Quote of The Week

“I guess a man is the only kind of varmint. that sets his own trap, baits it, and then steps in it”

John Steinbeck


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Writer in Love

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence”
H.L.Mencken

Writing and love don’t mix. Romantic love* gives its victims blanket permission to be silly, and this silliness too often takes literary form. In the worst case scenario, lovers may write poetry. This should be actively discouraged. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a particularly egregious case or, in music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – but everyone will have their own favorite examples of creative work done under the influence of emotional intoxication.

Nobody can write sensibly while in love. If the love is truly passionate and mutual, the sexual demands alone should leave a person incapable of raising his/her hands to the keyboard, let alone having an original thought. The critical faculties are necessarily suspended, not just in relation to the loved one, but in relation to everything. People in love can’t drive, type, or even prepare a meal with proper concentration. They are, as the ancient Greeks knew, temporarily insane.

Scott Fitzgerald said: “It’s easy to be loved, but hard to love.” This is true. It’s fine to write while being loved. Being loved is a confidence booster. Loving is an energy drain.

Writing about love is easier, but not much. The language of literary romance is very restrictive, rather like a computer code. Bosoms heave, hearts pound and flutter, breath is short, eyes cloud over, and the victim suffers from weakness, faintness, and a sense of fatality. These are very much like the symptoms of a real heart attack. The trouble is, you don’t get rushed into intensive care to fix the problem.

That’s why lots of writers prefer to write about sex, and let love take care of itself. But sex raises a different problem. The language is richer but the content is more limited. It’s like writing about car mechanics. As the guy in your local repair shop will tell you there are lots of different models of cars, some more desirable than others. But they are all based on the same mechanical principles and they all work the same way. This doesn’t make for great literature.

I have a theory that the best writing about relationships happens just after those affairs end, when the mind snaps back into focus. Some authors manage to stay angry for a lifetime on the basis of a single failed love affair. This can be very productive – for example the comical revenge novels of Fay Weldon. On the other hand, love that sticks around and matures can produce some very fine writing, such as the biography of Iris Murdoch, Elegy for Iris, by her husband John Bayley,
The question of a writer’s muse is bound to come up here because the Muse is imagined to be both an object of love and a source of creativity. Muses are female by definition. The original nine Muses were daughters of Zeus, a good pedigree, and their job was to be patron goddesses of the arts. The Greek Muses were not love objects, they were organizers, like chairs of academic departments: Erato controlled love poetry, Terpsichore was in charge of dance, and so on. No fewer than four of the original Muses were concerned with poetry. Comedy and tragedy each had its own Muse, but nobody was assigned to essays or general non-fiction.

The contemporary Muse is very different. She is a living, loving inspiration. She must still be female because men don’t have the special skills needed for this job. But this kind of Muse is also dying out. Women are too busy following their own dreams – and the Muse’s task is both exhausting and, perhaps, demeaning. The best kind of Muse may be an ex-lover living several thousand miles away, who can safely be idealized. But the most useful kind would be a woman like Vladimir Nabokov’s wife Vera, who so fiercely protected his writing time and his privacy that she made his astonishing output possible.

The decline of the traditional Muse is undeniably a good thing. Lacking this source of inspiration, men are less likely to launch into romantic writing. Men, of course, are the true romantics in this world, because they can’t help themselves. If you don’t believe me, check the romantic literature. Women are the voice of reason, the organizers of male emotions. For a really rational fix on love, you have to go to female authors, like Jane Austen, who had absolutely no illusions as to what the Great Game was about.
These reflections lead to four clear conclusions:

1. Never write while in actively love, and especially not during the early high-fever stages of the malady.

2. Write about love only in case of urgent financial need, and with tongue firmly in cheek.

3. Only men should write about love. Women should write about its consequences.

When it comes to love, there are no clear conclusions.

Writers do it in Groups

“I can take any amount of criticism,
as long as it is unqualified praise.”

Noël Coward

Writing, like reading, is a solitary vice. Even the printed page is private. Other people will read it in other places. Most of us don’t like to expose our work in public. Criticism hurts, especially personal criticism. A stinging review in The New York Review of Books is one thing: a face-to-face insult from somebody we know is something else entirely.

One of my online correspondents reported that she had shared one of my essays with her writing group. She passed on some of their comments.

“Their biggest quibble was your sweeping use of generalizations. One also observed that he might have guessed you were British even if I hadn’t mentioned it. We agreed your arch diction, lack of contractions, etc. all contribute to that brilliant but befuddled British voice not often heard in everyday American reading. One person observed, ‘He doesn’t pull any punches,’ admitting that in one passage where he was mad at you, it was
because you were quite probably right.

“So, overwhelming verdict: true, acerbic, funny, well-said, but nothing you don’t
already know.”

I’m glad I wasn’t there. I would have disputed every single comment, including the positive ones. “Arch diction” indeed! How could any sagacious critic arrive such an implausible evaluation of a genre that is au fond colloquial?

This is probably why I don’t go to writing groups anymore. I just can’t take criticism.

When writers ask me about the value of writing groups I warmly recommend them. I’m sincerely convinced that they are a wonderful resource – for other people.

“Have you ever grouped?” asked my correspondent. It sounds a bit naughty but, yes, I have grouped quite a lot – sometimes with writers. Her question took me back in time forty-eight years, to my very first writing group. The setting was a ghastly place called Dagenham, to the east of London in England. My parents had moved out to the suburbs in 1940, when our London house was bombed. So I grew up in a suburb very much like the one you see on that undeservedly popular British comedy “Putting on Appearances.” A few miles away was Dagenham – a very different place. It owed existence entirely to the giant Ford motor plant – then the biggest in Europe. A huge development of ugly government housing (what the British call “council housing”) had been built for the workers around the perimeter of the plant. There were no other amenities, except for a lot of gloomy pubs. Dagenham, in those days, was a place to avoid.

Naturally I was attracted to it. I was a bookish teenager with dreams of being a “socially relevant” writer. The suburb where we lived was completely middle class and dull. But Dagenham was teeming with social relevance – trade unionists, socialists, communists, anarchists, criminals and even a few fascists. This was the place for a young writer to be. So I was excited to learn of the existence of a group called the Dagenham Poet’s and Writer’s Circle. Here I expected to meet the Orwells and Garcia Lorcas of the present and future age.

I stayed with the circle for about six months. It was depressing beyond description, but I’ll try. Our monthly meetings took place in the claustrophobic front room of Dagenham’s self-appointed poet Laureate – a middle-aged widow with hysterical tendencies. All the other members were male, and all except me were middle-aged. We perched on chairs and collapsing sofas, and drank tea, and listened to socially relevant writing. Most of it was very (very) bad poetry. As the most junior member, I never contributed anything to the circle myself, and I almost gave up the idea of being a writer there and then.

