Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Gatsby," writers and new media

Come morning I'll be on the road, visiting three states in eight days.
And on this trip, when time allows, I'll be reading "The Great Gatsby."

I've read Fitzgerald's masterpiece before, of course. And like many writers, I went through an obsession with the book -- reading and re-reading it constantly back in high school (Hunter Thomson claimed to have retyped the entire book in an effort to absorb Fitzgerald's talent.) But obsessions fade, and it's been at least two decades since I last read "Gatsby."

So why now, at 48 years of age, am I returning to "Gatsby"?
A few weeks ago I was in my car listening to NPR when I heard a wonderful piece about "Gatsby." It featured actors reading selections of the work. There was audio of a trip to Long Island with a Fitzgerald expert. The host and his guests discussed movie versions of "Gatsby,"dissected the book's influence on writers, Fitzgerald's understanding of America and his mastery of the craft, and looked at the Gatsbys of our own time.
At the end of the show, there was a reference to more material available on the Web. When I got home, I logged on and looked.
And by the time I finished absorbing the multimedia presentation, I was obsessed again.
I'd urge you to take some time to do the same. Visit the Web site of Studio 360. Drill down. Follow the links. Listen to the audio.
And then come back to this post.

In the past few weeks I've heard from a number of folks who are upset -- some of them tremendously so -- by two recent posts of mine. In those posts I downplay the usefulness of clips in making a hiring decision and I celebrate those young journalists who take the time to master new skills.
The critics, if I understand their complaints, think I should put more emphasis on the ability to "write" and less on the mastery of new media.
Now it's easy to dismiss some of these critics as morons. (Consider, for example, the ridiculousness of the comment in this post, in which an anonymous person demonstrates an inability to think or write.)
But not every criticism comes from an idiot. Rather, most have come from reasonable folks with a love of good writing. Most, in fact, have come from folks who write for a living and do so with some skill. In other words, most of the criticism has come from folks who have likely had a "Gatsby" obsession, or a "Vonnegut" obsession -- folks just like me.

The truth is that my critics and I share a love of writing. That's why we got into the world of journalism in the first place. Where we differ is on how we feel about the new forms of storytelling. I adore the new forms, and I accept that they are superior vehicles for conveying a story online. Furthermore, I accept that what makes for good writing in print is vastly different from what makes for good writing online.
Consider, if you will, "The Great Gatsby." It is arguably, the greatest piece of American writing in history. In fact, for the sake of argument, let's say that it is the greatest piece of writing in American history.
Now click here and try to read it.

What you'll find is that even "Gatsby" cannot sing on a computer screen. On a computer screen, a multimedia presentation about Fitzgerald's masterpiece works better than the masterpiece itself.
Writing well is about choosing the right medium as much as it is choosing the right word. And the computer screen (or a PDA) is not the right medium for Fitzgerald. Nor, in fact, is the computer screen the appropriate place for most types of long-form writing.

So yes, when I think about hiring young people, I'm not very interested in their ability to write in long form.
I care more about reporting ability. I care more about ambition and entrepreneurial spirit. I care more about multimedia skills than print skills because I accept that young journalists are entering a business where the page is not as important as the screen.

"In my younger and more vulnerable years" I dreamed that I would write like Fitzgerald. I dreamed that I would create a book that was wondrous and beautiful and without peer. I may do that yet. And if I do, I pray that you read it in print and not online.

In the meantime, I'll look for the next generation of long-form writers in the bookstore and I'll look for the next generation of journalists online.
And I'll continue to try to do what I hope I have done here -- writing well for online by telling a story, making a point, uploading a photo, linking elsewhere and beginning a conversation in less than 800 words.

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  1. Mike HarbourApril 18, 2007


    Well said...and, BTW, thanks for proving my point about the importance of good writing:

    "And I'll continue to try to do what I hope I have done here -- writing well for online by telling a story, making a point, uploading a photo, linking elsewhere and beginning a conversation in less than 800 words."

    Mike Harbour
    Freelance writer

  2. Paul:
    I find it ironic that you slam the anonymous critic with this intro:
    "Consider, for example, the ridiculousness comment in this post:. . . "

    What is the saying? "Those in glass houses . . ."

    My guess is you will go back and edit yourself -- a luxury the poster does not have.

  3. Hi Anonymous,
    That's too funny and too embarrassing.
    I caught that mistake myself earlier today. And I have since corrected it. But I'm also publishing your comment and admitting the error.

  4. Paul:

    Thank you for your advice. I am graduating in 3 weeks with a magazine journalism degree and I am downright scared because I consider my biggest strength to be my writing ability. I am learning more about online and trying to train myself to think about than just words on a page. I'm glad I stumbled upon your site. :)

  5. That Journalist (aka Tara),
    I wouldn't worry. I took a look at your profile. And I see that you're already blogging, already looking to expand your skillset.
    That willingness to learn is the single most important trait a journalist can have. And it's a trait that is shockingly rare.
    Good luck.
    And please send me a copy of your resume.