As readers of this blog may have noted, I am loath to take a strong position on political issues, and write quite blandly about my own life. I hereby intend to continue to be a boring person, if I possibly can. You have been warned.
Still reading? Well, in that case, the good news. I may be boring, but I am, I hope, not a bore. This distinction is due to W. H. Auden, in his fascinating collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand, one of the best collections of literary criticism I know of. A boring person, in one sentence, is someone whose life and way of behavior are bland, eliciting no particular interest from others (which is not, of course, to say that this life is boring to that person). A bore, on the other hand, is someone whose views, opinions, and politics are highly predictable and unoriginal.
To be sure, the two often go together. Think of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbit, a man whose life and opinions are both utterly predictable. If you live a boring life, sometimes this means you will have boring opinions and views, and vice versa. But many people, or entities, are one but not the other. Auden notes that God, were we to converse with him, would surely be the ultimate bore – we would know very well in advance all He approves and disapproves of – but certainly such a meeting would not be boring, but rather awe-inspiring. Conversely, there are many people who are not at all boring, whose lives are fascinating and full of incident, who have native wit in conversation, and so on, but are bores in terms of their worldview. Some suspect Auden himself was just such a person.
I am striving to be boring, without being a bore; indeed, being the opposite – being someone whose ideas, writings, and musings it is a pleasure to read about. In the past, this was the ideal writer – and even more so, the ideal philosopher: one who does nothing but write original thoughts which they think about all day long. Philosopher-monks like Thomas Aquinas or Kant, or recluse writers like Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust, or H. P. Lovecraft, come to mind. Being boring has a great advantage of allowing one to concentrate on what one needs to concentrate on as a writer: on argument, logic, and clarify in philosophy; on character and plot in fiction; and so on.
But don’t they say to write what you know? Weren’t some writers’ (or philosophers’) lives the exact opposite of boring? Socrates, Boethius (who wrote The Consolations of Philosophy from prison while waiting for a trial he knew well would result in a death sentence), Mark Twain, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and many others come to mind. And did they not use their experiences as raw material for their writing? To be sure, they did. Nothing forbids someone from being both an interesting person and an interesting writer. But their interesting lives matter to us because they employed their experience to write originally and perceptively, not as bores. We read them for their logical, or philosophical, or writing talent; not for their exciting life.
Two of the most boring of all genres of literature are a particular kind of bad autobiographies,in which the writer is certain that their interesting life would make for interesting reading. First, they often confuse the fact that their lives are interesting to them with the fact that said life would, or should, be interesting to others. But even when someone went through truly interesting events, the ideas, conclusions, and insights they have from those events are often completely conventional and uninspired. Millions of people experienced WWII as front-line soldiers; tens of thousands, at least, wrote books describing their experiences; the vast majority of those books are a forgettable and unreadable bore-fest for this reason. Can you name more than ten such books who stood the test of time?
The gap between an interesting life and interesting writing is thus true even in biographies, which are by definition writing about someone’s life. It is a fortifori true in fiction, where the writer’s own life is less strongly connected to the subject matter, let alone in social or philosophical or historical commentary on current events or social trends. When this is ignored, the interesting life of the writer only contributes to making them an intolerable bore, even more sure of the rightness of their bland opinions, since they are based on ‘first hand experience’.
‘Taxi driver interview’-style reporting is a typical case: a reporter travels to some exotic locale, meets exotic, “authentic” people, and concludes, with great satisfaction, that the real issues facing country X are… exactly the same boring, predictable talking-points they were already convinced were the real issues back home.