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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: literature

Books are a better value than today's newspapers — and it's no contest

Stephen H. Provost

Authors and print journalists have one thing in common, and no, I’m not talking about writing.

Today’s “print” journalism isn’t so much about print. More and more, it’s about posting videos online, then finessing keywords and creating vague headlines to ensure they get hits, page views, visits or whatever. None of that has much to do with writing, and none of it does anything to help with literacy. Neither does laying off copy editors, line editors and staff writers (note the word “writers” in that last title).

We who write books still – gasp – actually write. Sure, we put out ebooks, utilize keywords in marketing and go after a “target audience,” but we don’t obscure or massage the facts in order to do so. Authors were never meant to be public watchdogs. Some of us are, but we take that mantle voluntarily, not because it’s part of our job description.

It is – or was, once upon a time – part of what it meant to be a journalist. Ever wonder why attacks on journalism as “fake news” have gained so much traction? It’s easy to blame ego-driven politicians, but not so easy for media companies to look in the mirror. The more these companies sacrifice their own credibility at the SEO altar (that’s “search engine optimization,” for the uninitiated), the less reason people have to believe them. Or to buy what they’re selling.

The fewer journalists actually attend public meetings, the less reason anyone has to believe they know what’s going on. You can’t be a watchdog if you ain’t watchin’!

This isn’t the fault of front-line journalists, who, increasingly, are asked to do more with fewer resources. They’re heroes, in my book. It’s the fault of the companies that employ them. While they’re tasked, increasingly, with things that have less and less to do with writing and reporting, we authors are doing pretty much the same thing we’ve always done: Looking for interesting stories (in our own heads and in the world at large), and doing our best to entertain, inform and challenge our readers.

That doesn’t mean authors are better than front-line journalists, merely that we are given more freedom to pursue our craft than today’s journalists enjoy. That wasn’t always the case.

Shared struggle

No, writing isn’t what we authors have in common with journalists. Not anymore. What we share is a struggle to remain visible in a world that offers an explosion of media choices. Anyone who wants to can publish a blog and call himself a journalist, and anyone can self-publish a book at proclaim, “Hey! I’m an author!” Her books might be good – or they might not. But who has time to weed through all the pig slop to get to find that diamond in the trough?

In truth, we have less time than ever for such pursuits. And the world has catered to our increasingly frenetic lives by serving up fast-food information via iPhones and sound bites, condensing complex issues into Twitter-pated bullshit that can be spewed by anyone in 280 characters or fewer.

Media companies have responded by mimicking their own worst enemy: posting on Twitter, adapting their format to fit “handheld devices” and making news more disposable than it used to be when the morning paper got recycled at the bottom of a birdcage in the opening sequence of Lou Grant.  

By contrast, we authors are doing what we’ve always done: writing.

Media companies, faced with declining circulation despite their “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” embrace of social media, go out begging potential readers for attention. “You can subscribe to our online service for just $9.95 a month!” they declare. “It’s a bargain!”

Authors make similar pitches: “You can have hours of reading pleasure for just $9.95! You can’t beat that!”

Both products are worth about the same as a couple of cups of coffee at Starbucks or a ticket to a movie matinee. So, the question arises: If you only have $9.95, which one should you buy?

My answer is: the book. And I’ll tell you why.

More bang for your buck

Prices have gone up for both products. That’s inflation for you. But what are you getting for your buck?

Books are still about the same length as they’ve always been, with just as much content and just as much work put in on the front end.

The opposite is true for newspapers. With all those writers and editors being shown the door, the breadth and depth of newspaper content isn’t anywhere near what it used to be. Newspapers have become the fast-food burger of reading: The price gets bigger as the product gets smaller. And not just when it comes to the number of pages. If you’re not covering the city council meeting, the school board or the Friday night football game, seriously, what’s the point?

Yeah, local newspapers are still putting out some good content, but it’s a small fraction of what you used to find in their pages. And it’s nothing close to comprehensive. By contrast, a 340-page book in 1979 is still a 340-page book 40 years later. You’ll find as many vivid characters, as many twists and as much good information between the front and back cover as you ever did.

None of this should be taken as an argument that books are intrinsically better than newspapers. This is about value for the consumer’s dollar, not an assessment of the two media’s inherent worth. They perform different functions, both essential – and that makes the decline of the daily newspaper even more lamentable.

Three decades ago, I probably would have deemed newspapers a better value than books. Given the Draconian cuts in staffing, resources, content and the number of pages in your daily paper, I simply can’t say that now. Compare a six-section, 72-page paper of 30 years ago to a two-section, 16-page edition today.

Is it any wonder subscribers are heading for the exits?

