How We Read — And Write — Today

I recommend “The New Reading Environment,” from the editors in this month’s issue of n+1. It’s not really excerptable, but this being a blog and all, naturally I’ll try. And why not? Among all the recent changes in the reading (and writing) environment that the n+1 editors bemoan, the habit of constantly excerpting bits of other people’s writing somehow escapes their steely gaze. I suspect this was just an oversight, but here I go anyway:

Newspaper and magazine editors track page views, unique page views, time on-site, and, for the publishers willing to pay thousands a year, scroll depth — the exact point at which readers give up. Twitter, meanwhile, is a scrolling record of bad reading habits. Retweets of pieces one hasn’t finished; parts of pieces one wants to read but isn’t ready to endorse; fragments that cause one to click away in disgust. A reader argues with a stranger about whether they’ve actually read the piece, only to discover that the stranger is the author. The author, a reader herself, knows all about bad reading habits.

The intimacy between online writers and readers determines how we read and write….Blogs felt like gatherings of the like-minded, or at least the not completely random. Even those who stridently disagreed shared some basic premises and context — why else would they be spending time in the comments section of a blog that looked like 1996? Today’s internet, by contrast, is arbitrary and charmless. On social media, criticism once confined to the comments now comes as free-range abuse directed at other readers. Readers can address all parties instantaneously — writers, editors, publishers, and the world. And so writers who publish online peer into the fishbowl of readerly reception. Drop in some flakes and watch the fish swarm.

….All this is on your mind as you wait for your piece to go up….Then things take a turn. Readers lose patience, and the careful quoting, like snipping coupons with precision, becomes tearing — into lines, phrases, and points. The space grows for misinterpretation, co-optation, and misunderstanding. All it takes is one podcast host with a grudge and a modest following, like an Evangelical pastor of yore, for a small hell to break loose in your mentions.

….Some writers choose to bulletproof pieces in advance against these poisoned pinpoints — each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding….But self-imposed tentativeness has not produced an age of anxious writing. Instead the new style is simultaneously careful and strident, low-key and declarative. Articles are luridly headlined and. Extravagantly. Punctuated. Arguments sit right at the top, just like we were taught to do in high school — except now the enemy is not lack of clarity, it’s impatience.

….To be a reader is to suffer. The endless call-and-response that leaves writers forever relitigating their work . . . all this is for our sake? In the not so distant past, we could sit with an article and decide for ourselves, in something resembling isolation, whether it made any sense or not. Now the frantic give-and-take leaves us with little sovereignty over our own opinions. We load up Twitter to discover some inscrutable debate (“Why is everyone fighting about the Enlightenment?”), usually over a series of misinterpretations, which in the space of an hour or two has ended friendships and caused major figures to leave the platform. The task then becomes to read in reverse — clicking backward through a series of quote-tweets to reconstruct the original offending article, and try to understand who’s on what side, so you can know precisely what to think and where it will land you, socially.

It’s worth noting that good writing is very hard to excerpt. That’s because it’s composed with a certain precision, each part hanging on its surrounding paragraphs in a way that makes it hard to pull sentences out of context and not leave the whole thing a mess. This is in contrast to another bad habit of modern online writing that the n+1 editors somehow miss: massive, bloated overwriting.

In the age of print, a long article was often a marker of quality: given the constraints of page counts and design considerations, a long article usually meant that multiple editors had decided it was worth the space. As a heuristic, long = important wasn’t a bad one, and many of today’s writers grew up imbibing it. Unfortunately, by the time they grew up they were freed from the constraints of print without quite realizing that those constraints created the heuristic in the first place. So now they write interminable pieces, assuming that this connotes authority and gravity. But it doesn’t. Mostly it just means bloat, which is one reason that tl;dr has become such a common epithet among readers. For some reason online editors allow this, either because they’re too busy, or too inexperienced, or too unwilling to fight with writers. So these pieces go on and on even if they don’t need to, partly to soothe the writer’s ego and partly because cutting a 5,000-word piece to 2,000 words is hard work.

On the other hand, it sure makes excerpting easy.

Tom Gauld, “Baking With Kafka”

Anyway, I’ll stop now, even though no editor is around to figuratively start tapping her toes in impatience. I’ll just say that this piece, among other things, does a good job of describing why writers need to practice better Twitter hygiene. Twitter is a very peculiar, artificial environment, heavily populated by a smallish group of flamers and trolls and ideologues who represent a tiny fraction of the real world but a huge fraction of Twitter. Obsessing over their (usually) tedious (usually) puerile vitriol does nothing good for your writing and nothing good for your mental health. It’s like worrying about a group of zealots warning you that the world will end soon thanks to the dire effects of magnesium-coated baseball cores. Why on earth would anyone voluntarily allow themselves to lose sleep over something like this?

When you write, pretend you’re writing for people you respect. Block or mute all the folks who are (usually obviously) reading you in bad faith and getting their jollies from hurling insults into the ether. Don’t pretend that you can read this stuff and not let it affect you. You probably can’t. So don’t.