Aristotle and The Pen

@AristotleBottle is an avid lover of philosophy and literature. He is a writer, natural scientist and observer and can be found blogging here. In this guest post on the eve of the cinema release of one of his favourite books, The Great Gatsby, he laments the decline in the quality of writing today and explains why he writes himself.

Not long ago, in a Samsung Galaxy far, far away, the ability to write well was a talent that a lot of people had. It was the way of the world – business and social. You had to write well so that you could be understood well. You had to write succintly because, well, you had to physically write it. Generally, educated people were proficient at it (more on this later), but even socially, it came to actually be a ‘hobby’ of sorts, with ‘corresponding’ a natural way to maintain contact and share ideas about anything. People penned away throughout the world; the power of writing becoming entrenched in developed society as the chief means of record, coupled with proliferation of official vernacular through education.

People not only read more but also considered and contributed more by way of writing. Intellectuals and writers became revered for their ideas and work, which stemmed from writings. They were not dismissed as boring nerds or eccentrics in the modern world. Furthermore, society itself was built implicitly on the understanding that those who were lucky enough to be educated had a moral obligation to enable the further education and understanding of others. So having been educated, these people would write-up their knowledge, ideas, experiments and theories and collate them in journals to communicate with other similarly literate people. In this way, the correspondent community grew which led to the birth of the scientific journals. However, it was mainly the intellectuals, academics and scientists who wrote. They had to for another critical reason – no other means of record were available. Going back further to times past, there was an even bigger problem when resolving to write something, because, as Professor Bovens once eloquently told me:

 “That [papyrus] shit was expensive!”

Now of course with the internet, it is not that expensive. Essentially, it is free to anybody with an Internet connection and mobile or computer (which is basically everyone). People still ‘write’ to one another but not with paper and pen but fingertip and touchscreen. Educated people still write – but everyone is educated so in theory, everyone writes. Even those who are not formally educated can read and write through their use of the encyclopaedia internettica. Everyday, the whole world becomes more proficient in English simply because of its use as the international language of business and the internet. The result is a paradox: more people can write (english) today, but not many people do actually bother to write, let alone write well.

How can this be so? We find ourselves writing everyday by way of emails, messages and texts so its not that we have suddenly become illiterate and stopped.  What I am asking is ‘How can more people knowing one language mean, overall, everyone using that language speaks it worse and writes it down less?’ The answer is obvious: the communication-driven society we live in only needs simple commands to communicate the trivialities of life. Nearly all of the stuff we read or write is not a work of art because it is not required to be a work of art. We just need to get our message across, and not worry about our prose, diction or style. It seems that the more people who speak the language, the easier it is to dilute and modify because implied understanding is more likely and taken for granted.

Thus we reach the modern day, where writing means producing easily digestible information to the masses, not indulging in poetic beauty and flowery prose for the benefit of a few. It has pervaded pretty much every form of writing that we come across now. Newspaper articles, blog posts, magazine articles…all show how much we have neglected the art. I do read them for their ‘digestible information’ to inform myself but I can’t say there is much quality or enjoyment that emerges from reading it. This is now beginning to show in the so-called ‘bestsellers’. Often nothing more than a smut peddler’s badly written sex journal, a delusional keyboard-slapper’s tale of wizardry, or a narcotic’s unimaginative trilogy involving vampires or werewolves, sometimes both. If you consider the works as purely compositional (that is, ignore the story line – focussing just on the diction and quality of writing) you will see that published authors, whilst they may be better than us at creating story lines, appear to be no better at actually writing or expression. but most of it is utter trite. It gets worse. Once the title ‘bestseller’ has been meted out it then gives the author licence to tout to Hollywood for the ensuing film and TV syndication. The wider world laps these books up, often on some else’s arbitrary opinion and then eagerly awaits he film version.

And so we finally get to Mr. Jay Gatsby. My opinion of him is the same today as it was when I first came across him: one intriguing man. His creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald is not around to see this masterpiece come to life on film, but then again he would not need to. The Great Gatsby comes to life right off the page, imagery and detail intact. I found myself as a teenager drawn to James Gatz; his mystery, his opulence, his generosity, his dark past, his fragility…made possible simply through Fitzgerald’s words. I did not need a movie poster of Leonardo DiCaprio to paint a picture of Gatsby for me, I have had a picture of the character since I first read the book some 12 years ago. I will watch the movie if only just to see how a character I so strongly empathised with as a young man turns out on screen. But this is an exception. The Great Gatsby is book that no film can do justice. Books of the quality of The Great Gatsby just simply do not get written anymore.

