Writers Complaining That Bloggers Have Democratized Writing

Via Andrew Sullivan, my attention was drawn to this piece at N+1 bemoaning the supposedly corrupting effect that the online world has had on the hallowed world of writing:

Outside of Twitter, a coercive blogginess, a paradoxically de rigueur relaxation, menaces a whole generation’s prose (no, yeah, ours too). You won’t sound contemporary and for real unless it sounds like you’re writing off the top of your head. Thus: “In The Jargon of Authenticity, Adorno went bonkers with rage, and took off after Heidegger and the existentialists with a buzz saw, loudly condemning the sloppy word that these dumb existentialists sloppily use to brag about how they know what is real and what isn’t.” This appeared on a blog (The Awl), so its blogginess shouldn’t be held too much against it. But all contemporary publications tend toward the condition of blogs, and soon, if not yet already, it will seem pretentious, elitist, and old-fashioned to write anything, anywhere, with patience and care.

The accidental progenitor of the blogorrheic style is David Foster Wallace. What distinguishes Wallace’s writing from the prose it begot is a fusion of the scrupulous and the garrulous; all of our colloquialisms, typically diffusing a mist of vagueness over the world, are pressed into the service of exactness. To a generation of writers, the DFW style was the sound of telling the truth, as — in an opposite way — the flat declaratives and simplified vocabulary of Hemingway were for a different generation. But an individual style, terse or wordy, can breed a generalized mannerism, and the path once cleared to saying things truly and well is now an obstacle course. In the case of the blogorrheic style, institutional and technological pressures coincided with Wallace’s example. Bloggers (which more and more is just to say writers) had little or no editing to deal with, and if they blogged for money they needed to produce, produce. The combination discouraged the stylistic virtues of concision, selectivity, and impersonality.

Sullivan responds thusly:

[C]hill. Why does everything have to be zero-sum? The whole fricking point of the web is that there is endless space for every form of writing imaginable. No website prevents someone writing a great novel or a long-form reported essay or a lengthy piece of literary criticism. And as long as there are writers with ambitions, these and other forms will endure and proliferate, with ebbs and flows as always. There’s just a new screaming baby in the room. And it will mature in time.

My response would be even more concise.

Give. Me. A. Break.

Reading through that whole N+1 piece one detects a level of intellectual pretentiousness that is almost sickening. One wonders if they lament the fact that we aren’t all still writing on parchment with quill pens because, you know, that’s how real writers worked. Yes, it’s true that blogging, and indeed any other form of online writing, is less formal than essay-form writing used to be, but what’s the harm in that really? Does one really need to use polysyllabic words in order to be considered to have made an intelligent point? Or are citations to Proust also necessary?

The world has changed, guys, get used to it, or get out of the way.

Update: Smitty weighs in with his own take.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I think the thing they are really upset about is that their ivory tower has collapsed. The likes of Tom Friedman and David Brooks could be paid well for writing nonsensical drivel and it was nearly impossible to call them on it. Then came the dreaded intertubes and 10s or 100s of thousands could read blog posts mocking the NY/DC punditry.

  2. Ron,

    I think you’ve got a very good point there. I’m sure the life of a hack columnist was much simpler before the days of the Internet and Fisking

  3. The Monster says:

    Your offhand remark about quill pens nails it. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type allowed books to be printed in large numbers far more efficiently than when they had to be hand-copied by scribes/monks, or even when printing plates could be hand-carved. Once access to the written word (including the Word) was no longer controlled by the elites, the entrenched power structure was doomed. The internet takes that invention to a whole new level. It is not by accident that one of the popular blogging platforms is named “Moveable Type”.

    As a hard-core Grammar Nazi, I am the first to decry the abysmal grammar, spelling, and usage in the writing I see on the Web. But as a harder-core libertarian, I celebrate the leveling effect. No longer do you have to be annointed by the management of a handful of media conglomerates to be heard. You don’t even have to invest in a printing press. You can use a computer at your public library for free, use it to log into a site like Blogger and create your web presence for free, and if you have something to say that people are interested in, you’ll get an audience.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I think Ron has it right. Think of the guys pulling down major paychecks, and backed by major resources, who have little or nothing to say — Richard Cohen comes to mind, as do Tom Friedman, Ross Douthat, George Will . . . well, quite a list, really. They boring, they’re repetitive, they’re lazy and they have nothing much to say. I exempt Nicholas Kristof because he does actual reporting (!) some of it quite dangerous.

  5. Dean says:

    @Ron Beasley: Well said, Ron.

  6. Dean says:

    @The Monster:

    I imagine this same group would have been lamenting the invention of the printing press.

  7. Just nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    Based on the part of the whole that you postedd. The complaint is not that writying has been democratized, but rather that it has been dumb ed down by the urgency of makinb money in that editgingb has been abandoned to some degree. While I agree witghall of the ivokry tower blather, I do sometimes see the editing issue as a factgor that clouds meanbing. On the other hand, if the writer doesn’t care that faulty editing leaves intrepretation of the content entirly in the hands of the reader (in both an actual and social linguistic sense) why should I?

