Eight Writerly Fallacies

by rsbakker

I’m starting to appreciate the perils of a blog dedicated to stupidity: it’s hard not to come across as a pompous ass, simply because we assume that those pointing or wagging their fingers consider themselves to be the exception. I certainly do not.

A belated Happy Canada Day to those in the know. And how about them Dutch getting under some Brazilian skin. I decided not to wear my orange socks today because after twenty years I was convinced I was jinxing them.

Otherwise, it’s time to balance the book equation. Here are some ‘fallacies’ that I think writers are prone to…

1) Expressivist Fallacy: the idea that writing is the translation of something raw, pure, and inner, into something outer, that can be translated into something raw, pure and inner. This arises from the ontological illusion that meaning is a kind of thing, rather than a type of event. The story is not in you, crying to be unleashed. You may have a jumble of pre-semantic activity that you sense as an urge to write, but just leave it at that. You translate strings of meaning in your head into strings of code on the page, which others translate into strings of meaning in their head. There are no such thing as narrative ghosts beaming through linguistic wires. Leave that shit for Oprah.

2) Posterity Fallacy: the idea that your work, though it fails to challenge any actual readers, will somehow win out over time. In sheer statistical terms, this is a preposterous hope: the odds of any work by anybody ‘living on in posterity’ were infinitesimally small even before the technological revolution. Now I’m not even sure posterity exists, and I suspect that all writers are Post-Posterity Writers. I see this particular conceit as a different version of the Ideal Philistine: a way to rationalize away what would otherwise be obvious cultural insularity.

3) Semantic Propriety Fallacy: the idea that the writer somehow essentially owns the meaning of his work, as opposed to being one interpreter among others, possessing privileged compositional knowledge. I am no more the final arbitrator of what my books mean than anyone else, simply because books don’t mean anything, brains do, and it makes no sense whatsoever to think you have some essential claim on what someone else’s brain is doing – whether your book happens to be before them or not.

4) Semantic Command Fallacy: the idea that the writer largely commands the meanings that arise from his books. The Law of Unintended Semantic Consequences means that much of what goes on in their heads is just as likely to be authored by contexts that have nothing to do for you. A sociopathic father, I’m pretty certain, would make Kellhus a much different character than the one I intended. You know you’ve fallen for this one if you ever catch yourself saying or thinking, ‘No-no-no, that’s not what IT means.’

5) Semantic Control Fallacy: the idea that the writer largely controls the meanings he encodes into his books. We now know that consciousness–even though it feels entirely integrated and self-accessible–is actually a squadron of nuts and bolts flying in loose formation. We all say things we don’t hear all the time. We are frightfully easy to influence and to manipulate, and here’s the thing, while thinking we’re in utter control the whole time.

6) Truth Fallacy: the Aristotelian notion that Truth can somehow be encoded in works, and that this is what makes literature literary. Tell me what Truth is, first, and how your definition magically trumps all the other definitions of all the other Dogmatists who have walked the planet. Failing that, concentrate on challenging assumptions, not replacing them.

7) And my favourite, the Auto-Communicative Fallacy, or what I like to call the Myth of Compositional Purity. This is the idea that writers find authenticity only by writing for themselves. I despise this one in particular for a variety of reasons. First, because of the implication that writing for your community is a kind of artistic failure. If there were ever a pernicious cultural short-circuit this is it. Second, because it takes something obviously problematic–writing only for people like yourself–and disguises it as a kind of artistic virtue, one romanticized a la consumer individualism. Nothing like a little flattery to send IQs plummeting.

8) The Intrinsic Value Fallacy: the idea that some aesthetic values are inherently superior to others. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t: the ugly fact remains that this happens to be the form all value chauvinism takes. All things being equal, you’re probably just another self-serving bigot. Me good, you bad–what a happy coincidence! Concentrate on what your words do to whom, then ask yourself how your values need to be retooled so that you can do better. Your values may feel like divine revelations or self-evident truths, but they’re really just guesses your brain makes for you.

And guesses are generally wrong.