Reflections on writing an intellectual essay

Hello friendly people! Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. For me the big news is my intellectual-type essay came out at the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s about how I think the relationship between the elite class and a love of classical literature has been a bit overstated. But more broadly it’s about the meaning and purpose of the classics.

For years I used to be very impressed by all these New York Review of Books style essays. They seemed very learned, as if the author had done reams of research before writing them. Then I started reading collections of criticism, and I realized something. Every author has their go-to reference points that they’re going to return to again and again. Samuel Delany is always going to mention Barthes, for instance. People aren’t doing research to write these essays: they’re just generally well-read people who are able to come up with a bunch of supporting facts and quotes out of their own reading.

With that as a model, I decided to write my own intellectual essay without doing any specific research (I was also worried about accidentally plagiarizing someone). You’ll notice my essay doesn’t have direct quotes–that’s because I didn’t even go back and check my references. One book I cited in there, The Chosen, I read when I was a sophomore in college. Almost sixteen years ago. Haven’t read it since. But I’m pretty sure it says what I said it says.

I also realized that the whole form as a whole is intellectually bankrupt. To prove any assertion when it comes to literature is utterly beyond the abilities, or even the intelligence, of most literary critics. Like, I’ve been reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the man takes such care to define exactly what he means by each term. He is so careful to draw a distinction between “sensibility” (the means by which we gain impressions of appearances) and “understanding” (the means by which we produce cognitions about those impressions) and “reason” (the means by which we produce…well I’m not going to pretend I understand Kant well enough to explain it to you). Anyway, the point is he is VERY specific.

You can’t be that specific in a literary essay. Thus, it’s very difficult to even say anything in a clear manner. For instance, in my essay, what does it mean to say “a classical education”. Do I mean just the Greek and Latin classics? Which ones? Do I mean a knowledge of Greek and Latin itself? When I say ‘elites’ what do I mean? When I say ‘valued’ or ‘paid attention to’, what do I mean? It’s more or less impossible to be rigorous in any essay that speaks of what a group of people in the past thought or believed.

Given that, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to constructing an iron-clad argument. I just figured I could throw out a lot of disparate reference points, raise a few questions, and call it a day! To my mind, that’s a lot more intellectually honest than pretending to some kind of comprehensiveness that’s not really possible.

I had a lot of fun doing this. It’s probably some of the most fun I’ve ever had in writing. I have LOTS of thoughts about literature and culture, and mostly nobody cares about them. However this one time I did find the time and the venue where I could make some hay, and for that I’m grateful.

Even though it’s an intellectually bankrupt form, it is a bit intimidating for me, a non-academic, with two fake degrees (a BA in Econ and an MFA in creative writing) to opine about high culture, and I am dead certain that I got a lot of my facts wrong, but the nice thing about literature is…it’s not exactly life or death. Nobody is gonna stand up in a house of parliament and cite my paper as a reason for why they should bomb another country. Opining about literature feels quite safe, in a way that most things don’t. Not because people can’t get angry about it (they can and do), but because the harm you can do is relatively limited.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on writing an intellectual essay

  1. rrhersh

    That essay introduced me to your work. I downloaded your cynical writer’s guide. Forty percent of the way through, so far it rings true to me. It also makes me thankful I don’t write fiction. I am a non-academic publishing on the border of academics. (I think “independent scholar” is the polite way to refer to what I do.) I currently have a contract with a university press. No agent was involved, for which I am grateful. It is not the 15% but the crapshoot aspect I would hate. From the press’s perspective, my area (baseball history) crosses the line where they will have their usual academic library market, plus some non-academic sales they would not ordinarily enjoy: a win-win. It helps that I have no expectation of making anything more than beer money. If I tried to turn my hobby interest into a major source of income, the main effect would be to make me hate my hobby.

    So I read books such as your cynical guide as a fascinated outsider, grateful that I have entirely different outlets to publish my writing.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That’s incredible! I am fascinated by your story. It sounds like you’ve really found your niche. Feel free to email and tell me more: how did you get started? What is your book about? How did you pitch it? Do you have a PhD? I’ve only very rarely encountered a genuine independent scholar, and never one who’s published a book!

Comments are closed