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Aug. 2 2010 - 9:28 pm | 2,669 views | 2 recommendations | 22 comments

Goodbye to All This: On Leaving True/Slant

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Dr. Johnson famously observed.

By the great wit’s reckoning, then, Your Author is deadwood from the neck up, since the cultural capital I’ve amassed through True/Slant, rubbing elbows with writers like Susannah Breslin and Matt Taibbi and learning from smart editors like Coates Bateman and Michael Roston, was easily the lion’s share of what made writing for the site so rewarding. That, and the rare opportunity to hook my writing desk up to an arena-strength P.A. system and rattle the Web with a 3,000-word post on whatever wild surmise or obscure obsession crossed my mind, commercial considerations be damned. Truth to tell, True/Slant’s monthly wage—like the fees most publications pay in an economy where downsized, overeducated hacks are in no short supply—is a token honorarium, compared to the glory days of freelance writing.

Obviously, those days are gone, maybe forever. Journalism and book publishing—reliable roads out of financial perdition for generations of writers, Dr. Johnson among them—are big, smoking, financial holes. Writers who’ve spent decades honing their craft, deepening their knowledge of their beats, and burnishing their brands are out on the pavement, cobbling together minimum-wage incomes from the slaughterhouse sweepings of freelance journalism, adjunct teaching, maybe even advertising copywriting (if selling their deathless prose, by the yard, to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce doesn’t violate some Adbusters-approved code of conduct). More and more Web publications pay nothing but street cred, schwag, and name recognition on a nano scale—crack rock for dilettantes, but a death knell for anyone who dreams of earning a living in the scribbling trade. Of those sites that do pay, too many are word farms where bloggers chase bonuses pegged to pageviews, using search engine-optimized headlines to goose their clickthrough rates. “Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding—or shaming—writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms,” wrote New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters in a recent Times article that portrayed sites like Politico.com as sweatshops (“In a World of Online News, Burnout Starts Younger,” July 18). A reported story on PBS’s “Mediashift” (“Writers Explain What It’s Like Toiling on the Content Farm,” July 21) quoted a disaffected former “content creator” for Demand Media’s eHow.com, a how-to site whose freelance minions base their instructional articles on ideas generated by algorithm:

“I was completely aware that I was writing crap,” she said. ‘I was like, ‘I hope to God people don’t read my advice on how to make gin at home because they’ll probably poison themselves.’”

‘Never trust anything you read on eHow.com,’ she said…”

In the wake of Forbes’s acquisition of True/Slant and T/S founder Lewis Dvorkin’s ascent to the status of chief product officer at Forbes, The New York Observer ran a profile of Dvorkin (“‘Darth D’Vorkin’Arrives at Forbes,” July 13) that I, as one who won’t be toiling in the fields of Forbes, Noted With Interest, as writers to The New York Times letters column like to say.

According to Observer reporter Zeke Turner, Dvorkin

“thinks of stories as product. And the most efficient way to churn out and make money from this product is to create a more efficient editing process with fewer layers. Moving forward, when I look at an operation like Forbes, I look at a mixture of a full-time staff base and hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of freelance contributors. [...] That’s what we did at True/Slant…We let the reporter self-publish—boom! We’re working through that at Forbes: How do you create a less layered process at the magazine? [...] The editing process online is vastly different than in print…There is a fit and finish that you must have in print. Online, it’s not about fit and finish; it’s about the flow of information, the updates of information. It’s about relevance and timeliness. It’s not about craftsmanship. Quality online does not equal craftsmanship. In print, quality does equal craftsmanship.”

Let me say that I wish Dvorkin, my editors, my former colleagues, and True/Slant every success. The thought that I might be plucked from the ranks of T/S to join the few, the proud at Forbes never entered my laughably unForbes-ian mind. I was a desultory True/Slant-er, posting infrequently and at inordinate length, on topics that were sometimes topical but often not. I’m not immune to newsiness, but refuse to be stampeded trendward, along with the rest of the goggle-eyed media herd.

