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Part 2: Whatever Happened to Writing?

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In Lee Child’s thriller Personal, his audacious hero Jack Reacher lays down the four attributes of good spycraft: hard work, attention to detail, lateral thinking (“outside the box,” as the phrase has it) and unconventional or creative adaptations to circumstance. These are precisely the traits that characterize the mindset and practice of the good writer in any field or genre. Apart from the pragmatic aspects of, let us say, writecraft, one may add, as Ernest Hemingway did in A Moveable Feast, a moral component as well. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Hemingway said. “Write the truest sentence that you know.” The rest follows.

Honesty of purpose in Hemingway’s terms and fidelity to craft in the Lee Child/Jack Reacher sense entail both the writer’s fealty to himself or herself and commitment to the reader. These are the qualities that are demonstrably missing, for instance, in propaganda, in hortatory manuals of self-improvement, in government reports, in social media’s verbal expulsions, in academic jargonfests, and in almost all contemporary journalism.

I have begun to notice that many Internet writers and even notable scholars whom I’ve long respected have begun writing ever shorter paragraphs, culminating in the forlorn, one sentence taglet, a sort of stichometry catering to the growing problem of attention deficiency. Moreover, these sentences are often pimpled with typos, attesting to an author’s lack of diligence—I recall one well-known writer who wrote “the Pubic wars” for “the Punic wars,” without noticing. Another common solecism is the jagged or wrenching transition from one sentence to another, obscuring the thought. Of course, everyone is prone to such errors, and this writer is not exempt—to err is human—but the question here is one of frequency, of an all too casual unawareness or lack of care. The best one can say of such writing is that it may be serviceable, but it does not stride on the page with athletic confidence. It exhibits neither grace nor muscle. 

One cannot blame the writer alone for the reduction of quality. The reader is complicit. Generating the rolling periods of the great writers of the English tradition and requiring the reader to hold a page-long paragraph in mind, or even a longish sentence, constitutes the kiss of writerly death. Asking the reader to walk to the dictionary to look up an unfamiliar word that may be absolutely right in its place is a mortal offense. Hoping that the contemporary reader will admire a beautiful, well-turned, witty, or aphoristic phrase is the height of folly. The tradition not only of great writing but good writing is demonstrably on the wane. There are exceptions, thankfully, to the general rule of debilitation, but they are growing rarer by the day.

As I mentioned in a previous article for PJ Media, Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen in The Distracted Mind propose the application of optimal foraging theory, an ecological model governing the relationship between benefit and cost. In the animal world, determining where sustenance is to be found demands attention and focus rather than aimless wandering in poor terrain. Extrapolating to human activity and mental life, in order to help reduce and heal what they call “impaired cognitive control” that follows on informational overload typical of the modern age, the authors explain in somewhat technical language that “while cognitive control is essential for all higher-level interactions… environmental factors may dominate that do not allow [its] benefits.” One such environmental factor is precisely an audience given to rapid reading, to skimming and scanning, to the allure of the visual image, and to relying on saccade rather than fixed concentration. 

The writer quickly adapts, reducing his own attention to the imperatives of his trade, growing ever sloppier, knowing that craft and elegance will not be appreciated or noticed, or noticed only with irritation. A kind of indifference to excellence ensues, whether at the level of meaning, concinnity, and lexical beauty, or of grammar, syntax, and spelling. Good writing requires the application of time-tested principles for extracting meaning from the pedestrian anarchy of daily experience in language that sticks. It requires study, concentration, and mindfulness respecting the working milieu. It requires, as Milton said in Book 7 of Paradise Lost, that writers “fit audience find, though few,” namely, that writers aim high rather than write down to some real or imagined level of disregard, that they pay attention to the quality of their language and the exigencies of their practice.

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell argued that “Our civilization is decadent and our language…must inevitably share in the general collapse.” His rules for writing well, it must be admitted, are far too stringent and sweeping to be followed to the letter, as he himself admits. But his argument is even more relevant today than it was in 1946 when the book appeared. Orwell wryly notes that “the struggle against the abuse of language” is regarded as “a sentimental archaism.” But the fact is that “our thoughts are foolish” and our language has become slovenly, mere “verbal refuse.” Literary and expository practice in the widest sense is only the latest proof of Orwell’s grim assessment.

The only option is to stand with Child and Hemingway. The problem of distraction from all that is meaningful and abiding in life—a problem that has been critically exacerbated in our digital epoch—was addressed millennia before the advent of the Internet and its myriad attention-dispersing platforms. The Koheleth urges us in Ecclesiastes 9:10, Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.* Work, knowledge, and wisdom are the Preacher’s behest. Which means, as Child and Hemingway propose, that good writing demands hard work, attention to detail, thinking outside the box and recognizing context, creative rather than merely expedient or opportunistic adaptations to circumstance, and the serious quest for truth—not theory, speculation, ideology or omission by fear and intimidation, but truth so far as it can be honestly discerned.

Will we listen to the Koheleth? Will we take Orwell seriously? Will we respect what writers like Lee Child and Ernest Hemingway have to tell us? Or are these merely rhetorical questions?

Part 1: Whatever Happened to Reading?