Oh, Giles Coren. There are few so prominent examples of a person with such open contempt for his professional fellows – in Coren’s case, writers for the popular press.
His column in Saturday’s Times (paywall) took aim at journalists and columnists, describing them as “without question the least well-read people you will ever meet (unless you regularly meet chefs)”, and on this he blames a perceived deterioration in the quality of journalistic writing in recent years.
This broadside didn’t come from an analysis of the quality of prose in newspapers – it started life in the publication of a report suggesting humans are losing their “deep-reading” ability as a result of spending too much time online, trying to process too much information.
(I won’t waste too much time on this report, except to note a) the research being touted, by Dr Maryanne Wolf, does not yet appear to have been published (this 2010 essay is all I can find), b) Dr Wolf would like everyone to buy her forthcoming book on this subject, and c) other research seems to indicate a difference of comprehension ability between screen- and paper-reading. See also this elegant riposte in the Telegraph.)
Now, Coren, primarily a restaurant critic, could have taken fire at many groups of people – students, bloggers, online commenters, for example – but he chose to focus on journalists and columnists. Here are the relevant comments:
This is worst among journalists, who are without question the least well-read people you will ever meet (unless you regularly meet chefs). They spend all day “reading” newspapers, shorthand notes, filed copy, newswires, blogs, and when they come home they reckon they’ve done their “reading” for the day and now it’s time to drink cheap wine and watch Game of Thrones. Which is why the writing in news publications is getting worse and worse by the week: because the people who write the words only ever skim-read other, similar words, thus “deactivating their deep-reading facility” and stunting their literary development.
The result is that, with a few exceptions, the university-educated journalists of my generation write like swotty teenagers, while the straight-from-school-to-the-newsroom guys and girls write like policemen. Because they do not read (because they read too much), their ability with words does not develop over time.
There are a few interesting things here, beyond the sweeping generalisation that this applies to journalists “without question”. First, note the inherent snobbery of comparing non-university-educated journalists to “policemen” – I would imagine Coren is thinking of the rather cliched image of a police officer reading their leaden notes to a courtroom. Is he suggesting journalists’ prose can be rather dull?
(Here I would note that the best journalist I ever knew was a rather poor writer. What made her an excellent journalist was not the quality of her prose, but of her stories. Of course, Coren is not himself a journalist, so that minor distinction might pass him by.)
It’s telling that Coren blames the journalists themselves for their failings: they “reckon” they don’t have to read any more – clearly a moral failure. It’s telling Coren doesn’t look, instead, at what wider issues might be coming into play here, and what effect they might have had.
Issues like the wholesale collapse of newspaper revenues over the last few years.
Issues like ever-shrinking newsrooms and ever-growing workloads.
Issues like ever-more-punishing publication schedules, built around getting “content” online as fast as possible.
Today’s journalist is expected to process far more information and produce far more material than ever before, with little emphasis now on the quality of journalism, and even less on the quality of writing – and yet they soldier on, doing the best they can. (Or they go into PR.)
But instead of decrying the economic and commercial shifts which have possibly forced journalists to cut corners, Coren attacks the journalists themselves. “Your abilities do not measure up to my exacting standards,” he seems to be saying.
He also goes after his fellow columnists with the same sort of accusations:
Even your favourite columnists. Big, important, prize-winning clever ones. Have a look at their work. How often do they begin a column with the sentence “Here’s a thing.” or “So.”? Why do they use “like” and “right” and “okay” and “um” and “do you know what I mean?” so much? These used to be locutions we laughed at people for uttering aloud, let alone writing.
It happens because there was a brief phase a while back when a couple of influential writers thought it would be fun to appropriate street inarticulacy into their professional prose, and in their hands it was a powerful tool. But ten years and a lot of skim-reading later, it has become the way in which a whole generation of “writers” writes. Their “deep-writing” skills gone the same way as their “deep-reading” ones.
Here, his complaint boils down to “I don’t like the conversational style of writing which is currently in fashion”. He also indulges in a little more elitism, both in describing his proscribed phrases as “street inarticulacy” (read: language of the common people. Really? “okay”?), and in saying it was only effective in the hands of a talented few.
I have a certain amount of sympathy with Coren here – many columnists do come out with little more than piffle. But again, there are many more op-ed spots to fill, because newspapers realised columnists were cheaper than journalists. Once more, it’s little surprise that standards have slipped.
Coren commits the classic sin of those of us in privilege. He erroneously projects his rarified position – well-educated, well-paid, with the luxury of time to create miniature masterpieces – on to everyone else, then chastises them for wasting the advantages they do not, in fact, have.
This is not Coren’s first attack against the journalistic community. In 2008 he had a good old swear at the Times’ sub-editors over a deleted indefinite article, and he has also gone at his Twitter critics with ad-hominem attacks.
It seems pretty clear he doesn’t much like his fellow peddlers of prose. I would venture to suggest that, if our meagre abilities upset him quite so much, perhaps he should remove himself from our squalid ranks.
Soon as you like, Giles.