I’ve read a couple of pieces (this, that, another) recently about the “state” of writing these days – about how today’s “so-called” journalists would rather (badly) write about Kim Kardashian than about anything “with integrity”; about how the latest successful authors wouldn’t have made it out of the slushpile fifty years ago; about how young people’s penmanship is “pathetic”. While many of the presented points have some fact to them, the tone of these pieces is usually one of disgusted superiority, and as an emerging writer and millennial, the complaints feel ageist more than accurate.
And is the quality of writing actually on the decline, or is there something else going on here?
Underlying Theme: Change
I think it’s pretty widely accepted that language and technology change over time. It happens. In the last 25-50 years, we’ve seen huge changes to the technology we use to communicate. Unsurprisingly, those changes have also influenced the language we use to communicate, as well as the people who can communicate. I can understand how someone who learned to write 50 years ago might not appreciate those changes, but that doesn’t mean that new writing is bad. Rant (or “essay”) below, but I’ll keep coming back to this theme of “change”:
On the (Apparent) Decline of Quality
What makes a “good” piece of writing? It’s pretty unfair to judge content – whether A Game of Thrones is good or bad depends on who you talk to – so let’s assume we can only judge the quality of prose. Let’s also assume that we have some measure for that prose, and that certain things are objectively bad (say, incorrect spelling, poor sentence structure, lack of clarity). Why would today’s writing be worse than writing from the Before Times? How come “bad” books seem to be getting popular/successful?
It’s often stated that “anyone can be a writer these days.” Fair. “The internet,” they say, “has made it easy for any monkey to fancy themselves a writer.” Less fair. I don’t think the internet has anything to do with how many monkeys fancy themselves writers – the only difference is the fact that they are visible. The internet has removed a large number of barriers between writer and audience, and self-publication has taken that even further.
Before the internet and ebooks, one’s ability to publish (and therefore to be a “real” writer with a book and an audience and everything!) was controlled by publishing houses (etc). It’s true that a lot of writers never made it out of the slushpile (and still don’t) because their work wasn’t good enough to make a profit – but can we really agree that that’s the only reason?
The ability to self-publish has made it possible for bad writers to publish – true – but it’s also made it possible for everyone to publish – female writers, writers of colour, LGBTQ writers and writers who are otherwise at a disadvantage due to their lifestyle, their location or financial situation. Self-publishing obviously has its problems – it’s a system that can be “gamed” in other ways – but at least it doesn’t rely on the writer’s connections and/or the publisher’s opinions.
And if anyone cares to posit that those new voices just “aren’t good”, I’ve got a whole ‘nother blog entry for ya.
On the subject of access, it’s not only writers who benefit from how easy it is to publish these days: readers benefit as well, and it’s readers who decide what gets popular. Thanks to the internet/ebooks, more readers can access more stories, which means that writers who aren’t perfect but who have new stories and different perspectives can reach their audiences in ways they never could before. This may have caused a change (!) in the types of books that are being read and that are becoming popular.
If those books are bad, it’s got little to do with the internet/the ignorance of millennials/the price of wine in Carda, and more to do with the fact that many new subjects/topics/themes have never been tackled before. Writers working on a literary story about the woes of modern life have plenty of historical examples from which to take inspiration – but what of those writers whose stories are about gay astronauts saving the planet while struggling to legitimize their relationship? To which “good” writer should we compare them? I think it’s likely that the quality of these stories will improve as writers learn to tackle new subjects more skillfully.
Maybe Twilight wasn’t great, but that doesn’t mean the next vampire story won’t be!
So we’ve established that there are a lot of books out there – and there’s also a lot of other content. That content – blog posts, news articles, listicles, videos, quizzes, slideshows and everything else you read online – gets made in a hurry to please an ever-present audience constantly hungry for something new to consume. Readers want content and they want it now, and given that fact, can we really scoff if that content disappoints us? Maybe there’s nothing to write about but the Kardashians after everything else has been covered (more than once!) in a 24-hour cycle.
Another thing we expect as readers is that we get our content for free – and this deserves a header of its own.
On Quality and Ka-Ching!
Alright. So it seems like, maybe, the average “quality” of writing really is on the decline. Anyone with a keyboard can toss their idiot notions online, where they’ll attract loads of readers too ignorant to recognise bad writing, but click-happy enough to generate ad revenue. How might we put a stop to this madness?!
Pay For Your Content
Easy question: do you pay for the content you read online?
Paying for content translates (or should translate) into paying the creators of that content – which isn’t something that all publishers do:
Pay Your Writers / Content Creators
Consider that many if not most content creators don’t get paid for what they made (whether they made the content willingly or it was stolen from them). Many creators who do ask to be paid simply don’t get published.
Now consider this: what kind of laborer offers their work for free? What kind of laborer asks to be paid?
Would we trust a bridge that was designed for free? So what can we expect of free writing?
Obviously someone is paying for content, or writers would be out of work entirely, right? So, who on Earth is paying these morons to produce such low-quality work?
It’s those damned millennials – yes – the fools who are popularizing “bad writing” also happen to be paying for it. Without the gatekeepers in place, we’re able to purchase the works of writers who offer us something different – something changed – whether the writing is “great” or not. This encourages more writers to provide similar content, and will, in turn, encourage those writers to do it better.
On the Desire for Quality Despite Disrespect
Maybe millennials really are bad at writing; maybe we rely too much on spellcheckers; maybe we’re lazy. Maybe we didn’t pay enough attention in class.
Or maybe we were told by our parents and teachers that writing and art aren’t “real jobs”.
Maybe everyone who ever offered us a job in the arts only promised us excellent exposure.
It’s not true of everyone, but personally, I was rarely (if ever) encouraged to pursue the arts as a career. Everyone wants a better life for their kids and an artist’s life is not “better” – it’s uncertain; it’s poor; it’s disrespected. Now, that same generation of parents, teachers and employers complains that new television shows are all terrible – that that new books are all trash – that journalists have lost their integrity. They act wounded – as though they thought they’d taught us better – but these are the same people who raised millennials to believe that writing and art were a waste of time.
Is it fair to complain about the quality of writing these days when you told us it was stupid at sixteen?
Your turn: What was your experience with writing and art in your youth? Were you taught to respect it, or not? What do you think of the “state” of writing now? What do you think has changed of the last fifty years? Or do you think I’m just a snotty kid?