Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Honest Writing

As I've said, I have a hard time finding things that I enjoy reading, mainly in areas other than nonfiction that is written specifically to inform readers on a topic that I think is significant. Thus, a lot of the books that I've found worthwhile over the last few years have been popular scientific ones. However, high quality, nontechnical writing about people is equally important to me, and my efforts to locate it have become increasingly difficult. At this point I have almost completely given up on fiction, and I usually find poetry too narrow in scope to sustain my interest. I used to think that literary journalism had appeal, but I've given up on that too. I have had some success with biographies and memoirs, but, according to my criteria, there aren't many people whose biographies or memoirs are worth reading. At the moment I'm considering journals and diaries to see what I might find there.

I thought I'd write about the specific kind of nontechnical writing that appeals to me and why it may be rare. The main ingredients that attract me are honesty and reflection, and, surprisingly, you don't find much of that in published works. The main obstacle, it seems to me, is that the authors are constrained by market forces. Regardless of what an author or publisher thinks, a book may not be financially viable if it doesn't meet criteria established externally by a market. The market may be anything from the general reading public to academic specialists, but without a specific market in mind, no publisher is likely to print and distribute a book. Therefore, from the beginning, a writer who anticipates publication must think about how whatever he or she writes might sell. I was surprised recently to read that even authors of private journals and diaries want to learn how to follow formats that readers would like. The implicit goal of acceptance by a known or unknown readership, I think, can have a corrosive effect on the quality of writing. For example, in reading, The Life of Henri Brulard, by Stendhal, I detected an honesty and openness that I did not detect in Calypso, by David Sedaris. Stendhal, I think, was more admirable a writer, because he engaged in pure expression in a manner that left him vulnerable, whereas Sedaris has made many conscious calculations and compromises in order to ensure popular success. When I read Stendhal, I felt that I was seeing him as a person through his own eyes, but when I read Sedaris, I felt that I was dealing with a persona. Compared to most other contemporary writers, Sedaris may be more open, but that is also part of his shtick. Stendhal's book wasn't published until years after his death, whereas Sedaris is making boatloads of money from his bestseller. I have had the same basic experience when reading literary publications. When Tim Parks first began publishing online articles at the New York Review of Books, I thought to myself, "This guy is quite knowledgeable about literature and writes well," but after a couple of years I realized that he wasn't particularly honest or thoughtful, and that he was just churning out this stuff to supplement his income, in much the same way that Czeslaw Milosz did in Paris after World War II. Parks has become a hack writer for America's premier intellectual (or perhaps pseudo-intellectual) journal. The literary journal writing formula, I think, is a lot like a recipe for preparing a salad: you throw in a few ingredients, each of which seems to have potential, toss them around a little, and with any luck someone will find the article thought-provoking. Usually it isn't.

Even in the case of a memoir that I thought was good, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir, I had doubts about the author's honesty and spontaneity. After delving quite far into this in subsequent readings, I decided that although de Beauvoir was relatively honest and forthright, she had blind spots regarding the men in her life and protected them when they didn't deserve it. This became apparent in her later memoirs, in which she elided much of Sartre's unseemly private behavior, leaving him solidly placed on a pedestal that I don't think he deserved. Still, I respect de Beauvoir as a writer and attribute this lapse to her weaknesses as a person. She never cared about money, and probably didn't write anything with the thought of becoming rich or famous. Everyone has gaps in their understanding, and I find that more palatable than the conscious production of written material with the explicit goal of financial gain. Falsity of material in the personal voice of an author is probably my greatest concern with regard to fiction, memoirs and essays.

As a result of my reading experiences in recent years, I am thankful to be living at a time when science is making progress at an astonishing pace, yet I am tempering my expectations in the aesthetic realm. Of course, people also write popular scientific books that aren't worth reading, but the research behind the scenes still progresses and makes its way into the public domain eventually. The low quality of contemporary literary production is a byproduct of capitalism and mass culture, which seem to have a deleterious effect on everything they touch. Although there is nothing that I can do about it, understanding what's going on makes the situation easier to bear.

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