29 October 2009

Wishful Thinking: Quality Writing in the Age of Social Media

I recently finished Carrie Fisher’s memoir, Wishful Drinking. A good friend gave the book to me for my birthday in February, and I was hoping it would provide some interesting anecdotes from the sets of the Star Wars movies. There were a couple, but not really what I was hoping for. Still, overall, the book, which is based on Fisher's stand-up show, was a good read.

I’ve always been an avid reader. When I was a kid, my family moved around a lot, and books were my only friends. I loved that I could escape reality while losing myself in a good book. My love of reading didn’t wane during my teenage and early adult years, and I was always reading books.

Then, in my early 20s, I became an editor, and reading was a huge part of my job every day. I found myself reading fewer books and more magazines. A big reason for this was that my eye became so trained to edit while reading that I found it impossible to read without subconsciously editing. Punctuations and misspellings distracted me. I would note the spelling of unfamiliar words and look up their meanings. And poorly constructed sentences could preoccupy me pages later. In short, reading became work.

I (mostly) overcame this after a couple years, once again becoming able to turn to reading as my favorite form of escapism. I began building my library again, and now I read as much as did during summer breaks from school.

Nevertheless, I still notice improper grammar, punctuation and spelling. For the most part, it doesn’t distract or preoccupy me while reading a book. Wishful Drinking, however, was the exception.

Evidently, Carrie Fisher and Simon & Schuster need a good editor — and it just so happens I am looking for a permanent full-time job. This book was so horribly edited that I actually found the inspiration to blog about it. I understand that it’s based on Fisher’s one-woman show, but, come on — that’s no excuse for publishing what would barely pass for a galley copy.

Where should I start? First, there’s the far too conversational, informal tone, even for a memoir. This is what an editor should first have noticed and improved. There are times when the book lapses into dullness because pieces should have been cut or tightened. It’s not a long book — only 163 pages, including the author’s note, acknowledgements and photo identifications — and it should have been at least five pages shorter.

Punctuation is another problem of this book. As I’ve discussed before, parentheses are jarring to a reader’s eyes. They often cause an unnecessary long pause when the writer really intends a brief pause that leads the reader to the next part of the sentence. Wishful Drinking overuses parentheses more than any book I’ve ever read. In fact, just randomly flipping through it, I can’t find a two-page spread with fewer than one set of parentheses, and it becomes common to see two and three sets of them. An editor should have noted the overuse of parentheses and instructed Fisher to rework the copy so that those parenthetical ideas flowed smoother or became independent sentences.

The most annoying thing about Wishful Drinking, however, is the egregious use of exclamation points. Everywhere you look there are exclamation points. Let me be clear: Exclamation points have a proper usage; they are to be used when you would shout! or yell! the statement. Not when you’re trying to be witty or sarcastic, which Fisher is. Unless Fisher’s one-woman show is full of shouting and yelling, which may be. I haven’t seen it.

I can’t fathom that an editor would allow hundreds of exclamation points in a 163-page book, which led me to the conclusion that the book simply was published unedited, doing a disservice to Fisher and a discredit to Simon & Schuster.

I can only wonder if the publishing world has succumbed to the poor grammar propagated by today’s obsession with social media. As a grammarian and lover of language, I am heartbroken by the crumbling of proper spelling, grammar and punctuation that has accompanied text messaging, Twitter and other newfangled forms of communication. Suddenly, the use of all caps has replaced the proper use of exclamation points. Text messaging, Twitter and the like have eroded proper punctuation, which admittedly is cumbersome when using these forms of communication. And 2moro, b4, LOL and BTW have become acceptable spellings and abbreviations that even my 60-year-old mother understands.

I accept that English is a fluid language, one that is constantly in flux as it changes and evolves. I have trouble accepting, however, that laziness and the desire to become a Twitter celebrity can have such a profound impact on the language that professional book editors are allowing drivel to serve as literature.

Perhaps I’m just old and have trouble accepting change. But I don’t have a problem with new forms of communication and the shortcuts that facilitate the convenience for which they are intended. I have a problem when these shortcuts begin to influence the forms of writing that are supposed to be professional. How are today’s children and youths ever supposed to get a handle on proper grammar and spelling when they think “tomorrow” is OK spelled as “2moro” and “b4” is acceptable for “before”?

