Day 9 of NaBloPoMo, and I’ve picked the low-hanging fruit. Now I want to go out on a limb and express both my ignorance of and belated appreciation for the “writer.”
A bit of background. I read voraciously as a child. When I hit high school and started covering “serious” literature in English classes I began having mixed feelings about reading fiction. On my own time (summers) I would still pick through the science fiction shelves of the local book stores and libraries. During the school year, though, the only fiction I read was prescribed by an English teacher. My high school English classes sucked the joy out of reading; most of what passed for English lit appeared to be an amateur form of psychoanalysis, discussing motives and character and the like. Critically, it seemed like there were those who already knew how to play this game, and those who didn’t (I was in the latter camp). And for those who didn’t, there was precious little instruction in how to actually “do” English literature. I could understand critiques of the technical aspects of writing – incoherence in paragraphs, poor transitions, mixed metaphors, and the like. But getting a C on a paper for the ideas themselves – I truly had no idea what differentiated the A and C papers.
When I got to college my attitude had hardened to the point where I took the minimum required course in English literature and thereafter turned my back on that department. I recognize, of course, that my attitude and experience parallels what many others have expressed about their academic mathematics and science experience. This is more than mere preference at work; it’s an actively hostile aversion to a subject that literally did not make any sense to me.
Later on in graduate school, when I became deeply interested in questions of epistemology, I circled back to the question of literature studies. By what warrants can an author or reader claim to “know” or “believe” a particular claim about a piece of literature? This is the grown-up version of the question that frustrated me as a 9th grade English student – what are the rules of the game? I’ve learned a little bit about interpreting texts (mainly, though, through the tutoring of an anthropologist), but I’m still wary of the value of fiction in general. (Again, a dangling thread I may pick up in a future post. Suffice it to say I closely followed the debate between Elliot Eisner and his critics regarding the status of the arts and fiction in research. Both he and Denis Phillips were teachers of mine in graduate school, and I’m far more persuaded by Denis’s arguments than many of Elliot’s)
Back to the main point – as I’ve been thinking of how to sustain a daily blogging habit, I’ve been reading commentary by authors of various stripes about how they’ve donned the mantle of a “writer.” In particular I’ve taken notice of those who have expressed an inner urge to be a writer, that it was a vocation, a calling. I’ve always thought “writer” was a curious form of identity, sort of like calling somebody an “eater” or a “speaker.” Writing is something one does to express ideas, engage in dialog with critics, sharpen one’s thinking. To say one is a “writer” begs the question – writes about what? The scholar who produces well-reasoned treatises on international relations bears little resemblance to the author of serial romance fiction.
As it turns out, there is a very particular species of writer I’ve learned to both loathe and envy: the self-proclaimed “social critic” writer. Some, of course, write consistently illuminating, thoughtful works. Others simply blather like the Christian evangelists who would periodically infect our college campus. In the middle exists a vast population of commentators whose credentials – whose warrants for their opinions – are suspect. I say “suspect” because the very nature of an editorial piece (or a blog posting) often precludes the lengthy development of ideas and citation of relevant sources. Without knowing something about an author’s history or lineage of writing, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take a single piece of work at face value. I’m all too aware of the dangers of confirmation bias – of nodding my head along with writers who eloquently express the very prejudices I already hold. And there have been plenty of documented cases of journalists and other reality-based writers simply making stuff up.
Yet here I am, writing a series of posts, some auto-biographical, some sharing an insight I’ve gained through personal experience, some criticizing current politics. The question that haunts me is this: why should anybody take anything I write seriously?
I have some partial responses to that question, and they bring me back full circle to both fiction and non-fiction authors and the value of literature. Perhaps it’s not too late for this old dog to learn some new tricks. But for now, I’m just going to leave this question hanging as a mantra.
Why should anybody take anything I write seriously?
Edit: I’ll elaborate on these thoughts in my next post, but I also wanted to pass along a reference to this TED talk by Clint Smith. If you don’t want to watch the video you can also view the transcript of his message.