The Perils of Public Writing
Two centuries have passed since the great critic and essayist William Hazlitt wrote the essay, "On Living to One's-Self." In it, he advocated living life "as if no one knew there was such a person, and you wished no one to know it." It is better, he maintained, to be "a silent spectator of the mighty scene of things" than it is to be "an object of attention or curiosity."
Hazlitt's essay is a call to the contemplative life — to a deep appreciation of the world's beauty and complexity. It beckons us to forget ourselves. Yet ironically, Hazlitt wrote these lines in a public essay that millions of people would eventually read. The present essay suffers from the same kind of irony: If I were truly concerned about the perils of public writing, a reader might wonder, why parade my concerns before a public audience?
In truth, the matter is more complicated than Hazlitt lets on. After all, he himself did not choose to live as an unknown diarist in the contemplative mode. Instead, he pursued two fundamental but opposing goods: the first, a rejection of worldliness and ambition in pursuit of perception, insight, and sensibility; the second, an all-too-human desire to communicate with others.
Despite the appeal of the life Hazlitt commends, most of us hope to do and to say things that people might receive and benefit from — and we hope to profit from the things they say in turn. Indeed, the significance of nearly all human activity depends on its being situated within a community. It is thus hard to avoid concluding that Hazlitt, too, cared deeply about the reception of his work — as do all writers, regardless of whether they choose to admit it.
Still, the act of writing poses a predicament for anyone who recognizes the temptations of pride and self-aggrandizement. We simultaneously desire to attract recognition and seek to avoid it. We want to engage an audience, yet we see that approbation flatters our egos and that criticism is painful. Although wiser people tell us not to read comments, with today's technology, readers' responses are exceedingly difficult to evade. And try as we might to ignore them, the words of critics can still wound us.
How, then, should we think about displaying ourselves — or at least our thoughts and words — in public? And where does the allure of public writing leave the activity of scholarly writing?
PUBLIC WRITING AS PERFORMANCE
The appeal of public writing is easy to see. Writing for a public audience is fulfilling in the near term, since millions of people have access to what is written for general consumption. With the aid of modern technology, ideas can be disseminated quickly and widely, and reactions can be generated in seconds. An author can take a stand, promote something, ridicule something else. He can join a movement or draw attention to a cause. In this sense, writing may even approach a form of political activism.
Over the past 25 years or so — paralleling the rise of the internet — academics have increasingly played the role of "public intellectual," sometimes in print, though more often online, where their musings are consumed quickly and subsequently set aside. In the best-case scenario, a piece published on the internet goes viral, meaning millions of people share it with others over social media and other online platforms. In the truly exceptional case, a viral piece turns into a best-selling book.
Almost all the students I advise about graduate school now find public writing more appealing than traditional scholarly work. In some sense, this is hardly surprising: Scholarly writing is both less widely noticed and more difficult to undertake than public writing. It requires in-depth research, attribution, and engagement with sources that may be obscure or difficult. Whereas public writing on the internet may take only a few hours or days before delivering its satisfactions, scholarly work takes time and patience to bear fruit. And although tenure requirements are slow to change, even today's universities increasingly prize work that is popular and accessible — a treatment for a certain kind of cancer, or an anti-racist training session in one's hometown — over the arcane, though perhaps original and meaningful, work involved in fields like medieval philosophy or quantum physics.
A key peril of public writing, however, is that it tends to place the writer at the center of the work. A desire to be seen, to be thought smart or witty or erudite, can — imperceptibly, at first — begin to overtake the writing itself. Writing for the public may, and often does, evolve into writing to develop a platform for the promotion of oneself as a commodity. As this shift occurs, the prose becomes more sensationalist — after all, most readers are attracted to provocation and find nuance boring. Moderation takes a backseat to extremes, judiciousness to hyperbole. Writers are encouraged to cater to the demands of the moment: "Give us the red meat of radicalism, controversy, and moral imperatives! Tell us what we want to hear, and we'll reward you with more attention!" As a practical matter, academics who engage in public writing spend much more time writing things that are short, minimally researched, and often forgettable than those who focus on writing for a scholarly audience.
In today's increasingly digital world, prior generations' discomfort with fame and publicity can seem decidedly old fashioned. Many of us now live remarkably public lives — and voluntarily so. People unabashedly profess on Facebook and Twitter how "honored" and "humbled" they are to have received some accolade or prize. Publishers urge potential authors to cultivate large followings on social media. Everyone is encouraged to establish and "curate" an online persona. This often entails producing more content than is necessary just to remain in the public eye at all times.
