Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bad writing, bad reading

After reading Tim Dunlop's carefully written, very nuanced, complex but clearly explained piece about books, the internet and changing times at the ABC's The Drum this morning I was astonished, and not in a good way, to read some of the comments.

Those who see themselves as Defenders of the Book (ahem: Tim was not attacking the book, as he went to great lengths to explain in his opening paragraphs) are most likely to fulminate about one or both of two things: either the 'impermanence' of online writing, or the argument that goes 'the internet is full of dross'.

The first makes you wonder whether they have any understanding of the internet at all, or whether they've heard of fire, flood and silverfish, and suggests that they are confusing or conflating permanence with materiality, which in turn suggests that they haven't read Fahrenheit 451 which in turn makes you wonder whether they are as hard-core in their bibliophilia as they would have you believe.

As for the second: well, yes. Of course the internet is full of dross, if by 'dross' you mean the sound of people talking to each other. If you don't want to listen to this sound, the thing to do is develop the skills that will enable you to find, quickly and easily, the particular non-dross that you want. Typing 'Charles Dickens' or 'Virginia Woolf' into the Google box should do it. The 'internet, dross' argument also implies that material published on paper is, by contrast, not full of dross, which in turn suggests that these people have never been in a newsagent's shop or an airport bookshop, or indeed don't read the papers. The paper papers, that is to say.

But never mind the arguments themselves, as they have been and will continue to be amply rehearsed, over and over, everywhere you look. The point is that the people so eager to jump into the comments box to defend something that is not being attacked, and in so doing try to demonstrate what literature-lovers they are themselves, are revealing themselves as bad, careless, sloppy readers.

This seems to be because they're in thrall to the siren song of the false dichotomy. But it's not a matter of either/or. Tim explains very clearly in that article that that's not what he thinks -- so clearly, in fact, that you can see he has anticipated this sort of response and has tried, with only middling success if the comments thread so far is anything to go by, to head it off at the pass.

If I have any serious beef with the internet, it's not that it's 'full of dross' (those who make this argument seem to be complaining that some imagined all-powerful cosmic editor has not fixed all the spelling and typing errors made by teenagers communicating with each other, or by male academics for whom it is a point of pride, typing being a girly skill as everybody knows, that they don't know where the shift key is), but that it has revealed to me a number of things about human nature that I didn't want to know.

One of those things is that when a writer trying to make an argument agonises for hours over micro-details in a piece of writing -- diction, rhythm, sentence structure, clarity of argument and position -- it has in the case of most readers been a total waste of time. Because the other thing is the way that readers like some of those commenting on that post at The Drum respond not by taking in what's been said and responding to it point by point, but by skim-reading and then rushing to mindless tribalism. Which is one of the many enemies of truth.


  1. Lovely post.

    One comment about your last para: it's really not a waste of time, because it's the same as really excellent typeography: if it's good, it is invisible. It's often much easier to spot bad writing or to complain about bad layout because the good stuff slips past so sweetly.

    But I'm preaching to the choir here. Keep up the good work :)

  2. "The point is that the people so eager to jump into the comments box to defend something that is not being attacked, and in so doing try to demonstrate what literature-lovers they are themselves, are revealing themselves as bad, careless, sloppy readers."

    The same people who undertake 'straw man' arguments and wouldn't know 'Clean Straw for Nothing' from 'A Cartload of Clay'.


  4. Kerryn, I was one of the naysayers this morning. Why? Because no one who loves books as objects ever, ever throws them out. You can google Woolf but the medium is not necessarily conducive to reading her as she should be read. I have handled and catalogued enough Hogarth Press editions to know the difference between mere words and words celebrated - consecrated - through the process of printing.

  5. Cartoons, forgive me but you don't seem to have read either Tim's post or mine carefully or you wouldn't, again, be defending something that's not being attacked. My point is that Tim went to great lengths in the first few paragraphs of his article to say that he too is a great lover of books and is very far from advocating their wholesale destruction, and many of the commenters simply didn't read the article properly. It's not a black-and-white argument.

