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August 2, 2010 7:36 PM   Subscribe

"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." Mark Dery, on writing for the web.
posted by flapjax at midnite (86 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yep. Conveying information from one person to another is only one of the things writing does, and it's not clear it's the most important thing.
posted by escabeche at 7:40 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: A turkey baster for injecting content into the user’s brain.
posted by MikeMc at 7:46 PM on August 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


By far my favorite writers online - ven more so than in print - are the ones who enjoy language, who play with it and make it do fun things. Achewood is a great example of this, as are many of the folks over at the (now long-latent) Progressive Boink.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:49 PM on August 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


A turkey baster does not inject. A syringe injects; a turkey baster bastes.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:53 PM on August 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


A turkey baster does not inject.

Obviously you've never really played with your turkey baster.
posted by Azazel Fel at 7:56 PM on August 2, 2010 [9 favorites]


I mean, really played with it.
posted by Azazel Fel at 7:56 PM on August 2, 2010 [19 favorites]


I write online for a living for a prominent tech blog, and it's painful watching this process. I try to make everything I write worth reading, and to give every post the space it needs, no more, no less. Sometimes that's 20 words, sometimes it's 4000. Sometimes it's written in five minutes, sometimes over a few weeks. But the web isn't good at supporting this kind of thing - the model he mentions in the article (track readers, reward and punish accordingly) is flawed in many ways, though in some ways it makes business sense. Of course, it only makes business sense because advertisers and management are still largely larval on the web, and it'll be some time before things right themselves.

That said, I get to write for a living (with zero editorial oversight, incidentally) and that's amazing. This era of publishing is letting a lot of people flourish via words, more by orders of magnitude than could have 20 or 50 years ago, and that's as good and as bad as it sounds.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:01 PM on August 2, 2010 [5 favorites]



Nobody does pretentious navelgazing like a real writer. They also manage to say in 140,000 words what the rest of us might manage to convey in three sentences.

"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)
"

Blah blah fucking blah. Let me translate - "writers can't make what they used to, even with decades of experience."

It's probably better that he got paid by the word. If he got paid by the hour, nothing would ever get done.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:27 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blah blah fucking blah. Let me translate - "writers can't make what they used to, even with decades of experience."

Blah blah blah - let me extrapolate. Writers have always struggled to survive. It's a suspect profession. Something to do with no visible blood or sweat at work day's end, I suspect.
posted by philip-random at 8:36 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


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

Wow. That's a lot of terrible in one sentence. Let's break it down shall we?

The mark of a real writer

Italicizing "real" is incredibly pretentious, as is assuming there is only one type of "real" writer.

she
Yes writers can be female too! And you didn't say "they" because that would be wrong! I note how enlightened and grammatical you are!!

literary joinery
I don't know what the fuck that is. Oh well I think "joinery" refers to building furniture. Even though "quality online does not equal craftsmanship." And even though writing online is almost by definition not "literature."

prose plumb

That's just awful.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:44 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's a suspect profession. Something to do with no visible blood or sweat at work day's end, I suspect.

Wouldn't the same argument apply to programmers?
posted by phliar at 8:48 PM on August 2, 2010


Does he always write like T. Herman Zweibel or is he trying to make a point about how this is the kind of dreck that gets published without strong editorial involvement?
posted by fleetmouse at 8:48 PM on August 2, 2010


I agree with the sentiment, and content farms are despicable. But the actual ideas being expressed are romantic silliness.
posted by grobstein at 8:51 PM on August 2, 2010


Obviously you've never really played with your turkey baster.

At one restaurant where I used to cook, the refrigerated cabinets beneath the line were borked in a way that resulted in a constant build-up of water inside them. It got to the point where everyday, when we had some down-time, the cooks had to get down on their hands and knees and use a turkey baster and a waste bucket to remove the layer of standing water, a practice which felt particularly demeaning, because we knew we were only doing it because it was cheaper than having the thing fixed. Anyways, I spent a long evening trying to explain, in my very limited Spanish, to a Mexican kitchen worker who spoke very limited English, what a turkey baster actually was. "You use and put water on the bird, which is in the oven, to keep from dry when you cook." "You actually have a thing for this?" "Yes, we have a thing for everything. Most Americans, we have too much money. But not me, I work in restaurant."
posted by bookish at 8:53 PM on August 2, 2010 [11 favorites]


Yes writers can be female too! And you didn't say "they" because that would be wrong! I note how enlightened and grammatical you are!!

