We have created a monster that is consuming us. And I don’t mean that “the Internet is bad” in that hypocritical and falsely ascetic way. I mean that we, along with the phones that travel with us, the texts we type in movie theaters, the instant messages we receive now even on some planes, the social media many of us are expected to participate in on behalf of our jobs, and the complexes and work ethics we have all inherited from our diverse array of guilt-generating forebears, have bubbled together into a frenzy of ceaseless professional engagement that is boiling us dry.[…] I don’t own an iPhone or a BlackBerry because I do not want to receive e-mail all day every day. Increasingly I understand this preference to be naive, impractical and really rather twee. On several occasions in the past year, days when I’ve run between appointments and not brought my laptop, I’ve had to call my boyfriend to ask him to log into my e-mail and tell me whether I’ve missed anything urgent. I should get a smart phone because I live in the real world. And in the real world, where I used to receive a few dozen e-mails a day, I now receive hundreds.[…] I don’t think the notion that we have to be constantly plugged in is just in our heads: I think it’s also in the heads of our superiors, our colleagues, our future employers and our prospective employees. There will be judgment, or at least a note made, perhaps by a boss who’s tried to reach you unsuccessfully, or an employee who has an urgent question that goes briefly unanswered.To not be reachable if called upon at any time, except perhaps the dead of night, feels sinful; unavailability betrays disconnectedness, and disconnectedness has come to stand for idleness and indolence. How many people have sent needless e-mails at 7 a.m. or perhaps 11 p.m., with the thought, if not the conscious intention, of communicating an intensity of professional commitment, demonstrating defensively or passive-aggressively or in the hopes of beating the next round of layoffs that they were beavering away at every odd hour of the day and night.America’s excesses are never far from sight: Our endless enthusiasms for boundless capitalism, materialism and hedonism persist. But these three have always had a complicated but close relationship with their uptight buddy, Puritanism, and I can’t help feeling these days like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards have insinuated themselves into everyone’s friends and family network, preaching the gospel of a work world without end.
calvin and hobbes
So for anyone who has, however briefly, played that reviled gatekeeper role, a darker question arises: What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?
[…] Yes, they certainly can publish a blog or even a book through a place like Lulu.com, but as anyone who has toured the blogosphere knows, there’s a whole lotta nobodies out there with a whole lotta nothin’ to say (and I certainly include myself in that description). Nobody has the time and patience to sift through the oceans of misspelled and poorly crafted essays and novellas online, just like nobody sits and listens to countless thousands of mp3s of various garage bands online. Anyone who does will be quickly begging for editors, publishers, anything to force some sort of Spencerian survival of the fittest into effect.
People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.
[…] Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions.
I make an effort to find different writers and bloggers on a regular basis; I’ve always hated how insular so much of the blogosphere is, with most people linking to the same few sources over and over again. But it’s unfortunately true that there are many days when I spend hours looking to see if anything interesting has been written about this or that topic, only to end up weary and dejected afterward, with nothing to show for my effort. Sometimes it’s because there’s nothing but drivel out there, other times it’s because there’s simply too much to go through.
And I laughed at this part:
It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.
I’m still sometimes horrified to realize that countless hours of reading online has made it so that I sometimes have to stop and consciously think about how to spell certain words or form certain phrases because I’ve seen them done incorrectly so goddamned many times. I can only imagine what it would be like to be a real editor.
They were a lively group of students, and we chatted for an hour, discussing topics we were all interested in. They asked smart questions.
When we were wrapping up, I asked them a question: “What is your relationship to reading and writing?” At that moment, they morphed from T-shirt-clad physical specimens and became generic graduate students, indistinguishable from all-in-black, cigarette-smoking studiers of literary theory and bearded-and-geeky future scientists. It’s all we do, they wailed, and it’s hard.
The journal articles he makes us read (they said, directing accusing fingers at my colleague) are dense and boring. We’re getting good information, but it can be painful. And, they said, we have to learn to write like that.
No, I said, you don’t.
I’ve heard that song from graduate students in every discipline, and from faculty members, junior and senior, at universities across the country. The message: You have to write the same way as others in your field. You must use multisyllabic words, complex phrasing, and sentences that go on for days, because that’s how you show you’re smart. If you’re too clear, if your sentences are too simple, your peers won’t take you seriously.
Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water.
