October 07, 2019

Last night, in a fit of insomnia, I found myself reading the 80,000 Hours Guide, which is an excellent resource for thinking about what to do or not to do with your life. Their advice not to go into the arts concerned me, however.

It’s not that the advice itself isn’t sensible. It is undoubtedly true that “the odds are stacked even against very talented individuals,” and, on some level, I must reluctantly agree with the pessimism of the article as a whole. The arts are certainly winner-takes-all, probably more so than they once were. The market is also shrinking, especially for writers of literary fiction.

It’s that the 80k article consistently equates “artist” with “entertainer,” which I think is unfair. The single mention of novels is especially exasperating:

While great art can entertain or improve those who receive it, there is already a great stock of art available for people to enjoy. For example, even if you write one of the best novels ever written, most people who read it would have been able to read a different outstanding novel in its absence.

This implies that novels are more-or-less interchangeable, and that their primary purpose is to entertain. I greatly disagree with this view of art. (So did Kafka, by the way, and for reasons I eventually intend to argue — though not here — make sense with respect to modern neuroscience.)

To be fair to the article, it tries to limit its focus to “musicians, visual artists, actors and fiction writers, and in particular attempts to become famous within these fields.” Fame is certainly the wrong reason to go into any field, and I am only going to discuss the writing of fiction. If by fiction they mean only mainstream genre fiction, the thrillers and romance on which billions are spent each year, then maybe they are right: it purports primarily to entertain, and producing more may not be humanity’s top priority.

But as I’ve argued, there are places where literature overlaps with science and philosophy — or at least it did so in the past. And I would argue further that the most important novels transmit, link, and preserve ideas, and also retain a record (in some respects more comprehensive than history’s) of the milieu and way of thinking at a particular period in history. Since history tends to repeat itself, both in ideas and in moods, this is important. And the importance of this is not reflected if one only considers how entertaining a novel is. Some of the best novels are not particularly entertaining, nor are they easy to read.

But they would be even harder to read if they were written as nonfiction. Entertainment and aesthetics are important aspects of fiction. Nobody reads Tolstoy’s straight philosophical works anymore, however insightful they might have been. But it would be absurd to claim that his novels are pure works of entertainment. They contain important philosophical and historiographical ideas which are an enduring source of provocation to every new generation of intellectuals. War and Peace is still getting new reviews arguing for its modern relevance, 150 years after its publication.

As a result of this, though it would be difficult to prove, I don’t think that nonfiction is as durable as fiction. Scientific ideas might persist, might eventually permeate. But they will not permeate humanity as quickly or saturate it as deeply as the equivalent work of literature. Furthermore, I suspect readers rarely resort to the primary sources in science or history, preferring to have them summarised, unless the author happens to be a brilliant stylist. Probably more people read Milton’s Paradise Lost every year than Newton’s Principia, even though they are roughly the same age, and the latter may have been dramatically more important for the trajectory of humanity. And if members of the public still read Darwin, it is not strictly because of his ideas, but because of his literary abilities.

Of course it would be reductive to argue that novels always care about transmitting ideas. Tolstoy and Milton represent the highest bars there are for writing of any kind. And yet to dismiss fiction as being about entertainment is to truncate, at a stroke, some of the greatest thinkers in history. More importantly, not to invest in literature going forward would represent an enormous loss in cross-domain thinking. A novel, after all, can contain anything and everything that’s in the air, and is not subject to the rules of science or attribution, which I would say is a strength.

A final reason to write may be that some people just can’t help it. A defence of this nature comes from the unlikely source of the economist Tyler Cowen:

One good reason to write a book is when you have the feeling you cannot do anything else without getting the book out of your system. In that sense, you can think of the lust to write books as a kind of disability.

Consider me disabled.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.