It really constrains me sometimes that English does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun for <that person>. I see "they" used as a work-around often, but that grates, yes.

"Prose plumb" is the sound one hears when throwing a stale, half-eaten oversized hoagie into a body of bracksh, fetid baywater.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:04 PM on August 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


It really constrains me sometimes that English does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun for . I see "they" used as a work-around often, but that grates, yes.

We do, and it is "they." "You" comes in singular and plural too. There is no reason "they" is wrong as a singular pronoun but prescriptive convention. The language has changed -- first in oral and now increasingly in written discourse. Young writers do not hear it as wrong. And it is a perfectly elegant solution to a problem our grammar has only encountered in the last two generations as the default masculine has Bern deprecated.

The kids, as always with language change, are ahead of the grownups on this.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:15 PM on August 2, 2010 [6 favorites]


Summing it up:

"By the great wit’s reckoning, then, Your Author is deadwood... tl;dr... condemned for the sublime uselessness that makes it so useful."
posted by vidur at 9:25 PM on August 2, 2010


What do all true Scotsmen know about real writers?
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 9:29 PM on August 2, 2010


Real writers don’t nest double quotes inside (neutral) double quotes.
posted by joeclark at 9:40 PM on August 2, 2010


I'm so glad I'm not a writer.
posted by swooz at 9:43 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


We do, and it is "they." "You" comes in singular and plural too. There is no reason "they" is wrong as a singular pronoun but prescriptive convention. The language has changed -- first in oral and now increasingly in written discourse. Young writers do not hear it as wrong. And it is a perfectly elegant solution to a problem our grammar has only encountered in the last two generations as the default masculine has Bern deprecated.

The kids, as always with language change, are ahead of the grownups on this.


Sorry kids, the perfectly elegant - and grammatically correct - solution is to use "she."

After generations of default masculine a few generations of default female is not only warranted, it is necessary. It also reads nicely.

Gender neutrality requires a bit more effort than suddenly making everything "equal" after centuries of unequal. "They" is just another way of making women invisible.

Unless you are referring to us (gender neutral, three blind mice) of course. in which case using "they" be the way to go.
posted by three blind mice at 9:45 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Everyone is a writer these days because of the Internet.

Just like everyone is famous these days because of reality television and YouTube.

Without good editors or stringent publishing standards, quantity supersedes and even redefines quality, as fourcheesemac astutely points out.

As someone who works in the online content industry, I sometimes question whether the SEO phenomenon and slideshow delivery format were the simultaneous death knells of quality free writing online or if they were simply a slap in the face that I am forced to respect out of the fact that they've slowly edged out the pop-up ad and flashing banners that went the way of Geocities and Inktomi.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:51 PM on August 2, 2010


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

The mark of one too many creative writing workshops.
posted by Jess the Mess at 10:00 PM on August 2, 2010 [7 favorites]


swooz: I'm so glad I'm not a writer.

Aye, it be a rough life, rising to the mewing of seagulls, not knowing if the day bring plunder or pain, booty or injury. The other fellows drawn to the life are a scoundrelous lot, given to sin and anger, quick with a blade and slow with a bandage. And after a month of seeing naught but their scarred, scowling mugs, you'd give your wanking arm for a mere glimpse of another human being. Sometimes we raid ships not because we need to, but because we're just so tired of each other's company.

Ah, but there are moments that make it all worth it. A quiet night in the crow's nest with nothing to see but stars, endless stars, a multitude of lights twinkling for you alone. Dolphins racing ahead of the ship, staying always a few feet in front of the bow, their smiles communicating infinite joy. Setting foot on an island no one's ever visited before with your captain, who you brain with a shovel, staining the white sand red and gray. Yes, in those moments life seems perfect.

Oh... you didn't say you were glad not to be a pirate, but a writer. Ah well, yeah... spending months editing a single piece of text, debating editors, dealing with the mounting guilt of not getting enough done, the humiliating jobs you have to work to support yourself... don't do it, leave it to the moonstruck and idle rich.
posted by Kattullus at 10:29 PM on August 2, 2010 [8 favorites]


three blind mice: "
After generations of default masculine a few generations of default female is not only warranted, it is necessary.
"

See, it's stuff like that right there, that causes people to support the equal treatment of women, but not identify as a feminist.
posted by pwnguin at 10:34 PM on August 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


Man, Mark Dery has been slathering obtuse prose anent the internet since a bunch of y'all were in short pants.

