El Contenido

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2013 at 8:23 am

El Contenido

Writing is a question of motive, reading the same. It’s important to know why you’re doing it.

I can tell you why I write: it’s because I love the world as much as I hate it. Because I know it’s all I’ve got. Because a place can fill me up till I can’t breathe any more, pouring its stories into me like intoxicants. I can feel them in me, making me woozy even if I can’t always make them out, even when I can’t tell insight from pure imagination, or if those two things can be told apart.

I write because every time I so much as go for a walk the universe bowls me over. The daily litany of wonders: the sun, the wild Atlantic, murky Africa, the long coastal grasses and the man who won’t say hello to me even though we’ve passed each other by down at the water a thousand times. The litany of wonders and how it grinds. How it rubs raw.

I write because I won’t live for long. Because I’m a fucking mayfly and it makes me angry. It makes me grateful too. I write from the gratitude and I write from the anger. I write because I want to give you something and I write because I want something from you. I want your touch, like a cheap song; I want your breath on my neck. I write to make music of the noise, to make a noise in the dreadful silence, to find a silence in the roar. That is why I write.

Why do I read? See above.

The truth is it isn’t easy to tell reading and writing apart. Not when they’re done well, when each participant is pulling their weight, reaching out for the other through the unifying space of a story. If you are scanning this text with your cursor hovering over a share button, you are not reading. If I wasn’t bursting with anger and gratitude right now, I wouldn’t be writing. They are among the noblest things an ape can do, but they don’t come easy. Both elude, like all good things. Like wisdom. Like love.

Sometimes, I write for money. It has been an aspiration of mine to do more of that. To be called a writer by the world and not merely by myself. Since I write about places so much, the travel writing industry has beckoned. By now it’s an online industry of course, and that has meant a new set of rules for the writer.

Not that they call it writing anymore; it’s called ‘content’ now; writers are ‘content providers’ and there have been other changes. Consumerism – that great ratcheting vice we call the ‘free’ market – has made its mark here as much as anywhere else. If a publisher still uses words like ‘quality’ or ‘unique’ – and they do – they don’t mean the same thing they used to. Some writers may still be unaware that they merely refer to Google criteria. The business of writing is more automated than it has ever been, more a question of inexorable process.

What we might mean by ‘quality’ doesn’t get a look in. Writing is dealt with in the language of management jargon and what pass for editors these days are often more like Key Performance Indicator managers. If your objective in driving traffic is to sell something at the end of it all – houses, cars, holidays – then this is all very well but make no mistake: if you’re a writer, you are behind enemy lines.

The IT-driven transformation in publishing filters down finally to the sentence itself. A writer’s job now is essentially to push buttons the reader can’t see – SEO, or whatever replaces SEO as the new orthodoxy. Never mind narrative – we line up the wonder of the world in numerical order: Hawaii’s number two beach, Spain’s number seven. The third best gallery in Paris. The eighth best masterpiece in that gallery. The eleven bagel stands you really shouldn’t miss when in New York (it’s alright to miss the others, but it would be foolish to miss these eleven). The four different types of traveller. The five different types of mother. The six different types of category.

Let me tell you what content is: straw – something dead and hollow to fill an empty box. What is ‘quality’ content? Fresh straw. Same box.

If you believe it’s a coincidence that writers are expected to behave more and more like software –  keywords, tags, metadata, lists –  then you probably still believe that we won’t be replaced by it. You probably don’t think that someone is working on that right now, or that they’re close.

Anybody who runs a blog will be familiar with the comical bot comments their spam filter catches.

“removal fee will be the most cost-effective the a will methods burnt even under-arm, well, it energy process. genitals. Pulling the hair out by the root is one of the your the seems hair regrowth your eliminate all hair growth. Spreading ho”

“SEO is is missing a few factors, for one you do not use all three H tags in your post, also I notice that you are not using bold or italics properly in your SEO optimization. On-Page SEO means more now than ever since the new Google update: Panda. No longer are backlinks”

Well, they’re going to get better at that. Machines will generate convincing language. At least, it will be convincing if you don’t listen, or read, too hard. And when it happens it won’t be their fault, these so-called publishers who dance the Google dance. They’re just playing the only game in town. The monkey/organ grinder analogy comes to mind and we aren’t talking about the organ grinder here; it isn’t as if they’re much further up the food chain than I am. They’ll be replaced by software too.

