Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Writing is Easy

In the interview that I linked to in my post about god is not Great, Christopher Hitchens was asked about his "prolific output"; he replied as follows:
Well, I find writing recreational. I used to do it to relax when I was a kid. I realized early on that there were a few things that I can do with any skill: write an essay and give a speech. I can do both of those very easily. Nothing to boast about, but I also have an extremely good memory. [. . .] to be absolutely frank, I don't find writing hard at all. I could in a course of a day perfectly easily write a column that's 1,000 words for Slate and a book review for the Sunday Times of London, for example.
This response strikes me as telling. He finds writing easy; he has a good memory. The problem, I think, is that Hitchens' typical form is the short column, and these tend to be disposable, polemical. An essay, on the other hand, should be about the writer making an inquiry, about trying to discover something in the writing, and a book, about such a weighty topic, should be as well. Hitchens doesn't need to discover things in his writing. He is here to tell you things, things that he doesn't have to look up or support, because he has a good memory. For him, this is writing. For me, this is decidedly not writing; it is, in fact, hackwork.

In her review of the book, Amanda Bragg writes that "there is no private compositional magic to be invoked here - we all know what his serious, considered work reads like." I don't mean to suggest that I can't recall much better written work from Hitchens, but even at its best, "private compositional magic" doesn't seem to describe it. That is, there isn't anything private about it, by which I mean, again, he isn't "essaying" a topic or an idea. He is informing or attacking or, perhaps, defending.

But I'm not here to dump on Christopher Hitchens again (or at least that's not the only reason for this post). And I don't mean to suggest that we don't ever need polemics. I wonder, though, if the short column, the newspaper op-ed, the opinion piece, certain kinds of blogging, if there isn't something depressingly utilitarian about these, as a form. Writing in this sense must be useful. I will only write something because I have something to tell you (and possibly because there's a paycheck in it). You will only bother to read it if you can make use of it. This seems to be the standard equation. No doubt I am simplifying matters enormously, but I wonder, too, if this isn't an Anglo-American tendency. If the tendency under capitalism is to reduce everything to commodity, writing is reduced to the bottom line (even if it's actually unpaid): what does this do? My reaction to the so-called atheist writers has been in part to what I sense as an overly empirical, overly utilitarian take on things.

In a sense, this post is also a placeholder. I want to explore this idea of what writing is and what essays are . . . a couple of posts back, I quote from Benjamin and Barthes; I'm thinking of them as examples of a something else I'm trying to access . . .

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