Saturday, 24 March 2012

On the ‘madness of quantity’ and the upside of ego

Caution: essay!

Sometimes rejection makes for the finest encouragement to try something new. Being turned down by/for something one wants is, in many cases, quite likely to make one turn away from the source of that rejection and redirect one’s energies elsewhere. Or at least to vow, in the heat of the moment, to do so.

Earlier this week, I received notice that my application for doctoral funding at my former university had, this year, been unsuccessful. Since clicking the submit button and finalising that application, I had consciously cautioned myself against thinking it was anything like a foregone conclusion that I would receive this funding; indeed, I did not hold it very likely at all that I would receive it. And yet, upon the email’s arrival in my inbox, I was still deeply disappointed to discover that my pessimism had not been misplaced.

This disappointment persisted largely unaltered until, two nights ago, I came across the following section in the book I’m currently reading, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

‘Franz shook his head. “When a society is rich, its people don’t need to work with their hands, they can devote themselves to activities of spirit. We have more and more universities and more and more students. If students are going to earn degrees, they’ve got to come up with dissertation topics. And since dissertations can be written about everything under the sun, the number of topics is infinite. Sheets of paper covered with words pile up in archives sadder than cemeteries, because no one ever visits them, not even on All Soul’s Day. Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means more than the billions of words spewed out by our universities.”’ (P.99)

Immediately upon reading this, and then re-reading it, I felt my disappointment give way to a kind of relief. I began to feel that I had dodged some form of mostly pointless trauma. That the rejection email from a day previous had been one of those proverbial blessings in disguise. Granted, I did not, and still do not, know what else I can/want to/will have to do instead, but I was no longer certain that a PhD was the most productive and meaningful route forwards, for me. To the question, Do I really want to contribute to this ‘madness of quanity’? I felt like I could answer, with unswerving honesty, No.

And yet, nothing, least of all this, is that simple.

The above quote, for instance, is presented very much out of context. The point that the character of Franz is making is presented in its entirety, true; but no grounding is given for readers of this piece who may not have also read the book as to quite what Franz’ relevance is within the novel, or of what precedes or follows this statement. Furthermore, no grounding is given of how and where the notions expressed by the character of Franz fit in with either the author’s personal philosophy, or the wider body of philosophical thinking as it has developed throughout the ages. It is the kind of quote that one might find in a first year undergraduate essay – chosen no doubt for its many impressive and apparently relevant qualities, but far from sufficiently evaluated and analysed. As such, this quote (as it exists here) speaks unintentional volumes about the same meaningless ‘avalanche of words’ which it attempts to decry.

Once it is established, however, that this passage occurs in the midst of a section in the novel which deals with the very issue of context, and which confronts the problems of compatibility that can result from two people having greatly differing reactions to the same stimuli, the worries expressed within that passage become far less certain, and far more open to challenge. Indeed, viewing it in such a way, I am forced to contemplate whether or not I initially agreed with Franz’s opinion that culture (especially academic culture) has fallen victim to a ‘madness of quantity,’ and that this is entirely a negative thing, chiefly because I had recently failed to secure the funding I would require to return to an academic environment. In other words, did I only agree with that point because I am (temporarily?) forced to remain outside the bounds of such production? Had the email responded to my funding application in the affirmative, would I have found my haunches instinctively raised and my teeth bared in primal defence of my way of life? Would I have argued against there being anything wrong with that ‘quantity,’ and sung the praises of that ‘avalanche’?

After all, I have had substantial success in my academic ‘career’ up to this point. My record at my former university is a First Class degree in English and History, and a Distinction in an MRes in English. Surely it would be nonsensical to turn my back on that record entirely, and to dismiss it as useless, accepting that the work which gained me those marks will have nothing further to do than to sit around in ‘archives sadder than cemeteries’. In light of a return to academia, would I not instead have chosen to exploit the possibilities offered to me by the ability to play around with semantics, and reconstrued those ‘archives’ as a much more positive place? As a hallowed, almost spiritual, repository of the ever-expanding wealth of collected human knowledge, on all subjects ‘under the sun’.


