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The Written Word Is In Trouble
The written word is in trouble. Many students signed up to hear the writer speak on Career Day
at the local high school. Four groups rotated through. The first question I asked each group was:
what have you written? By far the answer was poetry. (Surprise, surprise.) They also thought
poetry was the fastest selling thing around. It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. Then I
asked them what they thought I wrote. Poetry? A little. Novels? Started one, haven't finished it.
They couldn't think of anything else. I told them I wrote newspaper columns, human interest and
business stories, and newsletters.
Then I asked: which one do you think pays the bills? Newspaper columns was their resounding
answer. They were very disappointed that I didn't have a best selling novel, a small volume of
poetry or know Stephen King and "that lady that writes all those romantic novels" whose name no
one could remember. (Fame. Ain't it a witch!)
In every class was one child who thought her poetry was so grand that every one would love it.
Simply, and very sweetly, I asked the class how much they would pay their friend for a copy of
that marvelous verse. Answers ranged from "nothing!" to "five dollars". Then I asked the class
poet when was the last time she personally bought a book of poetry written by someone she didn
't know. Hold on to your hats, folks, the answer will astound you. Not one, and I mean not one,
had ever bought or ever considered buying a book of poetry or could name a poet, living or
In every class was a student who took it very personally that a particular teacher had not liked, or
questioned the validity of, something he had written. ("That was a teacher I liked!" was the
astonished reaction.) I asked the student if he liked and agreed with everything he had ever read.
Of course not, he answered. Then why was he so surprised when the teacher did not like or agree
with what he had written? Oh, that is easy, he said. This is another hold on to your hat moment.
Teachers are SUPPOSED to like everything you write. Huh?
But you see, therein lies the problem. Where have all the readers gone? Out of sheer boredom
they have gone far, far away. That idea-teachers are supposed to like everything you write-is just
a natural outgrowth of the new, genuine, imitation self-esteem. In an effort not to stunt the poor
darlings intellectual and emotional growth, teachers and parents have been so very careful to be
"supportive of the effort" and to find something nice to say so they will "feel good about
themselves" that they have forgotten to teach how to produce and identify quality.
If you think I am being hardnosed, let me ask: When was the last time you bought a
put-it-together-yourself item and found out the instructions were incomplete or used the wrong
words? More than likely it was written by someone who really felt good about themselves and
their effort. Or the holes did not match up or screws were missing or the tool for the custom
screw was not enclosed? No doubt packaged by a worker who couldn't understand the written
instructions. And where was the boss? Right behind him saying "now don't you just feel proud of
yourself for making such a fine effort? Here. Let me write you a paycheck from this very
successful business that will always be in business because we produce such wonderful stuff.
Reading is supposed to challenge your thinking, dare you to confront your consciousness, help
you identify your weakest points, and point the way to improvement. Spin doctors know how to
use words but they are only able to fool those who are unaware of the meaning of the words.
They cannot fool those who are proficient in the use of language. The masters of spin (politicians,
advertisers, and most special interest groups) are laughing behind the backs of those who "feel
good about themselves" but who cannot write a sentence, much less a paragraph, about why they
Where have all the readers gone? Why should they read anymore when most writers are
producing nothing but the same old drivel over and over and over again whose sole argument for
the validity of their view is based on nothing but "that is how I feel about it." But that is another
Angela K. Durden
James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
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