There’s a lot of writing out there on the internet, so much that I have stopped buying books altogether, both paper and electronic. I now have a dozen or so electronic books waiting to be read, and in my Google Reader I noticed yesterday that I have 1,604 unread articles from websites that I subscribe to.
Recently I took an hour or so to read some other people’s blogs on WordPress and I was impressed. To find out that I share the world with intelligent, literate people was a pleasant revelation. Even so, it also meant that there was even more writing out there that I should be reading. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to read even a tiny fraction of what I would like to read.
As well as being knee-deep in bloggers, yesterday I learned that a teacher who recently moved into the same building as me is a part-time novelist. It seems that everyone nowadays is writing. Trying to find a non-writer in the English-teaching world is like looking for a Californian who is neither liberal nor a would-be actor.
Perhaps with this in mind, I woke up this morning feeling like I had overdosed on writing, including my own. I don’t know whether I am peculiar in this respect but writing has made me want to constantly talk about the things I write about. I am permanently composing a new blog post in my head. Every lull in a conversation is a chance to insert my latest observation. No opportunity is missed to mount one of my many hobby-horses and ride them off into the distance, regardless of whether the person I am talking to is interested or not.
I have noticed that my posts have a tendency to try to explain something, either to myself or to others. Other people’s blogs on the other hand, especially those of women, tend not to explain but to tell something. They are descriptive writing, usually on the topic of nature or their children. Unlike mine, their posts are not calls for a bit of common sense for Christ’s sake! but descriptions of nice moments.
Sometimes these stories are illustrations of some mildly interesting aspect of life. Sometimes they simply tell for telling’s sake. I can’t see the point in this. I suspect these people are practising ‘being a writer’. They start off with the desire to be someone rather than to write something.
A few months ago I rather unusually wrote a blog post that merely told a story. It didn’t attempt to explain anything, nor did it illustrate some eternal truth about human existence. As far as I was concerned it was one of my least interesting posts and as soon as it was finished I considered deleting it (on re-reading my posts weeks or months later I sometimes delete them because they suddenly seem to me either unclear, boring or wrong). Needless to say, my only venture into describing an event rather than explaining something is now my most popular post.
My own tastes are as follows. Badly written pieces are at the bottom of my list. There is so much good writing out there that to spend time reading bad writers is daft. And there is often a huge gulf between professional writers and those who write as a hobby. I notice this when I turn from my own writing to say, John Derbyshire or Theodore Dalrymple. The contrast is sometimes as demoralising as the following anecdote from my childhood.
As a child I once made a ‘ship’ by sticking the cardboard insides of two toilet rolls into the top of an empty tinfoil packet. I then placed my ship alongside a shop-bought model of a cruise liner and my dad photographed the ships together, both sailing on a towel of blue we had laid underneath and each with a bow wave of white cotton wool to indicate speed.
When the photo was developed I couldn’t have been more mortified. In my mind both ships had been of more or less equally realistic but now, with the undeniable photographic evidence in front of me, I had to admit that my toilet rolls plus oblong box looked nothing like a ship. Even the ‘bow wave’ only served to highlight what a poor thing my ship was. Never has the difference between reality and wishful thinking struck me with such intensity and it even occurred to me that my dad was partly to blame for letting me believe the thing was worth photographing. At that moment I felt like an insane man must feel when, in an unusual moment of lucidity, he suddenly realises that something is wrong with his head. That, to a lesser extent, is how I feel about my own writing when I read say, George Orwell.
After bad writing comes vague stuff that could either be true or untrue. All kinds of ‘spiritual’ people indulge in this kind of writing. They choose a phenomenon that could be interpreted in a hundred different ways, pick the one that is least likely but which makes them feel warmest, and then write about it as if it were as scientifically verifiable as the Second Law of Thermo-Dynamics.
Next up on the list is writing that merely tells. The worst of these tells the reader what the blogger had for breakfast and the fascinating information that a friend called last night. The better ones tell you about the beautiful experience of sitting out on their veranda one evening last week. I would put my own ‘Night of the Badger’ blog post in this category, but to be fair to myself, at least something does actually happen in that post, rather than it being purely about how I felt as I rocked back and forth on my porch.
Further up the list are posts that describe or explain some interesting aspect of modern life but which is done in the manner of someone standing on a soapbox. You can almost imagine the writer turning purple just typing the piece.
Almost as bad are pieces which read like the minutes of a local council meeting. Even important and interesting topics can’t survive the treatment of righteous or dull writers.
My favourite kind of writing, and probably everyone’s favourite, are pieces that are about important or interesting subjects but which still manage to be either funny or beautiful. For example, Mark Steyn manages to turn the very serious issues of radical Islam, illegal and mass immigration, political correctness and Left-wing foolishness into topics of comedy. After reading his books and articles I feel both informed and amused in equal measure.
And someone like Vladimir Nabokov can turn a nasty subject like paedophilia into a beautiful piece of writing, as he does with Lolita. I doubt there is any subject Nabokov couldn’t have turned his hand to and made beautiful. He had a real writer’s way of looking at things, plus a sense of humour.
Yet despite these high points of writing, this morning when I sat up in bed and the sun was streaming in through the curtains onto the wooden floor, what I really craved was the company of people who never write a single word, who only live, do, listen and speak. Such people seem to be becoming rarer by the day. Soon they will be in such short supply that opinionated people like me will fight over their company. After all, we need someone, anyone, to listen to us without constantly interrupting us with ideas of their own.