Heard Writing

by Matthew Walther (April 2012)


Lately I have observed a tendency on the part of many writers, whether in new novels, print journalism, or email exchanges, toward what I will tentatively designate as ‘heard writing’. I have also noticed something of the same in the artistic credos, comparison essays, nursing reports, and ‘flash fictions’ that the students who come to me for tutoring bring.

For the phrase ‘heard writing’ I am indebted to Martin Amis, who offered it to Charlie Rose some years ago in trying to explain his conception of cliché. Now it may be that cliché is sometimes a sub-species of heard writing, but what I have come to recognize as the phenomenon of heard writing does not seem to be synonymous with cliché. Indeed I do not identify the use of cliché, especially descriptive cliché, with genuine heard writing. Certainly few or none of us can claim to have initially encountered ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ in Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. Amis’s observation, that we tend to hear tired phrases before we read them, may tell us something about the transmission of clichés, but it does nothing to illuminate the issue of heard writing. Indeed, it tells us very little about the problem of cliché, for cliché possesses a remarkable vintage. Bad poets have always written in clichés; cliché antedates the novel, and, as Amis himself is probably aware, cliché has often provided the prima materia for great works of fiction. Don Quixote is, among other things, Cervantes’ grand paean to the plethora of clichéd narrative tropes and character types one finds in the earlier chivalric romances enjoyed by the novel’s hero. Fielding more or less harpooned to death Richardson’s cetacean epistolary novels (today few of us read the latter), and Flaubert died composing A Dictionary of Received Ideas, a repository of poor advice,  definitions, and out-of-context quotations, for his hapless clerks in Bouvard et Pécuchet, which has since been published post mortem auctoris. The ‘Nausicaa’ episode of Ulysses finds Joyce paying homage to cloyingly written women’s fiction from the turn of the last century. Of course, satire of cliché can itself become a kind of cliché—witness the heavily protracted rise and fall of the postmodern novel; but this only turns our attention to that which is ‘serious, engravable’.

Furthermore, even when clichés do not elicit literary masterpieces, they stand to harm almost no one. They are blithe, innocent things which possess no literary value or argumentative force, and even when they graduate into idiotic ideas of the kind dispensed by vegan volunteers and CNN correspondents (e.g., ‘making a difference’, ‘Change We Can Believe In’), one disposes of them easily in formal argument.

What, then, is heard writing, as distinguished from cliché? Whence has it come, and what doth it signify? What are its hallmarks and bywords? Heard writing presents itself, as you shall see, as radically and wilfully divorced from the traditions of formal and literary English. Though it seems to me that heard writing threatens any day now to overtake the prose of members of my generation entirely (since they find themselves insufficiently familiar with the literary productions of previous generations), it has also begun to conduct exercises along the borders of the venerable. Established writers of wit and even genius are finding themselves sucked into its halitotic maw—shortly I shall offer specific examples of this. Heard writing adopts the earnest tone and thoughtless pseudo-sincerity of the clichéd advice everyone’s least favourite aunt gives her niece before a wedding (c.f., ‘I know you were hoping for someone more Leonardo DiCaprio, but right now you’d better take what you can get’, Gail Collins, New York Times, November 4 2010). The heard writer does not attempt to echo, say, the well-hewn polysyndeton of Tyndale’s New Testament or the mannered chiasmus of Blessed John Henry Newman’s sermons. He never crafts descriptive phrases of Joycean insight or Nabokvian decorum—instead he prefers both vagueness and vulgarity (c.f. ‘There was no bullshit in the weeks that followed’, Jonathan Franzen, Freedom). In many cases this tendency toward unspecificity couched in curse words can be explained by what Harold Bloom has called ‘the virtual end of reading among the young’. If one has never read someone else’s well-made phrase one can not be expected to have the interest or the ability to invent one’s own; but how does one explain the increasingly banal stylistic standards of American prose fiction? If Franzen, whom many consider the best young American novelist, no longer chooses to write in the high lyrical vein that made, say, the opening of his The Corrections one of the most (rightfully) famous paragraphs in recent American fiction, what hope have we for that desperate scribbler Mr Dan Brown, whose staid but inept prose the comedian Stewart Lee has mocked mercilessly?

In the previous two examples Collins and Franzen both wrote sentences that seem spoken rather than written; this failure to distinguish between what is proper in speaking and what is proper in writing seems to me the major issue related to heard writing, the one in many ways definitive of it, and indeed, one that is reflected in the term heard writing itself. If taken to task for their literary sins one can imagine both of these writers at least attempting to exonerate themselves: certainly Collins is—God knows how or why—convinced that this chatty approach possesses some kind of aesthetic merit (one thinks she borrows here not so much from the oral humour of, say, Will Rogers as from the equally breezy bromides of her fellow Times columnist, the always asinine Ms Maureen Dowd), and Franzen would probably admit that he wrote ‘bullshit’ either out of haste or laziness.

We thus far find ourselves able either to justify heard writing in terms of some vapid aesthetic or else to dismiss it as the by-product of a harried (I hesitate to employ the following term culled from that dismal science pedagogy) ‘writing process’. Neither of these options is available to my tutees; many simply find themselves incapable of producing or appreciating any other kind of writing. Consider the following sentence-length example, which I have taken from a narrative essay written by a female student, whom I consider to be of above average intelligence, for an English composition course: ‘The first thing you need to know about LA is that it makes you feel like your [sic] a big fish in a small pond for real’. The sentence contains an obvious grammatical error and a bald cliché, bien sûr—but what else? Its overall rhetorical structure reminds one of the confessional style of characters in reality television programs. When I asked breathlessly why she had written the second-person singular and plural possessive adjective instead of the contraction of the second-person singular personal pronoun and the second-person present indicative conjugation of ‘to be’, she responded by telling me that, while she understood the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, she would not use an apostrophe when sending text messages. I have not omitted any part of her answer—my tutee simply believed that since apostrophes do not, for whatever reason, figure much into the cell phone conversations of she and her friends, she need not employ them in her essay.