Meanwhile, modern technology beckons us to keep abreast of every major story as soon as it breaks. It lures us into thinking we must remain constantly up-to-date on the high-toned intellectual gossip of Twitter, blogs, news sites, and podcasts. It can trick us into thinking we know more than we actually do.
But how many people can keep up with the deluge of content posted online every hour? How many of us have truly sparkling insights on a daily, or even weekly, basis? What has become of the marinating time, the thoughtful appraisal and re-appraisal, the waiting and revising, that the most valuable work requires?
Though it can be fun to act as an impresario or a firebrand — to write with confidence, erudition, and verbal swagger on the hot topic of the moment — the most meaningful writing takes place when authors do not call attention to themselves, but to truths concealed beneath the busy surface of everyday life. These insights are best conveyed in language that is crafted carefully and at leisure, with the overgrowth of pride and self-concern cut away so that the prose itself stands luminous.
Today's intellectual environment makes the slow, humble work required of true scholarship difficult. Instead of reflecting in leisure, we are constantly tempted to reply to comments, refute opponents, hurl snark, and commiserate with friends. We hope people are watching as we try to build a reputation; we dream of being called to weigh in on anything that falls within our purview. And, deny it though we do, we scan the work of others to see if they have referenced us. There's a pang of jealousy when someone else writes on "our" subject, or says something we would have liked to claim as our own. To this extent, Hazlitt's lament — as well as Epicurus' famous admonition, "live unknown" — seem almost incomprehensible.
Must we always have something pithy to say about every contemporary happening? Must we constantly volunteer our thoughts like an overeager kindergartner, raising his hand ever higher and waving it ever more earnestly to attract the teacher's attention? How might writers recognize and avoid the tendency toward exaggeration, competition, and extremism?
THE INVISIBLE WRITER
The human desire for recognition may be unavoidable. As George Santayana once observed, "[t]he highest form of vanity is love of fame," a passion "easy to deride" but "impossible to eradicate."
But perhaps one might escape the predicament of prideful attention-seeking by working to cultivate a certain kind of disinterest. We've all read writers whose work appears to stand on its own. Nothing of the writer's personality, sex, or position is evident; everything is lucid argument. Sometimes one finds this in scholarly writing, when a certain essay manages to answer exactly the question identified at the outset. No "self" stands in the way of argument; the author is invisible. The writer gently takes our hand and leads us to well-reasoned conclusions that we wish were our own. Of course, this is why writing teachers since time immemorial have eschewed the use of the personal pronoun "I."
Baylor University's Matthew Lee Anderson favors such an approach, contending that for Christians in particular, ambition ought to be "commensurate with invisibility in our work. Indeed, it might even require it." Often in life, he observes, "one man plants, another waters, and a third harvests," but most of the time, we only notice the harvester. "That's a problem in our perception," he writes. "Those who are keenly attuned to the power of Christian ambition will disregard that standard, and attend to the work that needs to be done with an enthusiasm that disclaims those standards and works for the rewards that come in heaven."
On its face, this sounds like a worthwhile goal. But before we embrace such an ideal outright, it might help to consider what complete anonymity would do to writers and their writing.
Imagine a world in which nothing we wrote redounded to our benefit. All was judged purely on its merits — on its clarity and persuasiveness. In such a world, we would not see our work as an extension of ourselves, another item to add to a resume, another achievement in the great race to pile up accomplishments and make a name for oneself. Instead, we would aim only at conveying an idea, image, or argument, offering it selflessly to others, birthing it as does a mother who gives up her child for adoption. This would certainly winnow down the pool of potential writers. And it would satisfy Anderson's call to eschew worldly ambition, as well as Hazlitt's call to live to oneself.
But perhaps anonymity and invisibility are too extreme, throwing out something that may be essential to effective writing. After all, in good writing, there is often an element of personality that we can come to know and love. We read certain writers because we always find them interesting or fresh or funny, or simply unique. In fact, sometimes precisely what we want from a piece of writing is for the author's distinct personality to shine through the printed page. We seek out his choice of words, his turns of phrase, his voice. Sometimes, when we know an author personally, we can hear him speaking in our heads as we read the words on the page. "I know just how he would say that," we may find ourselves thinking, "and it would be with just that Boston accent or Southern twang, or he'd turn his head like this or use gestures to express himself, in the way he always does." We come to appreciate a person's style, and this style may be as evident in print as it is in the flesh.