In his essay “The Long Goodbye: Trying To See Past The Increasingly Harrowing Plight Of Longform Nonfiction In General Interest Magazines,” Lawrence Weschler writes,

“The magazine universe today is increasingly niche-slotted, peg-driven and attention-squeezed. There may be more magazines than ever before, but commercial forces appear to be enforcing an evermore frantic fragmentation of the readerly market. Surfers and advertisers interested in reaching surfers may have a half-dozen venues to choose from, but one is much less likely to find a beautiful extended surfing rhapsody exposed to a general audience owing simply to some writer’s glorious quirky passion. [...] Readers, after all, bore so easily nowadays—or, at any rate, editors seem convinced that they do; or maybe it’s just that the editors, squeezed by increasingly convulsive demands on their own time, can no longer themselves sustain such leisurely spans of attention.”

The unspoken goal, in too much American journalism, is not to tell people what they don’t know, or never even imagined they might want to know, but to tell people what they already know, since it logically follows that anything they don’t know is too weird to survive in what we Americans, in our inimitably irony-free way, like to call the Marketplace of Ideas. It’s this failure of editorial nerve, driven by a cringing fear of scaring off advertisers, that has rendered largely extinct the sort of narrative nonfiction Weschler elsewhere describes as “pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject, and through the sheer narrative energy of the writing, you’d find yourself becoming caught and then held, completely immersed, lost to the world for hours at a time…”

And one must tell people things they already know in language they already use—PowerPoint prose that is easily bullet-ized in the reader’s mind. Like William F. Buckley, I never scrupled at sending my reader to the OED if a sesquipedalian word was the best word for the job. Nor did I feel any obligation to smilingly submit to the intellectual straitjacket that constrains too much American journalism, namely, the presumption that a writer’s allusions and references should be bounded by the cultural literacy of Kim Kardashian.

Which isn’t to say my posts were all unalloyed brilliance. Some flew high; some were big, fat piles of fail. You’ll be the judge of which was which. My point is simply that, like Weschler in his essays, I presumed in my True/Slant posts a reader who craves wonder and laughter; who isn’t reflexively hostile to having her mind stretched or the revealed truths of his ideological niche or demographic comfort zone challenged. To those of you who wandered the forking paths of longform posts that were equal parts nonfiction hedge maze and poetic topiary, I’m immensely grateful for your generosity with your time, and with your comment-thread wisdom.

That said, I blithely disregarded the received wisdom about what works on the Web, and what markets smile on, and thus had no illusions about my fitness for the new order when regime change came to True/Slant.

Consequently, the only dog I have in this fight is a philosophical one. I agree with Dvorkin that any writer who puts pen to paper for money is self-evidently turning out “product.” But that isn’t all he’s doing. Deep down inside, most writers, even the most cynical grub-street hacks, flatter themselves that they’re Speaking Truth to Power or, hell, spinning a good yarn, at least.

The mark of a real writer is that she cares deeply about literary joinery, about keeping the lines of her prose plumb. That’s what makes writers writers: to them, prose isn’t just some Platonic vessel for serving up content; they care about words. Any chief product officer who says “quality online does not equal craftsmanship” is channeling the utilitarian gospel of the managerial class, an instrumentalist vision of journalism that presumes writing, online, is just a turkey baster for injecting content into the user’s brain. Undeniably, that sort of writing is everywhere, online, from here to eHow.com, an algal bloom of brain-cloggingly awful prose. It results in reader die-off, in the long run, because bloggers posting in a workplace culture that dismisses the importance of craft will tend, unsurprisingly, to turn out stories that aren’t well-crafted, and what isn’t well-crafted isn’t well-read.

