#2 On novelty and creation

Dear Mat,

I’m in. In fact on your prompting I finally got around to reading a few of Seneca’s letters. They’re great; one of those things that you know will be good but for some reason you put it off, almost like saving it up for later.

Should one write/create for oneself or others? Perennial question for any artist (and God knows, we’re nothing if not artists) and I agree with you about just trying to make whatever amuses or interests oneself. Butthe devil on the shoulder seems to whisper that if you just do something lame but popular, you then get into a position to do something original but now with a wider audience.

Of course one thinks of the pulp novelist or the hack TV producer who tells themselves they will do more interesting work as soon as the bills are paid. It never happens and then they’re dead. But of course there are also examples of people who really do start off doing crap and then… actually as I write this I can’t think of any. All the people I respect went the other way, diligently pursuing their own voice. And I don’t just mean high-brow artists, I mean people in TV, comedians, whoever: Louis CK, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Lena Dunham, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sam Harris, George Eliot — some people whose work I’ve thought about in the last few days. None of them started with potboilers and then moved on to their real stuff, they just did what they thought was good.  So yeah, obviously just do stuff for yourself and if others like it, great, if they don’t then maybe it wasn’t great, but in any case making crap is the ultimate waste of time.

The next question, for me anyway as I make preliminary movements towards writing and publishing a nonfiction book, is about ownership of ideas. I’m starting to think it literally doesn’t matter who says something, if it’s been said before, etc. as long as it’s right. So much criticism (in book reviews or political commentary) is along the lines of, “Such and such said much the same in 1842…” and that seems to automatically discredit someone. Why? I admit originality and novelty are always welcome, but imagine if no one ever reiterated ideas that were good but old:

Me: “I think we should not kill anyone—”

Contrarian: “Fuck you, Moses said that already, ergo I’m gonna kill everyone!”

Me: “But didn’t the 13th century crusader Arnauld Amalric say kill everyone (and let God sort them out)?”

Contrarian: “Oh damn. I guess, in the interests of novelty, I’ll have to just kill a unique fraction of people no one has ever suggested before.”

Everyone said a lot of things, maybe everything. In a way I hope there are no original ideas in my book, merely a new perspective, like a new way of looking at an old painting. This has radical implications for IP. I like property rights so I don’t illegally download, etc. but I don’t think there’s an intrinsic moral reason that stealing someone’s ideas is wrong: ideas are part of the world and any human should be able to draw on them. Is that crazy?

As for the rules, I propose some slight emendations:

  1. We do not talk about the content of letters at all when we speak or meet. Or in other content on the blog. This is a full on parallel dimension of dialogue. [Possibly it should just be: The series of letters should be self-contained so readers don’t have to have read/heard anything else. So we could link to other stuff but there’s no prerequisite knowledge and no one has to be privy to our in-person conversations, etc.]
  2. Drafts aren’t made here on the website. They should be hidden until published. [Check.]
  3. Letters must be replied to within 14 days. I suggest setting up somme punishment for not replying. Maybe like Stickk? [Let’s see how we go with basic shaming first.]
  4. All letters are given a title with the heading “On [the] …” because that’s what Seneca didn’t, but later the translators did. [OK, but I think we should number them too, for easy chronological reference. Suggest you back-number your letter.]