dumb readers” strategy, and its author’s (and publisher’s) cavalier abandonment of any standards of quality—is not really my concern, anymore. If anything, I’m merely disappointed by how few of the new and trumpeted books emerging in bookstores and libraries have stolen my heart this year…
But I’ll keep on writing, here and elsewhere, even though the number of people willing to slow down and read a few hundred words with mindfulness has dwindled (and will continue to dwindle). Because I value the act of writing, in and of itself, whether it gets read or not. Because good writing brought me up and carried me through the wilderness of this world. Because I can’t not write.