At True/Slant, Dvorkin told Observer reporter Zeke Turner, “We let the reporter self-publish—boom! We’re working through that at Forbes: How do you create a less layered process at the magazine?” From a managerial perspective, lowering overhead by doing away with the Middlemen Formerly Known as Editors makes spreadsheet sense. But who minds the store? Self-editing and self-publishing are fine if you’re Matt Taibbi or Susannah Breslin, reporters who roll over in their sleep and snore out perfectly parsed sentences and triple-sourced statements of fact. But what about the guy in the next cubicle, quietly sculpting the equivalent, in obsessive prose, of Richard Dreyfuss’s scale model of Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming? Who’s watching him?

It gets worse. The Observer reporter quotes Dvorkin’s observation that “the most efficient way to churn [stories] out and make money from this product is to create a more efficient editing process with fewer layers.” Translated from the original managerial-ese, this means: very little editorial oversight, if any. In the Observer article, there’s talk of “screening” the “hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands” (Dvorkin’s words) of what the reporter says will be Forbes/Slant’s “amateur ‘topic-specific credible’ journalists,” but that phrasing suggests that the vetting will be limited to the hiring process, not daily editing, a concession to the Darwinian realities of the recession-hammered news business that a Forbes staffer quoted in the Observer article seems to concede when s/he acknowledges that some Forbes/Slant bloggers “will be stock-touts, and we know that, and Lewis knows that, but he says that’s a cost of the model.”

Ain’t no facepalm big enough to convey the brain-hurting wrongheadedness of this strategy. Any of my journalism students at NYU would have spotted this, from a mile off, as an ethical fail. The FDA may have made its troubled peace, in regulatory terms, with the number of fly eggs and rodent excreta it permits in the mass-produced Frankenfood brought to you by agribusiness, but journalism doesn’t work that way: turning a blind eye on one “stock-tout,” if you’re a business site, tells consumers whose market decisions depend on the impartial truth of your data that some of it may be rotten with bias. And if any of it is, the consumer has to operate as if all of it is, which sort of gives your credibility the Mussolini headkick.

I could be wrong. Dvorkin may cherry-pick a staff of lungingly aggressive reporters whose prose swings harder than Thompson or Talese, and Bateman and Roston may keep a close watch on their journalistic ethics and factual accuracy. I’ll happily eat crow on that count, because journalism could use a few more success stories right about now, and any market model that lifts off the launchpad is a victory for all of us, even Your Author.

But one thing is certain, and sad: the grim insistence that writers of every genre prioritize, above all else, the demands of chief product officers with one eye on the balance sheet and the other on the stock ticker guarantees that beguiling “pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject” will be fewer and further between, and wonder in shorter supply. Just when we need it most, the act of thinking aloud in public will fall victim to cost-benefit analyses, condemned for the sublime uselessness that makes it so useful.


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  1. collapse expand

    You know Mark, one of our interns once made a great point to me. She said she considered herself a writer, not a journalist. I’m not even going to try and pull out the Black’s Law Dictionary and win a debate on definitions with you. But you’re not a journalist; you’re a writer. There’s a Venn diagram, and there’s a place where journalists and writers overlap. I have my moments where I end up in the middle, but I tend more toward the journalist side of things; you have your moments, too, but you tend toward the writer side of things. Not every piece of prose published by a news outlet should be like a Mark Dery, or a Susannah Breslin, or a Matt Taibbi. But it’s great that some of us find room to publish that stuff, too. At True/Slant, we wanted to publish the work of both writers and newshounds with less technique, and even some content-mongers who were to a certain extent neither/nor. It worked out well. I can only hope Forbes will take a comparable approach.