It probably isn’t even Google’s fault; I strongly suspect that the algorithms are less to blame than their quotidian deployment by the unimaginative.

And I don’t suppose we can lay all the blame at the feet of the writers who play along for a few crumbs. Writers need crumbs; they always have and they’ve always been prepared to churn out some shit so they can get a sandwich (or a drink) and get on with the real thing. No, the culprit here is the only one in the equation that we never seem to mention. The only one we let off the hook every time.  The only one to whom we allocate zero responsibility.


Because by the time (and it won’t be long now) you find yourself reading an article about the six quietest parks in Connecticut, replete with map coordinates and a decibel graph and compiled entirely by a bot, that is what you will have come to accept. That is what you will call reading – your own compulsive, consumptive hopping from one distraction to another. ‘Reading’ will be the diseased behaviour you present with whenever you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Writing won’t be anything human at all.

And it will be your fault.

You’re probably not expecting me to say at this point that I’m feeling rather hopeful about the whole sorry business, today, but I am, even if only because, having been a willing participant, I don’t really care about it anymore. The marketplace is leaving meaning behind and therein lies the death of the marketplace. Like all consumers it will eventually devour itself.

So writers are to be squeezed out of the business of writing. So what? We’ll still be there afterwards. People will still need stories. We will always need stories.  Writers and readers will find a way to each other and to new spaces to share. Maybe make a few quid while we’re at it, maybe not.

It might be because the hostile man down by the water broke his silence today, after all these years. I almost didn’t notice him with my head down and my eyes partly shielded by my winter hat, but when I glanced up he was passing me by and he greeted me. He greeted me. Not the minimal nod that I might have expected, or a raised eyebrow, but an honest-to-god thumbs up, as if he’d been pushing against the barrier between us and his hand had suddenly burst through.

We’ll be straight back to the awkwardness tomorrow, I suspect, because I didn’t have time to respond, but it gave me quite a lift. It meant something, that humble little bit of human contact. It means something. I made my way back to the house with a spring in my step, to get down to some work. There’s no way I can promise myself, even having written this, that I’ll never write another list. I need my crumbs. But it won’t be today.

Today I’ll write something good.

  1. I hope you are wrong, except about writing something good today. And I hope you get a greeting from hostile man tomorrow. He might be reading this too.

  2. Your insights help me clarify one of my causes….writing. Thank you Robin.

  3. Everyone in every occupation prostitutes themselves to a lesser or greater degree. My biggest gripe in the world of travel writing/blogging is that marketers are running the show. Writing is a word that is sometimes spat out with a sneer attached and too often numbers make eyes widen far more a beautiful word does. But anyone can write 100,000.

    I dream of being able to let words roam wherever they wanted to go. But I’d soon die of hunger if I did.

    As Mark Renton observed ‘it’s a shite state of affairs to be in…’

  4. You’ve definitely written a good one today……I could feel it in the words

  5. One of my daily struggles (as I edit a sponsored post…the last I agreed to do with this company!)…

    • Ha! I don’t have a problem with writing for the purposes of marketing, actually, Cat. In that context it’s a tool, and with the advent of the internet a very powerful one. It would be strange if companies of all kinds weren’t all over blogging and publishing to sell their stuff. So writing can be that, in my book.

      But it can be so much more…

  6. Wonderful, Robin. Thanks for writing this. Writing can be many things, and a marketing tool is certainly one of them. What hurts and enrages – and ultimately will hurt the whole of society – is the commodification of the creative, of the arts and the spiritual. I have this conversation with musicians and artists, as well as writers, every day.

  7. Very well said and distressingly true. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s an issue limited to writing, or even to the arts – everything seems ever more dumbed-down for the mass market. Max quantity at min price and bugger the quality, whether we’re shifting words or shoes.
    But I don’t believe there’s less good stuff out there than there ever was. There’s just a LOT more sh*t.

    • And it’s the shit that pays, Phil. I think I’m getting over it, but I don’t have to like it…

    • Well said, Phil. And often not even min price! We’re expected to write for free, give away our ebooks, have our music pirated… there’s a whole entitled generation of people who expect music and content to be free.

      • Yep. And software. And photos. And web designs. And …
        The word ‘Entitled’ is spot on, though I fear there are representatives from several ‘generations’ involved.