America’s educational system is already far behind others in the world (China, Europe, the U.K., etc.). Former President Bush’s No Child Left Behind — a topic for another day — has further battered education in the U.S. Will social media become the next thing that makes Americans dumber than their counterparts around the globe?

19 October 2009

Glenn Beck's Big Mouth

I started listening to Glenn Beck on the radio about six years ago, when his show was on during my morning drive. I’m not a conservative, but I believe you have to listen to all points of view in order to become informed enough to form a sound opinion of your own.

Here’s a recent example of this: If you listen to liberals, President Obama’s health care reform proposal sounds awesome. Health care for everyone — yay! And that’s the end of the liberal story. But if you listen to what conservatives are saying, you learn that Obama’s proposal also states that people who don’t have employer-provided health care and fail to enter the proposed government program can be sent to prison. I never heard the liberals talk about that part of the proposal. And that’s a big piece that I completely disagree with. This country’s prisons are already overcrowded because we imprison far too many nonviolent criminals. Now the government wants to imprison people who can’t afford the national health care program? There’s no way I’ll support that.

Conservatives also claim that a national health care program will bring tremendous tax increases. If you examine national health care programs in the U.K. and Canada, you’ll find that this is true. So even if Obama has the best intentions to implement a health care program without gross tax increases, it’s likely that a few years down the road, those intentions and expectations will be realized as unrealistic, and Americans’ taxes will indeed increase. If there’s one thing conservatives care about, it’s their money, so when they talk about money, I listen.

But I digress. None of this has much to do with Glenn Beck, other than the fact that he rants against government health care on his daily radio and television talk shows. The fact is, when I began listening to Beck, he didn’t have a TV show on FOX News, he hadn’t written any books. He was conservative, but he didn’t strike me as a crazy conservative like Rush Limbaugh (even though he is a Mormon). He wasn’t nearly as judgmental, he tried to substantiate his arguments and he seemed to have an open mind on many subjects. He was certainly tolerable, even during discussions when I chattered at the radio, “Aw, dude, you’re way off base.”

Whether I agreed or disagreed with him, Beck was entertaining and encouraged me to examine and try to understand opposing sides of current issues and events. I found him to be informative, if occasionally skewed, and his show made the drive to work a little more enjoyable.

Then Beck’s popularity exploded. He got a show on FOX News. He started writing political commentary books. He became a strong voice for conservatives, and liberals began to hate and criticize him. Unfortunately, rather than handling his newfound burst of popularity with grace, Beck turned into a dull, ranting radio tyrant. While I was unemployed and freelancing from home for the last year, I didn’t listen to Beck’s show. When I recently started working again, I tuned in to his show.

What I found was an oppressive, overly opinionated and closed-minded fool who too frequently performs one-sided, uninformed rants about political arguments with which he disagrees. Gone was the Glenn Beck of only a few years earlier, whom I found entertaining and informative.

Many times in recent weeks, I’ve found myself turning off the radio in the middle of one of Beck’s egotistical wastes of radio airtime. All too often, his discussions now dissipate into muddled off-topic rants about everything the current administration does that pisses him off. I’ve heard him one too many times complain about being treated unfairly by liberals — because of course his arguments against liberals are totally fair — and about how his newfound celebrity is such a burden.

Glenn Beck, give it a rest. Hop down from your high horse and join the rest of us groundlings in some semblance of reality. Stop trying to be Rush Limbaugh Lite. Stop allowing your discussions to unravel into nonsensical tirades that make me shout “Oh, shut the hell up!” at the radio before turning it off. Stop complaining about how unfair the liberals are when they criticize you. And please stop bitching about how difficult the celebrity you strived for and achieved is on your pathetic life. I want the old Glenn Beck back. The one who was intelligent and informed, who could at least back up his arguments with some facts. The man with whom I didn’t have to agree to find his show entertaining. Until that Glenn Beck makes a return, you’ve lost an intelligent listener.