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      Michael: Journalism isn’t writing? Wasn’t Joseph Mitchell a journalist? Or Dr. Johnson? Or Dean Swift? Or Didion? Or Sontag? Or Mencken? Or David Foster Wallace? A.J. Liebling? Or were they just writers who did journalism? I’m not sure I understand your distinction. For my money, writing done in the public arena, underwritten by the profit motive, addressing itself to a nonspecialist audience, is journalism. The tabloids publish journalism, but so do The Awl, Cabinet, The Revealer, Hi/Lowbrow, et. al. Remember, what you’re calling journalism was midwifed by Samuel Johnson’s The Idler and Addison and Steele—publications that looked a lot like The Baffler and The Believer. I agree that your experiment with T/S was a credit to you, Coates, and company, and share your hope that Forbes is smart enough to follow your lead.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        There’s a lot of ground between The Believer and the tabloids. Not all of us want to be novelists, or non-fiction novelists. Swift, Sontag, and Wallace, they spent time working in the overlap of journalism and finely-crafted writing. But there’s a lot of news-driven content that doesn’t need to be published in a form that you might see a lot of during National Novel Writing Month.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I will quibble only with one point, Mark. You argue that true writers care about words. Actually, I care more about ideas. I don’t like someone hacking up my prose (rarely happens, but still) but enjoyed most at T/S the freedom to express my ideas/opinions about a wide range of issues.

    “Content” is just a pile ‘o words produced in some order. It does not demand thoughtful or insightful ideas. And, while you laud Breslin, much of her work focused on incendiary topics like porn — which attracted, as we all know it would, many prurient eyeballs.

    I think a journalist’s future is binary — blogging and writing books. Neither of which pays well. The only way to keep your brain from atrophy, banging out 700 to 1,000 word stories that (barely) pay the bills, is to find and enter a complex world and explore it at length. Unless you’re one of the very, very favored few who will produce such work for The Atlantic or New Yorker or NYT Magazine, a book is now the rare place left to take a set of ideas out for a spin.

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      Caitlin: Again, to my point in response to Michael’s comment, I believe you’re setting up a false binary between form and content, words and ideas. To my mind, they’re inextricable. Form *is* content; the medium *can be* the message; style, in many rhetorical instances, doesn’t just amplify the writer’s argument but embodies it and thereby prosecutes its case as forcefully, if not more so, than the ideas in play (as if ideas were independent of the words that give them flesh). This really is a philosophical debate. I’m a materialist, not a Platonist, so I don’t believe things—and words, to me, are things—are just containers for “content.” I believe language creates ideas as we know them, and that the pre-linguistic mind would be unrecognizably alien to a modern mind that knows itself, and its world, through the medium of language.
      BTW, I never said true writers care *more* about words than ideas; my point was simply that, in addition to a presumed interest in ideas, writers love language. Elsewise, they’d articulate their ideas in some other medium—say, film—wouldn’t they?
      I’m not sure I understand the relevance of the Breslin reference. I applaud her interest in the incendiary and the prurient—two of my favorite things. That she follows the cultural buzz, with a shrewd eye on page views, is very much to her credit as a working blogger. That she treats controversial subjects with lacerating wit *and* keen insight recommends her as a cultural critic. That’s certainly poles apart from anyone who views online writing as brain-dead content, worthy only to the extent that it can be “monetized.”
      “a book is now the rare place left to take a set of ideas out for a spin”: Well, I tried to do just that, right here, month after month. You’ll be the judge of how close I came to that bull’s-eye.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Mark,

    Thanks for writing this good bye/essay on journalism/writing and wherever these two meet or don’t meet, or are the same thing parading around in different clothing on different days. Writing is journalism and journalism is writing, I could not agree more there. Ideas and content go hand in hand, I agree there too. One cannot build a house without nails, tools, and ideas. The piggybacking/regurgitation that occurs across the Internet–and I was occasionally guilty of this too on this site–is akin to suburbia, to McMansions spreading as far as the eye can see. Sure, we have created places for people to live, but these places do not challenge us in any way. To push this housing metaphor one step further, then there is the delineation: not all people need creativity or originality to survive. Artists do. Writers do. Journalists who are writers do. But many do not and are perfectly happy that way. But let’s hope the creative stay creative and have outlets to do so in order to prevent the quotidian from ruling outright. Writing is not product and it is product at the same time. Writers want to believe our talents, our ideas and our words cannot be packaged and distributed like a canned ham. yet that is what happens, just in the same way that all ideas, once a flash of inspiration, can become consumable properties. Look at the light bulb. Look at the automobile. Now look at the electric car and the bicycle. My hope is that writers can trick the world again into buying good ideas, good writing as product, rather than the dreck that is so often peddled these days. As for the passing of True/Slant, well it’s sad indeed. No two ways about that.