You might think that I had been inoculated against writing groups for life. But, about six years later in the much more promising territory of Hampstead, North London, I was tempted into grouping once again. Hampstead was and is a major center of literary and artistic activity in London and, at the time, I ran a small bookstore in the High Street. That was my downfall. All the writers and would-be writers came to my bookstore. John Mortimer (later the author of the Rumpole books) and Elias Cannetti (later a Nobel Prizewinner) were both regular customers. But these interesting people just passed in and out of the store, exchanging no more than a few words. I wanted to get to know some real writers.

So I repressed the memory of The Dagenham Poet’s and Writer’s Circle and started a writing group of my own, based at the bookstore. This was better. Social relevance was irrelevant in Hampstead. The members of our little group aspired to high art. Unfortunately, their definition of high art was any piece of writing that displayed (a) depressing feelings (b) obscure metaphors and (c) uncontrolled verbosity. This was a much better-educated group than the one I had joined six years before, and it made me doubt the value of higher education.

Most of them were poets who had been influenced, more or less indiscriminately, by Eliot, Plath and other prize neurotics. Lorna was a poet – the first one I had ever known intimately. We shared a small studio apartment for a while and, more importantly, an old but beautiful Aston Martin sports car. Fortunately, she had the prime requisite of a full-time poet: a private income. It was an interesting experience, from which I am now almost fully recovered. When we split up she got the apartment, the car, and the writing group. I moved to another city and married a woman who believed that all writers were egotistical wasters.

She kept me out of writing groups for many years, bless her. When that phase of my life was over I found myself in Santa Cruz, California. It seemed like a good place to try again. I was surrounded by creative people who were also beautiful. So I joined (or was hijacked by) an eclectic writing/art/multimedia group at the university. They were in the habit of holding meetings naked, in a huge hot tub under the redwood trees. This was very exotic, but I found it hard to concentrate on literary matters in these circumstances. Also, the members of the group seemed less interested in writing than in expressing their (rather predictable) feelings and ingesting large amounts of dope. I narrowly escaped marrying a graduate student, and left California forever. (Ok, the truth is that the INS threw me out because my visa had expired).

A long period of solitary writing followed. But when I came from England to Long Island in 1986 I felt so isolated, and so out of touch with this alien culture, that I formed a writing group again. We attracted one excellent professional writer and several with real talent. At my insistence, we spent part of our meetings on the analysis of published writing, rather than focusing always on ourselves.

The group ran for two years, usually with six to ten people at each meeting. During that time we published four books and a lot of shorter pieces between us. Then it succumbed to the usual problems: too many people being too busy, too much repetition, and boredom with each other’s quirks and stories.

Repetition is the bane of writing groups. I visited another on Long Island in which one of the members had been bringing back the same chapters of the same novel for two years, as if constant exposure might make her very bad writing better. Constant “workshopping” can bring anyone’s writing to a standstill. More importantly, groups are bad at criticism because they are at least fifty percent social. Supportive comments are nice to hear but useless. A writer needs to develop a built-in critic, an inner editor, who is infinitely sharper and more demanding than any friendly writing group could possibly be.

Ernest Hemmingway expressed the same thought in fewer words: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit detector.”

There’s a whole phenomenon of virtual writers’ groups on the web.These offer a chance to share ideas, advice, and work in progress with a much larger number of people without the intensity of face to face meetings. But it all seems a bit cold-blooded, and who has the time to read all the stuff posted on all the hundreds of web sites aimed at writers?

There must be many writers’ groups out there that are stimulating, competitive, educational, and even romantically exciting. I’ve heard about them, just as I’ve heard about many splendid parties to which I have never been never invited.

What’s So Funny?

The news is all bad: financial meltdown, terrorism, crazy politics, COVID, unending wars, refugee crises, global warming, and a whole list of lesser threats have created a really poisonous atmosphere. “Atmosphere” is the right word because we can’t avoid breathing it. The cumulative effect is daunting.

The media in general (if such a thing exists) has responded with cynicism and absurdity. Everything is so serious that we don’t dare to take anything seriously. Now there’s an interesting thought. The implication is that wit and satire have become a kind of defense mechanism against despair – but at the same time devices for avoiding reality and thereby avoiding the responsibility for changing it. We are the sophisticated spectators at a crazy circus. What the clowns do may be amusing, but it’s not serious.

Where do writers stand in this? Should we abandon humor for radical engagement, or will humor itself be our only salvation in the end?

I’m still processing this question. Irony and satire have been the writer’s best weapons against a crazy world ever since Aristophanes perfected them around 400BC. On the other hand, nobody takes humor seriously. I hope to have this all sorted out by November 3.

Finding and Losing Time

“Work expands in order to fill the time available
for its completion.”

C. Northcote Parkinson

Every writer should have Parkinson’s Law displayed in a prominent place on his or her desk. It applies to writers with special force because our work is open-ended and unlimited and, unless we are working to regular deadlines, there are no time limits. Any piece of writing, however short, can take forever.

Time has always been my enemy, and I’ve always envied the writers who grasp it and use it with effortless efficiency. Anthony Trollope, who worked all his life for the post office and wrote on the train, produced forty-six novels and an autobiography. Shakespeare was a busy actor/producer, but found time to knock out a few plays and sonnets, and Julius Caesar wrote the massive Gallic Wars while holding down a full-time job in the Roman government. One modern writer of successful thrillers, Martin Clark, is a busy circuit court judge, and writes his bestsellers from 5.30 to 6.30 every morning. People like this are very annoying to the rest of us.

Virginia Woolf once famously wrote that: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A room of one’s own is certainly useful for a writer, but no more useful by itself than a blank sheet of paper by itself. Money is useful too, and so is the urgent need to earn money. But what a writer really needs is time – a commodity that the wealthy Virginia had in such abundance that she didn’t even think it worth mentioning.

Time, that’s the precious, infinitely scarce resource: time for thought, time for careful writing, time for re-reading and rewriting. Nothing can be achieved without time.

Most of us, I believe, waste a lot of our precious time. It’s tempting, and self-serving, to say that no time-wasting is ever wasted, just as no writing is ever wasted. This allows us to count everything in our lives as “material,” no matter how effortless or trivial it may be. But wasted time usually turns out to be just that. The Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, of which Virginia Woolf was a part, wasted enormous amounts of time just expressing their emotions and falling in love with each other, and with themselves.

