Writers shouldn’t talk, Becca Rothfeld writes in Gawker — not to large groups of people, not on the television, not on podcasts. Why? They are bad at it and say stupid stuff:
I have always thought that there is something peculiarly invidious, even offensive, about the expectation that writers talk, at least in their capacity as writers.
No doubt I am biased by my own distaste for the exercise. I can imagine few horrors greater than an editor proposing the torment of a phone call, or a podcaster innocently inviting me to record a segment. Fortified by the protections of print, I have the courage to ask them: Who in their right mind would want to talk, much less listen, to a person who has contrived to spend as much of her life as possible crouched over her computer in isolation, deleting unsatisfactory variants of a single sentence for upwards of an hour? Nothing in my daily practice has prepared me for the gauntlet of a tête-à-tête. Writing is an antidote to the immediacy and inexactitude of speech, and I resent any attempt to drag me back into the sludge of dialogue.
But I also balk at the prospect of a speaking writer for reasons that more or less generalize. For one thing, authors are often poor orators, inept at the most basic mechanics of verbalization. They hum and halt and hesitate, interrupting themselves, appending caveats to their caveats, thrumming a chorus of tentative ‘ums.’ They are drafters and amenders, if not by vocation than by profession, and in conversation, their strongest pronouncements tend to be timid, as if they were editing in real time. Even when a writer musters a declaration or masters the rhythm of a spoken sentence, her voice often betrays her. I once made the mistake of watching a video of a distinguished philosopher at a conference — and thereby discovering that he emits squawks as discordant as his papers are crisp and crystalline. And then there is the perennial challenge of pacing. Accustomed to laboring at length in seclusion, many writers speak glacially, as if they are lowering themselves into cool water, venturing one word and adjusting to its temperature before cautiously proceeding to the next.
At least as embarrassing as all these failures of delivery are the things that writers actually say. Books and essays are the product of long bouts of thinking, which makes writers fantastically ill-suited to summoning opinions instantaneously. In spoken interviews, Jonathan Franzen has confessed, among other things, that he considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan as a means of understanding the younger generation — an admission that he surely would have found occasion to excise from an essay. Indeed, it was his New Yorker editor who later talked him out of the idea.
Yes, they do sometimes say stupid stuff, but they can also be dumb in print, too. Novelists often get into trouble when they write about politics or writing itself. Marilynne Robinson is one of our best novelists, but any capacity she has for seeing other points of view vanishes when she decides to write about welfare. Joining Twitter is probably the worst thing Joyce Carol Oates has done for her career. She seems intelligent and insightful in her short stories (except in that terrible one on Robert Frost). Not so on Twitter.
Are writers bad at talking? Some are; some aren’t. It may also be that we have become worse listeners. William F. Buckley talked to Eudora Welty and Walker Percy for an hour on “the Southern imagination.” It is a great conversation, but it likely wouldn’t be broadcast today. It would seem too slow to many, too complicated, which isn’t the writer’s problem. It’s ours.
In other news
Rob Long on giving writing advice: “Writers, in general, love giving . . . advice, because it’s as close to writer-ish activity as you can get without actually having to write, which is something that all writers, or at least all honest writers, hate.”
Christopher Caldwell reviews Francis Fukuyama’s Liberalism and Its Discontents:
Fukuyama’s familiar strengths and weaknesses are on display here. The strengths include a keen eye for the paradoxes of liberal freedom. Late-20th-century free-market sloganeering is a favorite target of Fukuyama . . . For instance, he notes that government’s handover of the Internet to the private sector set in motion the process whereby its retail users would lose control over it.
Fukuyama’s weaknesses include a prose style that often fogs up, as abstractions do abstract things to other abstractions . . . It is hard to pin Fukuyama down. He has a style of argument, useful literarily but slippery philosophically, of ventriloquizing arguments. “Intersectionality is an acknowledgment of the fact that different forms of marginalization exist, and that their intersection creates new forms of prejudice and injustice.” Does he buy that? Or is he just laying it out? He covers a great deal, but in a hurry, and so superficially that one wonders whether to trust him. He calls Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968, in which he nosed Hubert Humphrey by 0.7 percent, a “landslide.” He thinks the 16th Amendment, which enabled progressives to introduce the income tax in the 20th century, was one of the post–Civil War amendments.
A short history of green screens: “The Incredible Hulk aside, human skin doesn’t come in these shades. So when editors switch out all the chroma-key blue or green in a frame and add their interpolated images, the transition is smooth.”
“The most distinguished female psychologist of the 20th century—whose pioneering research discredited the ‘archival’ model of human memory and established our understanding of memories as malleable rather than fixed—was canceled in 2020.” Julia Yost tells the story in Compact:
Elizabeth Loftus had appeared before a Manhattan court to describe “the misinformation effect” and the ease with which false memories can be implanted “in the minds of otherwise ordinary, healthy people”—concepts that typify her body of research, hardly news to her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, or her peers in the National Academy of Sciences. But this time, she had spoken as a witness for the defense in The People of New York v. Harvey Weinstein. A scheduled talk at the New York University psychology department was called off. A colleague at Irvine demanded, “Harvey Weinstein—how could you?” Irvine law students generated a petition decrying Loftus’s efforts “to further traumatize and disenfranchize survivors” and demanding that the administration “address the acute problem of Elizabeth Loftus.” The New Yorker observed that, however authoritative, Loftus’s body of research “collides with our traumatic moment.”
John Maier reviews Sam Knight’s The Premonitions Bureau: “In the wake of catastrophe, however random or unpredictable, one of the first things people can be relied upon to do is look around for somebody to blame.”
Revisiting Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter at 50: “It is a rich and daring work, written in a straightforward style and narrative that few ambitious novelists today would risk out of fear of appearing ordinary. Welty had no such fear.”
The man who built his own cathedral: “For nearly 60 years, a former monk toiled almost single-handedly on an extraordinary building outside Madrid. Is it a folly or a masterpiece?”
Christopher Scalia on the Doobie Brothers: “If Donald Rumsfeld were a rock critic, he might have observed that there are bands you know, bands you don’t know, and bands you don’t know you know. For many people, the Doobie Brothers fall into that third category.”