Friday, May 11, 2007

The Writerly Life

So I'm reading a story from an April WSJ on the rise of militant atheism in Europe and the lead subject is a celebrity philosopher named Michel Onfray. In what may be the most damning line ever used to describe a subject, reporter Andrew Higgins give us this gem:

"Mr. Onfray, 48 years old and author of 32 books . . ."

Really, after that, what else do you need to know?

16 comments:

Inki said...

I don't get it. Is there a problem with someone writing books?
I am honestly confused about this.

Anonymous said...

I think the point is more that he's written THIRTY TWO of them at the tender age of 48. How good/useful could they really be?

Dave S. said...

Proficiency and quality are not necessarily inversely proportional, so on its own the remark is a lazy anti-intellectual cheap shot.

However, the author in question is a French philosopher, so had Mr. Last taken the time to elaborate, he could have had a much more vigorous and substantial anti-intellectual cheap shot, to which I am not completely opposed.

Jonathan V. Last said...

Dave, perhaps proficiency and quality are not "necessarily" inversely proportional when it comes to writing, up to a certain limit and within certain forms--although, some ratios are so insane as to give a good guess under any circumstance. If Frenchy French was a novelist, for instance, having written 1.23 books a year since he graduated college wouldn't be a sure sign that he was a hack, but it would be astonishing and, if they were all of quality, would make him the one of the great fiction writers in the history of words.

If, on the other hand, he was a historian writing 1.23 books a year, people--even non-cheap shotting, pro-intellectuals--might suspect that he was doing less than stellar work. The job of philosopher, properly understood, should be closer to historian than to novelist.

But whatever, I bet super-smart Dave S. has actually read the entire Onfrey catalogue and can give us a definitive answer on his virtues, right? Right Dave? Because otherwise, your comment is nothing more than--I don't know, what's the term?--"anti-intellectual laziness" masquerading as counter-intuitive cleverness.

Oh, Dave, while you're at it, list for us the great--or even good--writers who have sustained a 1.23 book-per-year output for more than 25 years. You can include novelists, poets, and non-fiction writers. Because if your position has any merit, you'll be able to supply a ready list without much effor, right?

Go ahead jackass. I'm waiting.

Dave S. said...

Mr. Last,

I think you misunderstood my comment and I regret that very much. I agree entirely with your response to me, having checked Onfray's bibliography. While my understanding of French isn't very good, I didn't see much to inspire confidence in the quality of his output.

My point was that you had an anti-French-philosophy jab all lined up and that that might have been more amusing than the general jab you made. Also, I made the comment in what I intended to be a not entirely serious way. However, I am in no position to tell anyone else what is funny and I apologize for arrogating that role to myself. I plead pathological contrarian-ness on that count.

Additionally, I plead nolo contendere to my jackassed-ness and throw myself on the mercy of the Court. May Galley Slaves have mercy on my soul.

Anonymous said...

"Oh, Dave, while you're at it, list for us the great--or even good--writers who have sustained a 1.23 book-per-year output for more than 25 years. You can include novelists, poets, and non-fiction writers. Because if your position has any merit, you'll be able to supply a ready list without much effor, right?"

William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets between 1589 and 1613. Let's lump together the sonnets, and call them and the plays "books." That comes to 38 "books" in 24 years. Seems to me you get 1.583 books per year. Shakespeare was, by most accounts, a good writer.

You may have thought I'd gone away Jonathan. But I didn't. ALL CAPS SUPERSTAR IS HERE TO STAY.

Anonymous said...

Also, just off the top of my head, without time to double check the numbers, I'd put forward:

Alexander Dumas
Charles Dickens
Anthony Trollope
Honore de Balzac
Allan Nevin
Joseph Ratzinger
Victor Hugo
Martin E. Marty

This seems like the kind of drinking game we used to play at Jimmy's in Hyde Park. Good times.

Anonymous said...