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      Nick: Thanks a lot for this; I’ve enjoyed your writing, too. Actually, I suspect people—I gather you mean the vast unwashed, rather than what Ezra Pound called the Antennae of the Race (creatives)—would be happier if creativity and originality were in greater supply. If what Kunstler calls the Geography of Nowhere—Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, Olive Garden, Starbucks—were replaced in the twinkling of an eye by something rich and strange—say, Disney meets Gaudi, as imagined by Rem Koolhaas—I’d wager they’d never go back to the Generica they’d lived in. And yes, all creativity is canned ham in our happy land where capitalism is the state religion. But that doesn’t foreclose creativity or originality. Consumer culture is *both* an inexhaustible font of drek *and* a petri dish in which unimaginable perversity, subversion, and happy mutations are cultured. With one hand, it gives us My Little Pony, with the other John Waters; from this spigot, the Starbucks Frappucino, from that one, R. Crumb’s Genesis. By the way, the ideas you use in your example are all utilitarian ones; I’m arguing for sublime *uselessness*, a concept that makes the managerial mind pucker in fear and incomprehension.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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      ‘McMansions.’ What a strange analogy. In the history of architecture, most houses suck. Four walls of plywood with a zinc roof on top. Log cabins where you’re always trying to plug the holes that let the wind in. Endless rows of bungalows. Etc. And then there’s Versailles or the houses Frank Lloyd Wright built, and most of us don’t get to live in them, and if you do, we question whether or not you should even be living in them.

      Which is really of more value in that setting? The McMansion isn’t so bad, especially if it’s a McMansion where you built a nice addition.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    “I’m not sure I understand the relevance of the Breslin reference. I applaud her interest in the incendiary and the prurient—two of my favorite things. That she follows the cultural buzz, with a shrewd eye on page views, is very much to her credit as a working blogger. That she treats controversial subjects with lacerating wit *and* keen insight recommends her as a cultural critic.”

    Which is where we differ. Few print writers want to assign, edit or read the stuff she covered. I didn’t find either of those qualities in her work. You did. But it was certainly sexy and flashy and got lots of angry comments, so it’s a great fit for the web. Does its popularity in that medium — where the loudest and most shocking win — make her, de facto, a great journalist? Not in my book.

    There were many other writers here, whose voices were softer, their stance less aggressive, their topics less titillating. They and their ideas, writing and work have no less value, but this new medium says they do.

    That’s absurd.

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      Caitlin: I’m not Breslin’s publicist, and so don’t want to waste my ink on extended apologias for her sexiness, flashiness, allegedly crass but arguably shrewd pandering to the peanut-crunching rubes, or whatever it is you specifically object to in her style or subject matter.

      I will say that I reject outright the argument that shock and volume trump substance and suasion on the Web. Not only do I reject it because the evidence against it is overwhelming—Slate, Salon, The Atlantic Online, The Awl, the best articles and comment threads on Boing Boing and Metafilter, Steven Shaviro’s Pinocchio Theory, Andrew Hearts’s Panopticist, and on and on—but I reject it because it is deeply conservative, well familiar to any media critic or media historian who has studied the howls of cultural decline that inevitably greet any new medium. The same was said of TV, and of radio, and, in Plato’s day, of writing (oh, the irony…).

      More to the point, we’re arguing at cross purposes. You suggested our last, best hope for deep thought was books. I replied that I believed deep thought could live on the Web, and that I had tried to think deeply, in public, in this very space. You respond by asking rhetorically if Breslin’s “popularity in [a]medium — where the loudest and most shocking win — make[s] her, de facto, a great journalist?” I smell a straw man burning. Of course Breslin’s popularity isn’t what makes her a rattling good read; I never suggested any such thing. I said I found her witty and penetrating, which goes far in explaining her popularity—that, and her canny eye for topical, hot-button subjects. Great journalists ever since the days of the 18th century pamphleteers have engaged with the controversies of the day, both to join the cultural conversation *and* fatten their wallets. I don’t see any crime in that. You think Breslin’s a carny barker, gulling the rubes; I think she’s the catsuited Emma Peel of full-contact cultural commentary. We’ll leave it there.

