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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. Essays often suffer from the same kind of irony: if the writer were truly concerned about the perils of public writing, a reader might wonder, why parade their 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.
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 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.
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, writing 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 moralism! Tell us what we want to hear, and we'll reward you with more attention!" 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.
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
Why 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?
Well, 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.”
So, how might writers recognize and avoid the tendency toward exaggeration, competition, and extremism?
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In some sense, 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.
Writing in 1836, John Stuart 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.”
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.
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 John Stuart 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.”
“[T]hese,” John Stuart Mill 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.”
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
“[T]hese,” John Stuart Mill declared in 1836, “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.” Who are we when we write? And, are we saying something or just screaming?
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