Martin Amis and the Decline of Print Media

Forgive me while I carve a rather meandering path to my point, but it begins last spring when I received in the mail a flyer from the Humber School for Writers. It indicated that Martin Amis would be the headliner, the star instructor, at Humber’s summer workshops for 2009. Martine and I both wondered what exactly that would entail; after all, the Humber School has an impressive curriculum and engages writers of very high calibre as instructors, but the instructors are drawn almost entirely from the pools of Canadian literature. Martin Amis is a big, big gun, but he’s from across the pond. We were both of the opinion that he’d probably fly in for one 90 minute lecture and be done with it.

But no! Mark Medley, a writer for The National Post, was hot on the Martin Amis trail, and he reported in a National Post article dated July 17, 2009 [Update: see Mark’s correction in the comments.] that Amis was there all week, conducting classes like any other instructor. Medley also reported that Amis was quite approachable (when you could find him) and was rather nice.

Now hang a left as we begin to meander. (Or perhaps we’re now coming back to the main trail — I was always bad at orienteering.) Loyal readers of this blog know that I’ve been messing with the blogging media for almost a decade. This blog alone (one of several I have on the go at the moment) has almost 600,000 words scribed into more than 1600 posts. With a blog resumé like that, I could be categorized as very much a fan of all things blog.

So you might think, and if so you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I like blogs for many reasons, including all the standard stuff about democratization of the public blah blah blah, plus it’s nice to see what my blogging friends are up to without having to lift the dreaded telephone, etc. But one thing that has sorely disappointed me when it comes to the blogging form is that most blogs provide only a mediocre reading experience.

There are indeed a few sterling blogs that can be read for the sheer pleasure of the prose, but they are rare. Most blogs are about (a) laffs, (b) straight-up information, or (c) personal gushing and whinging. As a result, most people read blogs to “get a fix” of info or gossip and not for the pleasure of reading.

Print media, on the other hand, can be wonderful. There are, of course, entire forests’ worth of printed tripe and trollop, but the respectable editors and publishers of the world go to great lengths to shape and sculpt their writers’ work into text that doesn’t just inform and entertain, but enthralls with its own beauty.

Put another way, blogs are like street food. Salty, greasy, of questionable hygiene, often overcooked, but cheap and plentiful and in their own way very tasty. But the printed word from a respectable publisher is like the fare from a high end restaurant.

Unless, that is, you live in the 21st century, where even respectable publishers have been slimming their budgets by cleaving off the fluffy unnecessaries such as proofreaders and copy editors. After all, we’ve become so used to reading sloppy web-based text that it seems entirely reasonable to assume no one actually values the good stuff. It’s salt and grease we want, not painstakingly executed sauces and finely crafted plats.

In this I pity Martin Amis, as he’s still alive and has to put up with this decline in the respectable press. I doubt he ran squealing to his local news agent in London when word of Mark Medley’s National Post article came out, but if he did he was probably reduced to tears.

That’s because Mark Medley’s article suffered from a distinct lack of editorial oversight. To wit:

Yo, that long, repetitive sentence (highlighted in yellow) never would have passed Go on my editorial board. And hey, nice typo!

Then there’s this:

Missing sarcastic editor’s note: “as articulate as this?” That long sentence needs to be trimmed, or broken up into two or more sentences in order to be articulate.

It goes on:

Hello, online newspaper! Nice sentence to nowhere!

To be clear, none of this is Mark Medley’s fault. Writing is hard, and very few writers went so unedited in the antediluvian world before blogs. If I had see those errors in a blog post I wouldn’t even have blinked. But this is The National Post!

In a professional context we used to rely on editors and proofreaders to find and correct these problems. But what happens when we start treating newspaper content the same as blog content? (As in, raw, unedited, unpolished.) We get stuff that lacks clarity and focus, carries little authority, and fails to inspire.

Blogs and other forms of so-called “citizen journalism” have an important role to play in our information culture, but it’s a role both in opposition to, and complementary with, the establish mainstream press. But we need both for that dynamic to mean anything.