      But I do have one last thought, inspired by your comment that “Few print writers want to assign, edit or read the stuff she covered”: Which explains, with admirable concision, precisely why American journalism is so soul-crushingly dull, so gutlessly bland, so shrinkingly fearful of controversy or transgression or the hairy fringes of the cultural. This is precisely what I deplored in my essay, where I talked about the tendency to only tell people what they already know. Talese, Mailer, Wolfe, Thompson, and the other bad boys (and girls) of New Journalism would languish unpublished in our age of cringing timidity. We could use a few more Susannah Breslins.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Goodbye and good luck, Mark. Thank you for some truly brilliant articles. For me, your blog on T/S has provided exactly the sort of “pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject.” I wish there was more writing like yours online, but it seems very few people have realized that this form can provide thoughtful content too.

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    My two cents:

    http://susannahbreslin.blogspot.com/2010/08/in-which-my-journalistic-integrity-is.html

    Bye-bye Marky-Mark. Just a suggestion: Next time, call it: “Anals of Our Age.” Way better for SEO.

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    Glad to have discovered your writing here, Mark. The web is all too often a sea of drivel; your articles were a refreshing change.

    I have your web site bookmarked and look forward to seeing your future material over there.

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    “The mark of a real writer is that she cares deeply about literary joinery, about keeping the lines of her prose plumb.”

    Anyone who uses the word ’she’ like that is nothing but a moron. It’s jarring, and makes me feel like some feminist man is trying to push his social engineering on me.

    This entire article was utterly substandard. At least at e-how.com I would have learned how to do something.

    I’m glad your shitty site got closed down or sold or whatever.

    FROM M. DERY: AND ANYONE SO CULTURALLY BENIGHTED HE HASN’T ENCOUNTERED THE USE OF THE FEMALE PRONOUN AS AN INCREASINGLY POPULAR ALTERNATIVE TO GRAMMATICAL SEXISM, AND SO BIGOTED IT DRIVES HIM TO COMMENT-THREAD RANTS ABOUT “FEMINIST MEN” (YES, VIRGINIA, MEN CAN BE FEMINISTS) NEEDS TO GET OUT OF DARWIN’S WAITING ROOM MORE OFTEN. SINCE TRUE/SLANT DOESN’T HAVE DISEMVOWELING, AS, SAY, BOING BOING DOES, I’M USING STRIKETHROUGH TO CENSURE, BUT SIMULTANEOUSLY PRESERVE FOR YOUR READING PLEASURE, THIS TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF THE TROGLODYTE IN FULL BRAY.

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      Hmmmm. I’d have simply said “they care deeply”, “lines of their prose”. Gender-neutral just seems fairer, and it’s just as easy to do as gender-specific. But that’s just me, and I’m not about to get upset about somebody else’s prose stylings. (Nor am I sticking up for the pulings of the braying trog- the world is full of angry nitwit loudmouths, so what for them.) But I do think that gender-specific should be reserved for references to actual people, male or female.

      Anyhow, thanks for Doom Patrol, I’ve bookmarked your site, and if you missed it, thanks again for recommending the Miller/Mayhew Raider book.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        You’ve stepped into one of the grammatical minefields that bedevil usage panels. To be sure, there’s plenty of historical precedent for the use of the plural pronoun even if the pronoun referent is singular. Dictionary.com has a succinct usage note addressing this point: “Long before the use of generic he was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they, their, and them were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back at six. Everyone began looking for their books at once. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their, and them is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference.” That said, I find the increasing use of plural pronouns with singular referents an offense against logic, as in: “Everyone got their coat.” Everyone is singular, and being singular, demands a singular pronoun. Moreover, if the pronoun is plural, why isn’t the object of the verb (“coat”)? The grammatical conservative in me splits the difference with the ideological progressive in me by using the singular pronoun to refer to the singular noun, but switching genders. Why not? The implicit sexism of the language has favored the male of the species for centuries; reversing that polarity gives women their day in the sun without committing crimes against logic. A happy solution, in my book.
        And thanks for your applausive words about DOOM PATROL. I’ll look for you over at Shovelware.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Found your piece through a mention in Salon so I’m late to the comment party. FWIW I want to add a couple points.