Efficiency is not my greatest gift. My writing timetable is never fully under control, although I try. I waste far too much time standing in line at the supermarket behind irritating people with the wrong coupons, or trying to use the always-broken copiers at Office Max. I waste more time at the post office, at the bird feeder, and at the coffee shop. An efficiency expert would reorganize my entire life, and make me twice as productive. The catch is that I would have to earn enough to pay a good efficiency expert ($175 an hour), which I can’t do until I become more efficient.

Most writers work alone, without staffs or secretaries to do all the trivial stuff. I look back with some nostalgia on my days as a professor when I could just hand a big photocopying or filing job to a secretary, and forget about it. On the other hand, I think I would be fooling myself to pretend that I was any more productive back then. I just had more time to waste. Office workers can while away idle hours in useless meetings. They have water coolers to stand around, and office politics to discuss. With luck, an office worker can get through the day without doing any work at all, yet feeling quite exhausted. A solitary writer has no such excuses. When s/he hasn’t done anything, due to laziness or incompetence, the fact is obvious.

E-mail is the greatest time-waster since the invention of knitting, and perhaps the biggest block to writing ever created. Computers made writing easier, and then e-mail made it almost impossible. Right now, as I type, I’m conscious that lurking under this page on my screen is another page with about fifty unanswered e-mails. I only have to click the little minus symbol, and there they will be – easy and relaxing, mindless and enjoyable, friendly and engaging. Here’s another “message waiting” and a harmonious chime. Perhaps it’s my agent, it could be important. Relief from the agony of writing is only a click away…

Click.

Sorry about that. I’m back. It wasn’t important..

People at writers’ conferences sometimes ask: “So what does a full-time writer actually do every day.” This is impossible to answer because every writer’s schedule is different, depending on their commitments and deadlines. But we can be sure about two things.

First, there’s no such thing as a literally full-time writer. Nobody can write creatively eight hours a day, five days a week, as if it were a routine office job. Most writers actually write in short bursts and do other things in between. Also, the vast majority of writers actually have another job, very often teaching.

Second, there are plenty of other things to be done. I call these “The bureaucracy of everyday life.” A working writer will have a horrendous load of correspondence and e-mail, plus filing and accounting chores, planning new work and speaking events, publicity, research, and reading. On a very good day s/he may even find some time to think.

This multitasking can take over your life, and the routine jobs (relatively easy) can very easily squeeze the time spent on the main creative task (much harder).

Those of us who work at home also have to cope with the near-impossibility of separating our domestic lives from our work lives. Spouses, children and pets (especially cats) demand attention, urgent jobs around the house seem to come up every day, and the routines of cooking, shopping and cleaning infiltrate themselves insidiously into our “work” time. Time, unlike love, is a limited resource. Every moment you give to one activity is subtracted from another.

We want to be nice, we want to be sociable, but it all takes time. Even a little celebrity is a dangerous thing. As a local “mini-celebrity” I get asked to give lectures and dinner speeches, and attend all kinds of unlikely events. I can’t image what it must be like to be a real celebrity: no wonder they go into hiding.

There is such a thing as creative time wasting. I walk alone for at least an hour every day, and that’s when I get all my ideas. Without those walks my mind would be entirely empty, so I feel I can legitimately count those hours as work time.

Many famous writers were ruthless about guarding their writing time. The poet W.H.Auden would leave the dinner table at 9.30, even when he had guests, and go upstairs to write. This was “his time.” When Edith Wharton had a house full of visitors she would simply ignore them until noon every day, while she stayed in her room writing. Of course it helps to have servants. Vladimir Nabokov’s wife protected his every creative moment, leaving him no everyday tasks or worries. But nowadays few women are willing to sacrifice themselves on the alter of a male ego – and when it comes to men sacrificing for women, forget it!

All this seems to lead to the unpalatable conclusion that we all need to develop the art of selfishness, or we will never get anything done. But no, it’s not that bad. The critical phase in Parkinson’s Law is: “…the time available.” The time available is, in theory, limitless, which is exactly why we fill it extravagantly with other activities. The question, then, is not how to make time for writing but how and whether to limit the time.

Every working writer I know uses one or both of the following two simple techniques, either consciously or unconsciously.

The first technique is to define writing projects in a definite order and with a definite timeline – in other words to create deadlines. Real deadlines from magazine or newspaper editors are even better, of course. But personal deadlines, perhaps with a personal reward attached, can be almost as powerful. If you believe deeply, profoundly, passionately in your writing you should at least be able to take your timetable seriously.

The second technique is to reserve certain definite times for writing, and make those times as sacred as you can. They can be quite short, like an hour a day. But that period must be totally dedicated to your current project – no E-mail, no domestic chores, no dreaming, no excuses. It seems incredible, but you will find that a limited writing time, strictly observed, will be more productive than a disorganized effort to “fit some writing in somewhere” during the day.

If you have the right temperament you can save a lot of time by organizing your physical workspace. There’s no mystery about this, but it may be hard to do. Chaos is romantic, and also addictive. Separating projects into properly labeled files, keeping a clear desk, shelving reference books neatly, and so on, will make any writer more efficient. But can we do it? Looking around at my exploding office and I have to admit: not this writer.

If these techniques sound artificial and mechanical, it’s because they are. But, when it comes to managing time, most of us need artificial aids.

I have discovered over the years that there is a catch to organizing your time in a rigorous and logical way. The catch is that deadlines, real or artificial, always take precedence. After a lifetime of writing to (real) deadlines I’ve learned that the deadlined piece always pushes in ahead of anything else I want to do. If the deadlines fall regularly, you never get to write anything else. There’s no time. Deadlines are a stimulant, but they can also act like a guillotine on the imagination.

There is another way, which is not to worry about time at all. Marcel Proust spent a dozen years writing In Search of Lost Time, which is all about trying to take control of time and life. Some people just work much more slowly than others. Simenon could turn out a novel in a couple of weeks. But Thomas Pynchon wrote V in 1963, followed by Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973. He then took twenty four years to produce his next novel, Mason and Dixon (1997). Pynchon denies any suggestion that he had writer’s block. His attitude is that a piece of writing takes as long as it takes.

Some of us would lose our way in such great stretches of time. But it may be that true wisdom is to understand your own tempo and temperament and ignore all other advice. In other words, to take your time.

From Writer at Work by David Bouchier (2005)

If I Only Had a Brain

I could while away the hours
Conferrin’ with the flowers
Consultin’ with the rain,
And my head I’d be scratchin’
While my thoughts were busy hatchin’
If I only had a brain.

