Friday, 5 October 2012

The Failure of Fail: SF Blogs and Their Ceaseless Web-Cliches.

"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.  A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. Phrases (...) are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow."

So says George 'The Guv'nor' Orwell in his essay 'Politics and the English Language'. I urge anyone interested in writing to click that last link right now (I'll still be here when you get back, honest). Alternatively, if you're an SF/Fantasy author/ critic who blogs, I urge you to sew a microfilm of the entire essay onto the backside of your eyelids. If my carousing around the SF blogosphere is any indicator, you probably need it.

How is it that great SF writers--writers capable of groundbreaking novels or incandescent critical insight --will happily use tiresome received web-speak when it comes to blogs? Or drop flyblown memes (You know- that bloody angry wolf one or the classic 'Here is a picture of something absurd and unrelated to whatever we are discussing. Your argument is invalid) into a perfectly fine post?

Who ever made this: Lie down, pal. Lie down in an open space and wait for the year's first frost to pick you off. It's nature's way.

 The answer, of course, is that it is less work. With a greasy and knowing wink, one can bathe in the reflected glow of online culture, unlocking new levels of Call of Common Denominator III. The gallery is played to, a smile is raised, and original thought is thoroughly avoided.

Off the top of my head, here is a list of the kind of phrases any self-respecting person of letters should ideally avoid. I've seen everyone of them on an SF author or critic's blog.

"Fail "(used as noun): The main offender. The internet's equivalent of  'You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps' signs or those hemp jester hats self-amused twats would wear at nineties raves. "Fail" covers everything from Fascism to the Transformers movies and is thus as imprecise as it is punchable.

Racism, for instance, isn't a 'fail'. It's an affront to humanity and Enlightenment ideals. I know a lot of you guys can't help but glue a 'fail' onto it, but it's kind of the equivalent of sticking deeley-boppers onto crash victims.

"Facepalm/Head-desk" (Exasperation): Overuse has sapped these of any power. The reader's eye simply rolls over them. The writer would have more punch stating 'This annoys me'.

"The stupid... it burns!" See above.

"(Particular city/ location), I am in you!": Initially amusing but increasingly wearisome, this term is popular with authors on Twitter who are out on book tours. Let's give them the benefit of jet lag.

 "Neckbeard": An insult hurtled at one set of nerds from another. It makes you realize jocks do this kind of thing much better. 

"Butthurt": See above.

"Teh" as in 'The'
"Evar" as in 'ever'
"All the Things" as in 'I have many tasks'
"Kitteh" as in 'kitten':  All from the infantilist side of the genre. 'If I talk like a two-year old,' the logic goes, 'I'll be liked. I so desperately want to be liked.' Newsflash- you're a 37-year old adult with a paunch and bad knees, and even when you did speak like this the 'Teh intehwebz' didn't exist yet.

The 'comedy' Bingo Card: Have strong opinions but lack any visible wit? Why not create a 'bingo card'! Self-assembly, ready-meal satire for any yahoo with at least four fingers. The idea is to collate a load of your opponent's arguments onto a bingo card, thus rendering said arguments cliche (oh the irony!) and invalid. Because you put them on a bingo card.

Oh, Christ, no...

Except it doesn't. Not slightly.

Here's an experiment: list your best arguments against theft, say, or child murder or gang-rape, or take your favorite Martin Luther King quotes, and put them on one of these bingo cards (Christ knows, the template is probably out there on the web). By virtue of being placed on a systematized grid with 'Bingo' written on the top, these arguments will have the superficial appearance of being hackneyed and tacky. You can't buy satire at Ikea. You just can't.  Deal with it.


"Wank": 'You are not British. Put the word down before you do yourself an injury, mate. You haven't the training. This is The Sweeney (if you were British, you'd know who we were) and if you pull out the illegal terms 'fanwank' or 'wanky' we will shoot on sight.'