Again, however, this view is incomplete. It is based on an incredibly simplistic assertion that all of those subjects are of equal importance. Of course, the fact that the same grades can be achieved by work across all subjects suggests such equality, but, in order for the academic (or anybody) to feel that their work is important, they must be able to weigh it against that of somebody else and find it more worthy. Specialism is allowed within academia (and other careers) for a reason – allocating specialist status to a subject/act/means of production creates a greater level of importance for that subject. Therefore, I would only be able to convincingly argue that a very limited portion of the archives approached the semi-spiritual level of truly relevant knowledge; otherwise, in embracing all of it, I would devalue all of it, thus confirming Franz’s theory.

Indeed, the character of Franz himself seems to have found himself in the same predicament, and extricates himself in the same fashion – by proclaiming a very limited amount of knowledge (‘one banned book’) to have more worth than ‘the billions of words spewed out by our universities.’

At this point, it is perhaps best to consider more of the background for Franz’s beliefs, as presented immediately following the above quote in the novel:

‘It is in this spirit that we may understand Franz’s weakness for revolution [as exemplified by the ‘banned book’]. First he sympathised with Cuba, then with China, and when the cruelty of their regimes began to appal him, he resigned himself with a sigh to a sea of words with no weight and no resemblance to life. He became a professor in Geneva (where there are no demonstrations), and in a burst of abnegation (in womanless, paradeless solitude) he published several scholarly books, all of which received considerable acclaim.’ (p.99)

Rather than suggesting that his own work is of primary importance – his work, after all, is not the ‘banned book’ he refers to – he has instead retreated into a state in which it is the very meaninglessness of his work which provides a kind of escape. He has elected to avoid ‘weight’ and ‘resemblance to life.’ He is both producing and living an empty fiction. His words are, by and because of his own admission, part of the worthless ‘billions’.

Upon reading this, and then re-reading it, I began to question more deeply not only my initial relief brought about by the content of the preceding passage, but also my motivations for applying for the PhD funding in the first place. Even as I thought this, I cautioned myself against it – don’t torture yourself like this, don’t deny the merits of your desire, just because you were turned down. But I did not stop. It was likely that, finding myself largely without prospects – that is, without relevant experience in any other area in which I may have hoped to earn a living, and therefore without much chance of gaining employment in such areas – when I heard that funding was potentially available to me – and at my former university no less, the scene of so many of my past academic triumphs – it appealed to me more as a comfortable retreat than as a site of productive advancement. That I, like Franz, would gladly have accepted submersion within the avalanche, if it meant that I would have a plain, reasonably comfortable life whilst I was there.

In failing to secure the funding, I find myself, in light of that possibility, denied that comfortable, closeted academic life. At least for now. As such, I am likely to become a victim of the ‘madness of quantity’ in another way. Indeed, I have been already, in remaining unemployed for so long (too long to recount here without feeling slightly embarrassed). Which gives me further reason to begrudge that rejection, and, remaining in professional limbo, to turn my back on academia once again.

However, this part of the essay is again lacking the full context. It is not enough to simply treat this rejection as a rejection from all of academia, when, as mentioned above, academia as it exists today caters for – in fact demands – specialisation. The full reason for my application, and, likewise, the full implications of my rejection for funding, can only be understood when I divulge that the PhD I applied for was in the discipline of Creative Writing.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out (though this is, admittedly, evidenced by the rest of the content on this blog) that a big part of the reason for my lack of recent experience in other, non-academic areas, despite being out of university for two and a half years, is that I have dedicated much of that time to working on a pretty substantial array of fiction and poetry. My decision to apply for PhD funding in that area, though I had never taken any Creative Writing modules in my previous studies, was arrived at, in large part, in the wake of a spate of earlier rejections, for various poems, short stories, and, most pertinently, for one of my completed novellas. Each new rejection for my work seemed, on one level, to signal my unsuitability for the role of the ‘wild’ or ‘freelance’ writer/author. With each rejection I received, I felt more isolated, felt my work upon re-reading as more removed from any ‘resemblance to life’. And yet I had come so far down this road that I couldn’t retreat entirely, as that would render the vast body of my ideals largely void. Instead, I had to seek out an environment in which I might feel more appreciated, more connected, more useful. An environment that, through the very fact of its limited scope and purview, would allow my work to seem more important.