The Scarecrow’s song from The Wizard of Oz

This is a tough one. A student in one of my writing workshops raised the unmentionable question. Here it is, in her words.

“Aren’t some people just too dumb or too poorly educated ever to make it as writers? Should they be encouraged?”

I’m tempted to say that George W. Bush became President, and Madonna published a book, and leave it at that. This is America. We are all created equal. No case is hopeless. Anything is possible.

But it won’t do. I can hear the voice of my mother saying: “You may not be able to tell the truth all the time, but you should tell the truth sometimes, just for the exercise.”

Yes, it does take some brains to be a writer. If you have a lot of brains you should obviously be in a profession that pays better, such as computer programming or nuclear physics or running a phony corporation. If you have very little in the way of brains, like that charming bear Winnie the Pooh, you should probably consider something less mentally demanding such as garbage disposal or fast food service – or you can write for television.

The majority of writers are somewhere in between – not smart enough to be rich but smart enough to join in the great public dialogue of the printed word. A writer has had the nerve to set him or herself up as an interpreter, a storyteller, an entertainer or a critic – to create a mirror of the world for the benefit of their readers. By definition s/he must be at least as intelligent as those readers, and probably more so: just a bit above the average.

The question: “How smart must a writer be?” therefore comes right back to the question “How smart are his/her readers?” If you are planning to go head to head with the intellectuals who write literary novels, or whose work appears in places like Harpers or The Atlantic or Partisan Review, then you are playing in the big league. You must be an intellectual yourself, or a brilliant amateur. If your chosen market is the local newspaper, or consumer magazines, or mass market fiction then your readers will be much more average in terms of education and brain power. You don’t need to be too smart to stay ahead of them.

All the professional writers I know are very intelligent people. Most of them have postgraduate degrees, they read a lot, and they have informed opinions about all kinds of issues. The degrees may be the least important part – we mustn’t confuse “smart” with “educated.” Many PhDs are idiots. Plenty of superb writers have flunked out of school. Shakespeare (if he wasn’t really the Earl of Oxford) had almost no education at all. Mark Twain’s education ended when he was twelve. Hemmingway left school at sixteen (as I did, but I went back later.) Higher education is useful because it gives or should give fluency in writing, familiarity with wide range ideas, arguments, and books. But it can also be a strait jacket. Certificates are not important for a writer, except insofar as they signal a certain basic level of competence and determination, and the ability to sit at a desk being bored for long periods of time.

One nice thing about being a writer is that we usually don’t have to work fast. So, whatever other qualities of intelligence we need, it doesn’t have to be the proverbial lighting intelligence. A brain surgeon or a fighter pilot needs to think fast. A writer can think as slowly as s/he likes. This is a great luxury.

The quality that makes a good writer is intelligent curiosity. This omnivorous, almost neurotic interest in everything, plus the desire to make one’s observations into some kind of art, is the distinguishing characteristic of all the successful writers I have met. Let’s dissect that term.

Curiosity: My observation at writers’ conferences has been this: the real divide is not between the educated and the less educated, nor even between the obviously smart and the obviously dumb. It is between the people who are self-absorbed and those who are interested in the wider world.

I know that this distinction won’t stand up to close examination. The modern market for writers seems biased towards self-absorption and the obsessive recycling of personal experience. But I like to think this is just a phase. The whole history of literature has been about opening up the world, exploring, moving outwards, thinking new thoughts – not endlessly retelling personal stories that were boring even when they were happening. The great autobiographers and diarists, from Pepys to Henry Adams and Malcolm X, were much more interested in other people than they were in themselves.

Intelligent: This word is harder to parse. We all like to think that we are intelligent. If we are dumb we will be the last to know. Once again, it’s not a matter of formal qualifications. In my years teaching at a university I met a few professors who were virtually half-witted. I’ve also met many people with no formal education at all who were very smart indeed. IQ tests are virtually meaningless. So what is this quality of “intelligence” that a writer should have?

It seems like a cop-out to say that there are many different kinds of intelligence, but it’s true: converging and diverging; artistic and scientific; visual and verbal; poetical and analytical – there’s no end to this list. This is not to say, as self-help books often do, that “Everyone has a special gift.” I can think of a dozen people right off the top of my head who have no gifts of any kind whatsoever. It’s just that the possession of certain kinds of mental gifts will make you a better writer.

These are (dare I say?) probably innate, or acquired very early in life. They show up in school. In my schooldays, generally speaking, the more often you were beaten up by other kids the more intelligent you were, and vice versa. They show up in habits like omnivorous reading, exploration, experiment, asking questions, and building theories and fantasies. Perhaps the key phrase is “asking questions” – and, of course, listening to the answers, and asking more questions. Writers ask a lot of questions. Their whole profession consists of asking questions and providing the answers, whether anyone wants to hear them or not.

A writer’s intelligence also shows in a love of ideas and argument. Good writers love to grab an idea, toss it into the air and smash it back across the net – just to see if someone will or can return it.

An intelligent writer knows his or her limitations. Once you have had some success it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you can write about things that demand more brains than you actually possess. I’ve fallen into this trap many times, usually when tackling complicated topics that I imagine I understand but don’t. Every now and again I re-read some of the essays of Montaigne, one of the greatest essayists who ever lived. This gives me a sense of proportion. I could never be Montaigne, I just don’t have the mind.

So we need to figure out what mental gifts (if any) we have. The only way to do this is to try many different kinds of writing, and see what happens. Over the years I have learned, much to my chagrin, that I have no gift for fiction, although I enjoy writing it. On the other hand, my brain works quite well with arguments, ideas, word games, and metaphors. So other people can tell wonderful stories, but I am happier with essays, commentaries, criticism, and so on. There’s no alternative to finding out what you do best, and then doing it.

So, to return to the original question: are some people too dumb to be writers? Yes. Should they be told? Yes, absolutely. Truth, honesty and the American Way demand that they should be told. Simple humanity demands that they should be told. They must be told.

Any volunteers?

The Cult of Celebrity

“To be a celebrity…is to
be forgiven everything.”

Mary McGrory

If a writer is someone whose name is attached to the front of a book, then we are in distinguished company. David Beckham, an English soccer player who became famous for wearing funny hair and marrying a pop star, sold 86,000 copies of his autobiography in the first two days after publication. This was more than all six books shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. In fact, one well-reviewed novel shortlisted for the prize sold just sixty-seven copies in the entire year. Mr. Beckham’s achievement is all the more impressive because when he appears on TV he seems quite inarticulate, with a rather limited vocabulary and an insecure grasp of English grammar,

Private Jessica Lynch hit the bestseller lists with her Iran war story, and the sly royal butler Paul Burrell has had a huge success with his memoir A Royal Duty. Politicians get into the act. The former Tory party leader in Britain has published a thriller. In fact, every politician in Britain seems to be writing a novel, and American politicians are not far behind. Madonna, Britney Spears, the Duchess of York, Jerry Seinfeld have all emerged as “writers.”

