I spend a certain amount of time writing reviews on Amazon.com. (My reviewer rank right now is around the 400 mark.) I spend just about as much time reading the reviews on Amazon.com.
In many ways, the reviews section of Amazon.com is the closest thing we have to a useful public square. The comments sections of most online properties, whether highbrow or lowbrow, are far too unmoderated, incendiary, and impulsively confrontational to be worth much. Somehow, for the purposes of reviewing, people seem to clear their heads just a bit more, and to leave their bile and reaction behind just a bit more willingly. Amazon’s moderation system and editors do the rest.
So in general, I like its reviews sections and find there to be some interesting analysis there of many interesting books.
One thing that I also see, however, is an approach to and regard for writing in general that causes me some amount of despair. This is for a simple reason.
Many of the critiques of the best books, and much applause for what I consider to be the worst books, come down to evaluations of the “quality of writing” involved. And to my eye, what the public seems to regard as “good writing” and “poor writing” are exactly backward.
“Good writing,” more and more, is writing that is shallow, expedient, blunt, brief, and unimaginative—not so much Yeats and Donne as marketing copy for Wal-Mart or Target.
Similarly, “poor writing” is exactly those authors that offer something real—something deep and ambiguous and nuanced and textured to the reader.
People seem to understand “good writing” to be simply “economical and literal writing,” rather than illumination, edification, allusion, or explication. They would find this to be utterly horrible writing:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And they would likely ask why it couldn’t simply be written as:
The world sucks. Everyone is mean. And mean people get their way.
Obviously, the problem is that the second is in no way even remotely the equivalent of the first—yet people do not realize this in the least.
There is a strong correlation between where we are as a society and the habits and level of development of mind that lead so many readers to prefer the second, and to assume that the first is merely a “badly written” instance of it.
Lots of college grads are coming out of college with not much more in hand (or in mind) than was there when they went in.