Friday, November 03, 2006

The Importance of Being Earnest

Today's subject is The Importance of Being Earnest.

No, not Oscar Wilde's play--one of the great comedies in the English language, by the way--but the importance of being earnest in presenting yourself to the world. Sincerity. That old cornball hype of the hippie era, Honesty.

Can you tell when a writer isn't earnest? When the writer doesn't believe the story she is trying to sell you? When he is snickering into his sleeve cuff because you're such a sucker? You bought it! You really bought it! But when you finished reading the article, or the book, you felt hollow. It made no impression, or simply made you feel stupid for paying your precious bucks for empty entertainment.

But perhaps Earnestness becomes most controversial when you read something that moves you, that makes you feel the emotions the writer wanted to evoke...and then, later--perhaps years later--you read something about or by the writer (an interview, or a piece the writer himself/herself wrote) that makes you realize the writer didn't mean it, didn't care about the subject of the writing, was just doing it because it was a job, a way to be paid.

Does that change the value of the writing in your memory? Do you feel cheated? Does the article/story/novel mean less to you then? Do you see it only as a monument to fakery? Or does it still have a life of its own, a value as art or literature or philosophy or journalism, independent of whether the writer cared about what he/she was writing?

If it moved you or made you think or care or feel, does it matter what its creator thought or cared about or felt?


Anonymous said...

Good writing is about integrity. I have read some mechanically weak essays and works of fiction and have smiled in appreciation. When an essay loses integrity, it loses credibility.

Anonymous said...

Aah, but have you read The Unimportance of Being Oscar? Written by Oscar Levant, of course, that wildly intelligent, irrepressible raconteur, not to mention the foremost interpreter, in his day, of piano works by his friend George Gershwin. He wrote two other books: Memoirs of an Amnesiac, and ... oops, I forget the title of the other one. For years he was a panelist on a radio talk show--his specialty being music and sports trivia--and, oh yes, he was addicted to laudenum.