It seems that everyone wants to be a writer – especially a novelist or a memoirist. But the book market is crowded, and the obscure writer finds it hard to break through the clutter. Celebrities have no such problem. Their names alone are enough.

What is so annoying about this is not that these celebrities write books (or have them ghostwritten). That’s their right. What drives up my blood pressure is that these artificially concocted works immediately shoot to the top of the bestseller lists, bypassing the books of hundreds of serious writers who have spent a lifetime learning the craft. I am not given the opportunity to play on a top sports team just because I have written a few books. Why should David Beckham be handed a million-dollar book contract just because he kicks a ball around?

Most of these celebrity books are probably never read by their buyers. They are more like keepsakes, or collector’s items. They give the fan a tangible connection with the object of his or her worship.

The New York literary agent Vicky Bijur, interviewed in the newsletter of The American Society of Journalists and Authors, explained candidly what she looks for in an author.

“The big buzzword is ‘platform.’ Does the author have a column in the newspaper, a radio show, a track record, a killer Web site, is he or she quoted frequently in the press, has she racked up a number of appearances on early morning television, does she have videotapes of her TV appearances, etc? That’s a large part of selling nonfiction. If you look at the bestseller lists…it’s astonishing how many of the books are by people who have major platforms outside publishing…. It’s very important for authors to be telegenic or articulate or personable.”

In plain words this agent is telling us that the publishing industry strongly favors authors who are already celebrities, or who at least have “star quality.”

Nobody can blame writers for using whatever qualifications and advantages they have. I’ve found in my own work that a little local celebrity goes an astonishingly long way. But, such as it is, that celebrity is all based on writing. Modern publishers and agents seem to believe that any celebrity is better than none. Mass murderers and corrupt corporate executives have an immediate advantage over any dull and law-abiding scribbler.

Celebrity also brings very practical advantages, such as resources. Al Franken made his name on television and then began to publish satirical political books. The books are entertaining, and obviously, involve a lot of research. This is not a problem for the author who employs a team of fourteen full-time researchers to collect and check facts for him. This would stretch the budget of most freelances.

Famous and powerful people have always written books, sometimes very good ones. Winston Churchill and Julius Caesar spring to mind. But the super-competitive corporate publishing industry has changed the rules of the game. They want their investment to be a sure thing, which means starting with national (or international) name recognition.

So we can blame publishers on the one hand, which is always a pleasure. But we also have to blame ourselves and the bizarre celebrity worshipping culture we have created. Look at the front pages of the magazines at the supermarket checkout. They have an almost hypnotic effect. From week to month to year, the same names with the same faces confront me as I stand there clutching my cans of cat food. The stories are always the same – improbable dramas of divorce and betrayal, fortunes gained and lost, weight gained and lost, terrible diseases, and secret sorrows.

This is the shadow world where celebrities live. It’s so unlike our own world that the people who inhabit it seem unreal. Yet celebrities must be real, because they take up so much public space. They’re inescapable, at the checkout or on television, in magazines and movies, celebrities perform the soap opera of life, so the rest of us don’t have to.

Not all celebrities are equal, of course. The greatest of them are transcendent and eternal, like the undead Elvis, and the still-immortal Princess Diana, and the still-alive Liz Taylor, who must be as old as my old mother, and Joan Collins and Charlie Manson and any and all royals and Kennedys.

Then there are lesser pantheons of fame, a shifting collage of micro-talented celebrities whose fame will last until public taste changes and they cease to be profitable. And there’s a whole mass of enormously famous people you’ve never heard of, who fill the blank spaces in the magazines. Who cares if Lori caught Scott cheating when we have no idea who they are? They may familiar to people who spend all day and night in front of the TV, but not to me. A magazine I perused at the checkout today featured the “Ten Biggest Celebrity Weddings of 2004.” I hadn’t heard of a single one of brides or bridegrooms, and they all looked identical and interchangeable.

Some celebrities, like Bart Simpson and Jay Leno are just ideas in the mind of a producer, and don’t really exist at all. Others are ordinary people caught in the spotlight of fame for a moment, like raccoons transfixed by headlights on the highway. How quickly Tonya Harding and John Wayne Bobbitt became celebrities, and how quickly we have forgotten them! Remember Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher? Nationally famous for something or other just a moment ago, now faded into grayness like a badly fixed photograph. One day soon even Kylie Minogue’s bum will be forgotten, and a good thing too.

We obviously need our celebrities: but for what? In ancient times, individuals became famous because they were heroes of action – usually violent action – like Alexander the Great. There have been other times when, believe it or not, people were celebrated for intellectual accomplishments, including writing. In the eighteenth century, philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire were internationally famous. Then in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the great empire builders of capitalism were most admired, men like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford.

Who are today’s celebrities? Entertainers. We don’t admire people who lead or think or invent or build. But we give fame freely to those who pretend to amuse us. This is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. For most of history, entertainers have been marginal people, almost outcasts. In the old Hindu culture of India, entertainers were an untouchable tribe. In medieval Europe, actors and musicians were seen as the dregs of society. This seems entirely appropriate.

So what do we see in entertainers to justify all the celebrity they attract these days? Surely we don’t want to be like them? No, that’s too awful to contemplate. We want them to be unlike us. Celebrities are gods for our time, and publicity is our modern form of worship. We are slipping back, unconsciously, towards paganism. The old pagan religions must have been very satisfying: they had a nymph or satyr for every occasion, an idol for every prayer, a god for every need. Each deity celebrated an aspect of human nature, and their mythical lives held the mirror up to human society.

We don’t have Venus now, but we do have the love goddess Madonna; we don’t have Proteus, but we do have the ever-changing Michael Jackson. We can’t open a magazine without reading modern tales of Dionysius, Achilles, Phaedra and, most often, Narcissus. Sometimes one longs for Zeus, but he is unaccountably absent from the chorus line.

Having elevated celebrities to the status of minor gods I suppose we must accept that we have given them godlike powers, like priority access to the publishing industry. But it does change the traditional advice given to beginning writers. Forget about “Write what you know.” The new formula for success is: “Write nothing until everyone knows you.”

