Sunday, 1 February 2015

On Essays

A friend recently suggested to me that there was no way she could do well at [humanities subject]. Despite being reliably articulate, and having a deep interest in the subject, she was convinced she could never be so virtuosic as to write a Good Essay, like a proper Student of Literature. I found this pretty horrifying, but I suppose it's not hard to see why certain parts of the humanities might cultivate this sort of harmful mystique about basic writing skills.

In particular, I point the finger at literary criticism, which has spent the last few decades in a desperate struggle to prove its own worth and relevance. It's not that lit crit shouldn't exist; someone ought to be keeping an eye on our civilisation's cultural output. But as a discipline, it is embarrassingly insecure, and it's not hard to see why.

All that critics do is read books (or consume other culture) and write essays about it. And if reading is easy, of course they'll be invested in the idea that writing an essay about it is some mystical skill that justifies their place in the academic pantheon. Viewed in this light, Postmodernism is a pretty transparent effort to make the process of writing (and reading) criticism as arduous as possible - specifically, to make it something that requires expertise. If you fill your work with words for which no satisfactory definition has been agreed in the half-century since their coinage, then it becomes impossible to understand what you are saying, let alone argue against it and be taken seriously, without the sort of thorough understanding of that fifty-year history possessed only by your comrades in arms.

Historians, by contrast...well, they at least study something real. The past, you see, actually happened. And, sure enough, while they flirted with postmodernism, historians gave up on the obscurity quite quickly. Unlike the literary theorists, they knew they had shit to get done.

This isn't an abstract question. Anyone who writes essays for a living - including cultural critics and, more famously, journalists - is right this moment getting their faces rubbed in the fact that good essays just aren't that difficult to write. So much so, in fact, that the world will voluntarily do it for approximately free.

This turns out to have a bunch of bad side effects, because "paying people to write essays about current events" had a bunch of positive externalities like "incentivising people to research and gather news". These incentives are rapidly collapsing, as the market for "essays about current events" becomes much more efficient. But the very fact that they are externalities proves that writing the essays wasn't the important or valuable thing. The valuable thing was having something to say - and when it comes to news, nobody has worked out to compensate people who uncover things for us to talk about.

By contrast, when it comes to cultural criticism, there turns out to be a bottomless well of people with interesting things to say. The more abstract sort of feminist academic discourse, for example, has been largely supplanted by the bloggy online kind, with little of value lost. (News gathering, on the other hand, turns out to be....well, thank heavens for the BBC, imperfect as it is, because one way of ending that sentence is quite possibly " need of direct non-market subsidies if the whole edifice of democracy is not to come tumbling down"). The only defence, then, against the idea that the world is already doing your job for you, for free, is to claim that they're not doing it properly.

And so, a disturbing number of people will imply that writing essays is so Hard and Important that not just anyone with something to say can do it. They are wrong - and one should back away slowly from anyone whose self-esteem requires that to be true.

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