Except for the private diary, writing is meant to be read by someone other than the author. Letters and emails presuppose recipients; corporate memos convey information to employees; advertising copy aims to make consumers desire products. Journalists have always written explicitly for the public, and academics for their more circumscribed scholarly audiences. In this sense, all writing is profoundly and unavoidably social. Both author and reader matter.
Writing is at once a process of clarifying our own thoughts and communicating with others. "Am I correct in my arguments and assertions," a writer may ask, "or will people disagree and criticize? Will I be helpful in showing readers something they have not seen before, or are my thoughts stale and overly rehearsed? Can I offer the reader a certain kind of empathy, a sort of friendship once removed? Or perhaps charity, or recognition of shared sorrow, or even re-assurance during a time of trial?"
At the same time, a writer also wants the attention of readers. Publishing anything at all is a request for others to pay attention, and publication entails the hope that what one has written will receive due consideration. "I have something I want to say, and I want you to hear it," writers implicitly tell the world. The worst outcome is for a piece to go unnoticed, as if it had never been written — dropped stillborn into an indifferent world.
THE VIRTUES OF SCHOLARSHIP
Where does all of this leave scholarly writing? If writing is in part a form of communication, but scholarship is meant for an audience so narrow that it may never be read at all, why should it endure as a genre? Must all scholarly writing also turn public-facing, with investigation and discovery translated into terms that a majority of the educated public can understand?
At its worst, scholarship can be pretentious, jargon-filled, unclear, or boring — or any combination thereof. And like public writing, it too can turn into a vehicle for self-promotion, for displaying one's supposed brilliance and erudition. But at its best, scholarly work aspires to understanding and insight that transcend our daily concerns. It is thus at odds with the requirements of public writing.
Both scholars and their necessarily smaller circles of readers are liberated from the demand that everything be "relevant" in a least-common-denominator sort of way. Distance from practical and political affairs may even be the essential condition for expressing original ideas, as both reader and author may require some degree of psychic detachment from ordinary life to appreciate the complex resonances of a theory, to adduce and evaluate evidence, or to qualify or refute an idea or set of ideas. Scholarly writers should still seek to communicate clearly, of course. But their work need not be as timely or breezy as a blog post.
There is also distinct value in taking as a given that one's readers have a certain level of expert knowledge. Instead of starting at the very beginning, a scholar writing for an academic audience can assume more foundational knowledge in readers, starting the journey several legs in and pushing further or deeper than others have before.
A scholar writing for an academic audience is free to explore ideas that would seem arcane to the uninitiated. Indeed, perhaps scholars ought to embrace the obscurity of their topics, never apologizing for the vast quantity of writing that will remain unread in the endless rows of journals that populate university libraries. Classicist Justin Stover has made this very argument.
From this perspective, the contemporary trend toward public writing would not be a salutary advance in the name of "relevance," but a misunderstanding of the whole academic endeavor. Scholarly works are written for many reasons, Stover asserts, but "they are not written to be read, at least in the normal sense of the term."
In a similar vein, perhaps overproduction of obscure works is precisely what constitutes the heart of a university's scholarly activity. The innumerable commentaries on Aristotle and Peter Lombard produced over many centuries, Stover remarks, are only the earliest instances of "academic overproduction." That there seems to be a great deal more overproduction in the modern day is because there are now so many "professional" academics, all of whom must write to advance their careers.
From a cynical standpoint, this increase in scholarly output has produced an excessive amount of badly researched and poorly written work. Even many scholars acknowledge this problem. But we might also approach the situation with a more positive attitude.
To undertake careful investigation — to make an inquiry into a particular, bounded aspect of a larger field — is to make a contribution akin to doing the small but vital tasks that go into the furnishing and maintenance of a large house or institution. No single person can manage all the work alone; yet one might nevertheless clean the baseboards or re-upholster a chair. How much more valuable is it to say something thoughtful about the work of Friedrich Nietzsche — perhaps only about a single essay or book — than to speak of Nietzsche in general, unreflective terms, much less to say something platitudinous about "German philosophy" or the still more capacious genre of "Western thought"? When viewed in this light, the more granular may indeed be the more valuable.