Authenticity and Truth

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”
(Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)

A few years ago I revealed on my web page that I was going to a yoga class so that I could write a newspaper column about the experience. This brought an immediate objection from one of my two loyal web readers. To paraphrase her question: if a writer artificially sets up a particular experience in order to write about it, isn’t the resulting work essentially false?

My answer was an infuriating “yes and no.” Consider two examples. Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed set out to experience the world of the lowest-paid workers. Bill Bryson went to Australia only in order to write Sunburned Country. Are these two excellent books somehow tainted by the calculated nature of the experience? Could we get a more “authentic truth” from a poor person on the one hand, and an Australian on the other?

This leads us into the darkest corners of philosophy, where I’ve been before and I don’t want to go again. But here are some thoughts on the subject.

Written experience is false by definition. As soon as we set out to put anything into words, the experience itself is changed, however “genuine” it was at the time. The philosophical movement called “deconstructionism,” represented by Jacques Derrida who died in 2004 and whose very name gives me a mild headache, proposed that what gets left out in the process of creation is just about everything that really matters. Any intelligent person can understand what that means. But, in practical terms, it means the death of literature. We have to swallow hard, and ignore it.

No writer can keep up a steady output without seeking out or drawing on artificial life experiences. Everyday life is just too dull – at least mine is. In search of material for my columns I’ve been to the yoga class, worked in a bookstore, flown a tiny, flimsy plane, hiked a remote trail in midwinter, and done dozens more improbable things, simply in order to write about them. If I wait for something interesting to happen to me I will be dead before I need to switch on the computer again. I started my working life as a journalist, and my instinct is to look for stories.

This is where journalists get in trouble, because news is different. In 2004 a series of scandals at The New York Times, The Boston Globe and other respected papers revealed that a few reporters and feature writers had been making their stories up. Shock and horror reverberated through the world of journalism. But most veteran writers took the shock and horror with a pinch of salt. We’ve all made stuff up. My very first job, as a sixteen-year-old apprentice journalist, was to invent short items to fill blank spaces on slow news days. Later I graduated to writing letters to the editor, and then answering them.

This created a mild sense of guilt, although everybody did it. But I think we all had a pretty clear idea where the borderline lay between a minor dishonesty, the journalistic equivalent of a white lie, and an important deception. In other words we knew how to distinguish between entertainment news and real news. Real news deals with political, economic and social issues that affect people’s lives. Entertainment news deals with sports, celebrities, fashions, and all the trivia on the margins of culture. If you can’t tell the difference you shouldn’t be a journalist. My journalistic career was short, probably for this reason.

Most writers are not reporters but creators. We don’t watch the AP wire, and we don’t feel bound by the rules of reporting taught in journalism schools. We are in the entertainment business, and we can’t possibly experience everything we write about. What kind of state would Ian Fleming have been in if he’d been through all the traumas suffered by James Bond? We won’t even ask about Barbara Cartland or some of today’s Chick Lit authors. The job of the writer is the recreation and transformation of the quotidian. That’s why TV soaps take place in hospitals, or police stations, or in families that suffer a major emotional trauma every twenty-four hours. Their lives are infinitely more interesting than ours, simply because they are so false.

This is all obvious. It was the paradox that Joseph Heller played with in his novel Something Happened, a book in which almost nothing happens. But the question of artificially creating experience leads us on to the much more treacherous terrain of truth and falsehood in writing, or anywhere else. “What is truth?” asked Pilate, and received no very convincing answer.

Most memoir, for example, is fiction. I like to say that my entire biography is fiction, which is half true. The other half is narrative non-fiction with some fictional elements. Most writers live in a state of chronic confusion between fact and fiction, especially when they write fiction based on the facts of their own lives. The boundaries dissolve into smoke as soon as we try to draw them. It’s human nature to improve our personal stories if we get the chance. That’s why fiction is always, always, always more interesting than life and, I’m tempted to say, why lies are usually more interesting than the truth.

“There are only two ways of telling the complete truth,” wrote Thomas Sowell, “anonymously and posthumously.”

Clinging to an imagined authenticity can be a terrible handicap. In workshops, when we are trying to make a piece of personal writing more interesting, more dramatic, or more humorous, there’s always one writer who complains: “But it didn’t happen like that” – to which my rather unkind response is: “Who cares?” Unless you are writing a Presidential memoir, or some other piece of future history, the precise details of what happened, how and when are irrelevant, even if you have remembered them correctly!

How important is memory to a writer? Some people remember every last detail from their childhoods, every meal they have ever eaten and with whom, and even more intimate details. Others have very poor memories, or are blessed with a kind of built-in self-editor that tidies up and improves the past as they go along. I have a terrible memory, and I find that very useful. Neitzsche, going to extremes as always, said: “No man with a good memory can ever be creative.” The quote may not be exact, but it’s an interesting thought. If you have a bad memory, everything is always new, including the leftovers you put in the refrigerator yesterday and rediscover with pleasure today.

Research shows that a truly accurate long-term memory is uncommon. Very few people remember their childhoods accurately. Studies of siblings show that they recall identical childhood events very differently. I grew up with a female cousin of the same age. When we talk about those days now it’s as if we had two completely different childhoods with different families. If she decides to write her autobiography she will perpetrate many terrible and embarrassing errors.

So, problem number one is that memory is not necessarily a source of truth – which suggests in turn that personal truth is simply not available to us. We can never be sure of anything. Those with an academic turn of mind will immediately point out that “truth” and “authenticity” are divisible into those statements we can be sure of and those we cannot. Consider the following statement:

“I was born in Whitechapel, East London on 14th February 1939. I was a perfect baby, and my mother was the most beautiful women in the world.”

This statement obviously contains two kinds of information – facts and fantasies. The facts can be verified from my birth certificate. But statements involving memories, emotions, impressions, dreams and interpretations can never be verified. Mixing a few facts into a fantasy does not create a factual narrative. Most of the time we scarcely know the difference.

Problem number two is that we hate to admit problem number one. We have collectively been brainwashed into believing that any expression of personal experience must be accepted as authentic, just because it is personal. This is the driving force behind the tidal wave of irrationalism and crazinesss that washes over us every day – from the supermarket tabloids to religious extremists, flying saucer cultists, conspiracy theorists and writers of phony memoirs. We are willing, at least on the surface, to accept untested personal testimony as truth. It took almost two years for Dave Pelzer the author of the fake memoir A Child Called It and other fictions to be effectively challenged and exposed. His books continue to sell well.