Newspapers are being made – and, it could be argued, have already been rendered – obsolete by the internet. That’s tragic, and it’s certainly not the fault of front-line journalists, but it won’t do us any good to bury our heads in the sand and pretend it hasn’t happened.

Harsh reality

But here’s the good news: Books are as robust and relevant as ever.

So, if you’re offered a choice between a monthly newspaper subscription and a book for that $9.95, my advice is to buy the book. Newspapers have already lost the battle to the internet. And, with their decision to abandon comprehensive local news coverage, they offer very little in the way of content you can’t find online. We authors haven’t given an inch in our battle to stay both evocative and relevant. That’s why I’m proud to be one. I’m still a journalist; I just find my stories in the past these days, digging up nearly forgotten nuggets to share in the realm of historical nonfiction.

And I’m actually writing. Imagine that! It’s a hell of a lot more fun than spending most of my day plugging in keywords, filming videos and sweating bullets in the increasingly desperate hope that someone out there is still paying attention. That’s what the current media culture demands of many good, hardworking journalists who would much rather be writing and reporting. When they do, their work still shines. It just shines far less brightly than it once did. That’s not their fault. But it is, unfortunately, their reality and ours.

For more on the decline and fall of journalism in the 21st century, check out my book Media Meltdown, available on Amazon.

 

 

Literacy on life support: The decline and fall of written language

Stephen H. Provost

Motion pictures didn’t kill writing. Neither did television.

We who love the written word took comfort in the fact that authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown could still use it to captivate mass audiences. Good writing was alive and well, we thought. Reports of its demise were premature and, we believed, greatly exaggerated.

Or were they?

Death can come suddenly, but far more often, it creeps up on us. It hides in the shadows of our own denial. Lurking there, it bides its time, numbing us to the signs of its looming presence. We barely notice that we’ve embarked upon a long, slow walk toward our demise. Our decline is subtle, our transformation gradual.

One day, we stop running. Farther down the road, we labor to walk … and then to stand. If we notice this regression, we do so reluctantly. Fatigue whispers in one ear and apathy in the other: “Accept it. Ignore it. It’s not really as bad as it seems.” And so forth. We acclimate to a “new normal” and forget what the old normal was, because it’s too painful to remember and even more painful to pursue — until, at last, it eludes our grasp entirely.

Movies weren’t the end of books, and television didn’t kill magazines or newspapers, but the regression from the age of literacy continues apace — indeed, accelerates. This is no seasonal illness; it’s become a chronic condition, and the symptoms are no longer just a few, but myriad.

  • We favor sound bites over policy proposals.
  • We accept tweets as our favored form of prose and elect their foremost proponent as our president.
  • We shutter bookstores, and we learn about novels only when Hollywood makes them movies; then we don’t bother to read them, because we’ve seen the ending on the big screen.
  • We value “keywords” over complete sentences.
  • When we go online, it isn’t to read; it’s to “game” or to veg out on YouTube.
  • Romantics used to send love letters by parcel post; now players send “dick pics” by email.
  • Editors? Who needs them when we’ve forgotten proper grammar? Who has time for them when we demand our information now.
  • Newspapers? Ink on your hands and waste for the landfill.
  • Magazines? Exiled online, if they survive at all, ghosts in the same machine that slew them.

If literacy isn’t dead, it’s on life support. You can’t read if there aren’t any writers, and there won’t be any writers if no one pays them — if they’re too busy marketing, posting and promoting to knock out that sequel you’ve been waiting for. The more time writers spend doing the work of agents and editors, publicists and promoters used to do, the less time they’ll have to actually write. The more rushed and the less robust their stories will be.

How can we create memorable prose when it disappears in the blink of an eye on Snapchat? Will any library preserve the tweets and texts of this impulsive generation?

Readers have it in our power to provide the answers. It is we who create the demand, or refuse to, and the supply increases or dries up in response to our decisions. That’s just the way it works.

Downhill trajectory

In the world we’re fashioning, we value tweets and memes and Facebook Live. Quality writing? Not so much. You might want to debate that point, but until you’re willing to do so with your pocketbook, it’s all just empty noise. Yes, there are exceptions. Some people still make a living by writing, even a comfortable one. This proves nothing. A patient with a chronic, wasting illness still enjoys occasional “good days” and periodic bursts of energy. They’re no proof that the patient is any less ill, the condition any less serious.

Such “good days” will become less frequent with the passage of time, until at last they’re whittled down from few to none.

Is that what will happen to literacy? Time will tell. It would be cruelly ironic if some hothead’s reckless tweets were to result in a catastrophic war — a war that might reduce our “information superhighway” to cyber-rubble. Such a tragedy would obliterate our carefully crafted virtual world of denial and convenience, and if that were to happen, we might need writing again, just to communicate.

Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. ... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
— Kofi Annan

This is not to suggest that our only choice lies between a nuclear and literary wasteland. Far from it. With some luck and just a little restraint, the nuclear button will never be pushed, and we can avert a literary apocalypse, as well. There are, after all, alternatives. Most notably, we could celebrate writing again — something we haven’t been doing.

We denigrate reporters as purveyors of “fake news,” dismiss authors as hobbyists and degrade those who instruct us in the language by quipping, “Those who can’t, teach.” Is writing really a marketable skill? Shouldn’t university students be taking practical courses like business, engineering or computer technology?

Such thinking could lead us to a real-life Tower of Babel, that engineering marvel from the realm of lore that remained unfinished because all those talented architects and builders forgot how to communicate ... just as we're doing right now.

But what if, instead of devaluing the written word, we exalted it once more and encouraged those who sought to master it? What if we invested in the authors and reporters and editors and English teachers who have made it their passion? The more we value writing, the more people will aspire to fill these roles; the more accomplished those people will become, and the greater the rewards will be, not only for those who read their work, but for society as a whole.

That’s not fake news. You have my word(s) on it.

Why I don't write negative book reviews

Stephen H. Provost

I have a simple policy when it comes to reviewing books: If I like them, I give 'em props. If I don't, I keep my mouth (or my keyboard) shut.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First off, reactions to books are largely subjective. Some books are more popular than others, and that can speak to quality, but it also can speak to successful marketing, name recognition and other factors. A few highly praised works have bored me to tears, and some obscure volumes have been, to use my wife's term, "unputdownable."

(This is a great word, even if you won't find it in the dictionary, because it has two meanings: The book's so engaging you can't stop reading it, and it's so enjoyable, you can't find anything to criticize.)

Secondly, I like to support other artists. I know how hard it is to sell a book, and I also know how tough it can be to deal with numbing criticism from strangers who seem to take almost perverse glee in dismantling a work you've spent months or years creating. You put a big part of yourself into it, and it's hard not to take it personally if someone reams you over it. Having been on the receiving end of slow sales and (only occasionally, thank goodness) critical reviews, I know what it's like to feel that sting, so I strive to follow the Golden Rule and spare other authors any scathing rebukes from my pen.

From my close observation of writers... they fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review.
— Isaac Asimov

The Grammar Hammer

What about more objective issues? What if the book contains a ton of misspelled words, switches tenses in the middle of a chapter or treats subject-verb agreement like it's a temporary truce at best?

As an editor, these things drive me nuts, but what's even more galling is a review that consists largely or solely of grammatical critiques. Such reviews come off as holier-than-thou, and they tell me nothing about the plot or the characters. Reviewers: I want to know what you think of the story. I won't give you a gold star for digging up the most errors in some fanciful literary scavenger hunt. 

So, I won't blast an author by name in a public forum for using "it's" as a possessive or "comprise" instead of "compose," even though I may grind my teeth and roll my eyes when it happens. Those things aren't as important to me as the story, and no author can catch every mistake. (In fact, we tend to read right over our own typos, seeing what we think we've written rather than what's actually on the page. That's why we need editors. And it's why I'm more likely to hold an editor accountable for a slew of errors than I am to blame the writer.)  

If I have a criticism of a book that I believe is worth sharing with the author, I do so in private, not in a review. I may poke fun at grammatical mistakes on line, but I don't attribute them to particular writers. I like to say, as a professional editor, that I'm not getting paid to do that, but the reality is, I don't find shaming writers to be either fun or noble. I'd much rather encourage them.

Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of “telling people how bad different books are”? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life?
— Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

What makes a good review

So, how do I go about writing a constructive review? Here are a few things I try to include:

  • What's special about the story? What makes it stand out from the crowd?
  • You'll enjoy this book if you've enjoyed ... (fill in the blank with one or more similar titles you've enjoyed.)
  • Who was your favorite character, and why?
  • What did you like about the writer's style? Did the description stand out; if so, how? Was the dialogue crisp and realistic? Was there a twist you didn't expect?
  • If the book was "unputdownable," say so!

If I do include any critical info, I build it on a positive foundation. For example, "I enjoyed this character so much, I would have liked to see more of her. I hope the author considers telling readers more about her in a sequel."

And, of course, no spoilers.

But wait, you may say, "If you never leaves a negative review, how will potential readers know if the book isn't for them?"

That's easy. The descriptions you give might be positive, but if you mention elements of the book that appeal to some readers, these same ingredients might not interest others. If you describe the story as fast-paced, readers who don't like to feel rushed through a story line might pass. If you highlight a passionate relationship between the two main characters, that might flag those who aren't into romance to steer clear. If you label it "dark and brooding," that might not appeal to readers in search of an uplifting tale. And so on.