The other aspect of scholarly writing worth noting is that its benefits may lie not so much in the work produced as in the experience of the person who produces it. The thousands of commentaries written on Aristotle mean that thousands of people considered Aristotle's work, read it at a leisurely pace, and reflected on it long and thoughtfully enough to have something to say about it. Nobody could emerge from such an experience unmarked. The relics left in the minds of those who have undertaken such careful study and consideration are surely valuable in their own right. In this sense, the real value of scholarship can be found not only in the words produced, but in the kinds of character traits that it cultivates — patience, deference, and thoughtfulness, among others.
No doubt the pleasure that comes from reading scholarly work is therefore a "more difficult" pleasure. As the British author and critic Walter Pater wrote in "On Style," scholars addressing scholarly audiences necessarily "leave something to the willing intelligence" of readers. He quotes Montaigne — "[t]o go preach to the first passer-by, to become tutor to the ignorance of the first I meet, is a thing I abhor" — before observing that the scholar "will therefore ever be shy of offering uncomplimentary assistance to the reader's wit." "To really strenuous minds," he concludes, "there is a pleasurable stimulus in the challenge for a continuous effort on their part, to be rewarded by securer and more intimate grasp of the author's sense" (emphasis added). In other words, scholarly writing, like public writing, is also social and conversational; but it demands greater and more skillful exertion on the part of the reader.
In some sense, then, scholarship is even more conversational than public writing. In scholarly work, an author is not just writing to an audience; he is taking into account the views of others, whom he cites either to support his case or to refute something he believes is mistaken. No true scholar is wholly self-made or independent of the tradition in which he works. To utter something relevant in an ongoing conversation about some book or person or idea or phenomenon — that is scholarship, properly understood.
As thoroughly modern as it may appear, the drive to make a name for ourselves — to say something original and timely yet thoughtful and profound — is not just a contemporary predicament. In 1852, English theologian John Henry Newman condemned the "viewiness" required of public writers. He complained of the journalists whose intellects were "flaunted daily before the public in full dress, and that dress ever new and varied, and spun, like the silkworm's, out of themselves." No one who writes for a public audience today can help but feel culpable when reading these lines. And Newman's indictment didn't stop there: "As the great man's guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet," he continued, so "the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table."
John Stuart Mill made a similar point in 1836: "There has been much complaint of late years," he observed, "of the growth, both in the world of trade and in that of intellect, of quackery, and especially of puffing." One wonders what Newman and Mill would say to us now. Are we infinitely worse than the writers of the mid-19th century?
Likewise, it seems as if everyone nowadays writes for a public audience. Even this, though, is not as new as we might imagine. Writing again in 1836, Mill lamented that "when almost every person who can spell, can and will write, what is to be done? It is difficult to know what to read, except by reading everything." The world "gorges itself with intellectual food, and in order to swallow the more, bolts it." Ultimately, the public "is in the predicament of an indolent man, who cannot bring himself to apply his mind vigorously to his own affairs, and over whom, therefore, not he who speaks most wisely, but he who speaks most frequently, obtains the influence."
"[T]hese," he declared, "are the inevitable fruits of immense competition; of a state of society where any voice, not pitched in an exaggerated key, is lost in the hubbub." Success "in so crowded a field, depends not upon what a person is, but upon what he seems."
For writers then and now, we think we must compulsively manage our images and brands so that everything we produce has its greatest impact and receives its widest recognition. In truth, almost all of this is outside our control. Nobody ever really knows the future impact of his words or actions. A stray poem or essay may change the course of someone's life; alternatively, and more often than not, it may simply be ignored or forgotten.
Academics — myself included — would benefit from marking the differences between the genres of public and scholarly writing, seeing that each has its perils and rewards, each its discrete audience, each a somewhat different aim. We could then approach both kinds of writing with greater clarity about what we are doing and greater circumspection about the results we can expect. We would be more alert to the temptations of pride and self-aggrandizement as they inevitably sneak up on us, whispering in our ears that we could be important, or even more seductively, influential.
The virtues of self-restraint and humility possess an attractiveness all their own. Their beauty can appear in our character as well as in the written word. "Say everything clearly and without ornament," advises Mill. "Only use words that convey the sense of what you want to say and do not draw attention to yourself for the sake of vanity."
Today's writers might also do well to remember that those parts of life that are published are often but small affairs compared to the more meaningful events that take place outside of the limelight, with no audience, no reader engagement, and no need of reporting.