Quote of The Week

“The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”

Philosopher John Gray

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Short is Beautiful

Those of us who write on the small scale – little essays like this, for example – are constantly haunted by the notion that we should be doing something more serious, and/or something much bigger. Kind friends suggest it all the time. The underlying message is: “Why are you wasting your time on this trivial small stuff?” This is very annoying, especially if you like the trivial small stuff. I wanted to argue for the value of writing that readers love and remember just because it is engaging, simple, and short.

Inexperienced writers tend to suffer badly from the Henry James syndrome – never use one word when you can use sixty-four. Probably this habit was learned in school or college when we were required to write five or ten pages on this subject or that. Lacking ideas, we simply multiplied words until we had filled the necessary amount of paper. Exactly the same thing happens in writing workshops: too many words, not enough content.

I once gave a rather lengthy talk on the subject of brevity at a writers conference. It had a mixed reception. Writers love their words. They are also captivated by the universal delusion of the age that more equals better: the SUV syndrome. Many writers want their work to be big and flashy and intimidating, like an SUV or an eight hundred page book by Tom Wolfe. But the taste of the reading public is moving in the opposite direction, towards the Prius – small, neat, and economical. Publishers like Orion and Penguin have done well with abbreviated versions of big classics like War and Peace and Moby Dick. Newspaper and magazine articles are getting shorter. Younger people (and some not so young) have stripped the language down to tweets and text messages (translation: yungA ppl av stripD d lang dwn 2 txt msgs), which can compress the whole of War and Peace into a few keystrokes. This is no time for writers to indulge their love of words.

Nobody much liked this line of argument, except for the poets who were happily composing twelve-word Haiku on their laptops. About halfway through the talk it dawned on me that I was repeating the mistake that made King Canute famous. The tide of words is unstoppable.

I failed to anticipate the obvious objection to my crusade for brevity, although nobody said it out loud: brevity is hard work. We have a lot of words, and its fun to splurge them all out on paper. Cutting is a slow and painful process. As Blaise Pascal wrote to a friend: “I’m sorry this letter is longer than usual, but I lacked the time to make it short.” Precisely.

But I do wish writers, amateur and professional, would practice some self-discipline and learn when enough is enough. Brevity is the soul of wit. That’s six hundred words. I’ll stop.

Ordinary Lives

I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, including Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation, and feeling almost overwhelmed by the huge number of celebrity anecdotes. Vidal doesn’t just drop names, he buries the reader in truckloads of them. Not a page goes by without some story about Tennessee Williams, Tom Wolf, Samuel Barber Louis Auchincloss, Frederico Fellini, Paul Newman, and on and on and on.

Alan Bennett’s diaries are much the same. Every big name from Vivien Leigh to Sir John Gielgud and the Princess of Wales puts in an appearance – many times. Martin Amis, Cyril Connelly, and even P.D.James, have the same extraordinary web of celebrity connections. They seem to have known everyone who was ever in the headlines in the twentieth century. It has to do with money, of course, and privileged schooling that sets up elite networks at an early age.

It made me think how difficult it has become for ordinary people to sell memoirs. Publishers are not just looking for books about celebrities they are looking for books by and about celebrities.

I’ve never met an authentic celebrity in my whole life – or if I did I’ve forgotten, which amounts to the same thing – so my own memoir has precious little chance of hitting the New York Times bestseller list.

The annoying thing is that these celebrity-laden memoirs are interesting. That’s why I’m reading them, and why I would never read my own memoir. My quotidian is not their quotidian, dammit.

The Curtain

Most writers dream about being novelists, although it’s not obvious why. The market for serious novels is getting smaller all the time. But the fiction itch, it seems, must be scratched. Even after having had successful careers as journalists, essayists, or script writers, many of our fellow scribblers feel that they absolutely must write a novel, or more particularly “my novel.” I share the common weakness, if that’s what it is. I read a lot of novels, and I would love to write them. Unfortunately that particular talent has passed me by.

But it’s still interesting to read about novelists: how they work, how they imagine their fictional worlds, how they create characters, and how they succeed or fail. Therefore I recommend a though-provoking little book – really an extended essay – by Milan Kundera. It’s called The Curtain.