I'm not saying that makes him good or anything. He wrote some for Suck back in the day... but on the other hand he wrote a book about "cyberculture."

Cyberculture!

Where was I? Oh, this?

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.

Is self-satisfied, semi-competent crap. Perhaps it needs more plumbing.
posted by hap_hazard at 10:37 PM on August 2, 2010


After generations of default masculine a few generations of default female is not only warranted, it is necessary. [...] "They" is just another way of making women invisible.

Could you elaborate on your reasoning here, three blind mice? I fully support using "she" instead of the supposedly-gender-neutral-but-not-really "he," but I don't get why we should prefer a differently gender-marked term when there's a genuinely unmarked alternative. To me, far from making women invisible, "they" erases (or at least avoids) the gender distinction that patriarchy needs in order to operate.

See, it's stuff like that right there, that causes people to support the equal treatment of women, but not identify as a feminist.

You don't have to agree with everything every feminist says in order to be a feminist (or an ally of feminists).
posted by twirlip at 10:39 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


It really constrains me sometimes that English does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun

You're not alone.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:42 PM on August 2, 2010


drjimmy11 makes a strong point, yet it remains an astonishing coincidence that the reference to literary joinery - a deeply hard-to-understand and nonsensical phrase seemingly suggesting some kind of high-end carpentry made of words, as if such a thing were possible - was followed by an equally obtuse - and obviously dreadful - remark on the subject of keeping lines of prose plumb.

Who can say what that might possibly mean? Any fool with access to Wikipedia or Google can plainly show that it is carpentry, not prose, where it is important to keep lines 'plumb': the latter is a technical term used in joinery, meaning 'straight' or 'true'.

That is of course the precise opposite of this kind of obfuscatory language, where words appear to be being blatantly and deliberately used to refer to things other than their conventional referents.

It is almost as if the writer here is attempting to extend a metaphor where writing is compared to joinery for some bizarre reason, perhaps in the context of some hypothetical discussion of the craftsmanship of writing.

Sadly we, like drjimmy11 and other readers, will never know the context in this case, for at the point when 'literary joinery' was mentioned the meaning of the text overall becomes entirely opaque to the reader.

I don't know why the fuck we're even talking about it.
posted by motty at 1:06 AM on August 3, 2010 [9 favorites]


This era of publishing is letting a lot of people flourish via words, more by orders of magnitude than could have 20 or 50 years ago

Do you have a cite for this? I ask b/c my own anecdotal sense is that the opposite is true, if by "flourish" one means earn a living.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:19 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't the same argument apply to programmers?

No, programmer productivity is measured in swear words per minute and a daily quota of stressed-out insane gibbering.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:48 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Any fool with access to Wikipedia or Google can plainly show that it is carpentry, not prose, where it is important to keep lines 'plumb': the latter is a technical term used in joinery, meaning 'straight' or 'true'.

It would seem that certain fools with access to Wikipedia or Google or dictionaries are unable to recognize, understand and enjoy metaphor when they see it. Such people are apparently unable to make the simple leap of creative thinking encouraged by an author's use of terms borrowed from various disciplines, and not necessarily limited to the terminologies of the immediate subject. This is a certain type of artistic license, and is often a key element in writing creatively, in expressing an idea in a new way. Writers often do this sort of thing, you see, in order to make a point. Metaphorically. Those who are truly unable to grasp this idea should perhaps limit their reading to technical manuals and recipe books.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:42 AM on August 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Indeed, flapjax at midnight. The same may also perhaps be said of sarcasm.

While most recipe books are probably reasonably safe for the readers to whom we refer, I can report widespread - if not actually indiscriminate - use of metaphor in many technical manuals, especially those describing devices intended for electronic computing.

Wishing to use a simple spreadsheet on a particularly cold day last winter, I was horrified to find myself required by the manual - despite the inclement weather - to open a window.
posted by motty at 3:02 AM on August 3, 2010 [18 favorites]


motty, your sarcasm went right over my head. I'm utterly delighted, however, to see you now declare it as such. Cause, hey, some people are really thick, and I'm glad to know now that you're not one of them.

