Friday, January 9, 2015

Writing Books and Making Art

Some random thoughts inspired by this observation from Nassim Taleb (NNT): "For a book to survive at least decade, it should not be summarizable, and if summarized, no two independent summaries should be alike" (posted to Facebook on 9 January 2015).

The quality of longevity is one that tends to belong (it seems to me) to books whose relevance to society exists outside the realm of summaries. People don't write summaries of romance novels, especially not of romance novels that they really like. They re-read them (for the experience, not the "information" that Jane was hot and Dick lived up to his name). People often compose summaries of books that they wish they did not have to read (e.g. many of the summaries I wrote for my dissertation)--so that they can refer to an argument without having to care or know too much about it. This kind of summary exists to facilitate lack of experience or engagement (with an idea that one does not really want). Another kind of summary exists to help synthesize what one knows about a book one loves (and this kind of summary is typically idiosyncratic, in keeping with NNT's heuristic: my retelling of the Iliad is not yours).

The deadest dead-wood literature out there is academic books like one I am currently reading on Herakles. It contains much valuable information, presented in such a fashion as to erase any valuable idiosyncratic perspective from the author (who speaks not for herself but for "the field" and writes not a monograph but an extended encyclopedia entry that might as well have been composed by a machine--as maybe one day it will). She writes summaries of her argument at the end of each chapter (like a bad dissertation), and makes each sentence with as little care as needed to convey the essential information (which is the only thing keeping my nose in the book, long enough to write my own summary and return it with hope that I never need to check it out again--not because the author is not a fascinating person, but because she barely exists as a meaningful voice in this book).

Why does an author write such a book as this? I don't know. I suspect that the academic culture ("one must write a book to get tenure ... and/or other nice things like reputation") is to blame. Of course we need people writing books (and making music, painting, building, designing, dreaming, etc.). But not all art is created equal. Most of it, in fact, is shit.

The really great art does more than merely convey information: it conveys what pseudo-Longinus (delightfully anonymous, as most literary critics should be) calls "the sublime" (an insight into the human condition that is at once universal, recognizable to a large population, and particular, arising from conscious awareness of human particularity, the individual perspective of a thoughtful author). Few works of art achieve this, and that is well: if it were easy, we would all do it, all the time. The pernicious aspect of cultures like the academic is their tendency to over-value production for its own sake, as though we might atone for failing to become the next Mozart by writing a bunch of shitty cantatas (or whatever) instead of taking whatever time we need to produce the best work of which we, particularly, are capable. I do not write music to become Mozart. I do not write books to become Nietzsche (though that is much more likely for me than becoming Mozart). I do not wrestle to become Cael Sanderson (or Alexander Karelin). I do not paint to become Picasso. I do what I do, I make whatever art I make, to express who I am--a quality and experience unique to me. If I never develop that quality, if I am so busy accumulating a curriculum vitae to impress tenure committees that I neglect my muse, then my work will only ever be shit. The only people who read academic shit, in my experience, are academics, and we mostly do it holding our noses (especially if we love literature). We grit our teeth and "shit out another book every year" (as one of my best profs in grad school said of a prolific scholar in my field) because that is how one obtains academic laurels--but these pitiful rewards (such as they are) are not really κλέος ἄφθιτον, not even when history conspires to make them endure for centuries (as the garrulous farrago of disjointed thought composed by Athenaeus of Naucratis, zum Beispiel). They are means to some end, not any end in themselves. Their significance to human experience is remote, and a better work might easily replace them (if only by offering a really good summary--one that keeps all the information artists want and omits the shitty facade).

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