This sentence, and the rest of the paper in which it appeared,1 are evidence of an approach to writing that is beginning to enjoy the serious attention (and in many cases the endorsement) of many esteemed in the still developing ‘field’ of college composition. This is the view that (pace Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, who wrote uncontroversially in 1972 that television, cinema, and radio cannot positively affect the development of writers in the same way as sustained solitary reading) a wholesale embrace of the ‘rhetorical structures’ found in the speech of television characters and in the products of so-called social media technology can only benefit English prose.

In what sense or senses is this view blithely foolish? Let me count the ways. First, without pausing to consider the relative (i.e., non-existent) merits of most commercial television as an influence upon anyone’s thought or character, it does not seem to me reasonable to conflate speaking extemporized dialogue in front of a camera with sitting alone in front of a blank sheet of paper or a computer screen and causing meaningful words somehow to appear. Secondly, one wonders how tenured academics can be so credulous as to believe for certain that in ten years—surely a fair enough span of time in which a technology must remain in use if it is to become a component of our English curriculum—anyone will care a fig for Facebook or Twitter or any ‘social networking’ website. Is it even likely that these unprofitable companies will survive the next major financial crisis that many economists predict? If, and it seems at least plausible to suggest so, social networking sites will not be much in use in a decade or so,  I see no reason why they should be made a part of English instruction.

Which brings me to my final point about heard writing. The preceding sentences furnish one, one may object, with examples of poor style; to be sure my specimens are meretricious and vulgar, but the museum of bad prose is full, one pleads, and requires no curator. There have always been bad stylists. But the problem of heard writing is not simply that of a less than exemplary pursuit of 'le mot juste': it is that of a lack of serious ideas altogether, an absence that manifests itself in the obdurate sentimentality, the comfortable obscenity, and the casual indifference to principles of euphony that together characterize this altogether noxious approach to English prose.

Let us assume that only good reading can produce good writing; so what kind of writing can no or little reading bring forth? Heard writers find themselves helplessly and hopelessly invested in technology; they lack, however, any ability to justify their overgrown interest in the subject. I found the following phrase in a blog a few months ago: ‘It’s Apple’s Post-PC World—We’re All Just Living In It’. Let us have a very close look at this, for it is surely one of the worst sentences one will ever see—far worse, it seems to me, than Collins’s inane advice, Franzen’s vain vulgarism, and my tutee’s misshapen mess. The sentence begins with a bogus temporal demarcation, ‘Post-PC World’. What can the author possibly have meant by ‘post-PC world’? When I hear that we live in a ‘post-9/11 world’, I recognise the phrase to mean we are living in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. When Charles Taylor and others tell me that the West has become ‘post-Christian’, I understand they are making a complex argument about how the nineteenth century changed the human conception of the universe: ‘post-Christian’ refers to a society (ours and Western Europe’s) that is not uniformly or automatically Christian whose existence began around the time of the French Revolution. What does ‘post-PC’ mean? What span of time does this imply? Does the author mean to suggest that people are no longer using PCs? When did they give them up? It must have happened recently. I, for instance, am typing from a PC that is only about five months old, and I recall reading not long ago that there are currently over one billion PCs in use throughout the world. Clearly the author means not to suggest that PCs are literally a thing of the past; rather, he means to imply that they are hopelessly passé compared to what he considers to be Apple’s superior computers. He has simply, and inexplicably, couched his preference, and the preference of his implicit audience, the blog-addicted members of America’s upper middle class educated elite (who clearly spend a great deal of money on silicon gewgaws each year) in this arbitrarily definite fashion, for one type of expensive electronic item over another. Do we really have nothing better to comment upon than our favourite products? The part of the sentence following the dash, which borrows from an exceedingly tawdry verbal formula with which we are all familiar, strikes one as even worse: ‘We’re All Just Living In It’. One finds something mawkish and immoderate in this. Consider the fact that, as old-time liberals like my union member grandfather never cease to remind us, we live in a world in which most people are accustomed to poverty. To whom does the pronoun ‘we’ refer? Surely not Zimbabwean youth. Pace our cheeky headline author, I think the number of people actually living in the set of simultaneous eras (post-PC, post-racial, post-Bush, post-human) one reads about very small indeed. I should like to ask the fellow if he thinks that, when the history of the twenty-first century is written, schoolchildren should learn that ours was a post-PC world? My advice to future historians? Take down this: those of us all just living in Apple's post-PC world have inherited from the century of Hitler and Einstein a legacy of sin and achievement, of desolation and creation, and have as legatees thus far proved pretty poor safe-keepers of two of the former items (the jury, if I may be allowed just one cliché, is still out about how we shall fare with the other two.)

Heard writing flows forth from the putrid body of what was once a masculine English prose; it is among the chief spiritual miasmata of our age.


[1] Unfortunately, I am unable for reasons of workplace confidentiality to provide the entire piece—an annotated facsimile of this essay would make my argument for me, cogently and coherently.

Matthew Walther is an American undergraduate.

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