Writerly nihilism

February 3, 2018

Last week I visited the Oakland Museum for an exhibition on the Eameses. Walking into the exhibition hall, the first thing you see is a wall-sized reproduction of the Eames Design Diagram:


I appreciate the Design Diagram a lot. I don’t know a thing about design, of course (okay, I might know a thing or two), but it’s a fair description of the vicissitudes of the writing process.

Good writing must engage the interest and concern of the writer, as well as the interest of the reader and the concerns of society as a whole. In other words, a piece of good public writing must satisfy these three criteria:

  1. (1) The author should want to write it.
  2. (2) The audience should want to read it.
  3. (3) It should be good for the discourse.

I’ve run into plenty of writers who meet only the first criterion, and not the second or third. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing; if you want to write, you should write. Writing has an important function of clarifying and synthesizing your thoughts See Knuth on the topic; it’s of enormous benefit for a researcher like Knuth to blog about his research projects. Less so for anyone else to actually read this blog. . It’s a meditative process, and it puts you in a fruitful conversation with the self. But when the conversation ends, what’s left is a transcript that often isn’t of much use to anyone. Part of the reason I stopped reading my school newspaper was because it was absolutely clogged with these transcripts–essay upon essay about personal trauma and adjusting to college. It was like reading Medium.

Those who want to write should write. Don’t let a lack of reader interest dissuade you from putting your thoughts down on paper. But there’s only so much space in the public sphere.

There was a point where I thought that good writing consisted of the first and second criteria but not the third. Some time ago, my friends and I were trying to get a digital magazine off the ground. We were faced with the problem of specifying a type of article that writers would like to write and readers would like to read. Writers wanted to nerd out about the research they were doing; readers wanted to make sense of the mess that was modern machine learning as a whole. If we could just produce articles in the intersection of these two spaces, balancing supply and demand, we could create enormous value for both the writers and the readers.

That’s the optimistic take. The pessimistic take is that most writers write to boost their own status within their local social groups, that most readers want smart-sounding articles to retweet and pre-packaged “insights” to repeat at dinner parties, and that a clever publication, by linking these two impulses together, can divert both into perpetuating its own existence.

I imagine that the truth lies somewhere between the two takes. But the pessimistic take is always at least somewhat true. It’s totally possible to get by with (1) and (2) but not (3). And because it’s totally possible, a lot of people do it. You’ve almost certainly read certain things specifically because it makes the outgroup seem ridiculous, or because it makes you feel better about yourself, or because you want to signal being well-read. And if you’re reading this, I can only assume you’re introspective enough to recognize that fact and feel guilty about it. There’s something that you should be gaining from reading. You might not know what it is, dear reader, but you know it isn’t this.

I won’t venture to describe here what it means to be good for the discourse. It’s a thorny question that deserves its own post, and there’s a good chance that your concept of it is different from mine. More likely than not it’s some combination of truth, beauty, novelty, and goodwill. I’ll only point out for now that it is a concept that should be kept in sight.

Writerly nihilism - February 3, 2018 - eric j wang