    One, there will always be an audience for quality writing. And some portion, hopefully large, will be willing to pay for the experience, watching ads at the least maybe even subscribing. Editors pursuing crap and the lowest possible cost will only generate crap at the lowest possible cost. Readers, especially faithful readers of crap, not so much. People figure out they’re being played pretty quickly and move on. Pursuit of the lowest common denominator, in other words, creates a market opportunity for those who want to write good stories and editors and publishers looking to publish them.

    Two, karma is a bitch. You can enslave lots of writers at the lowest possible cost but don’t be too surprised if The End turns out to be like the black smoke in the movie Ghost that drags you down into the sewers and hell. Personally I would not take that risk.

    Third, over the past ten years, the internet has turned lots of people into good even great writers. Yes, there are lots of stupid comments (perhaps this is one). But the internet has a wonderful ability to crowd source often deep insight into problems and the human condition. And more people have not only contributed but, to my taste, they’ve become more interested in how they say things. This vast highly sophisticated technology has pushed us back to words, sentences, and paragraphs. Back to thinking about how best to organize and express ideas. That’s a hopeful dynamic. At least until we’re all mandated to communicate by video.

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      >>One, there will always be an audience for quality writing. And some portion, hopefully large, will be willing to pay for the experience, watching ads at the least maybe even subscribing. [...] And more people have not only contributed but, to my taste, they’ve become more interested in how they say things. This vast highly sophisticated technology has pushed us back to words, sentences, and paragraphs. Back to thinking about how best to organize and express ideas. That’s a hopeful dynamic.<<

      Fascinating point. Point taken that people—some people—are reading voluminously, online, and that some percentage of the People Formerly Known as the Audience (Jay Rosen's term, I think) are morphing into writers or broadcasters. (Point scored for the media studies jocks who argued, back in the day, for the notion of Active Audiences. Point scored, too, for Barthes, who announced the Death of the Author and championed the proto-interactive Writerly Text.) But the Devil's Advocate in me is compelled to point out that many if not most of the writing voices born on the Web are embracing a style that isn't literary (a vexed term, but let it go) but, well, Webby: more like coagulated conversation than what McLuhan might call the Gutenbergian voice—slangy, chatty, extempore, designed to goose clickthrough rates and, if it's listening to its better angels that day, thoughtful comments in the thread. In other words, it's the sort of writing that Jeff Jarvis is always waffling on about when he talks about writing as "a conversation." Well, of course writing is, and always has been. And yet, it isn't, if what Jarvis means is writing that doesn't sound written, but rather spoken. The default aesthetic among writers who've learned to write online seems to be the Aesthetic of Orality. Fine and well. But why must it be the only one, and why must infractions against it be so vigorously policed?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  10. collapse expand

    Mark, you make some very cogent points. But it could have been edited more concisely. Sometimes less is more. It hits harder.

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    About Me

    I'm a cultural critic. Doom Patrol is a series of drive-by essays, mostly on America in the Age of Anxiety, as the title suggests, but also on whatever wild surmise crosses my mind. I've written for publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, Bookforum to Cabinet. My books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. I'm associated with the concept of "culture jamming," the guerrilla media criticism movement I popularized through my 1993 essay "Culture Jamming," and "Afrofuturism," a term I coined in my 1994 essay "Black to the Future" (in the anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, which I edited). More: http://www.markdery.com/author.html Mail: markdery at verizon dot net.

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    Contributor Since: December 2009
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