This review of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (a topic which resonates with me, though I haven’t read the book and probably won’t) is critical of the of-the-moment writing style Odell uses when speaking out against our current of-the-momentness. ‘Tis a fair cop.
Yet as I read this earnest blend of activism, nature writing, art criticism, and self-help, I began to have the discomfiting feeling that I’d encountered something like it before. Not between the covers of a book, but late at night, browsing Twitter, scrolling and skimming. For Odell’s method of presentation is recognizably lifted from the very medium she criticizes: the online world of circulating content, ripe with bromides, targeted less toward the curious reader than toward the algorithms that coordinate literary distribution in what now passes for our public sphere.
Odell masterfully deploys one of the reigning genres of digital content: the parable-like anecdote, offered not for narrative pleasure but didactic instruction. (I owe this point about the ubiquity of sentimental anecdotes online—see, for example, the website Upworthy—to Tess McNulty.) To illustrate our reliance on strangers, she tells how she called 911 on the way to the grocery store after seeing a woman collapse in a seizure in front of a church. Ten pages later, to decry the blandness of living inside a filtered bubble, she relates how her ex-boyfriend’s brother ate only at chain restaurants when he traveled. She weaves together a fashionable range of references—from Deleuze to David Foster Wallace—with the Carrie Bradshaw–esque formulations so typical of the early-2000s blogosphere: “As I looked at X, I couldn’t help but think of Y.”
But the writer is fair, and goes on to say this:
One perennial challenge of progressive thought is confronting the culture in which you are embedded while using terms and values that are comprehensible to that culture.
This has been on my mind, as seen in my previous post. Most of my writing is crafted for an idealized reader, one who is interested in what I have to say and has a background that makes it easy to follow me as I say it. I invest a lot of effort in writing clearly and directly for that reader. But my idealized reader is by no means the ideal reader—if there is such a thing at all—and lately I’ve been thinking I should invest more time writing for the people who are actually here and listening, rather than as if my readers will self-select into some idealized audience.
Note: I have always taken the sensibilities of my readers into account, as far as I’m aware of them, and steered away from certain topics just because what I had to say didn’t seem worth the discomfort it might cause. A couple of those topics have reached the point in my life where I probably should put them out there just for the sake of honesty and transparency. Perhaps I’ll turn to those.
But I still have a clear memory of the one time I did that, regarding something innocuous, just to see what would happen. A friend had started a discussion thread about books (and maybe other creative works) one was embarrassed to admit they didn’t like. My contribution was to say that I didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia—I had read the first book, it left me cold, and I hadn’t continued. The reaction, as I thought it might be, was pure shock—not even “How can you say that?”, but the internet equivalent of gaping in astonishment. I didn’t press the matter.