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Tough love as a style of writing

Helen DeWitt links to an interview with Seth Godin, who makes some commonplace but useful observations on jobs and careers. It’s fine, but whenever I read this sort of thing, I get annoyed by the super-aggressive writing style. These internet guys–Seth Godin, Clay Shirky, Philip Greenspun, Jeff Jarvis, and so on–are always getting in your face, telling you how everything you thought was true was wrong. Some of the things these guys say are just silly (for example, Godin’s implication that Bob Dylan is more of a success than the Monkees because Dylan sells more tickets), other times they have interesting insights, but reading any of them for awhile just sets me on edge. I can’t take being shouted at, and I get a little tired of hearing over and over again that various people, industries, etc., are dinosaurs.

Where does this aggressive style come from? My guess is that it’s coming from the vast supply of “business books” out there. These are books that are supposed to grab you by the lapel and never let go.

I’m certainly not trying to tell Seth Godin and the others to change–a lot of people (for example, Helen DeWitt!) seem to like their style, and it seems to work for them. I just wanted to comment on this because I suddenly realized I was seeing this in-your-face, change-or-die style all over the place and it was getting annoying.

Perhaps I’ll write a blog entry in this style at some point, just to see how it comes out.

P.S. I went to the library the other day and say their shelves and shelves of business books. Scary stuff.

11 Comments

  1. michael webster says:

    I consistently read Godin and Shirky, but not the other writers that you have referred to. And I also read your blog on a consistent level.

    You are right about the over the top rhetoric, Godin's original idea 10 years ago that permission marketing would take over brand broadcasting has not turned out to be true.

    Shirky's idea that tagging would replaced categorization has also been proven wrong.

    But, I do find many of their ideas reasonably useful and workable for conducting our franchise trade association business.

    I suppose it is partly because we are an industry sector, like TV, newspapers, advertising, which does have to change because it is dying.

  2. Michael B says:

    As one reader, it would be my preference that you not experiment with this style.

    It seems plausible that it comes from pop-business books. It may have started with In Search of Excellence in 1982.

  3. michael webster says:

    Uh, cannot resist looking at the Dylan remark. What was said was: "
    Let me first describe a distinction between the Monkees and Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan gets laughed or booed off the stage every ten years, whether he wants to or not. He got booed off the stage when he went electric and again when he went gospel, and most recently with his horrendous Christmas album. The Monkees never get booed off stage, because the Monkees play "Last Train to Clarksville" exactly the same way they did it 30 or 40 years ago. Here's the thing: Bob Dylan keeps selling out stadiums and no one goes to see the Monkees, because the Monkees aren't doing anything worth noticing. There are people who have succeeded who just keep playing the same song over and over again, whatever that is that they do."

    You might think that this was wrong, but I don't think that it is silly.

  4. John S. says:

    I imagine Miley Cyrus sells out stadiums too. It's possible more people are going to see her than Bob Dylan. Does this mean she's better than Dylan?

  5. Helen DeWitt says:

    Andrew Andrew Andrew. Awwwwww.

    'fresh perspective' was an example of the dry British style. Instead of saying, Seth Godin has something completely ludicrous to say on the subject, I say (under the impression that readers can draw their own conclusions) that Mr Godin has a fresh perspective. 'Fresh perspective' does not imply endorseement, it implies that my readers and I are united in finding this absurd, and can take comfort in the fact that we are as one in finding this absurd. We are not alone.

  6. simone says:

    Agree … Seth Godin and his ilk make statements that appeal to those compelled to act before they think … the rhetoric excuses thought or reflection … do not waste time orienting be fore action … just do

  7. agnostic says:

    You might like Stan Liebowitz's writing. He's an economist at a business school, but he actually knows what he's talking about. You can tell he likes deflating a lot of the over-the-top hooey you're pointing to — e.g., that in the internet age the law of supply and demand no long applies, etc.

    He's put out a few books (Winners, Losers, and Microsoft is the best, co-authored with Margolis), and he has a good amount on SSRN.

  8. michael webster says:

    @ Michael B, Godin's style has nothing to do with Tom Peters. Godin's experience is with permission marketing and he has mounds of data to back up his actions.

    @ John S, the selling out of stadiums is irrelevant to Godin's point about Dylan. Godin was applauding Dylan's ability to complete fail at a new style.

    @ Helen, I don't find anything absurd in Godin's writings. He might be wrong, and frequently is. But there is nothing absurd in it.

    @Simone, I couldn't disagree more with your remarks. Godin believes that most of us are caught in pre reflective views, views about branding and marketing which caught hold around 1920 and should have been displaced by 2000.

    @ Agnostic; Don't know Stan's writings. I will look into him, especially since he is on SSRN. But the Godin view is that the network effects you get with internet marketing, or marketing to small world networks, are very different from the brand broadcasting that saw its heyday in the 60's through to the 80's. Every channel of attention, radio, tv, music, newspaper, etc, in the last 10 years has been severely fractured and the business model behind it challenged, to say the least.

  9. Andrew Gelman says:

    Michael:

    I was not commenting on the substance of Godin's recommendations, only on the aggressive, in-your-face writing style, which I find annoying but apparently many others find refreshing.

    One thing, though. The problem with Godin's story about Dylan and the Monkees is that it has the form of a having-it-all parable. Dylan was true to his soul and Dylan sells out stadiums; the Monkees were fake and have lost out in the marketplace. The moral of the story is: follow your soul and you'll be a success. But what about all the people who follow their soul and aren't successes? Or all of the sell-outs who sell out stadiums? Godin is being a bit too glib in treating pop success as some sort of moral arbiter, a kind of Santa Claus that punishes the bad and rewards the good.

    Helen: I don't know if it's the "two countries separated by a common language" thing. Intonation is notoriously difficult to convey in typed speech in any case.

    Agnostic: Search this blog for Liebowitz.

  10. Mark Palko says:

    I'll have more on this at Observational Epidemiology in a day or two (and how it relates to fitness landscapes, believe it or not), but I think you've misrepresented Godin's position. He is saying that the Monkees have lost commercial viability because they are static.

    Godin's quote does not rule out the possibility that the Monkees are doing exactly what their souls tell them to do and Dylan is cynically reinventing himself to stay hot. Think about substituting someone like Ralph Stanley for the Monkees and someone like Madonna for Dylan.

    p.s.
    You will never guess what the song "Clarksville" is actually about.

  11. koala says:

    I learned a lot from Seth Godin's book Linchpin. But, you are right, he is too focused on a creator / artist's "reach", the people s/he touches. He cannot provide a good explanation for people who do research just to satisfy their curiosity, or to expand their knowledge. For him, all activities must lead to some kind of "product", hence the view is product-centric. He is from the marketing world, so this is somewhat understandable. Still, food for thought.