In allowing my work to succumb to the ‘madness of quantity’ propagated by the current academic and cultural system, I would also allow it to find a home. In embracing its lack of relevance for anyone beyond, really, myself, I would at least gain a place in which to write it, without a constant awareness of the pressures of debt and other hazards of contemporary life. If culture is indeed perishing, lost in a ‘sea of words’, then I had, in some sense, resolved to go down with the ship.

Until, that is, I received that rejection. And then another.

A few pages further on in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the reader is given further insight into the complexity of Franz’s thoughts:

‘“What is beauty?” said Franz, and he saw himself attending a recent gallery preview at his wife’s side, and at her insistence. The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art.’ (p.106)

Here, it seems that Franz acquaints vanity entirely with negativity, which can be used to at least partially explain his willingness to produce work that he does not believe is important, and also his apparent sickness with the state of ‘culture’ as a whole. He sees in ‘speeches and words,’ ‘culture,’ ‘art’ what he wants to see in it. Just as everybody else does. And he is able to back up his point of view with evidence as formulated and arranged according to his personal sense of reason, as a great many other people are able to.

Indeed, an awareness of the fact that a great many people could convincingly argue both alongside and against him on this point, is perhaps indicative yet again of the ‘madness of quantity’. It could be argued that the character’s attack on vanity as a negative influence here derives from his feeling that, due to the sheer mass of opinions and art and words out there, having pride in the opinions/art/words that one produces is pointless.

Rather, it can be argued, I think, because I have certainly encountered a similar line of thinking in myself, especially over the course of the past two and a half years, and therefore can, within reason, extrapolate it to apply to that character as well (which, I suppose, is a case of me seeing what I want to see).

This ability to be able to read something of yourself in a character within fiction, and following that to attempt to learn something from the experience, is, however, a facet of that particular artform which I would contend renders it of continuing importance; or, at least, certain examples of it as being of continuing importance. As with everything else, it is important to accept and acknowledge that everything within the field of ‘art’ is not equal, either in relevance or quality – if it were, then it would indeed negate its reason for existing. Within the current climate of inarguable ‘overproduction,’ the proportion of truly relevant and interesting art is, in relation to that which is not, likely going to be much lower than ever before. But to damn the entire haystack because of the difficulty of discovering the needle seems churlish as best, and utterly foolish at worst.

Which brings me to the second rejection (an actual letter at that!) which I received this week. Now, having had my last complete (that is, fully-edited and re-edited and re-edited again and again) novella rejected about seven (ish…maybe ten…?) times now, alongside about forty rejections for various short stories and poems, I have, to some degree become acclimatised to them. To the idea that, when I send a given piece of work off (or apply for a job), I have a far greater chance of receiving a negative response than a positive one. – Indeed, this no doubt fed into my…cautiously pessimistic approach as regards my PhD funding application. – I have become acclimatised, beyond the general fact of rejection, to most of the various types of rejection responses.

Most common are the one-size-fits-all ‘We are sorry, but this wasn’t right for us at this time…’ replies; their generic nature was admittedly frustrating at first, but the logic behind them is sound – it makes no sense for an editor/reader to go into great detail about a work which doesn’t suit their publication and/or which they will have nothing further to do with. It would be a waste of their time. It may be impersonal, but at least it is to-the-point and, insofar as most regularly this means that nothing explicitly negative is mentioned about your work, far from soul-crushing in and of itself. When they stack up – say, several arriving in the space of a few days – it can have a more negative effect than might otherwise have been the case. But, by and large, they become quite easy to look beyond, after a while.

Far rarer are the replies (these, in my experience, mainly for short stories) where a small, often quite useful amount of feedback is given. They seek to explain why your work is not the right fit for their publication, and, though they can puncture the ego – it’s never fun to hear that your characterisation was perhaps too vague, or your plot too condensed, for instance – but creative criticism is better than nothing. Sometimes it can be a very good thing indeed. It keeps you on your toes, and keeps you pushing for better. If you’re willing to let it. I’ve ignored it a couple of times, and gone on to accrue yet more rejections for the stories in question. One time that I acted on it, I got a short story published elsewhere. In the magnificent new re-launch edition of BULL: Men’s Fiction, in fact. (Yes, that’s vanity. More on this later.)