Perhaps my sarcasm meter was thrown off a bit as a result of the overwhelmingly negative opinions expressed in this thread, opinions which I find rather inexplicable, as I really enjoy Dery's style, and I found what he had to say here to be interesting and perceptive. Well, different strokes, I guess...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:14 AM on August 3, 2010


So, my comment was in fact intended for drjimmy11, and not motty, but I didn't know it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:19 AM on August 3, 2010


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

The mark of one too many creative writing workshops.

posted by Jess the Mess at 1:00 AM on August 3


Funny thing, taste, isn't it? I found that sentence rather pleasing, and I'm usually the first to go after writers who strike me as doing the "creative writing class" thing. I find the metaphor in that short sentence to be apposite, unforced and rather striking. When I want someone to make my blood boil for coming over like an over-obsessive creative writing student I turn to Cormac McCarthy.

Oh well.
posted by Decani at 3:58 AM on August 3, 2010


S/he wore furs
Both his and hers
And she and he
Became
They
As one
By one
Their days
Eluded
Them
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:48 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Anyone writing on the internet about what makes good writing is setting herself up to be criticized in turn by those of us who rather be on the giving end of a lesson than on the receiving end. That's what was refreshing about reading "Your Code Sucks." (via Metachat).
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:51 AM on August 3, 2010


After generations of default masculine a few generations of default female is not only warranted, it is necessary. It also reads nicely.

Gender neutrality requires a bit more effort than suddenly making everything "equal" after centuries of unequal. "They" is just another way of making women invisible.


If only language really worked that way. Alas, language change is largely not a matter of conscious prescription. Unless we're moving into a matriarchy real soon, default feminine will not replace default masculine, any more than "hers and his" (much harder to say than "his and hers" in terms of phonological effort, just try it and pay attention to the work going on in your mouth) will take over for "his and hers," or an inaudible convention in writing ("S/he") will have any purchase in oral discourse.

Some other time, I'll go into markedness theory.

"They" is grammatically correct as a third person singular pronoun in speech -- very few Americans, even the most educated, now hear it as wrong and most of us use it without thinking about it. We're maybe another decade from it becoming the default acceptable form for the 3d singular pronoun in writing as well, but that's well along. One of my most brilliant mentors is a linguist at the U Chicago, and he has been saying to his colleagues for years that we'll all look like idiots the longer we keep marking "they" and "them" as errors on undergraduate papers when those words are used for the 3d singular pronoun while continuing to bemoan naturalized sexism in language. The problem has been elegantly, economically solved by the organic flexibility of a language that had already lost almost all traces of grammatical gender in every other respect.

You, sir, are a wise (wo)man. Both of you! Anaphorically speaking, s/he is unwise.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:23 AM on August 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty much glad everyone is a writer now and hardly anyone checks for quality beyond the added value of spellchecker. If people want better quality stuff they're welcome to write it and read it, but I'd rather you were searching for good writing in a mass of rubbish that I can understand.
posted by shinybaum at 6:03 AM on August 3, 2010


Metafilter: You use and put water on the bird, which is in the oven, to keep from dry when you cook.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 6:21 AM on August 3, 2010


Is this satire? Because if it is, it's really good.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:29 AM on August 3, 2010


We do, and it is "they." "You" comes in singular and plural too. There is no reason "they" is wrong as a singular pronoun but prescriptive convention. The language has changed -- first in oral and now increasingly in written discourse. Young writers do not hear it as wrong. And it is a perfectly elegant solution to a problem our grammar has only encountered in the last two generations as the default masculine has Bern deprecated.

I know around here, "Prescriptivist!" is about as bad an insult as "bigot!" but I guess some days I'm just an old-fashioned prescriptivist. If you read a sentence like "I was waiting for Godot, but here they are!" doesn't rattle your nerves just a little bit, in an editorial way, then bully for you.

I want words to have meaning and for language to have structure. Is our learning things system failing we, or be's I just plain too unyoung?
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:32 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


* If you read If reading...*

Where's my proofreading window, mods?
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:36 AM on August 3, 2010


If you read a sentence like "I was waiting for Godot, but here they are!" doesn't rattle your nerves just a little bit, in an editorial way, then bully for you.

It rattles my nerves a bit, but only because I presume Godot is of the masculine persuasion. "Estragon", on the other hand, has something a bit swishy about it.
posted by Wolof at 7:11 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


> I see "they" used as a work-around often, but that grates, yes.