Confusing the issue still further is the growing industry of “ghostwriting.” Celebrities, politicians, professionals, and people whose names are in the news for one reason or another, often decide to cash in on their fame or knowledge by producing a book. So they hire a writer from one of several agencies and, in due course, the book appears under the name of someone who did not write it. Most medical advice books, for example, are written not by doctors but by writers employed by doctors – which is a scary thought when you come to think about it. This doubt about the real authorship of books pushes the whole question of authenticity into even more murky waters.

In summary, a writer in this culture can get away with a great deal of faked authenticity, and the creator of fiction, memoir, non-fiction or faction is necessarily sailing without a compass across a limitless sea of ambiguity. Narrative writing is enormously popular today, even in newspapers. But reality never conforms to the stylish contours of fiction.

Narrative is always false. There’s no way around this. Facts are essential for a scientist or an academic, but fantasies are more fun for a writer Which would you rather read – A Comprehensive History of Magical and Alchemical Practices in the Early Middle Ages or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? I rest my case.

The Cult of Celebrity

“To be a celebrity…is to
be forgiven everything.”

Mary McGrory

If a writer is someone whose name is attached to the front of a book, then we are in distinguished company. David Beckham, an English soccer player who became famous for wearing funny hair and marrying a pop star, sold 86,000 copies of his autobiography in the first two days after publication. This was more than all six books shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003*. In fact one well-reviewed novel shortlisted for the prize sold just sixty-seven copies in the entire year. Mr. Beckham’s achievement is all the more impressive because when he appears on TV he seems quite inarticulate, with a rather limited vocabulary and an insecure grasp of English grammar.

Private Jessica Lynch hit the bestseller lists with her Iran war story, and the sly royal butler Paul Burrell has had a huge success with his memoir A Royal Duty. Politicians get into the act. The former Tory party leader in Britain has published a thriller. In fact every politician in Britain seems to be writing a novel, and American politicians are not far behind. Madonna, Britney Spears, the Duchess of York, Jerry Seinfeld have all emerged as “writers.”

It seems that everyone wants to be a writer – especially a novelist or a memoirist. But the book market is crowded, and the obscure writer finds it hard to break through the clutter. Celebrities have no such problem. Their names alone are enough.

What is so annoying about this is not that these celebrities write books (or have them ghostwritten). That’s their right. What drives up my blood pressure is that these artificially concocted works immediately shoot to the top of the bestseller lists, bypassing the books of hundreds of serious writers who have spent a lifetime learning the craft. I am not given the opportunity to play on a top sports team just because I have written a few books. Why should David Beckham be handed a million dollar book contract just because he kicks a ball around?

Most of these celebrity books are probably never read by their buyers. They are more like keepsakes, or collector’s items. They give the fan a tangible connection with the object of his or her worship.

The New York literary agent Vicky Bijur, interviewed in the January 2004 newsletter of The American Society of Journalists and Authors, explained candidly what she looks for in an author.

“The big buzzword is ‘platform.’ Does the author have a column in the newspaper, a radio show, a track record, a killer Web site, is he or she quoted frequently in the press, has she racked up a number of appearances on early morning television, does she have videotapes of her TV appearances, etc? That’s a large part of selling nonfiction. If you look at the bestseller lists…it’s astonishing how many of the books are by people who have major platforms outside publishing…. It’s very important for authors to be telegenic or articulate or personable.”

In plain words, this agent is telling us that the publishing industry strongly favors authors who are already celebrities, or who at least have “star quality.”

Nobody can blame writers for using whatever qualifications and advantages they have. I’ve found in my own work that a little local celebrity goes an astonishingly long way. But, such as it is, that celebrity is all based on writing. Modern publishers and agents seem to believe that any celebrity is better than none. Mass murderers and corrupt corporate executives have an immediate advantage over any dull and law-abiding scribbler.

Celebrity also brings very practical advantages, such as resources. Al Franken made his name on television, and then began to publish satirical political books. The books are entertaining, and obviously, involve a lot of research. This is not a problem for the author who employs a team of fourteen full-time researchers to collect and check facts for him. This would stretch the budget of most freelances.

Famous and powerful people have always written books, sometimes very good ones. Winston Churchill and Julius Caesar spring to mind. But the super-competitive corporate publishing industry has changed the rules of the game. They want their investment to be a sure thing, which means starting with national (or international) name recognition.

So we can blame publishers on the one hand, which is always a pleasure. But we also have to blame ourselves and the bizarre celebrity worshipping culture we have created. Look at the front pages of the magazines at the supermarket checkout. They have an almost hypnotic effect. From week to month to year, the same names with the same faces confront me as I stand there clutching my cans of cat food. The stories are always the same – improbable dramas of divorce and betrayal, fortunes gained and lost, weight gained and lost, terrible diseases, and secret sorrows.

This is the shadow world where celebrities live. It’s so unlike our own world that the people who inhabit it seem unreal. Yet celebrities must be real, because they take up so much public space. They’re inescapable, at the checkout or on television, in magazines and movies, celebrities perform the soap opera of life, so the rest of us don’t have to.

Not all celebrities are equal, of course. The greatest of them are transcendent and eternal, like the undead Elvis and Princess Diana, and the still-alive Liz Taylor, who must be as old as my old mother, and Joan Collins and Charlie Manson and any and all royals and Kennedys.

Then there are lesser pantheons of fame, a shifting collage of micro-talented celebrities whose fame will last until public taste changes and they cease to be profitable. And there’s a whole mass of enormously famous people you’ve never heard of, who fill the blank spaces in the magazines. Who cares if Lori caught Scott cheating when we have no idea who they are? They may familiar to people who spend all day and night in front of the TV, but not to me. A magazine I perused at the checkout today featured the “Ten Biggest Celebrity Weddings of 2004.” I hadn’t heard of a single one of brides or bridegrooms, and they all looked identical and interchangeable.

Some celebrities, like Bart Simpson and Jay Leno are just ideas in the mind of a producer and don’t really exist at all. Others are ordinary people caught in the spotlight of fame for a moment, like raccoons transfixed by headlights on the highway. How quickly Tonya Harding and John Wayne Bobbitt became celebrities, and how quickly we have forgotten them! Remember Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher? Nationally famous for something or other just a moment ago, now faded into grayness like a badly fixed photograph. One day soon even Kylie Minogue’s bum will be forgotten, and a good thing too.

We obviously need our celebrities: but for what? In ancient times, individuals became famous because they were heroes of action – usually violent action – like Alexander the Great. There have been other times when, believe it or not, people were celebrated for intellectual accomplishments, including writing. In the eighteenth century, philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire were internationally famous. Then in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the great empire builders of capitalism were most admired, men like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford.