Nobody could be better qualified to write about the novel, and Kundera does it intensely and with great style and learning. He has sections on the nature of a story, aesthetics, memory, and the history of the novel, among many other things. I was particularly interested in his discussion of how the passage of time is treated in fiction, and how the telescoping of events creates a world that is both engaging and completely unreal. In fiction we have the charming convention that allows us to write: “Later that day….” or “After thirty years lost in the jungle….” The tedium of everyday life is simply erased. No wonder we love stories!

This is not an easy book. Kundera’s arguments demand close attention. The average reader, like me, will have to make a few trips to the library to check out his references. But it repays the effort. It almost persuades me to try once more to write a novel – almost, but not quite.

Intellectuals and clowns

I recently finished reading a biography of that prodigious poet, essayist, lexicographer, critic, philosopher and wit, Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was born in 1709, and dominated the English literary scene for more than half a century. Among many other things Dr. Johnson gave us his famous dictionary, and a whole arsenal of quips and quotations that have passed into the language. Many of them are still carry a sting today.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

“A decent provision for the poor is the true test of a civilization.”

“No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous.”

“Nobody but a blockhead every wrote except for money.”

“The Triumph of hope over experience.” (On second marriages).

But the real reason I want to focus on Dr. Johnson is to raise the question: where are the Dr. Johnson’s of today? More specifically, where are the towering intellectuals who also had wit and humor, and could speak to us all in everyday language?

Wit and wisdom, it seems, have been separated into different social compartments. Wit and humor belong to the entertainment industry, while intelligence and thoughtfulness are claimed by the academic industry. (Politics, of course, exists in a separate realm, without either humor or intelligence).

In a previous blog, “That’s Not Funny,” I wrote about this sharp division between “funny” and “serious” writers. It seems to me a false dichotomy, and a sad one. Ideas and arguments are much easier to absorb if they come with a touch of humor, and humor is much funnier if it contains a spark of intelligence instead of relying on pratfalls and dumb family jokes.

Writers need to communicate difficult, unwelcome ideas as well as light and amusing ones. My two great heroes from the past age are Mark Twain and H.L.Mencken, both of whom combined the qualities of the intellectual and the clown. These were writers who changed the minds of their many readers by making them laugh, or at least smile grimly in recognition. I would love to be like them, of course, but I’m afraid I come up a bit short on the intellectual front. I know a few real intellectuals, and they are formidable.

But today’s intellectuals generally prefer to avoid the seductive techniques of irony, satire, and parody. They fear they will be dismissed as “not serious.” They seem to care less about the other danger: that they will be not read at all.

The bottomless well of ideas

When I was regularly teaching writing courses one of the questions I heard most often was: “Where do you get your ideas?” The true answer is that I get my ideas in the following places, in order of fertility:

1. The Avalon Nature Preserve, Stony Brook, Long Island.
2. In the car, driving almost anywhere.
3. In the bath.

Different people find different places stimulating, but those are mine. I never have ideas when sitting at my desk, or in the library, or when I am deliberately trying to get ideas. The process happens, mysteriously, elsewhere. In the right situation, ideas just come popping into my head from the chaotic storeroom of the subconscious.

There’s an awful lot of nonsense talked about “inspiration,” especially at writers’ conferences. We are what is in our minds. There is no mysterious treasure house of ideas waiting to bubble up into consciousness at the right moment, any more than there is a gourmet meal lurking at the back of the refrigerator if you didn’t put the ingredients in there first. What is in the brain is everything we have put there over the years, by experience and reading and reflection. That’s what we have to work with. We get out what we put in, and no more. As they used to say in the computer world, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). You won’t write like Proust if you only read Stephen King, which I suppose is a good argument for not reading Proust. Many great writers of the past, like Melville, read almost nothing but the Bible.

If you wait to be “inspired” by an idea you may wait forever.

In theory there is no limit to the number of ideas. Georges Simenon, the French author of five hundred novels and numerous shorter works suggested in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually run out and confront the awful choice between silence and repetition. Having written that, in the 1960s, he continued to produce new ideas and new books for twenty years until he died.

I’ll go along with Simenon. A writer has a bottomless well of ideas to draw on. If they seem to be running out it will probably pay to spend more time in the bath.

Comforting Routine

“The art of writing, like the art of love, runs all
the way from a kind of routine hard to distinguish
from piling bricks to a kind of frenzy closely related
to delirium tremens.”