When you put any of the above phrases into your blog post, dear readers, a kitten dies (which incidentally, is yet another over-the-hill webicism).


Yes, you can argue that I'm an old-fashioned prick-in-the-mud, that I fear the inevitability of English changing etc. But I'd say the opposite. It's a hard fact, one no one has any wish to face up to, that though nowadays we all live inside an i-pad and have twitter pouring from our nostrils, we are just as subject to the laws of entropy as any other generation. The first age of the internet is drawing to a close, and all its trappings reek of mothballs.

It confuses me why people refuse to see this. I put it down to something I call 'The Amanda Palmer factor': when you're such a nice, creative, social-media-kickstarter-savvy-intehweb-zeitgeist-riding groovy person that it blinds you to the fact your actions have become more akin to an 18th century Yorkshire landowner's. Scary, but it happens. And, on whatever level, we should look out for it in ourselves.

Webspeak is both stale and imprecise (Pretty much Orwell's bugbears in his essay) and that's a threat to any writing community because both calcify expression and, ultimately, thought. By way of example, a fairly well-respected SF blogger informed me "Looks like you missed the fail-boat" regarding something I'd said on Twitter.

If any of you put this up in the comments roll of this post, me and Christopher Priest will jab interweeb puppiez, chezburgers and copies of The Prestige into your luckless eyeballs. 

It felt like I was talking with 2009. But another realization followed swiftly:  If I had 'missed the fail boat' surely that would imply I had succeeded? Or at least not failed? Language and meaning had parted company here, though, doubtless, 'missed the failboat' gets used again and again (and again) by educated, reasoning people who should really spot it's inbuilt flaw. Worse, they probably get complimented for using it by fellow bloggers who should also know better. The phrase itself had ceased to matter; the blogger just mouthed the right-sounding syllables.

But, really... what a missed chance!  A well-crafted, homemade insult from someone inarguably intelligent would have exposed me as a fool there and then. But no.  The certainty of lukewarm approval trumped the risks of attempting to write something brilliant. It is one of several poisoned arrows in the heart of the WiFi age.

Throw away fear and cliche, comrades. Seek brilliance.


  1. FIRST!!
    You don knows what you are taking about Jim Worrads your blog is teh worst on teh interwebs it is epic fail and you want to bring back hitler you gay fag I sends my lolcats army after you to happy slap you face in teh balls stop saying lies on peoples Mums or I block you and thumbs down and tell my freinds to thumbs till your failcomments are flagged as spam then what you do you are troll and if you dont stop then I bring out teh caps lock oh nos how I know when to stop when there is nocharacter limit looooooooooooool.

    1. Your argument is invalid. And I've an amusing picture of Chuck Norris having a hysterectomy to prove it.

  2. You forgot to put SECOND! at the top of your post, thereby invalidating your invalidation. Epic Faaaaaaail.

    Sorry, I'll fuck off now.

  3. No... don't... it's so lonely here, trapped in a blog post about internet cliches that, in itself, has become a sort of cliche. And the dayglo backdrop is breaking my mind...

  4. Goddammit I had typed out a long reply and then when your page made me go log in my reply was erased. FAIL.

    1. It's a right sod like that. I don't know if it's a Blogger thing or what.

      I'd change to Wordpress, but WP seems to make every writer create a misty white, enigmatic-looking blog with titles like 'Idle thoughts of a mind on the breeze' or 'Day Dreams & Intimations' or some crap.

      I'm not going out like that.

  5. Okay, let's try to reconstruct this.

    I think that you need to take account of context. You mention "SF blogs," and yeah, I agree, if you're going to make a totes srs argument about something, you don't want to have it peppered with phrases like "But OMG Worrad's story when it addresses Hoidrac Culture is a FAILSTORM" (not that we ever would say that). But on Twitter, or on casual journal entries, I don't see as much of a problem with it.

