cautionary tales: too many aphorisms

As I and others have written about endlessly (and as you’re likely bored of hearing), the curious economics of online politics and culture writing leads to too much and too little at the same time. We produce a huge amount of content because hitting click targets requires endless churn, particularly given the need to stay on top of the stream. Yet we also have a much-discussed numbing sameness; rather than producing endless variety, the huge volume of content being created produces homogeneity. Too much and too little: too much getting written, too little difference.

The scramble to differentiate your bit of content, especially in a world where websites mean nothing, has lead to the headline tricks everybody hates and similar annoyances of promotion and sharing. But it also results in many writers adopting exaggerated styles. I like a lot of oversized, inflected styles, and think the preference for flat “plain language” writing style is boring aesthetic conservatism. But you’ve got to really commit to it and you’ve got to be able to pull it off. Too often, people trying to stand out from the #CONTENT pack pepper their writing with grand statements, would-be aphorisms that stick out awkwardly and distract. So consider this from Grantland’s series of team-written essays organized around a theme, a series I generally enjoy. In order:

Alex Pappademas: To be a critic is to have a dysfunctional romance with a thing you love. [with bonus lampshading]

Sean Fennessey: Anger is a hammer. It blunts and flattens. It doesn’t allow for nuance or daintiness. It hits and it can hurt.

Amos Barshad: The Score was so big that it destroyed lives.

Danny Chau: Some days all you need to achieve a fullness in life is a fullness in stomach.

Alex Schulz:  I have no doubt that “Hey Mama” is the best mother-centric song in existence.

Chris Ryan: it was like the moment at a party when you’re trading bullshit anecdotes with someone you don’t know very well and they suddenly tell you about serving time in Lompoc or something. Shit gets dark.

I find reading this to be just like being stuck at a party with someone who’s done too much cocaine. Everything is a pronouncement, wisdom from the mountain. It’s a kind of sweaty desperation to make what you say worth listening to by tying everything to What It All Means. Who talks like that? Well, a lot of writers, at a lot of publications, these days.

And just so you know I’m not just picking on Grantland here, check out Steve Hyden’s response. Hyden and I do not see eye to eye on music, to put it lightly, but his missive satisfies the purpose of the group writing exercise without resulting to fortune cookie pronouncements. His first line has an aphoristic quality, but it’s firmly restricted to the actual topic at hand, and his section concisely expresses what it means to express through a direct and conversational expression of his ideas. Not flashy, but so effective.

Like all writing advice, this can be discarded at will and at whim. Some of my favorite writers  can do the aphoristic thing well. But you gotta have real chops. Not everybody gets to be Buckminster Fuller.