Downward dumbening

Not being a writer myself, I can observe this phenomenon only at a distance, but I suspect I’d be a bit upset if my readership were unable to, well, read:

Editors at conventional publishers have adopted a conformant attitude: “Write for an eighth-grader!” the smart ones will tell you. (The less smart ones will tell you to write for a fifth-grader.) And as you can probably imagine, it drives me absolutely nuts.

Dislike of the “vocabulary show-off,” I understand. I don’t care for the species of retromingent onager who festoons his books with a rebarbative congeries of obfuscations and anfractuosities any more than I like “literary” pretentiousness and those who luxuriate in it instead of telling actual stories. But I maintain that there have been changes as regards readers’ (and editors’) attitudes that aren’t for the better.

If you’ve read B. R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto, you might recall him lamenting the disappearance of “good Mandarin writing” in the fashion of Woolf and Joyce. I feel similarly — but in this connection, I lament even more wistfully the decline in educational standards and the acceptance of that decline by just about everyone. The most important aspect of that decline, as usual, goes all but unremarked. It’s the difference between two attitudes: “I don’t know that word, so I’ll improve my vocabulary by looking it up” versus “What right does he have to use a word I don’t know?”

It’s just a matter of time before some nitwit in academia declares that failure to write for fifth-graders is a deliberate slur, intended to show one’s superiority over high-school graduates (or college underclassmen) who read at a fifth-grade level because [insert buzzword].


  1. fillyjonk »

    10 August 2018 · 8:42 pm

    What makes me mad about the dumbening and the suggestion that “simpler” words be used – well, the reason we have a lot of different words is kind of like why anyone who builds things has a lot of different tools. I like using *just the right word* for a situation, even if it might be an unfamiliar one.

    (And it’s a big day for me when I find a new word I have to go look up. I *like* that. And anyway, in this day and age it’s exceptionally simple to look up words online….though you may or may not get the right definition.)

    I’ve audibly worried that there will come a point where we’re reduced to grunting and pointing. Or, maybe, grunting, pointing, and saying the f-word, because it seems to stand in for a lot of OTHER words these days (and thus, has lost some of its power)

  2. Roger Green »

    11 August 2018 · 5:39 am

    “Not being a writer myself…” I object to this self-characterization. You most certainly ARE a writer, and an entertaining one You may not have written tomes, but you certainly do write.

  3. McGehee »

    11 August 2018 · 8:05 am

    I second Roger. (It was bound to happen sooner or later.)

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