Believe it or not, eliminating readers who wouldn't be interested in a particular book benefits the author, too. It means that those who do read the work as the result of a review are more likely to enjoy it ... and leave a review of their own.

A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.
— Iris Murdoch

A lousy review isn't the end of the world, which should come as good news to authors and bad news to self-important critics who think of themselves as king-makers and book-breakers. S. Kelley Harrell calls online review sites "the slushpile of feedback," and Iris Murdoch said, "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."

If you're an author with a leaky roof who happens to live in Patagonia, that might be a concern, but otherwise ...

A positive review probably won't make you a bestselling author, either. Still, I love getting them; most authors do. If you don't have time to leave a review, but you like a book, just rate it. That's great, too. It shows that you've read the book and (hopefully) that it kept you interested enough to reach the end. 

Speaking of the end, I've gotten there myself. At least for today.

Thanks for reading, and happy reviewing!

Dear pretentious critics: Here's why we don't like you

Stephen H. Provost

How do you decide what movies you want to see? Do you read the reviews? If you do, you probably have one of three reactions: You might go to the movie if it gets a good review, you might decide to ignore the review altogether, or you might wind up doing the exact opposite of what the critics recommend.

If you’re in the third group, chances are you’re not acting that way just to be rebellious. You’re doing it because you’ve figured out that the critics’ choices usually don’t jibe with you own.

The same principle holds true for music, literature and any other form of art. Often enough, critics and fans enjoy the same things, but in other cases, their opinions diverge — sometimes sharply.

Critics tend to look down their noses at art they consider derivative or clichéd, saying to themselves, “Hey, I’ve seen this before. Why should I waste my time on seeing it again?”

Just yesterday, I wrote an entry here that touched on the importance (among other things) of originality in writing. I’m not one of those people who’ll see a movie several times or reread a book, no matter how much I enjoyed them. In fact, I’ve never read a novel twice in my life. Been there, done that. Hearing a song too often can turn it from catchy to cloying. Watching a movie repeatedly can put me to sleep.

But, hey, that’s me. There are plenty of people who enjoy hearing the same song over and over, rereading their favorite novels and watching the DVD of their favorite movie time and again. The Wizard of Oz became a yearly tradition on broadcast television in 1959, and the same treatment is given to holiday films such as Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas during the holidays. So, there’s obviously a big appetite for this.

One thing these movies have in common is they’re accessible: They tell stories in such a way that a lot of people can relate to them.

The problem with many critics is they think accessibility is a bad thing. Bands that put out songs with a lot of hooks are dismissed as banal or simplistic. Meanwhile, their music racks up huge sales and fans flock to their concerts.

When it comes to major awards, they’re seldom, if ever, bestowed upon “genre” movies or novels. Academy Awards for Best Picture aren’t given to science fiction, fantasy, horror or comedy films. It "just isn’t done.” Similarly, you’ll never find Stephen King or J.K. Rowling in the hunt for a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Does this mean their work is unworthy? Millions of readers will tell you otherwise.

This doesn’t seem to matter to the critics. Many of them appear to thrive on the notion that they’re somehow “above” public opinion — and strive to maintain this impression by dismissing certain kinds of storytelling wholesale. The irony of doing so is that they’re judging genres based on stereotype, which is itself a form of cliché.

Clichés and stereotypes

What many critics have lost sight of is the difference between art that’s derivative and art that’s accessible. I make it a point to write conversationally so my readers can relax and enjoy what I’ve written. I don’t want to make them work too hard. One of the perks of being an adult is that reading gets to be fun, not the kind of textbook chore you had to endure in grade school.

(Sometimes, I think stale textbook authors and self-important critics emerged from the same mysterious protoplasm — that gooey muck that spawned F. Murray Abraham’s character, Professor Crawford, in Finding Forrester.)

Accessible writing isn’t simple-minded. On the contrary, it’s deft. I like to make my readers think. I’ve written books and articles on philosophy, for Pete’s sake. But that doesn’t mean presenting people with such a pretentious, confusing mess that it’s impossible to make heads or tails of it.

Despite what many critics seem to think, art can be accessible and original at the same time. It can be intelligent and fun. A good mystery can make you think and enjoy yourself at the same time. (Not coincidentally, mysteries are another popular genre that’s on the outs when it comes to consideration for major awards.)

Is it any wonder that some people choose to ignore the critics or even use critical disdain as an excuse to check out a book or movie? People don’t like being excluded. When their favorite film or novel is dismissed without a second thought, they don’t like that much, either. The people who do the dismissing will lose their credibility — regardless of their expertise or sense of self-importance.

The word “discriminating” can carry two different definitions: “selective” or “dismissive.” Too often, critics cross the line from the former to the latter, and in doing so render their opinions irrelevant.

That’s my critique. Take it or leave it … but either way, go have fun.