Stephen King. He seems to write something like a novel a week. His worst books are passable, his best in line with mid-career Le Carre.

But let me cast a vote for JVL here: extraordinarily prolific writers, fiction or nonfiction, generally do suffer from declining returns. Exceptional prolific-ness is nearly always a sign of poor quality. It simply takes a certain amount of effort to accomplish the technical feat of writing a meaningful text with any kind of clarity and precision. And even among geniuses, it's rare to see the necessary combination of effortless analytical originality and perfect-pitch writing skills that would be required to sustain a book-a-year pace of really worthwhile works.

It's a bit like saying that someone has played for nine big-league ballclubs since he was a rookie ten years ago. It's possible that such exceptional mobility is a result of being an extraordinarily valuable player. But in most cases, it just means he's a journeyman with an unusually antisocial personality or a poor work ethic.

AW said...

William F. Buckley has written fortysomething books in about 55 years, I think. Include with that his columns, and it's a pretty good clip.

That said, I suspect that Onfray sucks.

Tank Murdoch said...

whoah, enough intellectual skirmishing - let the drudgery and beltway discontent dissapate. Obviously, you missed the nfl draft and the fact that mini camp is upon us - lets hear about those eagles chances this year....

Anonymous said...

Mr. Last is apparently unfamiliar with, essentially, the history of literature. His brash stance and statement backed up by an utter lack of facts is quite funny so one hope he keeps it up.

Jonathan V. Last said...

Sigh. The Anonymous NTAC who knows so much about the history of literature, is a touch soft on the basics of reading comprehension. Which, I'm sure, isn't her fault.

First things first: What I know about literature can fit in the dimple on a golfball. It's one of my (many) intellectual blindspots. I'm not proud of it, but I don't think I've ever pretended otherwise.

What I said about Mssr. Onfrey's output is that it would be remarkably prodigious were he a novelist and, if his work were of quality, it would put him in the highest rank of fiction writers--but would be all but impossible for someone doing serious non-fiction work.

ALL CAPS notes that Onfrey's work-rate compares favorably to Shakespeare's. According to Book Factory, Dumas churned out some 250 books during his career, but with the help of over 70 "assistants," for whatever that's worth. Dickens wrote only 14 novels and 5 shorter, novella-length works in 22 years, putting his work rate far below Onfrey's. Trollope wrote 47 novels in 35 years--an amazing output at 1.3 bpy, but only a hair above Onfrey's. Need we keep going? I think my point--that if Onfrey was a writer of quality fiction he would be a man for the ages--stands.

The second half of my claim was that this rate is nearly impossible for someone writing serious non-fiction, be it philosophy, theology, history, what have you. The only name submitted on these grounds was W.F. Buckley.

WFB has been writing books for 56 years now and has published 47 books--including collections of his essays. That's a pitiful rate of .839 books per year, nearly 50 percent lower than Onfrey's.

In closing, to Dave S.: apologies if I over-reacted to what was meant as a funny aside. And to our Anonymous Literature Expert: better luck next time, jackass.

Dave S. said...

I'm just glad the jackass has been passed on...

Anonymous said...

"Oh, Dave, while you're at it, list for us the great--or even good--writers who have sustained a 1.23 book-per-year output for more than 25 years. You can include novelists, poets, and non-fiction writers. Because if your position has any merit, you'll be able to supply a ready list without much effor, right?"

While your intent may have been to limit this to non-fiction writers you clearly opened the door to every facet of literature. It is without a doubt you failed to realize a list that included every type of writing would be relatively easy to come up with. Sorry pal but you threw down the gauntlet and it bounced up and hit you in the nose. Must because your nose is as big as a jackass'.

Jonathan V. Last said...

Really? Is that all you've got? Because that's about the lamest response I've ever seen.

Next time, try getting it up enough to sign your name while you're at it or--this would be even better--drop me an email and maybe we can hook up.

Anonymous said...

You apparently neglected to look at your own response you just wrote.