H.L.Mencken

My life, like yours, is made up of routines. The day starts with NPR news on the clock radio and the serenade of hungry cats. I get to my desk at nine and work for two hours. Then I head out to the local duck pond to feed the ducks, and visit the post office, bank, supermarket and library as necessary, getting back in time for a salad lunch.

So the day goes on, and so the weeks and months go by. The details change on weekends, when I produce and host a radio music show – but that is an even more precisely timed and predictable set of tasks. On air, every second is pre-programmed.

It’s a comforting routine, and useful because it sets times for writing that, by force of long habit, I can scarcely ignore. Most writers, I suspect, have some such fixed timetable. Many famous authors 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. It is the only way to get anything done.

When we travel my routine is totally disrupted, and I try to piece it together again. This struck me when we arrived at a rented villa in France one year. On the first morning after we arrived it was a sparkling sunny day, the mountains shone in the distance, and there was a pool waiting below. We had a whole new village and a new region to explore. But I caught myself plugging in the laptop at 9 a.m. At times like this you realize that your routine has become a neurosis, or a strait jacket.

It is a narrow line between routine as a useful habit and routine as a tyrant. A fixed timetable can block all kinds of delightful surprises. How many times have you said: “I can’t do that right now because….” and missed a really interesting experience because of it? Years ago a male friend of mine missed sleeping with the prettiest girl in the university because, at the moment when she happened to be available and interested in him, he was too involved in a piece of dull research. He never got a second chance, and has regretted it ever since.

One of my more neurotic routines has to do with deadlines. When I was younger and really busy they came several times a week. A talk, an essay, or a radio program script had to be produced on time, which always meant right now. My obsession was and is that writing deadlines always take precedence over everything else, just as when I was teaching class and lecture preparation took precedence over everything else.

Deadline tasks, like a class or a broadcast, are real. All other tasks seem trivial by comparison. This is a terrible habit of mind, because all kind of interesting non-deadline tasks pile up behind the deadlines, and never get done. I have files of ideas for writing projects piled up all over my study, but none of them has a deadline, except the ultimate deadline of my own mortality, which is also one that can’t be missed. None of them even gets started, let alone finished. There’s always something more immediate staring at me from the top of the pile.

Deadline-itis can be as poisonous to your work as obsessive routine. If you don’t have writing deadlines, consider the other “must do” tasks in your life, like feeding cats, or getting the car fixed. They all have the potential to block the work we really want to do, if we really want to do it. The question is: do we really want to do it?

Only Human Nature

I caught myself using the term “human nature” in an essay the other day. It was a shocking error in some ways, but I let it stand for lack of an alternative.

“Human nature” is a universal cliché. We know you can’t change it, but we also know that it is infinitely variable. Any and all unpleasant characteristics of the species are routinely dismissed as “Only human nature.”

This sort of thing drives philosophers crazy – and also sociologists, anthropologists, human biologists, psychologists, and anyone at all who has spent more than ten minutes thinking about or studying “human nature.”

Ok, I’ll drop the quotation marks, but only because they are so annoying. In ancient times nobody thought about human nature. The Greek philosophers did, as they thought about everything. For Plato human nature was a divided thing – the intellect on the one hand and the animal appetites on the other. For Aristotle human nature had a higher purpose, which is not very clear (at least to me).

The debate languished for about two thousand years, during which the church had a monopoly on the definition of human nature in the west (man was a sinful, fallen creature who could only be saved by authorized agents of the church, for a price).

This brilliant scam began to fall apart in the eighteenth century. Hobbes gave us a view of human nature as inherently vile – driven by greed and fear. Rousseau offered a different view: human nature is basically good but corrupted by Society. Locke suggested a kind of rough balance, in which human beings are rationally inclined to protect themselves and their possessions, and evolve rational systems to achieve this (e.g. liberal democracy). The modern western world has followed Locke.

Since then theories about human nature have proliferated, and this writer has neither the time nor the knowledge to chase them all down. The point is that when we talk about human nature we are always talking nonsense. Nobody has the slightest idea what it is, or whether such a thing even exists.

Yet we all have an implicit, automatic view of human nature which shines through in our writing. For some writers it’s all hatred and violence, for others it’s all love and understanding (the former group tends to have the best sales). Everything we write gives these assumptions away. Mark Twain was profoundly cynical about people, but his humor helped the medicine go down. Hemmingway was captivated by an illusion of masculinity, Virginia Woolf by an illusion of tragedy. I suppose the writers we like the best are those who share our particular view of human nature (in my case this would include Jane Austen and T.C.Boyle).

