There’s a somewhat ridiculous scholar in Tom Stoppard’s India Ink who says, “This is why God made writers, so the rest of us can publish.” I love that quote because it speaks to an uncomfortable tendency in my academic field (and in many others, too) to feel like a kind of leech. We loot the work of others, digging into its richness and extracting the gems we find. It can seem like grave robbing at times, I suppose. I guess I’m less inclined to feel that impulse because I create as well as loot, but scholars are often afraid of feeling like vultures noshing at a corpse. It leads to a kind of tentativeness on the part of scholars — and a great deal of mistrust on the part of writers, even ones like Stoppard who should be confident enough to survive the scrutiny.
I’m thinking about this because at present I’m working on revising a paper I gave at Oxford earlier this year and the process reminds me just how creative scholarship really is — something even we who practice it tend to forget. It’s all about solving puzzles, grappling with mountains of evidence and trying to find the best way to build that little castle of persuasion. We’re often less conscious of that deliberate process when it comes to creative works, although the novel I just finished relied on research, on a knowledge of previous works from which I was
borrowing stealing (usually inaccurately, but on purpose) and on a very calculated sense of persuasion. Writing is always a Scheherazadean task of seducing your reader to continue, whether it’s to the next line of a poem, the next page of a novel or the next step in your argument.
Well, it’s a holiday weekend for many of us — I will be working, but that’s not unusual. I’ve been putting off the tedious task of transferring files from the old computer to the new one. Maybe it will finally get done.