Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘lists’

28 AUGUST, 2012

Ezra Pound’s List of the Six Types of Writers, Plus His Two Rules for Forming an Opinion

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A taxonomy of scribe sensibilities, with some advice on how to make up your mind.

“Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work,” Ezra Pound advised in his list of don’ts for beginning poets, originally written in 1913. More than two decades later, in 1934, Pound formulated his best advice on the parallel arts of reading and writing in ABC of Reading (public library), a fine addition to these 9 essential books on how to read more and write better.

Among his insights is the following list of the six types of writers, particularly interesting when compared and contrasted with George Orwell’s list of the four universal motives for writing.

When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

  1. Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.
  2. The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.
  3. The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.
  4. Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is ‘healthy’. For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante’s time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare’s time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.
  5. Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.
  6. The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able ‘to see the wood for the trees’. He may know what he ‘likes’. He may be a ‘compleat book-lover’, with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is ‘breaking with convention’ than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favourite bad writer.

Pound follows up with a reiteration of his own advice on criticism:

Until you have made your own survey and your own closer inspection you might at least beware and avoid accepting opinions.

  1. From men who haven’t themselves produced notable work.
  2. From men who have not themselves taken the risk of printing the results of their own personal inspection and survey, even if they are seriously making one.

For more famous advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom on writing, various invaluable insight from other great writers, and the excellent Several Short Sentences About Writing.

Ezra Pound portrait by Italian artist Luciano Maestri

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27 AUGUST, 2012

Susan Sontag’s List of Rules and Duties for Being 24

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“Don’t criticize publicly anyone at Harvard.”

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, gave us the celebrated author and thinker’s insights on love (now available as a limited-edition print!), writing, censorship, and aphorisms. But the first installment, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), is in many ways even more fascinating, as we see a young Sontag begin to take shape as a private person and a public intellectual.

Immediately before turning 24 on January 16, 1957, Sontag produces the following list, a blend of the pragmatic and the aspirational:

Rules + duties for being 24

  1. Have better posture.
  2. Write Mother 3 times a week.
  3. Eat less.
  4. Write two hours a day minimally
  5. Never complain publicly about Brandeis [University] or money.
  6. Teach [SS’s toddler son] David to read.

Then, several weeks later, Sontag resolves:

DON’T

  1. Criticize publicly anyone at Harvard –
  2. Allude to your age (boastfully, mock-respectfully, or otherwise)
  3. Talk about money
  4. Talk about Brandeis

DO

  1. Shower every other night
  2. Write Mother every other day

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15 AUGUST, 2012

A List of “Rare Things” From 11th-Century Japanese Court Lady Sei Shonagon, World’s First Blogger

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“Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.”

Between the 990s and the early 11th century, Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon set out to record her observations of and musings on life, Japanese culture, the intricacies of the human condition. Her writings were eventually collected and published in The Pillow Book (public library) in 1002. An archive of pictures and illustrations, records of interesting events in court, and daily personal thoughts, many in list-form, this was arguably the world’s first “blog” by conceptual format and Sh?nagon the world’s first blogger*.

Among her lists was this lovely meditation on “rare things”:

71. Rare Things–

A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.

A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.

A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.

A person who is without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.

You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity.

Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it.

Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.

For a related treat, see these 5 vintage versions of modern social media.

* Thanks to reader Paul Simon for the tip

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