A Symposium on Teaching, Learning, and Publishing
Karl Kraus, that prolific Viennese writer at the turn of the century, was once asked by a student, "Herr Professor Kraus, why do you write books?" He is supposed to have answered, "Because, young man, I have not character enough not to." That is not the whole story about the itch to publish, but I suspect it is an important part of it.
When I was about nine years old I came across one of these gelatin mixtures you put into a baking pan. I think it was called hectographing, but older readers will know what I mean. By rubbing sheets of paper against the impression on the gelatin one could produce about thirty copies, which was just right for the circulation of a really first-class neighborhood newspaper for Miller Street in Pembroke, Ontario. So you can see that from early on my lack of character was such that I assumed people would be, or should be, interested in what I had to say. There was recently an item in the New York Times indicating that an alarming percentage of today's writers started out as children producing neighborhood newspapers. Parents should take note. By nipping the habit in the bud they are perhaps in the best position to alleviate the glut of writing which is presently smothering what remains of Western civilization.Because nobody caught me in time—and some adults who should have known better actually encouraged me—it has been downhill from the Miller Street Gazette. During a brief stay at Concordia High School in Seward, Nebraska, I wrote for the student paper. (Dr. Alfred Fuerbringer, then president, had the good judgment to advise me that my career probably lay elsewhere than at Concordia, so I never did finish high school, which possibly makes me the only high school dropout in the Lutheran ministerium.) I remember doing a piece that particularly excited me on the operation of Concordia's cafeteria. Tough investigative reporting turned up, among other things, the fact that something like 700 loaves of bread were baked there each week. It was not that anyone was trying to conceal the fact, but neither was anyone paying much attention to it, and I thought they should.
But it was later, as an editor of The Seminarian at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, that the vice was exercised on weightier matters. Like the chronology of Genesis, the historicity of the Resurrection, and why it was all right to pray with Roman Catholics. We're talking about the late Fifties when Missouri was churning with controversies beyond numbering. The Seminarian was the favored foil of the seminary's conservative cri¬tics. The administration pooh-poohed our literary excursions into heresy (meaning anything beyond the boundaries of Francis Pieper and synodical resolutions), pointing out that kids will be kids. But the critics knew better. If you don't stop them now these kids might later write books that at least some innocent readers would take seriously. What the critics didn't know is that it was already about fifteen years too late. "Train a child in the way he should go . . ."
Later—twelve books, hundreds of articles, innumerable newsletters and reviews later—the toll taken on the minds and the patience of readers would be immeasurable. Karl Kraus' answer to the student was, I believe, astute. I am frequently asked by young people who take me to be a writer how one becomes a writer. As though it were similar to becoming a gynecologist or academic dean. My impulse, seldom restrained, is to say that if you aren't a writer already don't bother. A writer writes and writes and then writes some more, and then some day some people may take him to be a writer. And if he is never publicly recognized, he must then decide whether he will write as a solitary vice. I do not say that writers are born not made, but, if not born, they are at least bent at an early age.
There is the opinion that a prerequisite to becoming a writer is to believe that you have something to say. Meaning no offense to the fools who subscribe to that opinion, I think it quite wrong. I would not know that I have something to say were it not for the things being said by others which should not be said, or which are in urgent need of correction. I do wait a decent interval for someone else to do the correcting, but if that is not forthcoming I, with typewriter and a little time at hand, do my duty. I know an eminent and much-published writer who claims that he has never written anything except he was asked to write it by someone else. Such laissez-faire devotion to the market of ideas is striking but quite beyond my ken. To the best of my recollection, nobody asked for the Miller Street Gazette. I do not intend to suggest that all my writing is reactive, provoked by the silly things written by others, which it is my obligation to set straight. This very piece, like many others, is at the invitation of an editor (which he may be coming to regret). Then, too, you cannot be forever correcting arguments that other people got all wrong without somebody challenging you to make the argument the way it should be made. From the imprudence of responding to that challenge come books and, as Blessed Martin Luther might have said, other great shame and vice. And surely he should know.