Who are today’s celebrities? Entertainers. We don’t admire people who lead, or think, or invent, or build. But we give fame freely to those who pretend to amuse us. This is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. For most of history entertainers have been marginal people, almost outcasts. In the old Hindu culture of India, entertainers were an untouchable tribe. In medieval Europe, actors and musicians were seen as the dregs of society. This seems entirely appropriate.

So what do we see in entertainers to justify all the celebrity they attract these days? Surely we don’t want to be like them? No, that’s too awful to contemplate. We want them to be unlike us. Celebrities are gods for our time, and publicity is our modern form of worship. We are slipping back, unconsciously, towards paganism. The old pagan religions must have been very satisfying: they had a nymph or satyr for every occasion, an idol for every prayer, a god for every need. Each deity celebrated an aspect of human nature, and their mythical lives held the mirror up to human society.

We don’t have Venus now, but we do have the love goddess Madonna; we don’t have Proteus, but we do have the ever-changing Michael Jackson. We can’t open a magazine without reading modern tales of Dionysius, Achilles, Phaedra and, most often, Narcissus. Sometimes one longs for Zeus, but he is unaccountably absent from the chorus line.

Having elevated celebrities to the status of minor gods I suppose we must accept that we have given them godlike powers, like priority access to the publishing industry. But it does change the traditional advice given to beginning writers. Forget about “Write what you know.” The new formula for success is: “Write nothing until everyone knows you.”

First published in 2003 and still as true as ever!

Two Cultures

Those of us who never had a proper education in science are reminded of our ignorance every time we switch on a computer, or a microwave, or even a light bulb. It might as well be magic, but it’s not, and we have no more idea how these tricks are performed than we understand the flying broomsticks in Harry Potter. It is humiliating, and dangerous because science is behind just about everything we use and depend on. Satellites spin in the sky above our heads, we get miraculous drugs from the local pharmacy and make calls on phones that don’t seem to be connected to anything, and we don’t understand how any of it works.

The British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote about this in 1959 in a famous book called The Two Cultures. The two cultures were science and art, and Snow was alarmed at how little they understood about each other. Nothing has changed since 1959. In fact, science has run so far ahead of scientific illiterates like me that we can only gape at it like the Pilgrim Fathers confronted by a video game.

I was painfully reminded of this by reading a memoir by the scientist and controversialist Richard Dawkins about his lifetime of research in biology. He writes well and most of his arguments can be followed by the scientifically retarded, but the underlying knowledge of things like phenotypes and genotypes, memes and genes, arthromorphs and biomorphs is simply not in my brain, so that his descriptions of research sound as much like mysticism or alchemy as the products of reason and logic. So, I must trust Professor Dawkins, and I do more or less. But if I trust him, without being able to explain why, I might trust anybody with any theory about reality. That’s what’s so dangerous. The more a few scientifically educated people know, and the less the rest of us know, the more science begins to look like some sort of elite conspiracy. Ignorance breeds fear, and into the empty space comes every dumb idea and idiotic belief that has ever entered into the mind of man – and believe me that’s a long list.

Science doesn’t leave much room for the opinions and beliefs we cherish. We love to have pointless arguments about the best basketball team or religion or political party or TV show, because it is fun to argue and we can always consider ourselves right. My opinion is as good as yours. But when it comes, say, to finding the elusive infinitely small particles that may be the basic building blocks of the universe, my opinion is definitely not as good as yours, and totally worthless compared to the opinion of a physicist. My idea would be to get a large magnifying glass. Their idea was to build enormous machines, like the Hadron Collider outside Geneva. Guess whose method is most likely to succeed.

Of course, science can’t do everything: it can’t tell us the right word to use in a poem or explain Beethoven’s late quartets. There are different things to know, and different ways of knowing. But we need a better balance, more people like Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer who was also a research chemist, or indeed Richard Dawkins himself, a biologist with a wide-ranging knowledge of the arts.

We aren’t all smart enough to be scientists, but it is important that we understand how and why science works, and magic doesn’t. Even I know what a scientific proof should look like: observation, classification, experiment, repetition, comparison and so on. That’s how we know that our knowledge is knowledge. If you don’t believe that, you might believe anything.

The Knowledge Man

Denis Diderot is an almost-forgotten name in intellectual history, although everybody knows Mr. Google. But whenever we use an online search engine to answer one of our questions we are benefitting from the genius, bravery, and determination of Monsieur Diderot.

His idea, which was as simple as it was revolutionary, was to gather together all the knowledge in the world in a systematic way so that anybody could find information about anything. In other words, Diderot invented the encyclopedia.

It was a project on a heroic scale, completed in 1772, and filling twenty-seven large volumes containing seventy-five thousand entries. It was not at all popular among the rich and powerful of the time. The idea of spreading knowledge is never welcomed by people whose position depends on the ignorance of those less fortunate. Knowledge really is power. That’s why universal education evokes such mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is the force behind economic and social progress. On the other, once people start thinking for themselves, who knows what might happen?

Diderot was said to have written ten thousand of the Encyclopedia articles himself. Some of them were so radical that the entire book was banned for a while. But now it is treated as an intellectual monument, and the French state honored the author in his tricentennial year.

When I was growing up, encyclopedia salesmen came from door to door. “The encyclopedia man” became a kind of joke, spoofed by Monty Python among others. My parents had two different sets in multiple volumes, one for adults and one for children – that is to say, for me, my very own encyclopedia. An encyclopedia in the house was supposed to guarantee that your child would grow up both intelligent and knowledgeable, and obviously it worked in my case. You can still find printed encyclopedias gathering dust in public libraries, but rarely on family bookshelves – the Internet has seen to that. I leave it to you to decide whether the Internet in the house will guarantee that your child will grow up both intelligent and knowledgeable.

The great thing about an encyclopedia in book form, and especially a big one like Britannica or Americana, is that you can read it, explore it, and get lost in it. One thing leads to another, and another, and another. You may start by looking up Diderot and end up reading about speculative fiction or Italian opera. I know, because it happened to me. Internet search engines simply seek out a target and hit it: here’s your question, here’s your answer, end of story. This is very practical and useful, but there’s no adventure in it and precious little chance of making strange or unexpected discoveries.

Intellectual giants of the past like Goethe, Nietzsche, Hegel, and Freud all admired Diderot, not just for his massive encyclopedia but for his subversive satirical writing. He was a man with a mission, to promote knowledge in all its forms without prejudice and without censorship. It is ironic to reflect that if he were to pursue the same passion today, three centuries later, he would probably be in as much trouble with the authorities now as he was then.