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    The cat’s out of the bag!

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @The Monster: I think the bad grammar is the result of the shoot from the hip nature of the internet. I’ve done some horrible blog posts late at night after too many glasses of wine. The content wasn’t horrible but the grammar was. The internet is all about instant response, you don’t have time to edit a post because it will be old news in minutes or hours at best. Spelling is not so much a problem since most browsers put a red line underneath misspelled words but you can still chose the wrong one.

  10. pajarosucio says:

    This reminds me of Buzz Bissinger’s rant about blogs a few years ago. It was so tone deaf and filled with bitter venom it forever turned me off of him.

  11. Bennett says:

    @pajarosucio: There was some epic blogging about that event right after it occurred. Oh the irony.

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    n + 1

    is run by a bunch of marxist hangers-on who surrendered whatever intellectual capital they may have once had when they embraced their ongoing elitism. It simply isn’t a magazine to be taken seriously.

  13. The Monster says:

    @Ron Beasley: Yes, you can still “chose” the wrong one. That’s a brilliant example of a word your spell-checker won’t highlight, because it’s a real word. It just isn’t the right word in that particular place.

    I don’t care what pressure you feel to get your BREAKING NEWS post up before it’s too old. You can take a minute or two to proofread before you hit [Post]. I believe I owe that much to the people who read what I have to say. If I can’t be bothered to get it right, why should they read it?

    What’s funny is how often web sites run by “real” media companies get the basics wrong. Where are those layers of proofreaders and fact-checkers they claim to have?

  14. Douglas Heck says:

    I’ll take a guy who don’t write so purty but who is all knowed-up on a subject over somebody who rights real purty and knows hardly anything about the subject.

    This way I can learn more and I don’t have to feel like the arthur auther the guy doing the writing is looking down at me the whole time.

  15. Steve says:

    The path to saying things truly and well will always be an obstacle course. Fail to navigate that course and your writing is skimmed once and forgotten. Long as that’s understood, go for it!

  16. sam says:

    @Doug

    Update: Smitty weighs in with his own take.

    This disinclines me to read anything by Mr. Smith. It also strikes me as somewhat towards the other end of whatever extreme the n+1 grad students are bemoaning:

    The Beckett reference in the N+1 post does remind me that I need to tout my own little Amazon effort. Stacy and I get our Estragon and Vladimir on for two scenes mocking the Obama Administration in “Waiting for O-Dough”, plus one bonus scene stuck into “Czar d-Oz”.

    Jeepers.

  17. Ursus says:

    Bloggers over-rate themselves–distribution is killing traditional media, but the “democratization” will not leave bloggers in charge. We already see this in technical and industrial trades, the traditional media cant profit so they close down, and the vendor materials become the primary “competent” voice. The press release looks the same as the blog post and the traditional media article when they are all in the first page of Google search results.

  18. Old Guy says:

    I teach at a state college and the only complaint I have about the writing done on the internet and texting is that too often it bleeds over into the more formal writing they have to do for papers and reports. That could kill you on the job and it is hard to get that across to them. My own writing is very dependent on spell and grammar check and and a wife and daughter who are much better at it then I am.

  19. Porkopolis says:

    Simple words and big Ideas serve us best.

  20. Dexter Westbrook says:

    God, this is all so predictable.
    Somebody writes about sloppy writing on the Web.
    A bunch of people jump on this with drivel about how this is all just whining by professional writers, Big Media, etc. Of course, you need some who pompously proclaim how literate they are, but by golly they sure love the loose writing style of blogging.
    Then throw in a couple of comments about how all these Big Media people and those who complain about sloppy writing are elitist socialists anyway.
    This could all be done by a bot. Maybe it is being done by a bot, and I just don’t realize it yet.

  21. Achillea says:

    @Old Guy:

    … then I am.

    I see.

  22. William H. Stoddard says:

    What is this about writing? Plato has Socrates complain about how writing is corruption the arts of poetry and dialectic; the real expression of thought and of the human spirit requires the spoken word and is corrupted by the written word. If we’re going to be retro let’s be really retro. . . .

  23. Jenny Hatch says:

    Uh, We Blogers Are Rilly good at Spelin’, syntax, Grammer, and Exprissin’ r selves.

    Uh don’t unnerstand wut all the fuss is bout…

    Communicatin’ is now open to all the people of the world, who have ever had a thought worth expressin…. and WHO never really, actually, um (Pausin’ to scratch Head)… had a chance to go to skool and learn all them there idioms n words and such like, whoever said writin’ was fer the educatid and annointed elitistests amungst us?!!!?

