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.

10 thoughts on “Martin Amis and the Decline of Print Media

  1. I’ve been noticing more typos in books too. (Some are unavoidable: any first edition will contain typos, not much that can be done, but usually we’re talking one or two in a few hundred pages, and the type of typo (!) that our eyes tend to “fix” as we read. Those I forgive easily, even though I correct my own copies of books with a pen.)

    Since I proofread (though I much prefer translating), I sometimes stop to wonder whether there will always be readers who can even see the difference. It’s hard to be optimistic on that front (especially in French, though I’d say English writers (non-professionals) tend to overestimate their grasp of grammar and syntax). But then again, being pessimistic just puts me in the “old geezer” category–since I expect there are ancient texts about this same ‘generational’ issue, just like there are about politeness…

  2. “If I had see those errors in a blog post I wouldn’t even have blinked. But this is The National Post!”

    Hi Ed,

    You link to a National Post “article” dated July 17, 2009, when in fact no such thing exists. You linked to a blog post, which was posted on The Afterword, our books blog. It did not appear in the paper, and thank God! There was no editorial oversight: I rushed home and banged that out in about 20 minutes. My editor never asked me to do it, I just figured our readers would be interested in what Amis had to say. That’s no excuse for poor writing.

    You can read the ACTUAL story here:

    I just wanted to clear that up.

    Mark Medley
    Arts Reporter
    National Post

  3. Wow. That’s a colossal misstep on my part. (See? We also need fact checkers!)

    Thanks for clarifying, Mark. That does explain the how the errors made it to the screen (and not to print, as I had assumed).

    That said, I concede that this is no longer a good example of the decline of print media. However, I think my general assertion that editors/proofreaders/fact-checkers are good and needed stands, as well as my forewarning that outsourcing and reducing these resources will (and already have) lead to a decline.

    Now I’m going to go make myself an egg sandwich. (Oh hey, there’s a plentiful supply of egg right here on my face!)

  4. Lots of cool stuff has gone by the wayside. I’m in touch with writers who mourn “Weekend” magazine, which used to be distributed with Canadian newspapers, and offered good pay to many different freelancers to write interesting and long general interest articles.

    Blogs to me are like columns or other features in a newspaper. Thinking of the internet as a big big newspaper. I’m still trying to work out a way of making money with it.

    I’ve liked the Brits because “stars” there will occasionally do things like community theatre, just because it’s fun. Think of the Rolling Stones just showing up and playing at some Toronto dive. I imagine Amis got bored of the usual run of signings and appearances at posh parties.

  5. You said, “Salty, greasy, of questionably hygiene”. ;-)

  6. Why yes, Harry, I most certainly did. And that’s the second typo in my post that’s been pointed out to me by my loyal readers. Since I DON’T HAVE AN EDITOR, I have to rely on crowd-sourcing. :-)

  7. The villain in the paragraphs you highlighted is the semi-colon. Our friend has either been reading too much Brontë or has decided to take over where Edgar Allen Poe left off.

    It’s the same with people who still use “for” instead of “because” — so mannered and effete in this day and age.

    He could easily have broken up those paragraphs with — wonder of wonders — a period. Or as they say (appropriately) in England, a “full stop.”

  8. And while we’re “whinging” (I got the reference, Blork!) why don’t we all sit down in a comfy circle and come to an agreement as to what should constitute an “em” dash.

    That’s the dash — you should know it well, because I just did it by holding down the option and shift key and hitting the hyphen key on my Mac — that is not two hyphens in a row, or worse, one hyphen.

    It’s called an em dash because in the days when type was actually set with lead slugs (I was there) the dash was exactly the width of the letter m.

    Properly, it should be a space, the em dash, another space, and then the next word.

    Learn it. Be it. Smoke it.

  9. Actually, Nick, that’s not the em-dash convention. Remember, there’s the em-dash (width of an “m”) and there’s the en-dash (width of an “n”). When you use the wider one (em-dash) you do not buttress it with spaces. When you use the narrower one (en-dash) you do buttress it with spaces.

    It goes like—this.
    It goes like – this.

    Whether you use en-dashes or em-dashes is entirely up to you (or your style guide), but the main thing is to not mix them. Decide on one of those two styles and stick with it.

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