“So what you got to say that I ain’t said already?” – The Beastie Boys, “The Maestro”
Today’s message is very simple: Do The Reading.
Today’s rule is almost as simple: for every 1000 words you write about a topic, read something about it. For every 2000 words you write about a topic, read a book about it.
Let these words remain in this corner of the internet, for me to link a bit.ly to them in perpetuity.
I realize every generation bemoans the under-reading of the next generation, but this is different. For one thing, I’m talking to YOU people who write for a living. Your words inevitably appear on sites. And to be fair, you make it clear that you do read snippets, headlines, comment sections. You read your twitter feed. You seem to know when “there’s a lot of talk” about something. Asked and tasked to write about a given subject, you’re not coming from a place of complete ignorance.
You just don’t often choose to link to another take on the same topic. Of course, some writers have this problem worse that others. I realize the potential risks if I don’t link to some of the offenders. But a few sample links also carry these three risks: that I over-offend a few, that I encourage you to compartmentalize the problem when you react “oh, it’s just them,” and that this (my) article will seem all-too-dated in two years.
Why should you bother to Do The Reading? Consider your own legacy, if you dare. Someday, all this foofaraw will seem like a bad dream. For a living, you argued with people on the internet. What did it all amount to? What did you change? Who did you comfort?
The difference between your internet blatherings and the blatherings contained in a book is not necessarily one of permanence. Books and websites may have similar lifespans. The difference is that when people write books, they have to Do The Reading. No publisher is going to publish a lot of hooey without research that gets gooey. Books mean expertise. Your little articles should at least include references to expertise, so they don’t sound like shouts in the dark.
Ask yourself why you haven’t yet appeared on Jon Stewart or the Colbert Report. Yes, it’s partly because you’re not a celebrity. But it’s also because you haven’t yet published a reputable book. I am going to bet that at some point you’re going to wish you had written a book. Frankly, I wish you had written one right now. Because as soon as you do, you’re going to get the same feeling that animates this article: astonishment that so many of your “colleagues” and peers are utterly ignoring your words.
Before the 21st century, the process was simple: people write books, others read them, and then a few of those others gather the insights of spectrums of books into their new books. Like it says on the search engine you should be using, scholar.google.com, “stand on the shoulders of giants.” Instead of pretending the giants aren’t there. Become part of a continuity of thought, not just a random rant that the next hard rain can soak away.
Recent coverage of Gone Girl, film qua book, brought the problem into sharp relief. If Amy enjoys watching the media squirm over a wife-killer, I enjoy some of the same things…especially when the writer has to contort like a pretzel to explain why his/her love for the movie is perfectly legitimate even though s/he’s still getting around to reading the book. The pretzel-making noise is the sound that media writers try to get through 12 months without making – the sound of acknowledging that they’re supposed to be Doing The Reading.
This rant is mostly directed to my colleagues in film and media evaluation and criticism. Okay, fine, herewith, an example. Too many times, too many media writers act like A.O. Scott did when he wrote a New York Times Magazine cover article about the cultural death of adulthood, as though dozens hadn’t already covered the same topic. Sure, he didn’t need to cite everyone, but it makes him sound like the party blowhard to pretend no one had published many of the exact same observations.
Here’s the thing: no one needs supplementary writing about screen art. They can just watch the art and not read you. So if you don’t connect your observations to books, to expertise, you’re making the whole idea of criticism inessential. Death by a thousand cuts, as it were.
God grant eternal blessings to Bill Simmons, the best, most engaging regular writer of my generation. (I realize he’s on forced hiatus as I write; put that to the side.) His site and legacy, Grantland, threads the needle between sports and pop culture, between fluff pieces and dry academia, between fun and thinking. But…there’s a problem with most of the people he pays to write about movies and TV. I’m not talking about something like Andy Greenwald avowing not to read the Game of Thrones books partly because he wants to see how well the show works as a show. As someone who read and loved all five books, let me say Greenwald’s position on that is entirely defensible.
The problem really manifested itself this year with “The Movies from 1994” series. I don’t know that a single Grantland writer cited a single thing ever written (even on another website, much less in a book) while covering well-trod ground like The Lion King, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption. The editor’s instructions seemed to be: rewatch it and riff. Is it intentional? Fluff for generation Instagram? Don’t want to scare off readers with too many citations? That doesn’t seem right, because other Grantland writers with books – like Mark Harris and Wesley Morris – happily use citations, which have become more RED and obvious in the last year.
Simmons often likes to cite his age as he writes, but this works because he shares the vicissitudes of his life with us; the practice doesn’t scale well to all of his writers. There’s something about all of the “1994” series writers citing their age back when they first saw the movie – often something along the lines of “oh, I was 10 when I first saw this, give me a break.” It’s not that they’re bragging to their friends that they’re under 35 and paid to write (although, yeah, that may be happening). It’s that they’re film critics, they’re going to be around for a while, and they’re going to cringe when they look back at “hey I’m young and guess what I know without even doing the reading?” Read old reviews from Roger Ebert, Richard Schickel, Pauline Kael – you know, reputable writers who still hold up. Do you see them mention their own age even once? Even when they’re discussing a film that they first saw when they were a teenager? Not once in literally thousands of pieces. Link me if I’m wrong.
Don’t tell me about the pressures of deadlines. I write three 1000-word columns here every week which I will match up to yours, and teach four college classes and write two books (under contract) and take care of two toddlers besides. Keep your eyes on the prize…of posterity. Don’t let the culture’s preference for short-term thinking outbalance your personal preference for long-term thinking.
Now that I’m over the 1000-word mark, lest I be accused of rank hypocrisy, let me reference the reading. In Convergence Culture, a book about how great the internet is, Henry Jenkins wrote: “None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills.” If nothing else, let this be your mantra.