strings and bows

Making the Sausage – Freddie deBoer:

That said, I feel that the only value proposition I really offer is my writing, the writing itself. The fact of the matter is that anybody could come along and offer the exact same political perspective; it’s a weird lane, but one that could certainly be replicated. What’s not so easily replicated is my writing ability. I have worked very, very hard on my prose for a long time. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. I became a fairly good guitar player, as a young man, but never good enough; I’m bad at almost all athletics and almost preternaturally shitty at team sports; I’m a disaster at most video games; I cook and cook and cook and never get any better; it takes me approximately seven hours to learn any given boardgame; my drawings and handwriting are genuinely indistinguishable from those of a 7-year-old; in the extremely unlikely event that you can get me to dance, kind witnesses will likely ask me if there’s someone they can call to come help me. I’m terribly clumsy even when I’m not on meds, and meds make it even worse. My bike was my primary means of transportation for four years and I still can’t look to my left or right while biking without turning in that direction. And after I got fired from Brooklyn College in 2020 nine months of applications in all kinds of fields got me nothing but a single offer for a $15/hour job. This is all I’ve got. 

A terrific essay from Freddie. 

I often wonder how I would do in Freddie’s situation. I am blessed in that I have two strings to my bow rather than one: My day job is teaching, and I’m past the publish-or-perish stage, so I could just teach if I wanted to. (And I love teaching.) Vital though my writing is to me, I haven’t pushed all my chips to the middle of the table the way Freddie has. 

One of the topics of Freddie’s essay is the response to a recent essay of his on growing up in the Nineties. It was widely read and shared and admired, but there were of course some naysayers. And — also of course, even more of course — most of the naysayers hadn’t read the essay. Some of them, it seems, didn’t even manage to read the entire title

There are millions and millions of people like this on social media, and especially on Twitter — I can’t count the number of times I saw people responding to the first half of a tweet, not having been able to make it all the way to the 200-character mark before blessing the world with their Opinion. (I think those people are pretty much the only ones left on Twitter now.) But that’s par for the social-media course; you can’t expect anything better. 

What bothers me is the extension of these habits of mindlessness into longer-form writing and even into professional journalism. Genuine critique is a great gift to a writer — maybe the single most helpful response to How to Think that I received came from Jonathan Rauch, in a conversation at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who was gracious and friendly but also quite critical. Made me want to run back home and write the Revised and Improved Edition. But criticism of that kind is relatively rare, because it depends on a careful reading of the work in question. You’re much more likely to get a review based on a more superficial reading, which is perhaps inevitable given the tyranny of deadlines. 

But occasionally I have seen a review of a book of mine written by someone who quite evidently hasn’t read the book at all. I mean, maybe they’ve skimmed a few pages, but that’s it. And such reviews are not always negative! — some reviewers have been quite complimentary towards the book that they inaccurately assumed I probably wrote. That sort of thing annoys me in a weird way, but not as much, of course, as the review that attacks an argument I didn’t make — an argument I explicitly repudiated on page 49 — or that wags an admonitory finger at me for leaving something out of my book that in fact is right there on page 73 you dumbass. 

This sort of thing annoys me enough that years ago I stopped reading reviews — though that doesn’t prevent people from writing to me to ask What do you think about the bad things so-and-so said about you? So I end up anyway hearing more than I want to about such responses. And it annoys me even though it can’t really hurt me — so imagine how strongly I would feel about such things if, like Freddie, I were depending on my writing to feed myself and my family. 

I go on about this because it’s a recent theme of mine: the perils of a media culture that’s indifferent to truth. Thus my argument about truth as a commons; thus Operation Diogenes. I’m going to be mulling over these matters  often in the weeks or months to come.