Mark Schwehn's otherwise excellent essay is altogether too solemn about the purpose of publication, beginning with the assumption that publication always has a purpose. I am sure these assistant professors he discusses—hungry for status or eager to advance their discipline, or both—actually exist. But my hunch is that publication is more commonly prompted by what I suspect prompted Mr. Schwehn's fine essay: Dammit, here's a dumb situation about which people are saying dumb things and I think I'll try my hand at straightening it out. Anyway, Mr. Schwehn probably said to himself, I really do like to write. The clincher likely was that Editor Nuechterlein had the good sense to encourage him to act on his impulse. I rather doubt that Mr. Schwehn thought that with this essay he was either advancing his career or, in the manner of Max Weber, making some contribution to learning that will one day be vindicated in the consummation of human knowledge. Although, so admirable is the essay that I would not be surprised if it did both.
Mr. Schwehn is exactly right when he talks about publication as continuing the conversation. Over the years I have been book editor for several journals. I recall one bright afternoon talking with a visitor at my office on East 64th Street, surrounded by piles of the several hundred books received that month. And what are you doing now? she asked. Well, I'm working on this book about . . . And then I stopped, struck by the improbability of the world really needing another book. When it comes to the making of books the writer of Ecclesiastes didn't know the half of it. Last year there were over 55,000 trade books published in the United States alone. That does not include purely scholarly publications, nor at least as many books put out by corporations, institutes, sundry voluntary associations, and government agencies. Even if he sticks to his own field, anyone who is "on top of the literature" today is probably perched on a very high stack of unread books. A serious book today—which is to say any book that requires what used to be a 12th grade level of literacy—does well to sell 3,000 copies and is a best seller at 15,000. Beyond that it is a sensation.
It might all be very depressing, were it not for the truth of what Mr. Schwehn says about the continuing conversation. Rather, the many continuing conversations, the most important of which, many of us think, is that of the community of reflective Christian faith. In publishing, and I daresay in teaching, it helps if one is at least in part a preacher. The preacher has no illusions about the novelty of what he has to say. Not novelty but fidelity is his concern. Although, to be sure, he tries to transmit the faith in ways that are fresh, if not new. Nor does he have any illusions about being able to demonstrate the effectiveness of his efforts. A long time ago I thought that the biblical promise about the word not returning void was the consolation of incompetent preachers. Twenty-five years later I know better, or maybe I just know that we incompetents can't get along without our consolations. So also in publishing, you do not know what effect your words may have, or even who are all the partners in the conversation.
A friend of mine announced upon sending another scholarly work of anthropology off to the publisher, "It is like dropping a very beautiful rose petal down a very deep well, never to be heard from again." Another friend, a philosopher, is confident of the place of his work in the history of ideas. No future laborer in the philosophical vineyard, he believes, will be able to go around what he has contributed to the conversation. Because this friend is a genius of monumental stature, I am not inclined to argue. But most of us are probably somewhere between the deep-well theory and being sure about our place in the world-historical scheme of things. And some people appear to have given up thinking about it and just publish to be publishing. One writer of my acquaintance published so many books and articles that it was said he had no unpublished thoughts. Then he, a presumably celibate priest, published a torrid book on human sexuality, after which it was said he had no unpublished fantasies. Such proliferous abandonment of restraint suggests a paraphrase of that ugly sentiment espoused by some soldiers of fortune: Publish them all and let God sort them out.
But that is not the kind of conversation Mr. Schwehn has in mind. His conversation has to do with discrete traditions and is closer to what Mr. Pelikan describes in that elegant book to which Mr. Schwehn alludes. Mr. Pelikan writes about the "florilegium." The florilegium was the product of Eastern Orthodox scribes who wrote history by stringing together quotations from earlier writers. The originality of the florilegium was not in anything that was said directly but in the originality of the way the tradition was arranged. Mr. Pelikan makes a convincing case that, far from being stifling, this procedure is one of exquisite creativity if we are but able to perceive it. Not incidentally, this aspect of his The Vindication of Tradition tells us much about Mr. Pelikan's understanding of his own work, for example his multi-volume The Christian Tradition. All of us who write should keep the idea of the florilegium at least occasionally in mind. Otherwise we are just pushing ourselves forward or, as they say, "expressing" ourselves. And that is not too different from putting out the Miller Street Gazette. Which is okay for kids.