THE SCOURGE OF PADDED NONFICTION….The New York Times has yet another installment today in the long running soap opera about the mental decline of our internet-addicted youth. Example: “As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.” Etc.
I don’t have any particular dog in this fight, but I will say this. I’m obviously part of the older demographic that loves books, especially long books, and basically believes that you can’t really learn anything serious about a subject unless you’re willing to read books. So my sympathies are obviously on the side of the worriers.
And yet…..having said that, spending a lot of time on the internet, as I have since 2002, has rubbed my nose in something that hadn’t really bothered me before then: namely just how overwritten so many books and magazine articles are. Seymour Hersh? He’s great. You could also cut every one of his pieces by at least 50% and lose exactly nothing. And I’m not picking on Hersh. At a guess, I’d say that two-thirds of the magazine pieces I read could be sliced by nearly a third or more without losing much. That’s true of a lot of books too.
Obviously there are plenty of distinctions here. In many cases (profiles, for example), added length is used effectively to set a mood, even if it doesn’t convey a lot of specific information. Sometimes you enjoy the writing for its own sake. And there are plenty of longish articles (and books) that depend for their power on building up a case bit by bit, example by example. Start slicing this stuff out, and you end up with mush. I’m not arguing for taking a rusty machete to everything in print.
Still, the fact remains that an awful lot of longish nonfiction writing is needlessly overwritten, and this isn’t something that struck me quite so forcefully before I started blogging. But now, for better or worse, it has. I’m much more sensitive to — and much less tolerant of — padded writing.
So my point is this: if even I, hailing from an earlier generation, feel this way, I can only imagine how teenagers raised on the internet feel. Sure, part of the story may be that their attention spans have become dangerously short, but another part of the story may be that they aren’t willing to slog through multiple pages of irrelevant muck waiting for the author to finally get to the point. It’s not either/or.
So: crisper writing, please! One of the upsides of blogging (and the internet in general) is that it allows information to find its natural length: if something only needs a couple of paragraphs, that’s what it gets. If it needs 10,000 words, it gets that. But there’s no need to pad because “we do long form journalism around here,” just as there’s no need to slash because you only have space for 40 column inches this week. Worriers take note.