More shameless plagiarizing from a guy (me). . This bit of writing is from Tim Krieder of the New York
My friend Alicia likes to mock me by mimicking the tone of online comments on my writing, affecting the snarky hauteur that is the Internet’s default: “Kreider makes the audacious claim that his cat is more attractive than all other living cats,” she’ll say. “According to Kreider, pie is a perfectly acceptable breakfast,” or “Kreider would have it that pants are purely optional.” She’s making mild fun of my sporadic blips of Internet celebrity, but I think she’s more heavily amused to hear commenters citing her feckless goofball friend as though I were some eminent authority, solemnly parsing my passing opinions as though they were official policy statements. Alicia’s an artist, too, and understands how audiences tend to ascribe magisterial intention and control to artists, when more often we’re just making it up as we go, doing the best we can by deadline.
There seems to be a widespread presumption that writing is prescriptive (or proscriptive) rather than simply observational or meditative. Some people condemn or commend even memoirs and novels as though their purpose were to instruct or offer models. I suppose I can’t entirely fault readers for this misapprehension. Confident authority is an appropriate tone for straight reportage, but it’s become the default of columnists, essayists and bloggers, one that’s so reflexive that some of them seem to forget it’s a pose. To some extent this is a deformative effect of the space restrictions within which most of us work; in a thousand-word essay you can’t include every qualification or second thought that occurs to you or you’d expend your allotted space refuting your own argument instead of making it.
This voice is trained into us early on, back in high school or Comp 101, when we’re taught to make our arguments as succinct and cogent as possible, omitting wishy-washy qualifications like “in my opinion.” You’d think these disclaimers could go without saying; every piece of writing includes the tacit caveat: Or I could be wrong. And yet quite a lot of readers respond to your personal observations with wounded outrage when they fail to reflect their own experience, as if you were proposing your idle speculation as totalitarian law. That rhetorical pose of weary expertise has metastasized to the Internet, epitomized by the opener: “So let me get this straight.” It seems telling that this smug, knowing tone has become so endemic at the same time that the amount of information available is so numbing, and actual expertise so rarefied, that almost nobody knows enough about anything anymore to have the right to any opinion at all.
I’m always ill at ease when I find myself conscripted by the media into the role of Expert on some subject about which I have rashly written. I felt like the explanatory caption beneath my name on-screen ought to be: PERSON IN WORLD. When interviewers ask me what can we do about the plague of Busyness, if a zero-terrorist-attacks policy is realistic or whether cryonics is feasible, I just squirm untelegenically and say things like “Gee I dunno,” which usually causes them to go, in disgust, to the phones.
Whenever someone writes to take me politely to task over some unfair generalization, self-contradiction or unexamined blind spot, my riposte is usually something along the lines of: “Hm, yeah, I guess you have a point there.” I don’t always agree with me; I certainly don’t expect everyone else to. Being treated as some sort of authority, is more alarming than flattering; it makes me wonder whether all the alleged sages I’ve ever admired, from Lao Tsu to Marcus Aurelius, were big fat fakes like me. I suppose it’s possible that all those other columnists and talking heads really do know whereof they speak and I’m the only who doesn’t know enough to fake it. But I have my doubts.
This is another reason so many writers feel the need to impersonate someone wise or in possession of some marketable truth: it’s a function of insecurity, of fear. The one thing no editorialist or commentator in any media is ever supposed to say is I don’t know: that they’re too ignorant about the science of climate change to have an informed opinion; that they frankly have no idea what to do about gun violence in this country; or that they’ve just never quite understood the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in all honesty they’re sick of hearing about it. To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.
Thucydides says: “Ignorance is bold, knowledge reserved.” The more someone knows about any given subject, the likelier he is to include a lot of boring, hard-to-follow caveats, complicating factors and exceptions in discussing it. Which is why, for example, climatologists, who have actually studied the data and know how to interpret it, tend to carefully hedge their claims, declining to assert any direct causality or make predictions, whereas professional obfuscators will confidently assure you that global warming is a lot of alarmist hooey. Affected certainty has more than rhetorical consequences. Opponents of the Iraq invasion couldn’t claim for a fact that Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, at least not with the same absolute certainty that its proponents knew that he did.
Since I am not and never will be anyone who knows enough about anything to be worth listening to on the basis of my expertise, my only possible claim to anyone’s attention is honesty. Unalloyed honesty is the iridium of the information economy — vanishingly rare, and therefore precious. We don’t respect people like Louis C.K. or George Saunders because of their credentials; it’s because they’re among the few people in public life who’ll say anything obviously true — or, at the very least, anything they really mean. We trust that, unlike politicians or their spin doctors, corporate flacks, think-tank flunkies or cable propagandists, they have no agenda beyond the self-evident one of making a living with their work. I have no pretensions to any special knowledge, let alone anything like wisdom; I am just some guy, a PERSON IN WORLD looking around and noticing things and saying what I think. If what I say doesn’t reflect your own experience, it’s possible that it isn’t about you. It’s also possible that something that’s not About You might still be of some interest or use. There is even some remote possibility that I am oversimplifying, missing something obvious, or just speaking ex rectum.
I’ve lately been rereading Montaigne, generally considered the first essayist, inspired by Sarah Bakewell’s literary biography “How to Live.” Ms. Bakewell singles out the end of one passage in which Montaigne suggests that being self-aware of your own silliness and vanity at least puts you one up on those who aren’t, then shrugs, “But I don’t know.” It’s that implicit I don’t know at the heart of Montaigne’s essays — his frankness about being a foolish, flawed and biased human being — that she thinks has endeared him to centuries of readers and exasperated more plodding, systematic philosophers.
My least favorite parts of my own writing, the ones that make me cringe to reread, are the parts where I catch myself trying to smush the unwieldy mess of real life into some neatly-shaped conclusion, the sort of thesis statement you were obliged to tack on to essays in high school or the Joycean epiphanies that are de rigueur in apprentice fiction — whenever, in other words, I try to sound like I know what I’m talking about. Real life, in my experience, is not rife with epiphanies, let alone lessons; what little we learn tends to come exactly too late, gets contradicted by the next blunder, or is immediately forgotten and has to be learned all over again. More and more, the only things that seem to me worth writing about are the ones I don’t understand. Sometimes the most honest and helpful thing a writer can do is to acknowledge that some problems are insoluble, that life is hard and there aren’t going to be any answers, that he’s just as screwed-up and clueless as the rest of us. Or I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.