There is a wonderful anecdote about Oscar Wilde in Richard Ellmann’s monumental biography of the Victorian wit, aesthete and playwright. In 1882-3, Wilde undertook a North American lecture tour, with the aim of bringing the gospel of beauty to the New World. A highlight of the tour was his stopover in Leadville, Colorado, where he went down a silver mine and later lectured the awe-struck miners on art history. What the miners made of this long-haired dandy in velvet breeches is hinted at in Wilde’s own account: “I spoke to them of the early Florentines, and they slept as though no crime had ever stained the ravines of their mountain home.” But he got their attention when, in deference to their trade, he read them passages from the autobiography of the Renaissance silversmith Benvenuto Cellini.

“I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me,” Wilde wrote. “I explained that he had been dead some little time, which elicited the inquiry, ‘Who shot him?’ “

The gap between instructor and instructed in this case loomed very large, which is why the story is funny. Yet it was really just an extreme example of the gulf that must be bridged every day by would-be disseminators of knowledge or information. Now, as then, not much disseminating gets done if the intended recipients are baffled or asleep. It didn’t matter terribly to Wilde, who passed through Leadville like a brilliant comet and had no stake in the aftereffects of his passage. It doesn’t really matter to those with fixed but knowledgeable audiences: academics, opera singers, poets, scientists and the like. Even when they pitch something new or difficult, they can usually count on informed antagonists. But it matters a lot to those who try day in and day out to reach beyond the committed to the ignorant, the reluctant and the cynical. Teachers figure here, and politicians, and journalists (the daily newspaper kind, not the kind who write for specialist or technical journals). How is the gap to be crossed?

In the latter cases, the old advice to “know your audience” doesn’t work very well, since the audiences involved (students, voters, newspaper readers) are inherently indistinct. Pitching a message becomes a matter not of fine-tuning, but of making things comprehensible to as many people as possible, which is taken nowadays to mean making complicated things simple and obscure things clear, even if they really are complicated or obscure. Plainness and directness are recommended over rhetoric; short sentences are preferred to long ones. To wax rhetorical for a moment, this is a mental world decked out in brushed steel, not Cellini’s ornate silver.

This was not always the case. Take newspapers, the thing we know best. A century ago, English-language newspaper prose was as purple as Oscar Wilde’s overcoat. Like popular fiction, the more ornate and lurid the reporting, the better it sold. As for editorial writers, they evidently did not assume that their readers needed a dictionary for every three-syllable word or would fling the paper aside at the sight of a subordinate clause. If anything, they felt that the more momentous the subject, the fancier their style should be. This was not all bad. A general audience was not equated with a semiliterate audience. The riches of the language were more fully exploited. At the same time, it became obvious after a while that a rot had set in, and pruning was needed. The contemporary preference for verbal minimalism — a 20th-century literary development fathered by, among others, E.M. Forster, the legendary Strunk and White, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell — therefore has much to be said for it.

Still, perhaps it is time for a correction in the other direction, especially among the wider media audience to whom it has trickled down. The new clarity, for all its virtues, may have bred a new kind of audience, allergic to nuance and intolerant of complexity. The impulse to compress and simplify is further encouraged by the combined crossover effects of television, computers and general information overload. The question is: Does the sound bite equate with, or even produce, atrophied thought? The Gettysburg Address — the ultimate sound bite — would suggest not, but we are not all Lincolns. It is likely that Orwell, the master of clarity and brevity (although his collected works run to 20 volumes), would dismiss a lot of the cliche-ridden journalism churned out today by self-proclaimed admirers as a debasement of principle, not to mention language.

Ellmann rightly said of Wilde that “to him, language was a form of action, and no negligible one.” Much so-called modern discourse has become more passive and languid than Wilde’s prose ever was. No wonder the audience sometimes appears to be asleep.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.