On Style, Substance, and Selling Out

“hey dude,” the first Facebook message read. “your writing is hysterical. not a fit for what we are looking for,” says the second. “keep being funny!” This is rejection in the 21st Century. From someone who allegedly has a prestigious portfolio and track record. Who definitely has a catawampus profile picture that makes it seem as though his head is peeking at you from the side of the frame. It leers aloofly, unprofessionally, self-unawarely. This is the CEO of a company who still believes that hipness is won by breaking all the rules of social media engagement. By having a profile picture that goes against every rule of Headshots 101. By messaging job candidates via Facebook. That not capitalizing or punctuating is more real and more sincere than ascribing to the oppressively conventional rules of good grammar.

When pressed for what he was looking for, I was given the following answer: “your writing was funny but a bit too fluffy and not enough meat[.]” This is the plight of writers in the Buzzfeed and blog era. Though the prompt was comically brief and implied that it wanted a blog post worth sharing, that wasn’t what it wanted it all. It wanted someone who could tell and not show, who could prove that they’d spent longer than anyone else browsing the company’s website and regurgitating that information. The CEO wanted to be told “Yes, your ideas are all perfect. Let me retype them to show you how much I believe that.” In short, it wanted substance without style. In the case of a generically informational content marketing blog, substance is all-too-easy to come by. Read the company’s website and turn bullet points into two-sentence paragraphs. Insert pop culture jokes and YouTube videos and witty subheads. Repeat. To execute with style that rewards the few people who actually read them (instead of simply sharing on social media because they were paid or strongly encouraged to do so) is rare and cannot be taught or Googled.

Then there is another job that I do have, one whose style guide is wrought with pictures of bourbon bottles and Chuck Norris and a list of quaint, ‘gnarly’ words that we are encouraged to use liberally. The style is prescribed and the bonuses are insultingly arbitrary. Pop culture references are given preference over helpful information, speed is rewarded while careful consideration can only be exercised at your own risk. In short, it rewards style without substance.

One thinks about great works of literature and philosophy, and pieces of great writing that may not carry the same universality as lesser writing with greater ideas. Dostoevsky is imminently more readable than Nietzsche and no less profound; Fitzgerald’s worst is still more lyrical than anyone else’s best. Protagonists and poesy make philosophy bearable. Gatsby is remembered and taught because its style and substance cooperate in timeless alchemical bliss. Kierkegaard was smart, but gosh dang is he droll. Hemingway told his blunt ideas bluntly and his poignantly vulnerable ones similarly. To say “everything is nothing” is unconvincing. To end a riveting love story with “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” is rather more powerful.

If we want people to listen to our ideas, we must show and not tell. And if we want employees to be helpful and honest, we should not ask them insulting Catch-22s like: “Are you going to be equally excited whether you’re writing unattributed banal, programmatic content or creative longform pieces with your name on them?” The upwardly-mobile schmoozers are great liars. The honest folk with artistic integrity get fired. Fun times in Babylon, indeed.

One of the most painful realities for writers in the 21st Century is the conflation of heartwarming or Nihilistically-affirmative stories and ideas with good writing. 20 Things You Have to Do in Your 20s is almost inevitably poorly-written. And yet it will get more shares than the greatest piece of creative writing published this year. East Austin Man Discovers One Weird Trick to Get out of Speeding Tickets—Cops HATE Him! will get more clicks than something titled Pulitzer Prize-Winning Short Fiction: Read it Here for Free. So it goes.

Because I am known, at least in some vague sense, as a writer to those who still know me at all, I’m constantly forwarded things that I am told are great writing that I simply have to read. Sometimes they’re right. More often than not, they’re petty pieces with pretty ideas. Or at least ideas that I can understand why the person who shared them with me enjoyed. Never mind the difference between its and it’s. Damn the subject-verb agreement. Forget meter and rhythm and word paintings that make you want to bust out the pen and do some underlining. We want our untested sensibilities to be reaffirmed, not challenged. If Thought Catalog says we shouldn’t get married until we’re at least thirty and we’re sitting single and twenty six and full of bravado masquerading as cocksureness, their staff writer is the wisest sage of our times. If one of the rare Contrarian Conservative Blogs for Millennials says Being Married to Your Best Friend at Twenty Four is the Epitome of Bliss and we’re sitting next to our boo in a clean, modern home in the safe, bland suburbs, we’ve just discovered our new favorite author. Pandering sells, poetry gets forgotten, and Baz Luhrmann picks up the pieces.

Nota bene: there will always be a place for sentimental poetry sure as there will be a place for poetical self-loathing and unintentionally ironic embroidered pillows.

The ease with which one can cheaply imitate listicles and receive accolades from employers is deeply unsettling, to say the least. So is the revelation that your first employer achieved their professional stature not with preternatural competency but with ravishingly good looks and, by all accounts, even better sex. Your career is built on a foundation of sand. Then again, the pawns of a major tech company’s CEO approved the interview you ghostwrote on his behalf even though you’ve never met him and never will. Is that good writing or a pyramid scheme built on one-night stands? Is there a difference?

It’s easy to reassure ourselves that anyone who contacts you using Facebook Messenger and believes that regurgitated substance trumps rare style is not someone we want to work for. Or that artistic integrity ‘matters’. It’s especially easy to believe while enough of our helter skelter side gigs pay the bills and buy us hours in coffee shops. Surrounded by beautiful people and insulated from our unsympathetic bosses by the internet and thousands of miles, it’s easy to be self-important and defiant about what we will and won’t do. When we have to start drinking our coffee at home and our only human interaction is with cashiers working the graveyard shift at bargain-basement grocers, the notion of selling out loses its dreadfulness.

Post Scriptor: Lest you think me unfairly cynical, compare the sales figures of James Patterson and John Steinbeck.


  1. Good stuff john boy. Keep it coming. Catharsis is good. As you can see, my sentences don’t wax poetically, but I learn new words every te I read your blog. “Cocksuredness ” and “Listicles” sound vaguely medical. Good things come to those who wait

  2. I love you. You make me have a wonderfully artificial hope for your generation!!!

    Christopher Moore

  3. Patterson has literally SCORES of folks writing under his name and has had for a very long time. You probably know that though. Give me Steinbeck, montesi, ephron, etal.

    Love you luap

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