The essay. A time honored tradition and a matter of great gravity. We—or at least many of us, including myself—look to the essays of writers we admire from years gone by in the hopes that they will shed some light onto the present, lend some perspective to the chaos of the times we live in, maybe even to help make sense of the chaos of our own lives. In some instances, I’ve been affected much more by the essays of authors remembered primarily for their fiction than for their ruminations on society and the worlds they lived in. For me, Jonathan Swift is a good case in point.
In our age though, I’m uncertain what constitutes an essay. What we hope are our profundities are governed largely by the social networks which we use to disseminate them, and many of them are governed by length. The length is dictated by both limitations of the network itself, and by human psychology as it relates to the reader and the internet.
Twitter, with a 400-character limit, forces the most succinct expression of thought that I know of. This site, International Crime Authors Reality Check, represents the other extreme, as I have no specific character or word limit. However, the habits of the typical reader of an essay on the internet dictates that there must be. I’m fairly comfortable writing in the 1200-1500 word range to express myself. Even that though, doesn’t allow room for divergence or the making of finer points, for the modification of opinions under the vagaries of various circumstances. For that, I like 5,000-10,000 words to work with.
I also write reviews, and they also typically fall in that 1200-1500 word range. I was recently asked to try to keep it down to about 800 words, as that’s all most internet readers are willing to absorb. I admit, there is something to be said for this. I think it was Pascal who wrote in a correspondence, “I’m sorry to have written you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” But also with this, we find the difference between the blog and the essay. Most readers skim internet texts, tend to read down the middle and miss the finer points of a text.
A few years back, I made much of my living through commercial writing. I charged a base rate of 50€ an hour, a standard fee here in Finland. A colleague, who wrote commercial text for the internet, charged 90€ an hour—about $140—for her time, because writing well for internet publication requires a great deal of specialized expertise.
The result of the limitations of the blog replacing the unfettered essay is a loss of nuance and subtly, the replacement of wry humor and subtext with a series of declarative sentences that don’t, and often can’t, convey the precise meaning the author intended. We all lose here. I once wrote with the attitude that the reader is more intelligent than me by at least 10 IQ points, considers a text carefully, and ascertains for his or her self why I had chosen a particular turn of phrase, what I had left unsaid and why.
I do this less and less as time goes by. Skimming readers get little out of a good article, and in my experience, often take exception to opinions never intended. I’ve learned this from feedback received after writing many dozens of blogs (or were they essays?). Post-publication, I’ve found for myself that it’s often easier to be self-deprecating than to enter into convoluted discussions based on initial misunderstandings, and just say, “Thank you for your response. Your point is appreciated and well-taken.” Sometimes it’s true. As the author of a text, misunderstanding or not, I take responsibility for these misinterpretations, because they result from my failure to make the best use of the tools I’m given to work with. I’ve failed to keep up with the ever-changing world of electronic communication.
I notice though, that this style of reading has carried over into the absorption of fictional texts. Part of this is likely due to the advent of the e-reader. It’s a little computer, so people often treat it like one, rather than with the respect they pay to a book printed on paper. Where once, I would leave a story detail open, thinking it obvious, I now try to close nearly every story question to ensure that nothing is overlooked.
With this essay (or is it an 800 word blog?), my intention isn’t to criticize anyone or anything. I’m only pointing out some of the effects, for good or ill, that the technologies of our age have wrought upon us. As with most changes, the internet has impacted our lives in both positive and negative ways. In this instance, basically a limiting of thinkers to fully express their reflections, I feel that although there is little or nothing to be done about it, we’ve all come out losers.
James Thompson is an established author in Finland. His novel, Snow Angels, the first in the Inspector Vaara series, was released in the U.S. by Putnam and marked his entrance into the international crime fiction scene. Booklist named it one of the ten best debut crime novels of 2010, and it was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards. His second Vaara novel, Lucifer’s Tears, released in March, 2011, earned starred reviews from all quarters, and was named one the best novels of the year by Kirkus. The third in the series, Helsinki White, will be released on March 15.