Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Between Demotic and Altiloquent

Simon Kuper:

But texts, blogs, emails and Facebook posts are infecting other kinds of writing, and mostly for the good. They are making journalism, books and business communications more conversational.

Social media offer a pretty good model for how to write. First, the writers mostly keep it short. People on Twitter often omit “I”, “the” and “a”, which are usually wastes of space anyway. Vocabulary tends to be casual: bloggers say “but” instead of “however”. They don’t claim a false omniscience, but proclaim their subjectivity. And the writing is usually unpolished, barely edited. That’s a great strength.

...George Orwell in 1944 lamented the divide between wordy, stilted written English, and much livelier speech. “Spoken English is full of slang,” he wrote, “it is abbreviated wherever possible, and people of all social classes treat its grammar and syntax in a slovenly way.” His ideal was writing that sounded like speech. We’re getting there at last.

That article from Wired that I linked to last week said something similar, that texting is the most efficient form of communication ever invented. Well, I know this is a heretical thing to say to a culture obsessed with business and technology, but have you ever considered the possibility that efficiency isn't the fucking be-all, end-all of human activity? That not everything is automatically improved by making it faster and simpler? That dancing is more than simply a convoluted means of getting from one point on the floor to another? That music is more than just an easy way to light up the nucleus accumbens? That writing is more than a delivery system for communicating facts? Nietzsche, whose prose style I greedily wish I could better approximate, explained to an acquaintance why some things deserved to be expressed in a style other than the vernacular:

When one writes a book and thus steps into the public light, that is always a significant act deserving of a certain solemnity, so that one has to put aside everyday language. You have a good example in Catholicism, toward which, as you perhaps know, I am not exactly friendly, but this does not prevent me from recognizing the great worldly wisdom with which Rome has been conducting its business over the ages. Why does Rome still have the Mass read in Latin? To give the solemn act, veiled in mystery, a special solemnity even externally. But that must not be at the expense of clarity or intelligibility. If thoughts were thereby hidden, if the real meaning became hard to understand, that would of course be false, that would no longer be solemn, that would be foolish.

That's always resonated with me. Solemnity without sacrificing clarity or intelligibility. I agree with the perception of Nietzsche as a philosopher who wrote like a poet. His ideas were earthy enough, but they were so often presented in such unexpected, vivid images! In fact, if there's one thing that particularly annoys me about my own writing, it's that it's too often plain, straightforward and unadorned. I'm not saying I want to become Henry James or James Joyce, but I would like to aim higher than colloquial standards.