It is a little sad that Baz Luhrmann has decided to try his hand at the daunting task, particularly, as I said, he didn’t need to. Sadly the only plausible explanation is nothing other than to cash in on a film that is almost guaranteed to be successful because its book is a massive bestselling classic and is genuinely well written. The book still enjoys mainstream appeal to this day, and Luhrmann’s film will do well, helped by the Hollywood PR machine, a A-list cast and crew, fuelled by a killer soundtrack from Mr. New York himself, Jay-Z (note to self: Buy this album).

For me, it stems to the simple characteristic of quality and intention. Firstly, Fitzgerald really was a talented writer, and so Gatsby as a result retains all the hallmarks of quality. The extravagant high society of 1920’s New York juxtaposed against its decrepit and consuming innards. The virtuous and faithful are also described vividly, alongside the immorality of the adulterers and bootleggers. With respect to intention, it is clear that Fitzgerald never thought about a life for Gatsby off the page. He wrote the book, partly as a snapshot of life in the US during the Roaring Twenties, partly in vanity as a portrait of his own life, but mostly to entertain and to create a work of art. Not necessarily to earn the vast fortunes of hollywood but something invaluable: respect.

Most modern authors are purely interested in taking a story, any story even, and taking it as far they can through the money spinning machine. What’s the point spending time writing a work of art in the modern world? The goal is simply to get a story down on page! As long as the story is good, the book publishers will pick it up (at the very least will kindly correct the typos). If it is a popular story (involves vampires, wizards or graphic sex as required) then it will get picked up by a Hollywood producer, who will essentially commission a re-write of the story with screenwriters.

But when the film comes out and the world is waning lyrical about the director, the star of the film or the blockbusting cinematography, what remains of the original story as penned by the author? Essentially nothing other than characters, locations and main story arc. You would have to return to the book after watching the film and ask yourself, “Was it a good movie?”. The answer may be a function of how good the acting was, how well the director’s interpreted the source material, how well the screenwriters wrote up the dialogue and how well the director directed his cameras. Essentially nothing to do with the author. So, again, What’s the point spending time in writing a work of art? It will eventually just get re-written.

William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest English writer who ever lived. Personally I give that title to John Milton, closely followed in second place by Bertrand Russell. Shakespeare also happens to be the regarded as the greatest ever lyricist in the language as well (Lennon and McCartney aside!). He is a rare double champion of poetry and prose. A stage play does not need to unfold in perfect iambic pentameter after all, yet the majority of his plays actually do! The stories themselves also happen to be rather good. Whatever your thoughts on the man and his works it was the words that first came to the man with a pen and page that matter, because otherwise we would have never had these works of art to enjoy in the first place. The results have been compulsory reading for every student of the English language ever since and probably will be forever. The most telling thing of all: no adaptation of a Shakespeare play for the screen has ever left the original in its shadow. There is simply no trumping Shakespeare’s writing.

The writing talents of Shakespeare, Milton and Russell are well known and warrant a post on their  own, emeritus. Even though I am not as good as good a writer as these titans, and never will be, I continue to enjoy reading their work. I read their work and others because its well written and I enjoy reading each of them for their own style quirks. And this is purely from a compositional viewpoint. If we then turn to substance well, needless to say these writers know their stuff (whatever their chosen lines of inquiry). I wouldn’t be interested to pick up their work at all if it wasn’t written well and a joy to read. And that is why I write. Because I hope that others may enjoy, not only what I write about, but the way in which write it.

I write in homage to the authors who not only had something interesting to say, but also say it in a way that is entertaining and intelligent. I am not a professional writer, so much of what I written can be critiqued in this very way. I may be considered nothing more than a dilettante! I simply love reading, and where I can I try to write, to give others the same pleasure. I write, not because I endeavour to be a celebrated author and want to change the world. I do it out of recognition that their ability to write well in, many ways, actually. I write to stand upon their shoulders, to try to catch a glimpse of what they see, and maybe see clearly something for myself. I write, and I try to write well – unsuccessfully sometimes. I write. Even if it is just to preserve this dying artform.

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