The Writer as Yente


Rock Island, IL

Somewhere—I think it’s in the pages of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter—the narrator tells us that no one really sheds a tear when another writer decides to call it quits.

I’m not calling it quits, not exactly, not yet, but today I’m not going to do much more than offer a couple of passages for contemplation: reminders for many readers, I’m sure, but news, perhaps, to others.

This is John Crowe Ransom in I’ll Take My Stand:

It is an inevitable consequence of industrial progress that production greatly outruns the rate of natural consumption. To overcome the disparity, the producers, disguised as the pure idealists of progress, must coerce and wheedle the public into being loyal and steady consumers, in order to keep the machines running. So the rise of modern advertising-along with its twin, personal salesmanship-is the most significant development of our industrialism. Advertising means to persuade the consumers to want exactly what the applied sciences are able to furnish them. It consults the happiness of the consumer no more than it consulted the happiness of the laborer. It is the great effort of a false economy of life to approve itself. But its task grows more difficult every day.

It is strange, of course, that a majority of men anywhere could ever as with one mind become enamored of industrialism: a system that has so little regard for individual wants. There is evidently a kind of thinking that rejoices in setting up a social objective which has no relation to the individual. Men are prepared to sacrifice their private dignity and happiness to an abstract social ideal, and without asking whether the social ideal produces the welfare of any individual man whatsoever. But this is absurd. The responsibility of men is for their own welfare and that of their neighbors; not for the hypothetical welfare of some fabulous creature called society.

And this is Christopher Lasch in Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

Even liberal individuals require the character forming discipline of the neighborhood, the family, the school, and the church, all of which (not just the family) have been weakened by the encroachments of the market. The market notoriously tends to universalize itself. It does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principals antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazine, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all. It puts an almost irresistible pressure on every activity to justify itself in the only terms it recognizes: to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line. It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into the scientific management of poverty. Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.

Some might have shed a tear had Ransom or Lasch decided to call it quits before setting down these words. I for one am glad we have them on record. So Ford’s narrator doesn’t have it quite right. There are some writers whom we would not like so see call it a day. Usually they are writers with whom we agree, though not always. Sometimes, when voice and tone conspire to make a really good style, they are writers with whom we do not agree—maybe not at all. I have not always found myself agreeing with Terry Eagleton, for example, and seldom with Christopher Hitchens, but I don’t ever remember thinking ill of their prose.

But then there are those, perhaps like Ransom and Lasch, who have expatiated upon themes near to the heart and mind, and done so with such clarity and force, that a man feels as if he himself needn’t write another sentence—and probably oughtn’t. In such circumstances reading becomes a pleasure that increases even as it humbles. You pay your debts by getting out of the way.

It was Lewis, as I recall, who said that, whereas lovers sit face-to-face, friends sit shoulder to shoulder so that they can look out upon a shared vision. And often their sights fall upon a handful of books, mutually cherished and enjoyed, whether in act or in memory. If friendships were arranged marriages, good writers would be among the matchmakers.

Said the Psalmist: Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.

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