If you like to think about the acts of reading and writing, you really ought to follow the Text Patterns weblog by Alan Jacobs. He doesn’t write too often or at length, but over the past year I’ve benefited from reading this weblog more than any other; I’ve read several of the books Jacobs recommended, and started looking into things that wouldn’t have otherwise shown up on my radar screen.
Today he points to an excellent short essay on writing by Jed Perl, which considers the question of whether everything which is written ought to be read. First, Perl notes that the value of a piece of writing is not directly correlated with its success in some marketplace:
But the speed with which words, once written, are now being read … has set me to thinking about the extent to which writing, for the writer, ought to have a freestanding value, a value apart from the reader. There is too much talk about the literary marketplace, the cultural marketplace, and the marketplace of ideas. We need to remember that a book—or a painting or a piece of music—begins as the product of an individual imagination, and can retain its power even when largely or even entirely ignored.
I can certainly vouch for this as a reader. If I were to list the fifty pieces of writing that have had the greatest impact on my thinking, forty of them would be works that are largely forgotten today, and some were never valued at all in the marketplace of ideas. No matter; the power of those works remains available to the few who are fortunate enough to encounter them.
Perl goes on to observe that when we assume that only what is read is valuable, we run the risk of sacrificing value for eyeballs, giving the reader what titillates rather than what edifies.
But writers who live for their readers—or for what their editors imagine their readers want—may end up with an impoverished relationship with those readers.
And when I can’t stand the thought of my words going unread, I face the even greater danger of inflicting half-baked thoughts on our readers. Why is this a danger? Because it risks reinforcing the assumption that readers read my words because they are my words, that what matters isn’t what I say in those words but just that they emerged from my pen phrased in my own special way, that the reader delights in me as a personality (scamp, curmudgeon, innocent, sage, iconoclast) rather than in the ideas I convey. Soon enough I won’t bother baking those thoughts at all, or even worrying whether they qualify as thoughts; any fodder will be sufficient, since it is the sausage machine of my style that provides the significance.
I’ve always been attracted by the thought of being a writer, but not so much by the thought of being a stylist—it didn’t come naturally to me, and I had other ways of scratching my itch to show off. Once I gave up on style, I discovered that all that remained to interest the reader was content—and valuable content was not only hard for me to come by, it was even harder fore me to put into readable shape. At that point I mostly gave up on being a writer.
But I never gave up on writing. What kept me at it was the growing realization that I couldn’t say with any confidence that I understood something if I was unable to convey it to someone else—essentially, putting an idea into words (or failing to do so) is an important test of its soundness. Moreover, putting an idea into words often requires that it be researched and reshaped, with the final product being different that the vague original—and often much less valuable.
Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now.
I am not someone who does the bulk of my thinking on paper. Usually by the time I sit down to write, the basic ideas have been turned over at length in my mind. But writing still serves as the final, cruelest test of my thinking. I use a few guidelines that will frequently force me to revise my thinking on a certain point, often encourage me to put a idea back in the oven for further baking, and sometimes lead me to abandon certain assumptions. One of those (which I am employing right here) is to always follow a general claim with at least one concrete example. Frequently I need to modify the claim in order to come up with such an example, and often enough I can’t come up with a convincing example at all; both occasions teach me something, and spare the reader a bit of nonsense.
For many of us who love the act of writing—even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy—there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader. I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page.
When I think about the writers I loved to read when I was in high school and college, I know what mattered most to me was the one-on-one relationship I felt I was developing with the writer’s thoughts. It was fantastic to feel I was alone with a writer, engaged in a splendid intellectual or imaginative conversation. (The wonder of reading Henry James’s late prose was in seeing his magnificent, disorderly thoughts achieve their infinitely complex order.) [Emphasis added]
I love this observation. I’ve spent enough time trying to think clearly about various topics to know that it is a precious and hard-won thing. And so I bond strongly with a writer who not only has done the hard work of thinking things through, but has gone on to the even harder work of putting those thoughts into readable form. Such writing not only reveals important things to me, it teaches me how to think through such things for myself.
I don’t publish here in order to put my thinking to the test. I am confident that I can read my own writing honestly and critically enough to judge its soundness. I publish in the hope that some will benefit from reading about what I’ve concluded, and that some others from seeing how I reached those conclusions.