  6. Kerryn, when I am tempted to despair all I need to do is read one of your posts. Since you didn't mention it, may I refer readers who may not have heard of it to Sturgeon's Revelation, which I believe was formulated in the context of attacks on science fiction: Ninety percent of everything is crud.

  7. Well Kerryn, you’re a pretty exemplary advertisement for the virtues of on-line communication when it’s done by someone who’s so good at writing with her ear (so to speak). The digital medium hasn’t corrupted the inimitable KLG quasi-vocal style, and in fact you seem to “sound” more and more like yourself, if I may be permitted a moment of essentialist fancy. It’s many years since I heard your voice (in the strictly acoustic within-earshot sense) but there it is still, continuing inimitably, with all its characteristic cadences, like an exalted form of chatter, as drily funny as Grace Paley, regardless of whether I’m reading you on the blogscreen or on a printed magazine page or (yesterday) in the on-line journal Transnational Literature – your excellent review of the Hanrahan biography. Talk on – you have appreciative listeners.

  8. Kerryn, it's Geordie. (I love that I somehow ended up as 'cartoons' - perhaps Karmic retribution for not being on the cool side of the argument). I did read Tim's piece, and yours - and suspect you didn't read MY response. Tim said he loved books. Fair enough. I'm sure he's very fond. So, once more: 'no one who loves books as objects ever, ever throws them out.' I'm saying that his actions suggest that he doesn't really love books AS OBJECTS. Alan Kohler must be tickled at this position - ie. that, while we should be mildly nostalgic about the death of printed text, say with regard to Meanjin, it's not really important in the scheme of things - our words live on in cyberspace, yada yada yada. But what if it isn't true. What if our words only count as 'wisdom' if some effort to wrench them out of the endless stream of 'information' that is the internet is attempted by individual agents. What if the web is an instance of Wiemar hyperinflation - a gadzillion increasingly worthless Deutsch-Marks in a wheelbarrow (looking at my pay-packet, I think this may be true) - and that value only inheres in those words which are somehow set apart, given value and weight by other means. I am a lover of books, as objects AND containers of consciousness, because I believe that the long and considered process of real-world publication counts for something, adds an extra dimension, and I am soul-weary of techno-fetishism paraded as progress that suggests they ain't. And if you think I'm exaggerating, I refer you to Amazon's recent airbrushing of Orwell's 1984 from thousands of e-readers due to copyright infringement. I'll hold on to my battered paperback for now. Just as I wish I could hold onto my own reviews, which now belong to Rupert M in digital perpetuity.

  9. Jonathan and Anon, thank you for those kind words. Geordie, 'cartoons' is a hoot; who knows how you and the Blogger comments mechanism managed that between you.

    Fair enough about not addressing your comment; ironically enough my first go at an answer did address the very point about books-as-objects, and then I thought Hang on, but this isn't what the argument's about, I am being lured off-topic here -- you don't directly speak to any of the points Tim made, or that I did. Not that a commenter is bound to do that, of course. So, okay, books as objects:

    Can't speak for Tim of course, but there are some books-as-objects that I love to death and would never think of parting with, and I'm sure Tim feels the same. Others, like mass-produced paperbacks with nasty fonts and/or ugly covers that I know I will never read or refer to again, and I score a lot of those because I love crime fiction, I frankly have no feeling for as objects and will chuck out without compunction.

    There are certain objects one loves as objects, and many of them are indeed books. But not all of them. And the latter go regularly to the Red Cross shop, where they are received by grateful elderly ladies in pinafores and go on being read by new eyes; in giving them away I am finding them new readers and prolonging their lives.

    It's a question that goes to many other issues: not just aesthetics but also ownership and privacy. And age. In terms of material life, I am past the age of acquisition and cruising for the age of simplification and streamlining.


  10. PART 2 ...

    'What if our words only count as 'wisdom' if some effort to wrench them out of the endless stream of 'information' that is the internet is attempted by individual agents.'