It would save us all a lot of time in the library if books could be coded according to the author’s view of human nature (“C” for cynical; “R” for romantic; “O” for optimistic; “T” for tragic, “I” for ironic, and so on). When you settle down to read in the evening it’s nice to know that you have an understanding friend for company.

Generation Gap

“As you grow old, you lose your interest in sex, your friends drift away, your children ignore you. There are many other advantages, of course, but these would seem to me to be the outstanding ones.” (Richard Needham, Toronto Globe columnist)

I was young once; I remember it distinctly. What I read and wrote then was vastly different from what I write and read now. A whole other person has taken over my brain and, unfortunately, my body. Don’t laugh – it will happen to you.

It must be January that brings this to mind – a sad, forboding month. Normally I don’t think much about age. In my head I’m about eight years old. But the dark evenings and cold mornings, bringing just a twinge or arthritis, make it harder to ignore what I like to call anno domino. (A feeble joke, but better than nothing).

For a writer, the worst thing about growing older is losing touch with the young. This can happen invisibly, as your readers age with you. It’s easier to spot the change if you are a teacher, as I was until recently. It slowly dawned on me, over a period of years, that my college age students and I were inhabiting quite different planets. Their world of music, video and teenage celebrity was a mystery to me, and my world of music, books and ideas was equally a mystery to them. The apparent collapse of the school system seems to have left them with zero knowledge of history, geography, and languages, which made it even harder for an old-fashioned teacher to bridge the gap. There’s nothing wrong with these young people. They are bright and usually interesting. But I found we were simply not communicating, which is very bad news for a teacher.

Fortunately I have long since retired from college teaching. But I continue to write, and I have an uneasy feeling that my communication skills are letting me down there also. When I pick up novels by young authors, or read their blogs, their language seems almost unintelligible to me, their preoccupations alien, and their emotional world unreadable. They have shifted into a different mode, perhaps an electronic mode. Electronics are at the center of their world. Walking through Florence last year I came upon an unusually large crowd of young people pushing through a small doorway. Was this the Massacio Museum, I wondered, or Dante’s House, or the Pitti, or the Uffizi? No, it was the Internet Café. We can’t stop progress, although I think sometimes we should try.

Well, this is nothing new. My grandmother, born in 1884, was as archaic to me as I obviously am to a modern teenager. She refused to have radio in her house because she thought the invisible waves would kill her. Without a radio she lived to be ninety-nine, so she may have had a point.

But my point is that an out of touch older writer is missing the chance to communicate with the most important people in the world – the young. It’s hard to admit this in America, because there is a sort of national pretence that we are all young forever. This is what leads so many foreigners to refer to Americans as big children. Nobody wants to turn into a curmudgeonly old person (“Too late!” I hear my friends cry).

In a very practical sense an older writer’s markets may be limited. Most magazine editors now seem to be about twenty years old, and book editors are not much older. Their outlook is not my outlook. They want to find the younger audience, not a bunch of seniors who won’t be around for long. You may remember that, a few years ago, some Hollywood studios began to bar any writers over the age of forty. The lawsuits are ongoing, but it shows the direction of the wind.

But what’s an oldie to do? Are we supposed to take up rap music and video games, so we can “relate” to the younger generations? Or are we supposed to stick with our own age group, and finally just fade gracefully away?

The General Reader

A recent biography of Beethoven was described by The New York Times reviewer as “Ideal for the general reader.”

I wondered: who is this elusive character, the general reader? He or she is obviously not identical to the “general public,” most of whom never read a book and have scarcely heard of Beethoven.

I seldom meet a general reader. All the readers I know seem very particular. There are those who read nothing but deep academic studies on a limited range of subjects, some who stick to history or biography or poetry, and others who read nothing but romances or science fiction. But there are a few, like me, who will read (or try to read) almost anything. Am I a general reader? It’s true that I did read this particular book, so I may fit the description. At first it was a slightly depressing thought.

The general reader, presumably, is someone who cannot concentrate on any one thing for long. In my long-ago schooldays this was an accusation I heard from my teachers every day. “A grasshopper mind,” was the phrase they used. Grasshoppers spend their days jumping pointlessly from place to place and making an annoying noise, so the appellation was not a compliment.

