Friday, December 10

What follows is unfinished and not remotely cohesive.

The other day I read a really good essay on the subject of essays by Paul Graham.

Now, it might be that writing about writing is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst. Pointless is what I suppose most people feel in school. Counterproductive is how I often feel about my own work. But I think Graham's essay provides variations on the best response to both of those feelings. In school, we often have to deal with a system that (almost accidentally) keeps English literature in the same box as writing. Even outside of school, people cling to an academic model of writing that most of us don't particularly like - how many times, before you graduate from college, will you be told that you need a thesis statement, a conclusion that says the same thing, and a straight-line series of paragraphs between them? I like Graham's take on why this is and what's wrong with it.

If we take writing as a tool for thinking well and sharing that thought, rather than as the way one responds to literature or acquires a degree, then it seems justified to be reflective about the whole process, because you want to use it for something.

Why shouldn't writing share a box with English literature? The problem with applying writing to the set of "literature" first and foremost is that the literature which is worth studying is applied to the description of something much larger - namely, reality. Of course, literature itself is a part of reality - but by volume, it's a small part. Where it represents or contains the rest of things, it inevitably does so in a limited and second-order way. This isn't to diminish at all the value of literature. It's only to suggest that what we really want to do is make more of the stuff, rather than making more critical apparatus for what we already have.

(A very good way to approach lit that matters to you is to write about it; the very best way to write, however, is probably not through an approach to literature. None-the-less, contrast the idea that we are all stealing from the record and building on it. History, after all, approaches reality through extant "literature" - maybe the problem is that we need to use the broadest possible set of records.)

Critics of visual art talk about a variety of "art for art's sake" whose practitioners claim to be interested solely in process: The movement of a brush across some surface, a particular element of geometry or color. I think it tends to be shallow, if not completely masturbatory, but I won't deny that this sort of thing has artistic value. Often it can be visually stunning and appealing work, and sometimes it communicates. But for every big field of colored squares which makes you think "cool", several thousand others just suck. I suspect that understanding and valuing something as a process is not the same as becoming so absorbed in mechanics that your output is the large-scale equivalent of a marginal doodle.

(Also that a pretended fascination with process often conceals a failure to master it. There are few grounds on which one can say that a splash of paint-for-paint's-sake has missed its target.)