    Well, for the life of me I can't see any difference between the endless stream of 'information' that is the internet and the endless stream of 'information' that is newspapers, magazines and books full of stuff you wouldn't want to read. My point about Dickens and Woolf was not that one wanted to read them online (which I don't, particularly), but that it takes a very basic skill set to do the extraction from cyberspace of which you speak -- a much more basic skill set than, say, finding a book in a library, especially when it has been wrongly re-shelved.

    Again, as I said in the original post, I think part of the problem is this conceiving of the internet and all its works as a product, of which the reader is the consumer -- the model we have, rightly, for books -- but there really has been a paradigm shift. The internet and all the boundless contents thereof aren't a thing separate from human-ness, just the endless murmuring of its conversation, much of it not intended for mass consumption and certainly not for literary judgement, and to that extent I think we are arguing at cross-purposes.

    When you say 'value' it depends entirely on what kind of value you mean (just as when you say 'counted as wisdom' I would ask, wisdom to and for whom?). If you mean literary value then yes, I see every reason to single that out in publication on paper as a mark of its specialness, but what then of the buckets of dross that are also pumped out every day on paper? How is literary value made special by being in a book when there are also so many books that don't have any?

    (I'm not even going to go into the question of absolute literary value or otherwise, though I do believe in it and am capable of banging on for hours about what I think it is, but will spare you.)

    But I value a great deal of the other sorts of stuff I find online, including the sorts of stuff never intended to be judged by literary criteria. Like the conversations of people young enough to be my children, and the conversations of men -- two groups I would never in a million years have had a twentieth of the exposure to, or come to know and understand so much better than I used to, if the internet had not been invented. It's not literary value, but I value it almost as much as literature.

    I'm now a hair's-breadth away from saying 'Nothing human is alien to me', which would make me much the same kind of humanist as you. :-)

  11. Concerning books-as-objects, I still own the 3 volume copy of The Lord of the Rings that my mum bought me nearly 50 years ago. They've been read to a nubbin, by my sons as well as me, but although I own a single volume paperback copy in really good nick these are the books I pick up whenever I re-read it.

    It's like slipping on a really comfortable pair of shoes.

  12. Oh yes. I recently re-read Tom Jones and though the Baron has a shiny new Penguin edition with copious footnotes, lengthy introduction, handsome cover, and all mod cons, etc, I somehow just could. not. read. it. I fell back on my old tried-and-true Wordsworth classics paperback (back cover fallen off, pages tattered, turned up, no footnotes or introduction to speak of.) The sentimental value of books-as-objects can be very high indeed.

  13. When I read Tim D's post I kind of wanted to hurl myself into the fray too in defence of printed books but I do think it is far too early in history to make a judgment call about printed words vs. words on the net. Kindles and iPads will be regarded in a few decades as very primitive devices; we are also seeing the beginning of a print-on-demand culture that may end up making printed books even more ubiquitous; there are many legal issues that need to be worked out regarding copyright of books online, payment of authors, (as Geordie alludes to above); and the nature of the internet (having to be adapted to many different computers and browsers and operating systems) means that it may NEVER be able to equal the elegance of the printed word. So though the temptation to predict the death or decline of one medium and the ascendancy of another is there, one need not become a partisan in the books vs. internet war yet.

  14. TimT, quite. As I've said, and will continue to say, there's no need to defend printed books, because nobody is attacking them. It's not a "vs" situation. It's not 'Books or the Internet', it's 'Books AND the internet.'

    And if the printed book does in fact die, which I don't believe it will, it'll be an issue of The Market, of supply and demand, no matter how much literary boffin types like Geordie and you and the Baron and me and all our booky mates might jump up and down and wring our hands about it.

    One of the things that occured (sp? That always looks to me like it should have two Rs, but that's not logical) to me after I'd read Geordie's point about the continuation of print culture being a mark of valuing literature is that in a way that's already the case, with the hierarchy of paper/hardback. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but by and large the decisions made about hardcover are as much or more to do with the quality of the contents as with the dollar potential. But with luck, instead of lots of nasty cheap paperbacks of not very good popular fiction, 'book' will come to mean 'beautiful well-made high-quality object'. Perhaps the advent of the ereader will be the start of books-as-objects that are far more beautiful and valuable than the ones we have now.