Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Power of Facing

"[Writing] isn't really even an ability at all. It's a knack."
Christopher Hitchens (18:05)

A bit later (21:18) on Hitchen's talks about Orwell's view of himself as a writer, emphasizing the "power of facing unpleasant facts". He rightly says that this is "nicely phrased: he could have said 'an ability to face' or 'a power to face". This immediately struck me as somewhat at odds with his claim that writing isn't an ability, but a knack. The tension is emphasized by his reinterpretation of the "power of facing" as (less nicely phrased) an "ability to face". Hitchen's does seem to grant some ability here.

Hitchens says that, in addition to this power, Orwell recognized in himself "a certain literary ability", which Hitchens (quite clearly, I think you'll agree if you watch the clip) shrugs off as of little importance. Interesteringly, Orwell did not quite claim to have "literary ability"; he claimed to have discovered that he had a "facility with words". And I think Hitchens is right to paraphrase this as he does with a shrug. Writing itself is not an ability. You either have a knack for it or you don't. If you do, you are, as Hitchens says, lucky. But it should be possible to make your way in academic life (with somewhat less "facility", let's say), even if you find the act of putting words together difficult.

Nor do you, stricly speaking, need a power of facing unpleasant facts. That's something politically minded writers like Orwell and Hitchens need, but academic writers less so. You do need to have an ability to register possibly unfashionable facts, I would argue. How else would we learn anything new? But the insulation of academic life will hopefully keep this from being an unpleasant experience.

In general, however, all good writing depends on a "power of facing" some corner of reality combined with a particular "facility" with words. Hitchens shrugs off the latter, and this morning I want to grant that he's probably right about that. It is, precisely, the "easy" part (look up "facility"). The important thing is how you face your facts.

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