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ACHENBLOG
Posted at 07:45 PM ET, 05/23/2011

The written word, hanging on for dear life

I’m supposed to write an SEO headline on blog items, but sometimes the topic at hand is not something for which anyone would reasonably be searching, and thus there is no way to optimize the headline. Sometimes I’m just kvetching about the human condition. No one types “kvetching about human condition” in the Google search box. And many times we’re just talking about gardening, or child-rearing, or personal finances, and I would hate for someone who is legitimately searching for advice on those topics – who needs real, useful information -- to wind up here, in the land of the Terminal Digression.

What I would really like is to find a website that tells me what terms are not trending. Then I can use those terms in my Keywords box, and in my headline, and we can be assured that no one will inadvertantly find us here. We’ll be safe.

I hope that doesn’t sound too…you know…Unabomberish.

Now then, picking up on my brief item yesterday: I’m wondering if there’s been a general decay in literature in recent years, or, more precisely, a decline in the overall quality of the written word up and down the ladder. High end books, not quite as good. Newspaper articles, sloppier. Blogs, dumber. Even emails and instant messages and texts and tweets: Maybe the gibberish is getting even more incomprehensible. There’s more BAD gibberish, if you follow me.

I have no empirical evidence of this. I’m not even sure I have any anecdotal evidence. This is not a theory in any strict sense. It is barely a conjecture. But I’m throwing it out there to see what people think.

Obviously, technology has democratized the information universe and made writers of us all. This is, in some ways, the Golden Age of Letters (so long as there aren’t too MANY letters and you exceed the limit). We are now awash in the invented language of the thumbs (LOL...OMG...G2G). This tongue of abbreviations and slang is the new Esperanto. There are a lot of platforms now in which creative spelling is not only tolerated but barely noticed.

What concerns me more is the erosion of the commercial foundation of “content creation” (a colleague points out that the turning point came when we started using that execrable term) and the attendant disappearance of multiple strata of editors.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Editors shouldn’t be viewed as overhead. Writers need editors. Writing needs editing. Good writing is typically collaborative.

(I’ve been lucky: My editors over the years have been like the ’27 Yankees.)

Let’s ponder the counter-argument: There are still a lot of boffo writers producing fantastic stuff. I didn’t think Franzen’s “Freedom” was quite as good as “The Corrections” but it was still beautiful stuff, tremendous fun, capturing the American vernacular at this moment in time. I’m reading my friend Geraldine Brooks’s “Caleb’s Crossing,” and marvel at her ability to recreate the language of the 17th century. Every sentence is immaculate. Here’s someone who knows exactly what she’s doing.

And, echoing what I said yesterday, that John McPhee book “The Control of Nature” (here’s the New Yorker excerpt about the Atchafalaya River) is so well crafted you couldn’t find a stray comma without first hitting the book with dynamite.

Readers get a lot of credit here. There are still a lot of people who appreciate, and demand, and reward quality. [Tell me who you’re reading.]

The Internet makes it easier for people to recommend good books. In theory this should help the quality books that linger on the back list for years, long after their marketing campaign has ended. If readers demand quality, good writing won’t vanish.

But maybe things will get pretty Darwinian: Only the very best can survive.

Picture this: The midlist books become imperiled, and those writers wind up drifting into self-publishing. Next thing you know, they’re badgering old friends to do the copy editing. They’re working harder for less reward, and gradually feel themselves succumbing to the temptation to lower their standards. They split infinitives, misuse “hopefully,” sling clichés like they’re going out of style, and then cease to maintain their basic hygiene.

And then come the emoticons….

By  |  07:45 PM ET, 05/23/2011

 
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