What fcm said, with the correction that "they" isn't a new usage at all—it's been around for centuries, and is only deprecated because of the usual crew of logicians who think language should conform to their irrelevant standards. See this NYT piece for a summary. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage puts it well, as usual:
They, their, them have been used continuously in singular reference for about six centuries, and have been disparaged in such use for about two centuries. Now the influence of social forces is making their use even more attractive.
Objection to the usage is based on nothing but ill-informed preconceptions.
posted by languagehat at 7:23 AM on August 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


> "I was waiting for Godot, but here they are!"

This is not how singular they is actually used, but don't let that stop you from making up straw-man examples to justify your preconceived ideas.
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on August 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


Isn't part of writing for the web choosing an appropriate layout? Why is his body text so uncomfortably large? Content and style are irrelevant if you've worn out your readers' eyes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:29 AM on August 3, 2010


From the MeFi boilerplate:

>>When the level of discourse here is high, conversations are typified by good contributions from a variety of viewpoints and experiences. [...] When everyone brings intelligent, thoughtful commentary to a thread, MetaFilter is the best it can possibly be.<<

And then there's this thread, whose dung heap has brought up a bumper crop of toadstools: aspiring hermenauts whose hamfisted attempts at deconstructing my prose style founder on a weirdly Asperger's-y tone-deafness to metaphor; hilariously punctilious grammar geeks; and the usual compliment of snark monkeys, George Costanza-like Masters of Their Own Domain, wannabe writers who after Long Years of Bitter Struggle have attained the dizzy heights of the MeFi comment thread, and trolls who missed the offramp for 4Chan.

Come on, guys. Wrestle with the ideas, not the mechanics of turkey basting. I mean, if you're intellectually adequate to the task.

And yes, a baster can inject. You fill it, you insert it into the bird's cavity or under the skin, squeeze the bulb, and wham-o, just like that, injection.

For this I PayPal'd $5?
posted by M. Dery at 7:30 AM on August 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'll just add it to the list of shortcomings I need to work on. I'm self-educated with the language thing, so my pre-conceived notions are all my own. I was totally unaware of any historical precedent, either for or against, other than my historical dislike of the usage. I'm not fighting anyone else's battle here, and am willing to work on laying down the sword. A certain amount of prescriptivism seems to just settle in with age, though. I s'pose I should be vigilant against that, or else not take to the streets with pitchforks if I'm going to own it, anyway.

The... ahem... vigor... of the esteemed opposition is duly noted.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:36 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh dear.
posted by twirlip at 7:36 AM on August 3, 2010


Uh, my previous comment was in response to LH & fourcheesemac.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:40 AM on August 3, 2010


> I'm self-educated with the language thing, so my pre-conceived notions are all my own. I was totally unaware of any historical precedent, either for or against, other than my historical dislike of the usage. I'm not fighting anyone else's battle here, and am willing to work on laying down the sword.

Very well said, and I apologize for excessive snark on my part.

*lays sword on ground, backs away cautiously*

> A certain amount of prescriptivism seems to just settle in with age, though.

Yeah, I hear you. I really have to work at stamping out my own get-off-my-lawn reflex when I see the things the kids are saying these days.
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh my.

I would imagine another crucial component of writing for the web is not publicly insulting your readers. But what do I know, I'm just a snark monkey.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:59 AM on August 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Dear god please tell me that is a sock-puppet joke.

There is a higher punctuation to word content in that overwrought parody of critique than in your average line of C code. It takes a special kind of obtuseness to describe others as Asperger's-y in the midst of referring to their discussion as a dung-heap not worthy of your attention.
posted by Babblesort at 8:01 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


No harm, LH. Sometimes it takes an old school boxing-of-the-ears to get me to learn new things.

For this I PayPal'd $5?

No, sir, I believe you were relieved of your emolument perforce to prance hither for the sake of issuing an insultment.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:18 AM on August 3, 2010 [11 favorites]


That article reminded me of an old art criticism essay that I read long ago when I was trying to work out my own artistic issues. It said that every artist thinks their own system is the only true and valid model, and all other artists are deluded and just wrong. But this is a symptom of the bloated egos so typical of artists, which conceals an inferiority complex. Artists are assaulted by critics on all sides, from the sophisticated critics to the ignorant philistines, the entire world tells the artist, "you are wrong, you suck." The bloated ego is a defense mechanism. The tendency for an artist to become entrenched in his own aesthetic is strong.

