Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, June 10, 2010

writing, silence, and privacy

From a brilliant essay by Jed Perl:

Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now. For many of us who love the act of writing — even when we are writing against a deadline with an editor waiting for the copy — there is something monastic about the process, a confrontation with one’s thoughts that has a value apart from the proximity or even perhaps the desirability of any other reader. I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page. . . .

I am not saying that writers need to be or ought to be isolated, either from other writers or from the reading public at large. But writers must to some degree believe that they are alone with their own words. And writers who are alone with their words will quite naturally, from time to time, conclude that some of those words should remain private. This needs to be emphasized right now, when so few people in the publishing industry understand why anything that has been written, and especially written by a well-known author, should not be published, and not published with the widest possible readership in mind.

. . . What I fear is that many readers are coming to believe that a writer who holds something back from publication is somehow acting unnaturally. Nobody understands the extent to which, even for the widely acclaimed author with ready access to publication, the process of writing can sometimes necessitate a rejection or at least an avoidance of one’s own readers. That silence is a part of writing — that the work of this day or this week or even this year might for good reason be withheld — is becoming harder and harder to comprehend.

The dominance in our culture of social networking, especially but not only Facebook, intensifies this problematic situation. Shyness and introversion, as a search for either of those words on Amazon.com will show you, are regularly seen as pathologies; Eric Schmidt thinks that if you don't want Google to know everything about you you must have something discreditable to hide; Mark Zuckerberg believes, or says he believes, that the exposure of your life on Facebook promotes honesty and integrity. Clearly there are people who would like to see a social stigma attached to a concern for privacy: will they succeed in making it happen?

5 comments:

  • Ever read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"? In the book, there's Franz, a Swiss professor, who believes that the only way we can ever be truly honest is to live in a glass house -- that is, with total transparency. His lover Sabina, a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia, believes that the only way to be completely honest is to live to a significant degree behind a veil of privacy -- because otherwise, you run the risk of compromising your authenticity by adjusting your behavior to suit the eyes of others.

  • I've read it, Rod, but had completely forgotten that — a great comparison.

  • I'm not sure what he's talking about here -- when so few people in the publishing industry understand why anything that has been written, and especially written by a well-known author, should not be published, and not published with the widest possible readership in mind. I guess I don't "get" why writers (professional or amateur) can't "enforce" their personal privacy preferences by choosing whether to "release" something they've written into the public stream, recognizing that if it's anywhere on the internet it's public.

    A separate (though perhaps related?) observation. On the one hand, we have the sort of writing Perl seems to be talking about -- writing something that's a statement, a finished product that reflects the sort of figuring out on paper what one thinks about an issue or topic (at least for the moment). On the other hand, we have in social networks, blogs, etc. writing that's part of conversation. The consumers of a writer's efforts have very different expectations about both the content of each format and the writer's "right to privacy."

    Let's analogize to talking rather than writing. In oral communication, we have very different expectations about, for example, a lecture and a bull-session at the local watering hole.

    We expect a lecture to reflect the sort of "working out what I really think" before hand that Perl appears to be talking about. Whereas at the local watering hole, we may be trying out ideas, running something up the flagpole, generating our own thinking out loud by back-and-forth with others.

    And we have very different expectations about "privacy" for each type of communication. Do we want to see all the notes and drafts the lecturer produced on the way to the finished product? No -- unless centuries later the lecturer has become part of the canon whose every text is valued for "clues" to the writer's thought. And we have very different expectations about "privacy" for things people launch on twitter or post to Facebook or stick in a blog's comments section.

    Where I'd suggest the analogy to bull-sessions at the watering hole breaks down is that internet "texts" aren't evanescent the way conversations or musings over a couple of drinks are. When someone dashes off a blog post with links to what others are saying about a topic, it has aspects of ephemeral conversation but also "finished product" of "what, after consideration, I think".

    IMO, the best bloggers succeed at conveying the conversational back-and-forth of their writing. They succeed in conveying an implicit caveat that "this is how I'm thinking about this now, but I may change my mind after further consideration, or somebody else's good argument, or new facts". So Perl may simply be bemoaning his sense that he doesn't make a very good blogger. Or it may be the broader concern that, given anything that goes on the internet stays somewhere on the internet, anything a writer produces may later be used against him, even though the writer was writing as if he were producing ephemeral conversation.

  • I guess I don't "get" why writers (professional or amateur) can't "enforce" their personal privacy preferences by choosing whether to "release" something they've written into the public stream, recognizing that if it's anywhere on the internet it's public.

    I think Perl's point is that, sure, writers can release or not release, but not releasing is increasingly being treated as an odd, maybe even, if you're Mark Zuekerberg, an unethical choice. After all, very few people have been critical of Dmitri Nabokov for openly and straightforwardly disobeying his father's wishes about the manuscript he was working on at his death. In this cultural environment, "everybody has the right to know everything" is becoming the default position — or so Perl thinks.

    His concern, I believe, is that this denigration of silence and privacy will have a bad effect on the arts, because artists under social pressure will give up more and more of the privacy they need to make their works the best they can be.

    This strikes me as a plausible, if not an inevitable, scenario.

  • Well, Zuekerberg's notion of privacy ethics has received a pretty healthy push-back recently. So there's still hope for us agoraphobes who enjoy silence.

    But just for the sake of argument, your Nabokov example isn't anything new. Concern over the posthumous treatment of letters, papers and manuscripts -- and care in selecting executors who may or may not comply with instructions -- is centuries old.

    I do agree that where the lines are drawn and the expectations re public production will shift as IT continues to affect cultural standards. But I also suspect we're more likely to mourn the loss of contemporaneous "evidence" such as letters and drafts because txting and emails and bytes on corrupted hard drives are as or more ephemeral than paper records.

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