I’m reading more than at almost any time in my life but spending less time reading online. The two facts have a common source – a festering impatience with shoddy writing. My literary gut, when young, was goat-like -- tough and indiscriminate. I read everything remotely of interest and felt compelled to finish every book I started. This makes sense: Everything was new, and how could I knowledgeably sift wheat from chaff without first milling, baking and ingesting? Literary prejudice, in a healthy reader, intensifies with age. I know and trust my tastes, and no longer need to read William Burroughs to figure out he wrote sadistic trash.
My appetite for books – often those I’ve read before, sometimes several times – is undiminished, though predilections have shifted – less fiction, more poetry, history, biography, religion and philosophy. I’m ruthless about what I won’t continue reading, and often stop after a few sentences and close the volume for good.
Increasingly, this is the case with blogs and other online forms. I revisit daily my reliable favorites, follow suggested links and occasionally happen upon a new and interesting writer. But good writing is always rare, particularly in an age when seemingly everyone is convinced of his obligation to share his precious words. Here’s how the English poet D.J. Enright puts it in Injury Time: A Memoir, published not long after his death in December 2002:
“There are two reasons why people don’t make good writers: (a) they have nothing to write about, (b) they are not at home with the written word (however fluent they may be in the spoken word). The latter is by far the most potent reason. If you can write, you’ll find something to write about; having something to write about doesn’t make you a writer.”
Has the phenomenon of blogs ever been described with more precision? Few are written by writers. Most are written by people who believe they have “something to write about.” The comparison with conversation is instructive: Those who speak the most almost invariably have the least to say. Here’s the remainder of Enright’s passage:
“Not that there is the slightest obligation to write, moral or social, as far as I can see. I have the deepest admiration and respect for people who can live perfectly well without writing, who get along without this crutch. (A crutch posing as a mission.) Unfortunately, writing – whether attended by the ability to write or not – seems to have joined those proliferating `rights’ which no one dare doubt, ignore, gainsay or waive.”
One might almost say that when a self-anointed writer comes to the realization he cannot write and ceases to do so, he is contributing to the commonweal and performing a vital service. We applaud him.