On writing for one's friends

Montaigne went out of his way to state that he wrote for his friends. Why? Perhaps he was answering the question that students ask when they inquire about the appropriate notional audience for some piece of work. Writing for a friend means writing for a likeminded peer. One who won't defend a point merely for the sake of winning the argument. One who wants to be delighted, not beaten down with footnotes and qualifications and literature reviews. And one who won't let you pull a fast one.

A great deal of what gets written today, held to Montaigne's standard, would seem to be written for enemies. Let's ignore the sordid stack of business writing, which no one who wasn't on the clock would defend anyway. Academic writing used to delight and inform. What happened to it? Academics are publishing that they may not perish, which is why over a million articles are published each year. Everyone knows that you turn a short idea into an article is by padding it with a literature review at the front and a mess of qualifications at the end. The result is a sort of writing that no one would voluntarily read, and it's been argued that apart from the peer reviewers, no one does. The result is that academics develop a new language to describe their own unreadable works, one where like medieval theologians talking about God, words like 'playful' and 'fun' are at best analogous to the real thing.

If academic writing is written for nobody, much popular writing suffers from being written for everybody. People who are trying to live from their publications cant afford to turn readers away for being uninformed, forgetful or not very clever. And so, articles in magazines are heavy with subordinate clauses that contain bits of remedial information to carry the reader along. Book chapters become ever more like TV episodes, each recapitulating or repeating what happened in the last chapter for the distracted reader. Maybe this is what it takes to live off one's writing. But this, too, is not how we treat our friends.

The trouble with Montaigne's dictum is that it does not seem to connect to the real experience of writing. If we are going to write for our friends, how will we become known for our writing? How will we be compensated for our writing?

Perhaps neither question requires an answer, at least not today. There has never been a clear road to fame or success in human affairs, and writing for one's friends may be as good a path as any. Locke wrote for his friends. It made him the most famous philosopher of his day. Maybe this is because Locke, like Montaigne, understood that writing is a way of seeking new friends, of calling out to likeminded people. Do you know a better way to do that?

And do you know how to write for money? My father's generation did. But the editorial excuse that writing would be compensated by the exposure of being published was born and grew up with my generation. Even those who do get paid can barely make a living, so we might say that being paid is in a practical sense off the table for most of us. What remains is the possibility of writing as an aristocrat. Writing in the form that one chooses, on topics of one's choice, on one's own schedule... and for one's friends.