Creative non-fiction's moral mistake.
Most self-help is read not to change people but to keep them the same.
Most biographies are too long. Few books about Samuel Johnson are below three, four or even five-hundred pages. Length permits genius to expand, as it did with Boswell, but it also gives us the too-long work of academics and mildly splendid professional writers. In fear of being credulous partisans, or as happened to Michael Bloch becoming inverted conspiracy theorists, biographers undervalue the short, necessary, marginal contribution—the book that summarises the material and expands the understanding, becoming a finely pointed polemic rather than a florid, pedantic narrative that would have been better as a witty catalogue or sharp-edged rant. The reason is a misguided love of creative technique in non-fiction.
Here, for example, is one way you could begin the story of Johnson’s life, beginning in media res and using, as writers today tend to, the trick of enriching the effect with telling details and vivid images to create atmosphere, full of the little niceties that make up sophisticated prose. For good measure, there is some light prolepsis and analepsis, to excite suspense and highlight comparison.
On a bright London morning in 1751, when window shutters were being opened and maids were tipping the contents of chamber pots into the street, Samuel Johnson has to provoke his broad, shambling body to get up out of bed and take a breakfast of large, soft rolls and strong coffee. Johnson begins the day slowly but not as slowly as he would like: he does not yet have the ease of leisure that will come to him later on, such as in 1779 when Boswell called to see him before he was awake and Johnson “called briskly, ‘Frank, go and get coffee, and let us breakfast IN SPLENDOUR.’” For now, life is drudge rather than splendour, as Johnson is labouring over hundreds upon hundreds of definitions for his Dictionary, work which he will use to illustrate the word dull—“Not exhilarating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.”
Johnson is not lazy, as such; but he has a predilection for staying up late. He described men who go to bed before midnight as scoundrels, though he advised others to rise early if they want to be productive. Another definition he gives for dull is “drowsy; sleepy”. His late nights and perpetual melancholy make him a slow riser. Rather than lie in bed with a book, this morning he must climb to the attic of his townhouse where a small team of amanuenses are copying and pasting the quotations he has marked in some of the thousands of books and pamphlets which are the source material for his Dictionary. Johnson has a profound and fearful religious temperament that keeps him at work—carved on the back of his watch is a verse from the Gospel of John, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” He later had the words removed, telling Boswell that the quotation, “might do very well upon a clock which a man keeps in his closet; but to have it upon his watch which he carries about with him, and which is often looked at by others, might be censored as ostentatious.”
And so in his shabby wig and tousled, greasy coat, he heaves himself to work.
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There is nothing wrong with this piece of writing, as such—though I don’t claim it to be excellent—but, until it is made part of an argument, it is a plethora of techniques, a string of effects, like a freight train sounding its horn while carrying no cargo.
Creative non-fiction writers think they have learned these techniques from novelists. Louis Menand has objected to this in the New Yorker saying that: “the techniques of fiction are the techniques of writing.” That, however, is precisely the mistake creative non-fiction writers make—to make it all about technique, rather than technique with a moral purpose. The effect of these “novelistic” techniques is often limp and rather pointless—what exactly the telling detail is supposed to tell is often unexpressed—compared to the way novelists use these techniques for the purposes of irony, satire, moralising, explicating character, pattern making in the service of the larger argument, and so forth. This is why, despite decades of creative non-fiction, close-reading of journalism is often uninteresting.
What argument could the Johnson passage above be used to make? Many central themes of Johnson’s life are established, most importantly the fact that Johnson’s wisdom was learned from his own failures, close observation of his own psychology, and the ability to write truthfully about his faults. Johnson failed and struggled in the ways everyone does—but he was honest about it. One argument, then, that seems interesting today is about the nature of self-help, which is often the form wisdom literature now takes, a metamorphosis akin to a god becoming a beast.
There is a trap here. When non-fiction writers make clear statements of their thesis up-front, they can become basic—few of the books that sell the most copies today will be read by the next generation. Johnson is still read (albeit by too few people) because he doesn’t just make bare thesis statements—he imbues them with an unmistakeable moral value. He does what so many writers are afraid to do: he admonishes and disapproves, without flinching. In the Idler No. 43, Monitions on the flight of time, he wrote: “Every man has something to do which he neglects; every man has faults to conquer which he delays to combat.”
This is not self-help as encouragement. In the Dictionary, neglect is defined with the words: inattention, careless, negligence. Modern writers would be more gentle, perhaps make a self-depreciating joke, offer an understanding excuse. In this way, the wisdom that ought to provoke action becomes a comforting conspiracy of continuity. Look at Johnson’s words “conquer” and “combat”: so often we talk about conquering our fears, but we do not balance that, as Johnson did, with the imperative to fight. Every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes, he said in his essay on Pope—the fight is endless. Inattention must always be resisted.
Johnson’s moral tone begins in the title with monition. Johnson defined monition as instruction, and instruction as teaching or “Precepts conveying knowledge.” For that definition he quotes the poet Young:
On ev’ry thorn delightful wisdom grows,
In ev’ry stream a sweet instruction flows;
But some untaught o’erhear the whisper’ring rill,
In spite of sacred leisure, blockheads still.
This theme is picked up directly in Idler No. 43 where Johnson says that nature constantly reminds us our time is running out.
Whatever we see on every side reminds us of the lapse of time and the flux of life. The day and night succeed each other, the rotation of seasons diversifies the year, the sun rises, attains the meridian, declines, and sets; and the moon every night changes its form.
Most people gawp romantically at nature, blockheads still, without learning from it that one day soon they are going to die, that it is time, as Johnson said elsewhere, to be in earnest.
Johnson’s essay ends like this:
From this inattention, so general and so mischievous, let it be every man’s study to exempt himself. Let him that desires to see others happy make haste to give, while his gift can be enjoyed, and remember that every moment of delay takes away something from the value of his benefaction. And let him, who purposes his own happiness, reflect, that while he forms his purpose the day rolls on, and the night cometh when no man can work.
“So general and so mischievous” sounds tame to us—getting up to mischief is a playful phrase. Not for Johnson, who defined it in unforgiving terms: “Harmful; hurtful; destructive; noxious; pernicious; injurious; wicked.”
Modern non-fiction writing is often shy of moral precepts. But you only get to say one thing and if you wrap your instruction in an excuse, you teach the excuse. Biographers who are so thorough they turn every archival page and report it, leave us with little more than the sense that they were completionist. When marks off Boswell, Froude, and others like them is their clear moral mission—and their subject’s. It is not technique alone (whether of fiction or otherwise) that makes writing great, nor unarguable thoroughness, but a distinct moral tone, unhesitatingly expressed. Do not, in other words, read the egregious and soppy Oliver Burkeman (or any of his ilk) and believe you ought to get therapy to cope with being a useless speck of dust in a vast universe, but study Johnson and prick your conscience into doing something useful today, now.
As Johnson wrote in his diary in 1775:
when I find that so much of my life has stolen unprofitably away, and that I can descry by retrospection scarcely a few single days properly and vigorously employed, why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because Reformation is necessary and despair is criminal.
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