Barbara Tuchman Contra Hot Takes

Barbara Tuchman kicks off the preface to her Practicing History: Selected Essays (Ballantine Books, New York, 1981) by writing:

It is surprising to find, on reviewing one’s past work, which are the pieces that seem to stand up and which are those that have wilted. The only rule I can discover as a determinant–and it is a rule riddled with exceptions–is that, on the whole, articles or reports which have a “hard,” that is to say factual, subject matter or a personally observed story to tell are more readable today than “think” pieces intended as satire or advocacy, or written from the political passions of the moment. These tend to sound embarrassing after the passage of time, and have not, with or two exceptions been revived.

I sometimes try my hand at satire on this blog; those efforts survive here, sure to embarrass me in the future. And I’m often mortified by the pieces I write during election seasons; they strike me as a too quick, superficial at the best of times. But I don’t intend to stop writing either kind of blog post. For I write here to ‘practice,’ to keep writing–even as, and especially because, many forms of ‘writers’ block’ imperil my writing elsewhere. (Put it this way; if I didn’t write something here, I would have all too many days when I would not have written anything at all.) I publish the posts I write because the act of publishing acts as closure, compelling me to move on and not be tempted to return to the post to fiddle with it–even as I hope someday to return to the ‘scratch on the surface,’ to dig deeper, perhaps turning the little ditty here into a more elaborate essay. Despite this being a digital platform, I have no hopes that any of the writing will endure–even as I continue to entertain the fantasy that someday my daughter will read some of it.

Tuchman’s larger point is directed at ‘hot takes,’ at the effort directed to being topical, at the desperate attempts to stick one’s oar in the flow of opinion, to ‘contribute’ something, anything, to an ongoing discussion, failure to participate in which might be viewed as an abdication of responsibility by some who have appointed themselves pundits.  This pressure is especially acute now given the phenomena of a viral news item, one whose ubiquity in your social media feeds suggest the whole world is doing nothing but paying attention to every aspect of the incident reported. Tuchman suggests we’d do better to let our powder dry out, to bide our time, so that we may write in more considered fashion (perhaps with more ‘factual, subject matter’ too.) This is not a new point, but it is interestingly made by a historian here, one used to writing about matters that are sometimes long-forgotten. The historian knows the present is not the most important time of all; that much water remains to flow under the bridge, to join the voluminous oceans that have already done so.

Fiction, Non-Fiction, “Popularity,” and “Seriousness”

Back in December-January, I wrote a series of posts on fiction and non-fiction writers, in particular, on the relative endurance of their writings in posterity. I wondered whether essayists and non-fiction writers stood less of a chance of having their work read by future generations than did novelists and fiction writers, what the causes for fiction’s greater enduring power might be (if indeed, that was the case), what the “popular-serious” distinction in writing amounted to, how meaningful the distinction between “essayists” and other “non-fiction writers” was, whether traditional reportage-style essays were particularly susceptible to datedness and so on. (There were three posts in all, titled Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essays and Posterity; Essays and Expiry DatesFiction, Non-Fiction, Essays and Posterity.)

With respect to these discussions, the Letters sections of the first two issues of the London Review Books (Vol 1, No. 1, 25 October 1979, and Vol. 2, No. 2, 8 November 1979) provide some interesting reading. In them, the LRB featured replies from readers to a question posed by the journal: What should a literary journal now be doing, and what else would they like to say about the current state of literary journalism and publishing? 

I am reproducing a couple of letters in their entirety–sans commentary. The LRB Letters archive pages are accessible to paid-subscribers only.

From Vol.1, No.1, 25 October 1979.

Brigid Brophy:

My hope is for justice for fiction.

There is a mythical syllogism that goes: Fiction (or at least fiction in hard covers and with artistic ambition) doesn’t sell; its publishers don’t, therefore, advertise it; papers are therefore doing an act of charity if they allot it review space.

That, however, is to ignore the readers (as distinct from buyers) of books. (In Britain those two are very distinct, thanks to the unique size of our public library service.) All papers depend immediately on advertising, but a paper about books must find itself an ultimate constituency among the people who read books. And the books those people read are, predominantly, fiction.

Puritans, who hate and fear fiction, regularly pronounce ‘the novel’ dead, using the singular because they wish there were only one. But champions of fiction often do it no better justice, with their appeals to pity and duty on behalf of the poor, démodé, tottering old thing.

The old thing is in reality a bounding pop art. Some 65 to 70 per cent of adult borrowing from public libraries is borrowing of fiction. In absolute numbers, 365 or so million volumes of fiction-for-adults a year (or one million a day) are given temporary housing in British homes.

It is regrettable for novelists who want to stay alive, and for readers who want them to stay alive to keep up the supply, that British readers borrow rather than buy their fiction. However, they do it for the most sympathetic reasons: namely, that they want such a lot of the stuff. Fiction is perilously addictive. Even though publishers still keep the average price of a fiction book considerably lower than that of a book-in-general, any addict who bought all he wants to read would be quickly bankrupted, not to mention crowded out of his home.

It is probably true that many of the works that addicts borrow in such mass are not imaginative creations but commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review. But so long as there are misapprehensions about fiction’s standing in present-day society, any squeeze on review space squeezes fiction first, with the result that good novels, too, get ignored or slighted, especially the ones that are written within a given form. Snobs who dismiss thrillers, for instance, because they adhere to a set of conventions, should re-examine their attitude to Greek tragedy.

Even the novels that are reviewed are for the most part treated like dirt – that is, swept up in swathes by whoever can be persuaded to take on the chore. Addicts of fiction positively like having their credulity stretched, but even they balk at the straining symphonic bridge-passages (‘From Amsterdam to intellectual agony may seem a big jump’) of round-up reviews.

A more catholic choice of titles for review; more space; and solo space: these are the least that decency demands for what is at the same time the most popular species of books and the one ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed’.

From Vol. 2, No.2, 8 November 1979

N. F. McDowell:

The first issue of the London Review expresses a concern for the public usefulness of literature, and in three of the letters printed in that issue there was evidence of a distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘commercial’ literature. Mr Hamilton asked if anyone wanted a ‘serious reviewing journal’; Mr Rosenthal made a request for ‘serious poetry reviewing’; and Brigid Brophy distinguished between ‘imaginative creations’ and ‘commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review’. I wonder about these hard-and-fast distinctions.

Byron’s works were best-sellers, but they were hardly ‘commercial manufactures’. In a commercially-dominated world, something might be achieved through a critical, ‘serious’ reading of books written specifically for financial gain. Literature is still part of many people’s cultural fodder: it can also be the antennae of a culture. If arbitrary distinctions between ‘commercial’ and ‘imaginative’ are left unquestioned, we might consume our own antennae unawares. Shakespeare’s genius flourished in the commercial environment of the theatre, and as soon as a piece of writing is for sale it is commercial manufacture. The London Review should encourage critical reading over a wider range of literature than seems to be promised in the first issue.