By Rob Walker
Precisely because I love words, there are certain words I despise. Not a few have either come into existence, or have been redefined, in the digital-communication era. And I’m particularly prickly when it comes to words that touch the craft of writing itself.
So if I could choose one word — or, really, I feel better calling it a “term,” denying it actual-word status — to obliterate, it would be “longread.”
The subject of despicable words is not new. About a year ago now, Ben Greenman at The New Yorker threw open to Twitter the question of what words ought to be eliminated altogether. The response was robust — “moist” was a top candidate — and Greenman’s wrapup was an elegant summary of words we could live without now. More recently, Slate picked over this territory, focusing on “word aversion,” a visceral negative response words like (again) “moist.”
While I’m fascinated by such emotional reactions to language, I find myself identifying more with Kurt Andersen and his list of “Words We Don’t Say,” which he put together when he was editor of New York Magazine. Anybody who writes that X “hails from” Texas, that Y “graced” the pages of Vogue, or that Z is either “comely” or someone’s “hubby,” should stop writing. I most strongly endorse Andersen’s prohibition of grating language that relate to the business of words, notably “authored” and “penned” — both classic examples of using a supposedly exotic stand-in for a perfectly good word (“wrote”).
Using such gimmicks is how a “writer” signals to himself that he is “writing.” (The ultimate bad-writing sentence would be: “Scribe Pens Tome.”)
Something has happened since Andersen put his list together in the late 1990s. No, I don’t mean “the Internet” -- I mean rhetoric that refers to the Internet. The robust class of pundits and gurus and entrepreneurs whose living depends on elevating all discussions of technology into the highest stratospheres of hyperbole have, along the way, pretty much destroyed a series of formerly useful words. “Share,” “collaborate,” “discover,” “crowd,” and many others have been abused beyond recognition.
But, you know, fine: Language is dynamic, and I at least understand the ways those words have been warped. The “longread” thing, however, is a Web-era neologism I simply cannot fathom. (Apologies here, by the way, to Longreads.com, which surely means well; but if Philip Morris Companies can become Altria, then clearly you have other options, too.) I am almost as hostile to its close cousin, “longform.” That word I can at least understand as the acceptably descriptive “long-form,” condensed to more hashtag-friendly form. But like “tome” as a replacement for “book,” neither word has any defensible advantage over, say, “feature” or even “story.” Stephen Roddick is onto something when he compares “longform” to “creative nonfiction,” another distractingly pretentious term.
When I started ranting about this to one of my bosses here at Yahoo News, it reminded him of this Twitter exchange:
That may indeed be the goal, but I sometimes wonder if #longread doesn’t function as something more like a warning than a boast: If a piece of writing’s most fundamental element is longness, do you really want to click through?
Look, I’ve written long stories. I’ve written books. I read a lot, and regularly enjoy features, stories, essays that run into the thousands of words. But as a writer and as a reader, I do not count longness itself as defining feature of such works — let alone a selling point.
The goal of any piece of writing isn’t to see how long you can make it. Often, in fact, it’s about knowing exactly when to stop.