But then there's a whole other level (like this article). Most artists just do their work and let it speak for itself. Few of them become critics and become lost in a defense of their ideas, which usually is a sign they don't have anything left to say through their work.

Or to put this all more succinctly, as Picasso once allegedly said, "Paint, painter, paint!"

Or even more succinctly:

tl;dr: STFU & GBTW
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:28 AM on August 3, 2010


And then there's this thread, whose dung heap has brought up a bumper crop of toadstools: aspiring hermenauts whose hamfisted

There's a very fine line between clever and stupid.

I am nonplussed by your high dudgeon.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:34 AM on August 3, 2010


Here is 400 years of /they/ used as an indeterminant third person pronoun. Y'all should be used to it by now.
"And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, they wol come up... " Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Pardoner's Prologue" (ca. 1395)

"Inheritements, of which any of the seid persones... was seised by theym self, or joyntly with other." Rolls of Parliament vol. 513/2 (1464)

"Eche of theym sholde... make theymselfe redy." Thomas Caxton, The Foure Sonnes of Aymon (ca. 1489)

"Neyther Tyndale there nor thys precher... hath by theyr maner of expounyng... wonne them self mych wurshyp." Thomas More, Apology (1533)

"God send everyone their heart's desire." William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act III Scene 4 (1598)

"Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves." King James Bible, Philippians 2:3

"If a person is born of a gloomy temper. . . they cannot help it." Lord Chesterfield, Letters IV. ccclv. 170 (1759)

"Nobody prevents you, do they?" William Makepeace Thackeray, Pendennis (1850)

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." Oscar Wilde

"It's enough to drive anyone out of their senses." George Bernard Shaw

"She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes." C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
posted by Herodios at 8:59 AM on August 3, 2010 [12 favorites]


OK make that six hundred.
posted by Herodios at 9:01 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Could you elaborate on your reasoning here, three blind mice? I fully support using "she" instead of the supposedly-gender-neutral-but-not-really "he," but I don't get why we should prefer a differently gender-marked term when there's a genuinely unmarked alternative. To me, far from making women invisible, "they" erases (or at least avoids) the gender distinction that patriarchy needs in order to operate.

Cause it makes people think. Women are not equal, gender equality is still a goal, and I am tired of being (pleasantly) surprised when the captain's voice in the airplane is female.

I've written three books and the fifteen people who read them all commented on my use of the feminine pronoun. "Why? They asked?" (Well Mom) because I am writing for engineers - a largely male audience - and I want them to get it into there heads that "they" could be a woman so I use the feminine pronouns whenever possible.

Using "they" just pretends gender inequality never happened and we're all equal now.

Languagehat maybe you can help me with this "they" business. They is plural and if I am referring to one person, it gets unclear. My English is not the best, but "they is a woman" seems utterly wrong.

And how do I apply this logic to German?
posted by three blind mice at 9:35 AM on August 3, 2010


Jackie couldn't decide if he was a girl or if she was a boy.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:40 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


The mark of one too many creative writing workshops.

Funny thing, taste, isn't it? I found that sentence rather pleasing, and I'm usually the first to go after writers who strike me as doing the "creative writing class" thing. I find the metaphor in that short sentence to be apposite, unforced and rather striking.

Me too. By contrast, I’m disappointed to find some of the comments here to be predictably stupid, a hallmark of Mefi’s patent dork trollery from hive-mind hacks who couldn’t produce written content bearing a tenth of Mr. Dery’s quality if their collective lives depended on it.

The pronoun discussion has been a lot of fun, though.
posted by tiger yang at 10:07 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think it's unfortunate that he buried his argument in such intentionally turgid prose because his point is dead on.

This:

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...

and this:

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.

I think capture pretty well how totally bleak the prospects are for any writer whose name does command absolutely top billing. A lot of those writers who don't command top billing are really good, and a lot of those who do suck, so it's not a meritocratic system, which I think is what has him so twisted, because a lot of those really good relatively unknowns are being driven out of the market by a rejiggered compensation system that is totally unsustainable for most pro-writers. Sure, maybe some are just whiners, some should be willing to live a little less bougie if they really want to be in the game, but some are just being ground into dust trying to hang on. I am lucky to have a day job I love and am passionate about and keeps me close to what I write about. The Daily Beast conundrum is exactly what this dude is talking about; sure, it's nice to have my shit published alongside all these huge names, have an article on their front page right next to Shenon's monster Wikileaks story that is totally driving the media discussion that day, but a couple weeks later I'm still commanding peanuts for writing projects and scraping by on a social worker's salary. If I didn't have that salary or medical benefits I would be completely fucked, so I feel for the dudes who are piecing together adjunct prof jobs and freelance work. It's a miserable way to live and I think it's not cool to derive pleasure from someone else's misfortune.

