Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Blog headings are pointless

3 instances of writers writing against their own genre:

1. There's a long tradition -- going back at least to 1936 -- of law review articles attacking law review articles. Judge Richard Posner's from a few years ago, for instance. My mom also wrote one much earlier -- it's excerpted in the block quote in this post.

2. This blog post attacking blog posts stirred up the blogosphere a few weeks ago.

3. Now there's an essay called "Why Essays Are So Damned Boring," by Cristina Nehring.

This essay helped me stop feeling guilty about not reading more "essay" essays -- the kinds of things that appear in the New Yorker, Harper's, and those annual Best American Essays books, as opposed to reporting or opinion pieces of the sort that are more common in my periodicals of choice, like the Washington Post and The New Republic.

I generally prefer straightforward analysis if I'm going to read about the world. If I'm not going to get tons of concrete information or rigorous arguments about how things work, then I'd rather just forget about the serious stuff altogether and listen to music or watch a movie. (And not a protest song or an ideological movie!) I'm less interested in some squishy grey area between the analytical/political and the creative/autobiographical.

Back to the essay... Nehring has some inspiring words:

We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable.

Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke.

“Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” ...

“The next best thing to a good sermon is a bad sermon,” said Montaigne’s follower and admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the first American essayist. In a good sermon we hear our own discarded thoughts brought “back to us by the trumpets of the last judgment,” in the words of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In a bad sermon we formulate those thoughts ourselves—through the practice of creative disagreement. If an author tells us “love is nothing but jealousy” and we disagree, it is far more likely that we will come up with our own theory of love than if we hear a simple autobiographical account of the author’s life. It is hard to argue with someone’s childhood memory—and probably inadvisable. It is with ideas that we can argue, with ideas that we can engage. ...

Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism, and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be.
Of course, this argument is setting up a delicious paradox: if you vehemently disagree with her thesis, you've proved it!

The last sentence in that block quote is a "good sermon" to me, since it echoes this post.

And the Montaigne quote ("Where I have least knowledge...") could serve as a powerful rebuke to the anti-blog blog post linked above. More about that later...

UPDATE: This post is making my mom nervous!


Simon said...

Posner has another article that fits under the heading of writers writing against their own genre - Judicial Opinion Writing, 62 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1421 (1995) is very useful.

Simon said...

JAC said...
"I generally prefer straightforward analysis if I'm going to read about the world."

Straightforward, certainly - and I would add the virtue of getting straight to the point. One of my pet peeves with law review articles and, above all, briefs, is the sheer repetitiveness, and the endless previewing - "In this section, I shall argue that..." To be sure, there's much to be said (as Scalia & Garner do) for signaling the reader as to what's coming next but there are more elegant and interesting ways to accomplish that.

A concise summary in an opening paragraph, yes. Perhaps a very concise roadmap if it's a longer piece. And really good writers can get away with a little too much connecting tissue if the meat and gravy - the content and the rest of the writing - is good enough. But the sheer repetition and prefatory junk can be really offputting, a fortiori when reading online where it's harder to skip. Althouse Sr. has it right in her post that you link to - law reviews (and I'd say legal writing generally) is far too often "too long and complicated ... in proportion to the ideas they express." Write straightforward analysis, and get straight to it.

LemmusLemmus said...

Good title.

I have not read that Montaigne quote in context, but taken at face value, it seems to be exactly wrong. Am I missing something?

Stupe said...

Well, golly, I prefer good storytelling, or thrilling novelization.

I simply can't read about history, or current events, unless it's under the guise of fiction , with brilliant narration.

What does that say about me?

XWL said...

Keats said it best in his little ode

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

Truth exists, and it's beautiful, the folks who deny this, are ugly (spiritually, intellectually, occasionally physically).

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