I don’t know if any of my readers are young people who aspire to be published writers one day, but if they are, let me point the megaphone directly at them — at you? — and give you a very specific message at max amplification: You cannot prevent the reader from interpreting what you write!!!!! Sometimes the reader (or viewer) will give you too much credit, find rhetorical or symbolic depths in your work that you never meant to put in there. I often think that the vast majority of Shakespeare criticism works in precisely that manner. Ol’ Billy-Boy was just trying to get paid, you know. He whipped his plays up carelessly, in hurried fashion, relying on whatever book happened to be in front of him at the time. There’s some evidence that a lot of the First Folio is basically a first draft. Obviously he was a genius; just as obviously, he was phoning it in half the time.
More often, however, the reader will obsess or fixate on a tiny piece of what you’ve written to the exclusion of the rest. This was the case with today’s piece on unequal enforcement. About twenty percent of the text deals with illegal/undocumented/whatever immigrants and their tendency to operate vehicles without the appropriate insurance. In doing so, I stepped on the third rail of the left-wing immigration fetish, so the bulk of the comments are about that twenty percent of the piece.
A few of the readers took me to task for not providing a more thorough overview of the immigration issue. A few others were disappointed that I’d resorted to what they felt were quick-and-dirty characterizations. The problem for me is that I completely agree with them even as I could not disagree more.
My long-time readers know that I don’t suffer from any sort of brevity-related illness. If I didn’t also have a kid and a full-time job, I’d write a million words a year. I’d make L. Ron Hubbard or Harry Turtledove look like haiku artists. There’s no limit to how much I’d like to contribute to the national conversation. In fact, I’m currently nursing a bit of an annoyed ego from my most recent submission to my favorite print magazine: I turned in about 4700 words and it went out the door at 3489. How dare they do that! The whole magazine should be text. It should be like Lapham’s except it should all be by, and about, me.
The problem is that the Internet is a short-attention-span medium. So even if I had the OK from my editors to go on at 10,000-word length about immigration as a sidebar, almost nobody would read it. And it certainly wouldn’t pay. Furthermore, 10,000 words would be just a drop in the bucket compared to what could be written about the topic. We’ve been talking about immigration since before the dawn of recorded history and we’ll be talking about it until the Caliphate takes over and squelches all dissent.
Now here’s some irony for you: the World Wide Web was designed to handle precisely this issue through hyperlinks. It used to be considered good practice to absolutely burden your text with hyperlinks, so that if the reader wanted to digress or diverge for a moment (or a year) he’d be free to do so. If you want to get a sense of what early Webpages were like, just take a peek a Wikipedia, which continues the practice of comprehensive in-text linking.
In our effort to make the Web a commodity and a product, however, we’ve cut that shit out. Links take readers away from your product, from your page, from your control. We’re building walled gardens now, both politically and commercially, so you never have to leave the nest in which you’ve landed. It would have been good 1995-era Web practice to put twenty-five links in that piece, so that readers could see what I’ve been reading and what I’m using as supporting documentation and where I’ve found various ideas. But if I do that too often, I’ll be impacting TTAC’s ability to stay afloat and to pay me.
So I’m faced with these choices:
- Keep a laser focus on topic… if I have just a thousand words, use every one of them for a single topic. Don’t offer the reader any distractions or escapes.
- Write a sprawling Infinite Jest-style piece, covering any and all digressions to their practical maximum, with the understanding that 9,999 out of every 10,000 readers will fall asleep or close the browser window before they reach the end.
- Link out to everything and trust the reader to click ’em all before complaining that I’ve short-changed a particular aspect of the piece.
I don’t know what the right answer is. This is the best one I can give: I don’t expect to be singular, or authoritative, on any given topic. I’ll get you started on a train of thought, and I’ll show you some spurs you can take along the way. If you start on one of them, you will have to understand that at some point you’ll be on your own. In this fashion, I’ll be free to write as I like and you will be free to read as you like, too. And if I occasionally under-serve a topic, or a point of view, or a particular conclusion, we will have to chalk it up to the imperfections of this medium and my talent. While you do that, feel free to give me more credit than I deserve, but please don’t give me less, okay?