Somewhere in between in terms of frequency, and least favourite, are the replies that aren’t. These can be separated into two categories, however, and should be. Firstly, and not quite as frustrating, (and most often applying to competition submissions) are the replies you have to hunt down yourself – checking a publication’s website or blog or twitterfeed for a longlist/shortlist/winner, often without an email informing you that said results are now available to view. Secondly, there are the entirely absent replies; the ones where you’re given a rough timescale of how long it will take for your submission (usually for novels) to pass through the system, and left to your own judgement as to when exactly you’ve gone long enough without hearing anything to assume the worst. This is exactly as shitty as it sounds.

Having become acclimatised to such rejections, and, when it comes to submitting my novella, the latter type in particular, I assumed that a long-shot submission I sent off in November had met with exactly that type of response. Up until yesterday morning, that did not seem an unfair assumption. After all, I have, outside of this blog, only had a couple of pieces published, none of them novel-length; also, they are a large, very respected publisher; also, they said that their usual turnaround time was three months, which would have meant sometime around the end of January.

Then the letter came.

Not expecting a letter from any source, let alone this, I was initially confused. Naturally curious, I opened it. I unfolded the lone piece of paper inside. I noted the logo on the letterhead. I read it. I re-read it. I read parts of it aloud to my Dad. I took it upstairs to my office space (bedroom). I re-read it again.

I had been rejected.

But I had been given reasons for that rejection. I had been given actual detailed feedback. Positive feedback. I had even been given the best reason possible for the delayed reply – the Submissions Assistant tasked with assessing my book had felt the need to re-read it, several times, just to be sure. The Submissions Assistant also took pains she needn’t have taken to point out how much she enjoyed my work. My protagonist was complimented. My style was complimented. The ideas beneath that style were mentioned with something like [if I’m forced to editorialise my gushing praise for this rejection] high regard – the word ‘beautifully’ was used with regards to them.

In short, I had been rejected, but given an ego boost at the same time.

And, as Franz’s attack upon its presence attests, ego and ‘vanity’ are intrinsically linked to the production of art; they are, in some ways, essential to it. More fully, a kind of justified vanity is essential to the continuing production of good, relevant art. As long as a person believes in their own work, they will persist with its production. However, the pressure of rejection, especially unspecified rejection, can begin to strip away that belief, can lead either to giving up, or, as in the case of Franz’s character (and whatever one wants to read into that character of themselves), resolving to continue with work which they no longer believe in, rendering that work meaningless. Rendering it devoid of a true ‘resemblance [and relevance] to life’.

The trick then, if you wish to continue with that work, is to make sure that you maintain your belief in it. That you do not let the ‘madness of quantity’ grind you down; that you don’t lose sight of the needle for all of the hay. And, yes, that you learn that taking a level of pride (when deserved) in that work, whatever it is – be it academic or otherwise – is OK. That exercising and indulging a level of vanity through artistic and/or intellectual expression is perhaps the key means of retaining a full sense of not only your own individuality, but the idea(l) of individuality itself.

Sure, taken as a whole, archives of such work can be seen as ‘sadder than cemeteries’; as can libraries, I suppose, if it comes to that. But, if individual works are removed from the archive, considered and disseminated and read as separate entities, then they remain important. The ‘madness’ lies in the ‘quantity’. If you produce work that you believe in, and it finds an audience, however small, then it bypasses that madness. It gains a weight, an importance, which comes as well from not being completed in a state of submission and retreat (the state Franz occupies), but in a state of relentless and demonstrative optimism.

I’m not quite there yet. I have been there, but I’m not quite back. I think, in some ways, I had been hoping that a return to the comforting (for me) environment of academia would facilitate a corresponding return to that way of thinking. If I take another swing at it in the future, maybe it will. In the meantime, I have to make what I can of the situation. I have to bear in mind that rejection is not always bad; that, once again, it’s all about context – indeed, it’s often about defining your own.

Sometimes rejection makes for the finest encouragement to try something new. Sometimes it just gives what you need to keep trying.

No comments:

Post a Comment