What distinguishes pragmatic Internet optimists from their starry-eyed, pollyanna-ish optimist kin is the ability to recognize the real problems raised by technology. More than anything else, that means being able to appreciate great satire on the downsides of the Digital Revolution. Robert Lanham, author of The Hipster Handbook and other satirical classics, offers the definitive guide to the “post-print world” in his “Internet-Age Writing Syllabus & Course Overview” for the fictitious college course, “ENG 371WR: Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era.” If only the arch-pessimist Andrew Keen were half so funny!
As print takes its place alongside smoke signals, cuneiform, and hollering, there has emerged a new literary age, one in which writers no longer need to feel encumbered by the paper cuts, reading, and excessive use of words traditionally associated with the writing trade. Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era focuses on the creation of short-form prose that is not intended to be reproduced on pulp fibers.
Instant messaging. Twittering. Facebook updates. These 21st-century literary genres are defining a new “LostGeneration” of minimalists who would much rather watchLost on their iPhones than toil over long-winded articles and short stories. Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets glimmer with a complete lack of forethought, their Facebook updates ring with self-importance, and their blog entries shimmer with literary pithiness. All without the restraints of writing in complete sentences. w00t! w00t! Throughout the course, a further paring down of the Hemingway/Stein school of minimalism will be emphasized, limiting the superfluous use of nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, gerunds, and other literary pitfalls.
My favorite part, Week 8: New Rules:
Students will analyze the publishing industry and learn how to be more innovative than the bards of yesteryear. They’ll be asked to consider, for instance, Thomas Pynchon. How much more successful would Gravity’s Rainbow have been if it were two paragraphs long and posted on a blog beneath a picture of scantily clad coeds? And why not add a Google search box? Or what if Susan Sontag had friended 10 million people on Facebook and then published a shorter version of The Volcano Lover as a status update: “Susan thinks a volcano is a great metaphor for primal passion. Also, streak of my hair turning white—d’oh!“
Now, as it happens, I think Strunk & White, authors of the 1918 classic The Elements of Style, would probably have appreciated Twitter’s 140 character limit (and blogging more generally) for ruthlessly, if over-zealously, enforcing their core rule for good writing:
Omit needless words.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
The pure Internet optimist would say, “Hurrah! Brevity is the soul of wit!” The pragmatic optimist would add, “Yes, but not the sole element of wit!” As Mssrs. Strunk & White continued in their about “vigorous writing”:
This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.