I guess I'm lucky I'm used to being broke and working in the kind of shitty, drug infested apartment complexes like the one where I can afford to live right now as a social worker who freelance writes about urban poverty. It's less of a shock I guess if you weren't around for the good times when magazines were flush with cash and a couple freelance pieces a year could pay for your apartment in Cobble Hill. I joke that it will be easier for me when I'm elderly and get shuttled off to some Soviet style publicly funded old age home because I lived paycheck-to-paycheck my whole life and never saved for retirement. At least it won't me much of a downshift for me, in terms of lifestyle. Just wheel me into a corner where I can soil myself in peace. Har har.

Either way, I'm not going to not write, that's really not an option, so I guess I'm down for the long haul. I get contacted by young kids sometimes who ask me the most important thing about being a writer. I tell them, you just have to bury everybody else. All your peers will disappear. They will eventually go into advertising, or public relations or some shit because they are not willing to live hard for their work. If you are still around at that point, you win.
posted by The Straightener at 10:13 AM on August 3, 2010 [9 favorites]


Languagehat maybe you can help me with this "they" business. They is plural and if I am referring to one person, it gets unclear. My English is not the best, but "they is a woman" seems utterly wrong.

They is the word you use for the ambiguous case - where you don't know enough about the actor to suppose either gender or number. It's perfectly congruent and has been in use for a very long time.

The use of a gendered pronoun (to me, anyway) always signifies that the actor is (to some extent) known. The gendered pronoun takes the place of a proper, hopefully previously established, noun. I find it jarring to encounter it being used for an anonymous actor. "They" is a much better word to use. (or it, if the actor is nonhuman).

As for your example, even though you can use "they" to refer to a singular actor, it is treated as plural for sentence construction. So, you are correct that "They is a woman" is wrong. "They are women" is correct. But the real problem with your example is that if you know enough about the actor to identify gender, then you just use "she" or "he" or "you" and call "it" a day.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:33 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The linked piece is clearly written enough, though if I were judging it harshly I'd pick out a few tics in sentence structure. It's just that it wears its literary style on its sleeve and a lot of internet people have a taste for keep-it-simple-stupid boilerplate and are keen to beat up art fags. Which I suppose is part and parcel of
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.
On the other hand, Dery, don't cop a style for readers that "crave wonder and laughter" and use "fail" as a noun. Aaaaaaaagh!
posted by furiousthought at 10:56 AM on August 3, 2010


Come on, guys. Wrestle with the ideas, not the mechanics of turkey basting. I mean, if you're intellectually adequate to the task.

I wouldn't worry too much about it. Metafilter is crawling with frustrated litterateurs whose idea of a good time is running threads into the ground by carping endlessly about writing style. It's happened to Helen Vendler and Wallace Stevens and to Cormac McCarthy; now it's happened to you.

Sorry for the way the thread has gone, flapjax. I enjoyed the post and I thought it was interesting.
posted by cirripede at 10:59 AM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


running threads into the ground by carping endlessly about writing style.

Sorry, I guess. But on the other hand, if the entire point of a piece of writing is to lament the lack of markets for quality writing, I think it's entirely apposite to point out that said piece of writing is full of infelicities, abounds in ugly phrasings, and is not, in fact, any goddamned good.

I do somewhat regret the ad-hom tone of my previous comment.

(Welcome to Metafilter, possibly-fake M.Dery!)

But neither metafilter's snarkiness, nor the possibly-intended ironies imbricated in its salmagundi of faux-poeticisms, excuse the piece from being - IRONICALLY or not - bad writing.

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?

There is something poignant about that though- dude, it's true, you really could use an editor. HTH, HAND
posted by hap_hazard at 1:10 PM on August 3, 2010


Is self-satisfied, semi-competent crap. Perhaps it needs more plumbing.

But neither metafilter's snarkiness, nor the possibly-intended ironies imbricated in its salmagundi of faux-poeticisms, excuse the piece from being - IRONICALLY or not - bad writing.