    Jenny Hatch

  24. Sardondi says:

    Oh, woe! They aren’t like us! THEY DIDN’T EVEN GO TO IVY LEAGUE SCHOOLS!! Oh, the humanity!

    What a hoot: Mr uber-gay Dem activist, after spending a lifetime in liberal politics (except for one 6-month period in which he said he supported the war in Iraq…and then changed his mind) railing against discrimination and fighting for inclusiveness; now harrumphs at the barbarians who dare to ignore the gatekeepers.

    Now I know what he’s talking about in the general dumbing down of writing and lowering of standards of prose – actually I protest about the breakdown in a hell of a lot more standards than just these, Andrew. But if anyone is to blame it’s the Destroy All Standards crowd. And do we really need to say who has championed that disaster? Well, I won’t tell, but their initials are “liberal” and “Democrats”.

    So as much as I hate the twitterization of discourse, it’s wonderful to see Andrew Sullivan and his ilk try to chase away the chickens that have come home to roost.

  25. Paha Poika says:

    Blogging has exposed various main stream “writers” as hacks who can no longer be protected by their editors from contradictory opinion letters to the paper.

  26. mastro says:

    Writers do have useful skills- which are obvious when you read really bad blogs that meander towards a point.

    The problem is that many writers/journalists don’t have a clue about what they are writing about.

    I’d rather read what a nurse has to say about medicine or a soldier has to say about war than a writer. That’s the genius of blogs.

    An example is Tom Friedman’s notorious essay on “Why Amazon is Doomed” – he thinks some guy selling stuff out of his house can compete with Amazon. Tom shows no idea of basic business practices- sad really.

  27. AstroViking says:

    Reminds me of Hemingway:

    “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

  28. JorgXMcKie says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    It always cracks me up to see how many Marxists [open or closeted] consider themselves part of an elite [or the vanguard of the proletariat, only smarter and more valuable, etc]. It’s really just too precious. When I was in grad school, the local leader of the self-proclaimed Socialist-Marxist faction on campus [all dozen or so among the 25,000+] used daddy’s gold credit card [a big deal then] and “summered’ on daddy’s boat in the Caribbean.

  29. Art says:

    Buggy whips. Adapt or disappear.

  30. greaster says:

    But the real injustice is how plain old folks aren’t razzle-dazzled by the pretty words any more and they go off and look for the meaning.

    Chris Hayes:
    “I feel … uncomfortable about the word hero because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.”

    This example is of the spoken word but look at it in print, it’s so, so beautiful. I’m so overcome with admiration of his glasses and hipster style… I’m going to go back to being “rhetorically proximate” to the toilet.

  31. Faust says:

    Larger points aside, we can all agree that the guy in the first blockquote is a horrible writer, right?

    “Outside of Twitter, a coercive blogginess, a paradoxically de rigueur relaxation, menaces a whole generation’s prose (no, yeah, ours too).”

    What’s the relaxation doing? It’s menacing!
    What kind of relation is it? De rigueur!
    How is it de rigueur? It’s paradoxically de rigueur!
    What’s it menacing with? A blogginess!
    What kind of blogginess is it? A coercive blogginess!

  32. grumpy realist says:

    What the internet has done is not “democratized writing” (whatever that is). The explosion of the internets has simply shown us that the supposed skills of a eminence grise pundit (a.k.a. Tom Friedman) are, in fact, a dime a dozen.

    I’ve read unpaid writing on blogs as trenchant, as newsworthy, and as witty as anything churned out by the Overpaid Hacks. Which is what the self-annointed “writers” are yammering in fear about: That They Might Be Replaced.

    (and I wouldn’t worry that much about the bloggorhea of the internets. People still love good writing, and someone who won’t rewrite/edit/spellcheck will in the end have a reputation for producing unsellable drivel.)

  33. Lee Reynolds says:

    Pretentious elitists, with very little real basis on which to claim elite status other than the ability to pepper their prose with obscure verbiage (and even more obscure references), have at last been forced to confront their own mediocrity.

    They are not special and their ideas are not profound.

  34. mojo says:

    “Filthy peasants!”

  35. ray brill says:

    L. O. L.

  36. Douglas Heck says:

    You know how when you read news reports about a subject that happens to fall in your area of expertise and you know that half of the article is just bad information?

    That is always what is going on. You just don’t know it when the subject is not your area of expertise.

  37. sam says:

    @Porkopolis:

    Simple words and big Ideas serve us best.

    Think with the learned, speak with the vulgar.

  38. richard40 says:

    @The Monster:
    Agree. And considering some of the pure idiocy printed in the NYT, I would rather have a blog with gramatical errors, but making a very good point, that a gramatically perfect piece filled with factual and logical errors.

  39. richard40 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I dont quite agree on George Will. I think he often makes very good points. But I agree completely on idiots like Friedman.

  40. @mastro: Actually, that nurse or soldier ARE writers. Writers don’t have to be those who are only doing it full-time or making a living solely from writing.