I’m not an academic. As I’ve said, I never even attended college for the purpose of serious study or career preparation. I’m an autodidact if you want to be gracious, a dilettante if you don’t. But the quest to expand the horizons of one’s knowledge is a demanding one nonetheless, so I have done my best to read what the real academics have written on subjects I’m interested in, as well as shoot the breeze conduct rigorous interviews with a few of of my friends with advanced degrees and/or former academic careers dozens and dozens of prominent intellectuals throughout academia, and what they’ve told me has dovetailed with my own experience: there’s a whole realm that consists of technically smart people who have turned away from trying to make any real difference in the world with their knowledge, and spend their time in a cerebral circle-jerk, talking to themselves and others like them in an inscrutable private language. I like to flatter myself that I’m smarter than the average bear, but I’ve read academic tracts that left me glassy-eyed, with a trickle of drool from the corner of my mouth and thin tendrils of smoke trailing from my ears.
It’s a shame, because while I do agree that one should strive to be understood, especially when the goal is to actually impart information, I’ve really come to appreciate most of all when someone can enlighten and entertain in equal measures. The problem isn’t just that too much intellectual writing is devoted to pointless meandering through labyrinthine thickets of signified signifiers signifying signification, it’s that it has no style, no grace, no sense of humor. Pace George Orwell and his rules that Toor quotes, writing can be clear and artful; there’s no need to have such a ruthless, stripped-down, utilitarian aesthetic that always aims for the lowest common denominator.
I have heard it said that the defining characteristic of a writer is that writers absolutely must write. They can’t help it. It’s a compulsion. By that metric, I am not a writer. By that metric, I am pretty much the opposite of what a writer is. Most of the time, I have to be forced to write. This post, for instance, is prompted by my desperately needing to work on something else with a looming deadline. Yes, it’s still writing, but my only alternative is doing the dishes. There have been days this week where I chose a sinkful of dishes instead.
I like writing. I’m good at it. I’ve come to realize that my writing has made a few incremental changes for good in this world: swaying people’s opinions, helping people better appreciate some neglected things.
But do I need to write? No. I have been happy with my life without writing being a part of it.
B: But why, then, do you write? – A: Well, my friend, to be quite frank: so far, I have not discovered any other way of getting rid of my thoughts. – B: And why do you want to get rid of them? – A: Why do I want to? Do I want to? I have to.
>I never was one for keeping diaries or journals, and in my school days, writing was just another task to be done for a grade, with as little effort or fuss as possible. Until my late twenties, in fact, the most writing I ever really did was in the form of short poems or song lyrics. But having spent a few years now making a more-or-less regular effort to set down my thoughts on whatever topic catches my fancy, I don’t know what I’d do without it. Writing is how I solidify my thoughts; it’s a tool to focus my awareness. Along with music, of course, it’s how I get right with myself and the world, a way to find harmony and beauty that I can’t find anywhere else.
I don’t have to write in the sense of a compulsion, and I’ve never bought into the oft-heard advice that says aspiring writers have to devote a certain amount of time each day to writing a certain number of words. The calendar has nothing to do with it. If I don’t have anything really pressing to say, or if I’m too busy or tired, writing can wait. I enjoy the act of writing, and it really does energize me and lift my spirits to grapple with thoughts before finally expressing them in words to my satisfaction, but when I’m just going through the motions to force myself to conform to some artificial timetable, it’s worse than if I just wait however long it takes until inspiration strikes. If I felt the need to mindlessly jabber just to distract myself from the unsettling sound of the wind whistling through my head, I’d have a Twitter account. But for me, thinking is just as much part of the process as the actual work at the keyboard. You need to allow time for new information to filter in, for new experiences to occur, for new perspectives to spontaneously emerge before you can write anything meaningful. I find the best way to do that is to stop worrying about what I want to say, and go listen to what other people have to say. The interconnectedness of the blogosphere serves the purpose of keeping my mind stimulated. And while I’ve never wanted to be the kind of blogger that has to have an immediate comment on every piece of breaking news, there is a certain drive to stay abreast of what others are talking about, to see if you can add your two cents to a conversation before it dissipates, and that, more than saying, “I have to write a hundred words a day, no exceptions,” is what helps with the discipline of it.
So while I have yet to feel like a slave to my keyboard or my blog, writing is the necessary third link in the chain, following observation and reflection, that makes me feel complete. That process never stops. In that sense, then, yes, I have to do it.
It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now “grieving” for “Calvin and Hobbes” would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them.
Zounds! I swear it was just this morning I found myself recalling old C & H strips and laughing to myself. He’s right, of course, but my world has been a poorer place since he and Gary Larson capped their pens. Has there been anything since that can compare to those?
And I still want to hurl a burning brick through every car window with one of those stupid fucking “Calvin pissing” decals, not to mention the atrocious ones that use his image kneeling in prayer before a cross emblem. What, you assholes couldn’t use Linus for that?