Perhaps we could see a few sample of your published writing and see if they pass hive muster?
posted by tiger yang at 1:37 PM on August 3, 2010


Look, I'm just saying, if you have to point out that the baster in metaphor A has a special bulb that you can use to store and apply cooking juices to the inside of turkey, maybe you should have gone with metaphor B.

And it's complement, not compliment.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:41 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


hive-mind hacks who couldn’t produce written content bearing a tenth of Mr. Dery’s quality if their collective lives depended on it.

But our collective lives don't depend on it. We do this for free. If money were involved, I don't doubt much of the blue would be a whole lot cleaner. Not sure he Mr Dery can say the same. Well, he does ramble on so, don't he?

My cheap shot is that "plumb" is specific to vertical. Useful in architecture more than furniture. He meant straight. Watch your imagery, kids!
posted by IndigoJones at 3:05 PM on August 3, 2010


Sorry for the way the thread has gone, flapjax

Yeah, pretty disappointing, i gotta say. i think I'll mostly stick to posting about music. So many of these responses have made me embarrassed for Metafilter. Hey, live and learn!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:19 PM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


> You're not alone.

Oh, geez. I'm not that constrained.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:18 PM on August 3, 2010


So many of these responses have made me embarrassed for Metafilter. Hey, live and learn!

There's much talk at MetaTALK of all the things that Metafilter does NOT do well, but seldom do we hear of the one thing that MetaFilter routinely tanks at, which is anything to do with WRITING.

Too many unpublished, undernourished, understimulated so-called "writers" on this site.
posted by philip-random at 9:24 PM on August 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


MeTa.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:42 AM on August 4, 2010


I write about music (yes, I know, just like dancing about architecture, very clever). It's not my day job, and thank god for that, but what I have learned is that writing in general (and journalism in particular) is in for a rough ride, just as same as the music industry, and that it's going to be very rough for full-time professional writers for probably the next decade, at least. And the de-emphasis on editing sure isn't making things any better for the readers.

That said, this isn't a particularly well-written essay, and the whole philosophical bit about how "real writers...care about words" makes Dery come off like a pretentious whiner. I agree with the ideas he presents, for the most part, but if I hadn't read the article twice I probably would've dismissed it just based on the writing alone.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:10 AM on August 4, 2010


For this I PayPal'd $5?

You can read the thread all you want without paying a dime. Where does your surprise come in?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:08 PM on August 4, 2010


I've read the essay now.

1. I agree with his lament. It's a shit state of affairs.
2. Jesus, he writes like I talk after I've had a few been drinking for hours and get all I'M A FLANEUR AMONG IDEAS LET ME SHOW U THEM RAMBLE RAMBLE.
posted by everichon at 2:17 PM on August 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


http://metatalk.metafilter.com/19660/we-could-do-better-yall#802341
posted by M. Dery at 3:11 PM on August 4, 2010




Let's try that again.
posted by M. Dery at 3:12 PM on August 4, 2010


The obsessive excreta of the grub-street hacks' plumb prose, while refusing to be stampeded trendward, are not uselessly sublime. Sincerely, Your Author.
posted by blucevalo at 3:48 PM on August 4, 2010


Metafilter: I'M A FLANEUR AMONG IDEAS LET ME SHOW U THEM RAMBLE RAMBLE.
posted by jokeefe at 6:40 PM on August 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


....I've often said of my job as stage manager that "if you can SEE me doing my job, then I'm not doing my job properly." Stage management is a technical job in the service of art; I'm supposed to be the gears behind the scenes to facilitate the play. If you can see the gears working, it spoils the illusion and intrudes upon what the playwright, actors, and director were trying to achieve.

It strikes me that the same is true of writing. If you can see how hard a writer is working, then there's something amiss.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:16 AM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


It strikes me that the same is true of writing.

It really isn't. Go see some Brecht.
posted by Wolof at 5:27 AM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow. I was gonna talk about how a book of Dery's writing made a big difference to me at a crucial point in high school, but his preening in this thread ('anencephaly'? really, baby?) has ruined my evening. And to think, I almost missed it on account of every other motherfucker's preening...
posted by waxbanks at 7:49 PM on August 7, 2010


Sorry - just "a book of Dery's." Edited collection as I recall.
posted by waxbanks at 7:49 PM on August 7, 2010


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