The evidence that I am a general reader is damning. A literary detective would cite the bizarre medley of books on the shelves in my study (everything from The Decline of the West to The Penguin Book of Humorous Quotations), to the even more eclectic heap of books beside my bed (thrillers, serious novels, some poetry, non-fiction books about religion and politics). The owner of this literary stew is obviously not a serious person.

Yet we are popular in the publishing world. They aim their trade list titles at us, much as politicians seek out the semi-mythical ‘swing voter.’ The result, in the end, may be rather good. The general reader may be expected to be interested in books (like Morris’s Beethoven biography) that are not highly specialized at one end of the scale, and not complete trash at the other. If we general readers make these serious but accessible books profitable, we must be doing a valuable service. Some of us try to write such books, with varying degrees of success.

Yet I can’t help thinking that the general reader is truly a creature of the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first. The general reader needs a broad education, and above all he needs time to pick through and appreciate the vast mountain of literature. Not many people are lucky enough to have both these advantages today. We’ve become too specialized and too busy. Professional people need every spare moment just to keep up with the literature of their field.

So I have convinced myself that we general readers have a role to play. We’re not just failed intellectuals. We are the descendants of a great reading tradition. Good for us.

Commonplaces

What already seems like a lifetime ago, in a book called Writer at Work (2005 – see Books and Audio page), I suggested than one sure cure for writers’ block was always to have at least one long term project.

“Having a project can also help a writer to get going and keep going. The project can be a novel or script (although these things can be a quagmire), or simply a theme or a series. It may help to think about the kinds of things you want to write and formulate them as a long-term project – for example “all my family’s stories” or “looking back on the books that changed my life” or “the experiences and opinions of a recovering educator” – you get the idea. The great French essayist Michel de Montaigne gave this as his very best piece of advice to writers: have a project, work on it every day, and never let your mind lie fallow. It sounds more impressive in French.”

Of course I never follow my own advice. These past few weeks I found myself in a sort of existential fog. Nothing seemed worth doing, or writing about. Finally I realized that, since finishing with an essay collection and a memoir at the end of 2017, I haven’t had a real project.

Plenty of fantasy projects have drifted through my mind: writing a novel, writing some short stories, writing some huge heavy-duty serious essays for the literary magazine market. But none of these ideas had the motivating spark, so I went to the basement.

The basement is my Freudian subconscious, where I keep all the stuff I think I have forgotten. There are several filing drawers full of “ideas” – or at least files with notes and cuttings about things that interest me. One set files is for my short radio essays, a second is for my music program, and the third contains everything else. I pulled all the stuff out of the third drawer.

What I found was a heap of files – some old, some new – a full twenty-seven inches thick. I measured them. These are all ideas that I want to write about “one day.” Perhaps that day has arrived.

It was interesting but daunting to go through these papers. They contain disorganized material on every subject from the teaching of history to the belief in flying saucers, and from tourism to the curious attitudes of Americans towards sex. It is either a treasure trove or a heap of junk.

I decided to treat it as a treasure trove, and set about organizing the chaos into topics. But it was clear from the start that this explosion of ideas and prejudices was not material for a conventional book of essays. But it might be the basis for a Commonplace Book.

Who in the 21st century has heard of a Commonplace Book? They’ve been around since the 16th century, and are still regularly published under some different label. The original Commonplace Books were collections of spiritual thoughts and insights. These were commonplaces by definition. In those days any departure from orthodoxy might have very bad consequences indeed.

But, over the centuries, the term Commonplace Book took on an ironic meaning. It was still a collection of everyday observations and thoughts, but the content became more and more original, quirky, and unorthodox. In other words “commonplace” was turned on its head. The originator of this device may have been Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées (1669) are a fine example of a commonplace book that recorded the casual thoughts of an ordinary prodigy and genius.

In short, a commonplace book is an intellectual scrapbook, a collection of thoughts, opinions, and memories. One of my favorite examples is D.J.Enright’s Play Resumed. Kurt Vonnegut, in his old age, took to publishing such collections of fragments, the best of which is Man Without a Country.

There’s no doubt that I have more enough material for such a Commonplace Book, but it is hard to know where to start. For the moment I have returned all the papers to the original filing drawer to mature, like a fine wine. I still need a project, but there is no point in rushing into things.