Twice in the last week I’ve had this experience: I’m on facebook, and see that a friend has linked to an article about a topic I care about, often with some variation of: “THIS!” or “Can you believe some people?!” I read the article, then the comments, and am about to add my fired-up two cents when I stop and think: “Wow, that article was bland.” Then I have another thought: “I wish we could discuss an actually GOOD essay on this topic, but I’m stuck with this shoddily written article that stumblingly regurgitates the better ideas of real writers and thinkers.” This thought is an exaggeration, but my guess is it’s quite common. With the reign of wordpress, Huffington Post, Patheos, even Slate, we find ourselves discussing the important topics of our day in response to subpar pieces of writing. Why are we doing this? How can we stop?
In mulling this over, I’ve come up with 4 questions to ask next time I find myself about to click on yet another link to yet another online article that may or may not waste my time with mediocre writing about mediocre thoughts:
1. Has this essay been edited/curated?
One of the big differences between an essay on Slate and an essay on randomdeconstuctionistmustings33.wordpress.com is that the former essay was published only after someone other than the author had a look at it. Further, essays on non-personal-blog sites have not just been edited for content and style, but have been curated to fit with and relate to the other content on the site. When you read an edited, curated article, you’re reading something that has passed the test of at least one other pair of (hopefully knowlegable) eyes. As a poet, I have sworn to never post my poetry on facebook, or my blog. I’ve spent too much time on it to not place it in the careful hands of an editor. Websites like aldaily.com exist solely to pick the best, free, professionally written literary and critical writing on the web and put it in one place. Finding essays that have been so considered is a good start. Next, we should ask:
2. Is this the best way to read this writer?
A couple years back one of my favorite contemporary poets posted a surprise piece on Huffington Post’s religion blog, clarifying statements about ecclesiology that he had made in person the day before. Judging by the online conversation that followed, his clarification didn’t work. He was misunderstood and maligned by Huffington Post’s readers. What most of the readers and commenters didn’t know, however, is that he’s one of the most gifted poets of his generation in the english speaking world, and his poetry and critical lectures and essays articulate a much more powerful ecclesiology that his 500-word blog post seemed to indicate.
These days many writers who publish pieces in books, newspapers, and journals are often called upon to write short posts for blogs. As someone who does publish in books and journals, I can say, hands down, that my worst published writing has been my blog pieces. And I’m tempted to say that most other writers who publish in multiple mediums will say that same. A theologian’s guest post on a Patheos blog will, almost without a doubt, be more hastily written, poorly crafted, and quickly edited than their essay on the same subject that they present at an academic conference or publish in Theology journal, or in their book. And the trouble is that it’s in the books and peer-reviewed journals that the best, most careful arguments for most reasonable positions on most topics are being published.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could imagine a world where free-access personal blogs are valued as the premier literary and critical work of the highest caliber. But the fact is, we don’t. Our expectations for blogs and online content is low, especially compared to our expectations for printed, bound material. Yet many spend their most valuable reading time online, and more and more we demand that our favorite writers meet us there. I’d wager Neil Gaiman’s blog is read more often than Sandman, even though no one’s confused about which contains his best work. Eminent postmodern theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s post about Reformation Day last week was probably read by more people than will ever touch one of his books. The more we ask our best writers and thinkers to write off the cuff, the more we waste their time and ours. Why? In part, because we’re ceasing to ask:
3. Is this the best argument for this position?
It’s fun to post links to articles by poor thinkers arguing for ridiculous positions. It’s also, as you’ll learn in any Logic 101 class, a classic case of the Straw Man fallacy, wherein we dismiss an intellectual position after attacking the weakest version of it. You will do a great service to your facebook friends or twitter followers if, instead of linking to the first random essay you find on a subject of mutual interest, you spend another 5-10 minutes tracking down the best thing you can find written by this particular author and/or on this particular subject. Too often we poison discourse by plucking the lowest hanging argumentative apples. We need to, instead, ask ourselves:
4. If I truly care about this conversation, am I willing to do more research?
This research is, at the very least, learning more about the writer and the topic in question. Hopefully, if the issue truly matters, it will lead to real, sustained learning over time. Find a sloppy article about the dangers of vaccination? Why not take it as an opportunity to research the history and biology of vaccination, competing schools of thought over time, and key figures in vaccination advances? It would be sad if we let a bad essay about a good subject deaden our desire for further conversation/knowledge.
Best of all, such questions and investigations could lead us to leave our computers, walk out our doors, and talk to our friends about the questions that drive us, far from dashed-off blog posts on uncurated, personal blogs by amateur essayists – which is, after all, a good description of this thing I’ve been writing and you’ve been reading.