TITLE: The Subject of My Writing AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 12, 2008 9:53 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In recent days, I have written about not reading books and the relationship of these ideas to writing, from my enjoyment of Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. A couple of readers have responded with comments about how important reading is. Don't worry -- much of what Bayard and I are saying here is a joke. But it is also true, when looked at with one's head held tilted just so, and that's part of what made the book interesting to me. For you software guys, think about Extreme Programming -- an idea taken to its limits, to see what the limits can teach us. You can be sure that I am not telling you not to read every line of every novel and short story by Kurt Vonnegut! (I certainly have, some many, many times, and I enjoyed every minute.) Neither is Bayard, though it may seem so sometimes. In my entries inspired by the book, it seems as if I am talking about myself an awful lot. Or consider my latest article, on parsing in CS courses. I read an article by Martin Fowler and ended up writing about my course and my opinions of CS courses. My guess is that most folks out there are more interested in Fowler's ideas than mine, yet I write. This is another source of occasional guilt... Shouldn't this blog be about great ideas? When I write about, say, Bayard's book, shouldn't the entry be about Bayard's book? Or at least about Bayard? Bayard helps me to answer these questions. Let's switch from Montaigne, the focus of my last entry on this topic, to Wilde. The lead quote of Bayard's Chapter 12 was the first passage of the book to seize my attention as I thumbed through it:
Speaking About Yourself

(in which we conclude, along with Oscar Wilde,
that the appropriate time span for reading a book
is ten minutes, after which you risk forgetting
that the encounter is primarily a pretext
for writing your autobiography)
My experience writing this blog biases me toward shouting out, "Amen, Brother Bayard!" But, if it is true that all of my writing is a pretext for writing my autobiography, then it is all the more remarkable that I have any readers at all. Certainly you all have figured this out by now. Bayard claims -- and Wilde agrees -- that it cannot be any other way. You may find more interesting people writing about themselves and read what they write, but you'll still be reading about the writer. (This is cold consolation for someone like me, who knows myself to be not particularly interesting!) Bayard explores Wilde's writing on this very subject, in particular his The Critic as Artist (HB++). Bayard begins his discussion with the surface connection of Wilde offering strident support for the idea of not reading. Wilde says that, in addition to making lists of books to read and lists of books worth re-reading, we should also make lists of books not to read. Indeed, a teacher or critic would do an essential service for the world by dissuading people from wasting their time reading the wrong books. Not reading of this sort is a "power acquired by specialists, a particular ability to grasp what is essential". Bayard then moves on to a deeper connection. Wilde asserts in his typical fashion that the distinction between creating a work of art and critiquing a work of art is artificial. First, the artist, when creating, necessarily exercises her critical faculty in the "spirit of choice" and the "subtle tact of omission"; without this faculty no one can create art, at least not art worth considering. This is an idea that most people are willing to accept, especially those creative people who have some awareness of how they create. But what of the critic? Many people consider critics to be parasites who at best report what we can experience ourselves and and at worst detract from our experience with their self-indulgent contributions. Not Wilde:
Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.
This means that a blogger who primarily comments on the work of others can herself be making art, creating new value. By choosing carefully ideas to discuss, subtly omitting what does not matter, the critic creates a new work potentially worthy of consideration in its own right. (Suddenly, the idea of a mashup comes to mind.) The idea of critic as an independent creator is key. Wilde says:
The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art he criticises as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and thought. He does not even require for the perfection of his art the finest materials. Anything will serve his purpose. ... To an artist so creative as the critic, what does subject-matter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives everywhere. Treatment is the test. There is nothing that has not in it suggestion or challenge.
Bayard summarizes other comments from Wilde in this way:
The work being critiqued can be totally lacking in interest, then, without impairing the critical exercise, since the work is there only as a pretext.
But how can this be?? Because ultimately, the writer writes about himself. Freed from the idea that writing about something else is about that something, the writer is able to use the something as a trigger, a cue to write about the ideas that lie in his own mind. (Please read the first paragraph of the linked entry, if nothing else. Talk about not reading!) As Wilde says,
That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul.
Again, Bayard summarizes neatly:
Reflection on the self .. .is the primary justification for critical activity, and this alone can elevate criticism to the level of art.
As I read this chapter, I felt as if Bayard and Wilde were speaking directly to me and my own doubts as a blogger who likes to write about works I read, performances I see, and experiences as I have. It is a blogger's manifesto! Knowing and Doing feels personal to me because it is. Those works, performances, and experiences stimulate me to write, and that's okay. It is the nature of creativity to be sparked by something Other and to use that spark to express something that lies within the Self. Reading about Montaigne and his fear of forgetting what he had written was a trigger for me to write something I'd long been thinking. So I did. I can take some consolation: This blog may not be worth reading, but not because I choose to connect what I read, see, hear, and feel to myself. It can be unworthy only to the extent that what is inside me is uninteresting. By the way, I have just talked quite a bit about "The Critic as Artist", though I have never read it. I have only read the passages quoted by Bayard, and Bayard's commentary on it. I intend to read the original -- and begin forgetting it -- soon. ~~~~~ These three entries on Bayard's delightful little text cover a lot of ground in the neighborhood of guilt. We often feel shame at not having read something, or at not having grown from it. When we write for others, it is easy to become too concerned with getting things right, with being perfect, with putting on appearances. But consider this final quote from Bayard:
Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves.
Long ago, near the beginning of this blog, I quoted Epictetus's The Enchiridion, via the movie Serendipity, of all places. That quote has a lot in common with what Bayard says here. Freeing ourselves from the obligation to seem cultivated -- being content to be thought foolish and stupid -- allows us to grow and to create. Epictetus evens refers to keeping our "faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature", just as Wilde stresses the role of critical faculty creating a work of art when we write. Helping readers to see this truth and to release them from the obligation to appear knowing is the ultimate source of the value of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Perhaps Bayard's will be proud that I mark it FB++. -----