    Jargon--and that's what this is--serves two purposes. Usually the primary purpose is to shortcut commonly stated thoughts or phrases, and the secondary purpose is to reinforce the in-group status of people who understand it ("in-group status" is itself kind of behavioral scientist jargon, but not impenetrable). With Internet-speak, I think the priorities are reversed, but still valid. So in a casual blog post, in a tweet, I don't mind it. It makes me chuckle, makes me feel good that I get it (and if I don't get something, I seek out my more meme-conversant friends or knowyourmeme.com), and I move on. It doesn't have a place in a serious essay, no, but it does have a place.

    Also I think it's worth noting that Orwell's caution against speech affecting thought came from a worry about government-imposed speech (Big Brother), and Internet-speak is mostly generated and adopted by the people using it. Not that we should ignore its power, but it's choice rather than fascism.

    (That wasn't a Nazi reference! Honest!)

    Also, "missing the Failboat" you are spot on about. WTF, dude.

    1. My attempts to address Hoidrac culture really is a failstorm- none of 'em will get off my sofa when I come downstairs in the morning. Grr!!! Then, as I leave for work, they ask me if I could pick up the hide of a Panda, because they've an idea for a cool new jacket. And STILL they're laying around on my sofa! Why I oughta...

      (Ahem)... I see what you're saying, Tim. Perhaps I'm a little too hard on mere Tweets; Jargon is a bit of a lifesaver there, let's face it.

      But the reason I'm averse to webgurgitation on even the most casual entries of a writer's journal is that, now I think about it, casual entries don't truly exist.

      A blog exists as a whole, and a cliche-strewn couple of paragraphs adjacent to a sharp essay is like a guy in track suit bottoms and denim shirt hanging out with some guy in a Calvin Klein suit. On first glance, one tends to notice the bloke in the dirty tracksuit. Now I'm not saying every guy in that line has to wear CK, but at the very least their T-shirts should smell fresh.

      (I hereby submit, Mr Susman, that I've always found your own journals to be rather free of inteh-cliche. I feel like I'm taking it out on wholly the wrong author, saying all this. Nothing personal, old chap, etc...)

      Orwell obviously had bigger problems to address, absolutely. I think our present situation is more akin to LeGuin's The Dispossessed than Nineteen Eighty-Four. A soft, society-wide 'tyranny' (for lack of a better term). But that could just be me being histrionic...

      Thanks for dropping by!

    2. Oh, you're talking to someone who insists on hyphenating "e-mail," so I am totally on your side. As evidenced by your kind observation that my journal does not really use that kind of jargon. I think I was trying to agree with you but also putting it in context, because I do enjoy the odd bit of Intahrwebz in casual conversation, for fits and giggles, as it were. But, like everything, it has its place.

    3. If only the rest of the internet was as civil as this!

  6. Okay:
    Well see how long it takes for you to find me offensive and delete this from your comment because you find it offends you.

    Rhetoric its all rhetoric and I'll tell you why.

    It's communication. It doesn't have to be bright and intellectual, sharp and concise. It just has to send the message and everything you mention sends specific messages. Its not as though there are a thousand ways to interpret teh words. (That's a typo and I'm pretty sure that's how it started.)-Etymology 101-

    At least it's not buzzwords which are a dime a dozen and convey only the meaning they convey this year as opposed to the other meaning they meant last year and maybe 50 years ago.

    I'll bet you use buzzwords- and bandy about word combinations like Purple Prose : active passive; show not tell; with very little understanding of what they mean or how to implement them or that some parts of them are not really bad and evil and yet you use them and often parrot others.
    Or maybe you don't.
    Maybe you have a real grasp of what they mean so I shouldn't criticize that unless you try to use them on me in an improper way.

    You can moan about it all you want but its kinda pathetic really. Just avoid it all- don't go there if those words confuse you so much it makes you this agitated.

    1. I have seen the greatest minds of my generation brought low by LOL cats.I shall not cease in my quest, Sir!

      Unless theres biscuits. I might stop for biscuits. Have you got any biscuits?