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Newspapers Dumber Than Readers, Internet

"The effort to insinuate more serious standards into the instruments of mass culture was always difficult, even when a rising middle class made possible the notion of increasing cultural sophistication," Steve Wasserman writes for The American Conservative.

"A single story from the near-decade I served as literary editor of the Los Angeles Times tells the tale:

In 1997, Penguin announced that it would publish a volume of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz's selected writings. Years ago, Carlos Fuentes had told me of this remarkable 17th-century Mexican nun and poet. I had never heard of her. Nor was I alone. Much of her work had yet to be translated into English, even some 300 years after her death. It was, Fuentes said, a scandal, as if Shakespeare had still to be translated into Spanish. The whole of Spanish literature owed a debt to her genius. Thus I decided that an anthology of her writings, newly translated by the excellent Margaret Sayers Peden and published under the imprimatur of Penguin Classics, ought to be treated as news. After all, about a quarter of the readers of the Los Angeles Times had Latino roots.

I asked Octavio Paz, Mexico's greatest living poet and critic, to contribute a lengthy essay on Sor Juana. When he agreed, I felt I had gotten something worth playing big on the front page of the Book Review. But when I showed my superiors the color proof of the cover, I was met with incomprehension. Sor Juana who? A nun who'd been dead for almost half a millennium? Had I taken complete leave of my senses? Couldn't I find something by someone living who might be better known to our many subscribers, say, the latest thriller from James Patterson?

Dispirited, I trundled up to the paper's executive dining room to brood upon the wisdom of my decision. When Alberto Gonzalez, the paper's longtime Mexican-American waiter, appeared to take my order, seeing the proof before me, he exhaled audibly and exclaimed: "Sor Juana!" "You've heard of her?" I asked. "Of course," he said. "Every school child in Mexico knows her poems. I still remember my parents taking me as a boy to visit her convent, now a museum. I know many of her poems by heart." At which point, in a mellifluous Spanish, he began to recite several verses. So much for my minders, I thought; I'm going to trust Alberto on this one.

After Paz's paean appeared in the Sunday edition, many people wrote to praise the Book Review for at last recognizing the cultural heritage of a substantial segment of the paper's readers. Their response suggested, at least to me, that the best way to connect with readers was to give them the news that stays news. In the end, it hardly mattered. In the summer of 2009, four years after I left, the Tribune Company, which had bought the Times for more than $8 billion, shuttered the Review. The staff was mostly sacked.

- Submitted by Tim Willette

I have to say I take great issue with much of this essay, however telling the previous anecdote. That stubborn anti-Internet ignorance still persists is depressing - and to me, points the problem back at those pining for the good ol' days of, well, the kind of executives that tried to stymie Wasserman and then dismantled their properties. The Internet is not to blame for that.

To wit:

The arrival of the Internet has proved no panacea. The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, "a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words." The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one's first thoughts as one's best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if "value is a function of scarcity," then "what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers." Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. "And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking."

Let us, again, take these one by one.

* The fact that anyone can post their thoughts is exceedingly good; expression ought not be limited, as Wasserman and Wieseltier seem to think. Who are they to regulate who is worthy of actually speaking their minds?

What is missed here is that nobody is forced to read the crackpot blog post; Wasserman isn't making the choice for us anymore. How many Sor Juanas did he miss? Now we can find them ourselves on the Internet.

And if crackpot posts get wide readership, that only reveals to us how many crackpots are out there, which should only deepen the serious thought he finds so lacking.

* Who said everything must be 800 words? I have no idea where that comes from. I can tell you, though, that every printed newspaper review had to be, um, about 800 words.

* How is it determined that the Internet - a distribution technology - privileges first thoughts as the best thoughts? Digital publishing breaks down the limits of time and space existent in the print world - artificially so. A "news cycle" is a made-up thing dependent on publishing schedules as determined by the technology of printing presses. Removing that artificiality is a good thing. News - and reviews, essays, articles - can be published when they are ready to be published. There is no longer a need for "weeklies," "monthlies," "quarterlies." There are "nowlies," and "readilies" if you will - you publish "now" when you are ready to do so.

* It's always shocking to me to find that the golden age was when we all supposedly read Time. Time! Are you fucking kidding me? Time was always a middlebrow publication published by faux intellectuals and New York elites for consumption by Middle America for profit; hardly the repository of serious thought.

* Lack of book reviews is distressing, but at the same time there is probably more coverage than ever if you know where to look . . . on the Internet. Also, why don't all the displaced writers band together to form their own book reviews? To think how dependent they were on the numbskulls who edited their newspapers and the cynical neanderthal business executives who sold them is distressing. If you're so smart, don't you think you could do better?

* Finally, the public isn't necessarily much interested in what you have to say. Should they be? Only if you're interested in them. I get the feeling though, even in that anecdote, that it's about him, not anyone else. Please pay me to write! No one is entitled to that.


Comments welcome.


Posted on March 26, 2015

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