  8. Hell no, I don’t like it either …

  9. Can you feel my breath on your neck? I hope not, my wife wouldn’t be happy…but I do write for the same reasons as you, never thought of my readers breathing on my neck though…that would be funny, imagine them all lining up down my noisy road in the centre of Sevilla. Wonder whether they would reach the corner shop that sells funny Nazareno outfits?

    • Your comment has been in the spam filter for the last day, Barry. Bots again. But yes, quite right – metaphorical breath on neck will be fine: I don’t need people calling round the house.

  10. My sincere hope is that quality (like this post) will out. What saddens me most about many ‘articles’ I read these days is the lack of care that goes into the writing – too many grammatical and typographic errors which (to me) shows a total lack of effort and commitment by the writer.

    • Yes, Sue – I’m no grammar nazi but some of the shit out there is just insulting. I believe that quality will out too but not before a lot of what gets done nowadays, by people, for money, becomes a software product.

  11. That, paradoxically, raised my spirits….that a brilliant post like that can come from a description of the nature of the content that is now demanded by those who run the media.

    As a reader, I now go to blogs if I want to read about a destination….it means sifting, but there’s more likely to be something there than in the bean counter columns of the newspapers and magazines.

    I lived in France for years….when do I ever see an article about anything other than bloody Paris and blasted Provence….and boutique hotels and bobo bars….
    Friends reckoned we could give someone a week’s holiday suggestions for the Loire Valley without hitting one of the chateaux on the tourist trail…but as advertising runs the show, no one would want to print it!

    • Absolutely, Helen. While I would acknowledge that advertising has always been an influence, and that there has always been a bottom line to publishing, there did at least seem to be a bit of a wrestling match going on. Strange things got through. Sponsors and advertisers were always a bit nervous, and rightly so. There were people in editorial positions who took an editorial view on things. With the exception of some very select publications who have some editorial clout (on account of their established reputations and the advertising it attracts), nobody’s wrestling anymore.

  12. I read your blog because its entertaining and engaging. Your style and competency makes your (any) topic interesting. A few month’s back I was fed up with it. It seemed to have drifted into a kind of diatribe for the sake of style. I found myself trying to place it as some kind of ‘this writer’ meets ‘that writer’ as a means to pigeon hole you. When I came back to it recently I realised I enjoyed the rhythm and style. You write about nothing in a way that makes it enthralling. In my opinion this is ‘quality content’. I wouldn’t sell your soul for a Hummingbird. Google will come to you – in the long run – because what is quality is up to me, your reader as you say. If Google want me to see their ads then they will need quality content as I perceive it not as their robot sees it. I think that is the point that they see too.

    • Come on then – which writer met which writer?? I’m dying to know 😉

      Thanks for the comment.With regard to quality being what YOU say, my fear is that there may not be enough of you. Publishers justify the directions they are taking on the basis that it’s what their readers want. Whether that’s true or not it does put some responsibility on the readers to say “no it isn’t” and I’m not hearing those voices.

      • I think everything exists in a market of some kind. Consumers don’t care about you. They care about themselves. You are right to take care where you set your stall – don’t yield. Every back issue is already highly valuable to your future customer. Maybe, in the end, Google, Hollywood or Penguin will facilitate your market. Not you theirs. I have never nearly read enough to really know which writer meets who that’s why I couldn’t do it. Be selective in whom you only align to. You are right to stay away from dross. Who will be looking for you there?

      • Very interesting, Chris – thanks for taking the time!

  13. Great post – excellent points, beautifully and thoughtfully expressed, as always. There’s no doubt that the profession/skill of writing has become increasingly undervalued, both financially and artistically – and I say that as someone who’s been doing it for over 20 years. Agree with Victoria’s comment. I spend many hours debating whether to whore myself by writing boring crap about subjects I am ignorant about/places I’ve never been to. Have generally managed to avoid thus far. Perhaps I’m just not commercially minded enough. Agree wholeheartedly with Sue re horror of shoddy blog posts full of spelling and grammar mistakes (not that I’m perfect, mind). There is a lot of substandard, marketing-driven writing-to-drive-traffic material out there which is considered successful because it works, while being painful to read. It’s a subject very close to my own heart, which has generated some interesting discussion here. Thanks Robin!

  14. “The six different types of category.” Loved this piece!

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