Fired Old Man Angry at World, Ranting About Something or Other

Leon Wieseltier, recently run out of The New Republic as a gang of Silicon Valley nitwits took over and tried to fix it, has a piece in The New York Times Sunday Book Review that starts thusly:

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

I’m sure after reading that bit of succinct and too-the-point prose, you’re just dying to read the rest of it. Good luck with that. You see, Leon is what I’d call a writer’s writer — or, as he’s also known, the “last of the New York intellectuals” — someone much more interested in showing off — his skill, his education or his connections — than getting to the point already. There is, of course, a way to do both without looking like you’re trying to hard to do either. But Leon, who IS a smart guy whose writing I’ve enjoyed in the past, isn’t getting it done here. He also seems to be suffering from selective historical amnesia.

This bit: “Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one.”

That’s different from the rest of human history how? We’re going to pretend that the vast majority of writers, even before the Internet came along, weren’t being paid in contributor copies and “exposure” and Scooby Snacks? As far as the spiritual satisfaction of getting published, it’s simply a generational thing that some of us only feel gratified if our stuff is seen in print. I’m guilt of that as well. But that just means we’re old, Leon.

Of course, this is coming from a guy who was shoved out of a pretty plush gig (one that somehow paid his salary completely independent from market realities).

The little tech shitheads were shitheads — and epically played to stereotype — in the way they put the last nail in that magazine’s coffin (and it was simply the last nail).

Like I said, I’ve enjoyed some of Leon’s writing. But considering his sour grapes, his lack of understanding about technology and his inability to write a sentence of fewer than 95 words, Leon might not be the best person to make this argument. Why, it’s like he thinks the digital realm consists only of Twitter and Facebook and BuzzFeed and robots. I shudder to think how long-winded this guy will be when he realizes that the web has a lot more room for his words than fusty old print. The above paragraph should have ended after the second sentence. Go on. Go back and read the first two sentences. ZING! (And no, Leon, not everybody is talking about media. Get out of media circles and notice that 95% of the world has no interest in talking about the state of media.)

The biggest point this piece makes — and one completely overlooked in all the writing about technology revolution and corporatism — is the need for actual editors. And I’m not talking about proofreaders or copyeditors (who are also needed). I’m talking about people who challenge creators on their own bullshit, men and women who take a good hunk of whatever and make it better, make it be what it’s supposed to be. There are two types of writers. Those who don’t think they need editors — and those who actually want their stuff read by normal human beings. And even the writers who understand the need for editors will sometimes chafe at being edited. God knows I’ve had my moments. And I have a suspicion that Leon is just the sort who has epic fights over his precious precious words.

Here’s the thing about editors, though. Editors are expensive AND they hold up the process. And lots of people have fooled themselves into thinking that with all the glories of digital technology, we can skimp on the editing. But you can see from novels to long-winded pieces like this to three-hour movies — that there aren’t as many sharp-minded people sitting there with a red pen and/or an exacto knife. The corporations figure that once something has a title and the raw material, they can just toss it out for the consumer. Trust me, if the suits at Scholastic could drug all the editors and have J.K. Rowling write 400 word blobs with the words Harry Potter strewn throughout, they’d do it.

And too many creators are eager to NOT have someone sully their pure artistic vision.

Have you found yourself skipping over entire sections of a book because it just started to drag? Did you think maybe three, three-hour movies for a movie based on The Hobbit was a bit much? Want to see the worst-case scenario of what happens when good editors are nowhere to be found? Go watch The Phantom Menace.

Leon’s piece actually has quite a few smart things to say, but it’s almost completely lost because Leon has to show off how smart he is with all his extraneous quotations and (half) clever turns of phrase.

If your actual purpose is persuasion — as opposed to preaching or preening — this isn’t the way to go about it.

(Sorry, I couldn’t fit all of this into a Tweet.)

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