Saturday, July 05, 2008

Self-absorption and Contemporary Writing

It is everywhere, a plague, a curse, a bane--self-absorption as a way of life and (worse yet) as a way of writing. Christopher Lasch's "culture of narcissism" has infected books and articles, even written by Christians. Needless, pointless, and even embarrassing self-references abound and abase. No specifics will be given, but in a book about the dignified subject of "worldview," a writer waxes autobiographical at the drop of a comma, chatting about his love of this and that. "I may not be a philosopher, but I think that..." Please, keep it to yourself, then. Similiar infractions could be taken from Christianity Today, Books and Culture, even The Chronicle of Higher Education. Too much is too soaked in memior. (See a previous post on Blue Like Jazz.)

What happened to serious writing and living, to discretion? As God shrinks, the self expands. As God-consciousness moves to the margins, the supposedly sacred self moves to center stage. As theology goes into decline, spirituality ("my spirituality") advances. My wife has a perfect term for this: "being precious." It is akin to the flirtatious woman (or man, perhaps) who never says, but always acts out, this imperative: "Look at me! Aren't I pretty?" The flirtatious writer, says, "Read the silly, little details of my precious life! Aren't they fascinating?" No, they are not. If I want autobiography, I'll consult a life of greatness.

The personal pronoun should not to be forbidden in the writing of philosophy or history or film criticism. But it should be used sparingly, sparsely, and with great care. Once again, Elements of Style was right. Just as we should "eliminate unnecessary words," we should eliminate unnecessary personal pronouns. The basic rule concerns whether or not a personal reference contributes something solid, something worthwhile to the piece of writing. If not, eliminate it. The Apostle Paul refers much to himself in some of his letter, but never to no effect. His life was poured out to his readers; it was not on cutesy display. Similarly, a brave and wise Christian from Sri Lanka, Ajith Fernando, uses quite a few personal anecdotes in his many wonderful books. By by so doing, he is more like the Apostle Paul, than the many mirror-gazing, self-stroking writers that clutter the American scene. Francis Schaeffer's books reveal the character of the man without any posing or posturing. They are all meat, no fluff. His anecdotes usually narrate noteworthy apologetic encounters.

What is the antidote to the precious and pointless anecdote, the anodyne for the promiscuous autobiography? Read the Bible and serious writers, mostly from the past: Augustine, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, A. W. Tozer, and Francis Schaeffer. And read a serious contemporary social critic, such as Os Guinness or David Wells. With the self out of view, there is just so much more to see.


pgepps said...

Quite right, despite the reference to Strunk & White (whose obscurity cannot come soon enough).

There is a difference, much neglected, between the needed erosion of the rhetorical posture of objectivity (the third-person-only requirement for reference in "serious" writing) and the profusion of reviews which open with half an hour of "I thought the cream curtains, reminiscent of my own childhood home, were..." and the irritating moniker "creative nonfiction" (the effort to make Plato's poets-are-liars literally true at last).

If it becomes necessary for writers to represent the author/reader functions within their text, in no way does it follow that writers must mythologize themselves with irrelevant autobiographical (or faux memoir) inclusions.

Michael Deal said...

Thanks Doug.

Endless self reference infects modern journalism in our major newspapapers in the west. Put a photo of the writer above the column and the collumn will be full of me! me! me! Please like me! No sense of irony either.

As a pastor I have kept a journal for ten years. I would not dream of publishing it because it would simply be full of anecdotes about myself.

Jim Pemberton said...

To illustrate, an example:

When I was in college I originally suffered in English Composition for not using enough examples.

Our society is so personalized that we cannot use many examples in literature or speech that aren't self-focused. Among Christians, we can likewise blame modern homiletics that are often loaded with examples from the preacher's own personal life. You don't read this in the sermons written in the scriptures, or even from a hundred years ago. It's a recent phenomenon. It's called being "transparent". People usually like personal stories, especially if the person offering the personal story is popular for any reason. Considering this, it's no wonder that we are frequently self-referencing in our quasi-authoritative communications.

Doug Groothuis said...

Yes, a lot of garbage is passed on in the name of "transparency." I'd like more opacity!

Brotherhank said...

Timely words brother. I can see a lot of this issue in Albert Mohler's discussions on understanding the meta-narrative of Scripture, and not just the "me"-narrative. You just can't understand the latter until you truly grasp the former.

Katie said...

Thank you for helping me to clarify my thoughts on this. I recently read a few articles and a book (supposedly about Jane Austen), that left me mildly frustrated. I knew it had something to do with the fact that I was frequently annoyed by the authors repeated interruptions of their stated topics to discuss their own feelings, experiences and reactions, at length.

I now have a mental disposal file to use for such literature...the 'Too Precious Authors' file. ;o)