Writers Journey: Too Long Didn’t Read Culture

We live in a too-long–didn’t-read culture today. (tl;dr)

No one feels this more than the aspiring novelist. The poet may have a better chance at success in such a short-attention-span marketplace. The difference between the poet and the prose writer is worth mentioning either way. There are novels that are filled with poetry. And there are nearly novel-length poems. But the genres are separated by a small distinction in that prose is largely carried by the mind; poetry by the heart. For all of James Joyce’s poetic wording in Ulysses, the story is driven by the rational mind along some essential plot. Whereas a poem goes where the heart goes, even if it is as long as Virgil’s Aeneid, which may be said to have a fragment of plot within its mythic design; the chief ambition is to evoke emotion. A novel evokes an experience that may further produce emotion.

Today, we rely on recording devices as our memories. That reliance has advantages but also with it comes the disadvantage of poorly sustained personal memory. A glance down a common list of symptoms for today’s many modern illnesses will reveal ‘difficulties with short and long term memory’ as frequently listed. Sometimes I wonder whether or not this is simply a universal symptom of the human condition today. In the ancient times, poets like Homer had whole ballads the length of The Odyssey and The Iliad in long-term memory, able to call upon those tales at festivals and recite them before an audience. They were trained to do this of course but they came from an oral tradition in which their culture valued recitation of verse at least once a season of every year.

We rely very heavily on books to provide us with entertainment and imagination and yet, speaking especially for myself, we are dragged kicking and screaming toward the page in order to partake of perhaps a mere ten pages of reading every day. Signs of a tl;dr culture again. The fact that this phrase has surfaced across the internet, I feel, is very telling. To snap out of it, one has to exercise a perverse pleasure in abstaining from easier forms of entertainment such as movies, videogames, television and the radio in order to force a media deprivation mode which encourages the patience and fortitude for reading again.

As an example, I have lived without a television for the past ten years. I still use a DVD player when I want to watch a movie or series that sounds worthwhile. But I no longer take an evening to sit and surf television anymore. I force myself into an older mode of entertainment by reading books, or, as a writer, by writing them as a way to entertain my family.

This tl;dr culture did not always exist (online or anywhere else for that matter). As early as five years ago and as long ago as ten years, the internet was a place for wall-of-text posts that were philosophical and erudite. It was the palace of the so-called geeks! Wisdom, learning, and writing itself were virtues to be extolled. Long posts were dissected into quotable chunks and those were continued with further thoughts. It was a literate culture.

Perhaps the iPod and iPad lack of a keyboard has perpetuated the tl;dr syndrome lately, but either way, we now exist in a world of tiny sound bites, or bytes, if we’re being punny. The old notion of the novelist’s hook, that mythical first paragraph meant to pull in and engage a reader is not a surefire cure anymore (if it truly ever existed at all). The best, current ways to overcome a tl;dr reader’s inertia pretty much involve a very good PR campaign like Harry Potter and Twilight, or a lot of begging, crying and pleading with your friends to ‘just shut up and read the thing anyway!’

There are eras in which writing is not appreciated and the world has gone through them several times. There are eras in which particular kinds of writing are not appreciated by particular cultures and we see during these times that writers such as Emily Dickinson or Herman Melville still wrote anyway. Later they were fortunate enough to be discovered by an era that appreciated their work and reprinted or published it anew.

The warning need be issued again however: Sometimes you will write something that the current culture cannot value. Be bold. Eschew all doubts and second thoughts. Write it anyway.



Meditation for your journal: Where do I suffer from tl;dr and what can I do about it?