Semaphore signals

by Rob Horning

22 June 2009


I’m currently reading George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street, a thoroughly depressing look at the business of manufacturing literature, of belles lettres for sale, and all the petty personality squabbles and scrambles for pre-eminence that go along with it. Gissing seems bent on persuading us that money is all that matters in the end—i.e., without money a person will lose all sense of propriety and poverty is sufficient to coarsen the morals of anyone—and that of course literary merit has nothing to do with commercial viability. He denounces the “hateful spirit of literary rancour…that made people eager to believe all evil,” noting that literary gossip and what we would now call snark “were enough to make all literature appear a morbid excrescence upon human life.” The book’s successful character has a robust social network and no illusions about the crap he cranks out; he regards the idea that literature is a calling as the same sort of sentimental claptrap as romantic love, an obstacle that one must circumvent, an illusion that must be abandoned to get along. Naturally, the failure character is just the opposite, thin-skinned, too proud to self-promote or make instrumental use of friends, and too conscious of the inferiority of his product crafted for the market rather than his muse.

Though resolutely humorless and padded out in places to itself meet the tyrannical demands of the Victorian triple-decker, New Grub Street is also chock full of cynical advice for getting along in the then-newfangled world of journalism. Milvain, the successful hack, tells his aspiring sister after reading one of her articles that “there’s rather too much thought in it, perhaps. Suppose you knock out one or two of the less obvious reflections, and substitute a wholesome commonplace?” Readers, he argues, “are irritated, simply irritated by anything that isn’t glaringly obvious. They hate an unusual thought.” To write for the public, one must “express vulgar thought and feeling in a way that flatters the vulgar thinkers and feelers.” In today’s context, you might put a slightly different spin on that: writing must be simple so it can be grasped quickly, because everyone is too much in a hurry to devote precious time to any one article. They are under too much pressure to move on to the next thing. But Gissing was prescient about this as well: he has a character lament the “huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print.”

Not much has changed in the publishing world as far as I can see—who you know and how timely you file can seem far more important than how good your writing is. And also, it doesn’t suit to be a prima donna about your prose until you’ve earned the right, then you are obliged to be one, whether or not you have any actual gripes with what editors are doing to your work. Professional journalism is often an elaborate reputation game that requires a facility with signaling and accruing social capital. Whether or not one accepts this reality and accommodates it does seem to determine how far one will get in the publishing world, and perhaps in adult life generally. (I’m often tempted to pout and wait for my precocious specialness to be noticed.)
Economist Robin Hanson makes a similar point in this post about the “shallowness” of our society’s most efficacious signals—in this case the salience of “Ivy League school” to signify a crystallized complex of bourgeois elitist traits and supplant more-nuanced proofs of ability. He concludes that shallow signals are more potent because we know that they will be widely understood beyond our immediate community. Everyone at Northwest State University may know how brilliant your work is from direct experience, but others will have to read through it to make that discovery. And those others, who have nothing invested in you yet, would much rather hear that you went to Yale and thereby take your brilliance for granted than put all that time in.

We all want to affiliate with high status people, but since status is about common distant perceptions of quality, we often care more about what distant observers would think about our associates than about how we privately evaluate them…. Academics understand that folks primarily care about distant common signals of impressiveness, such as publications.  Getting a lousy paper into a top journal usually counts for more than a fantastic paper in a low rank journal.  Only in small tightly-connected academic communities can an informal perception that your low-journal paper was fantastic make it count for more than a crappy top-journal paper.

A similar logic seems to apply to all self-branding efforts, talking about what music we are into, or what books we read, or what sort of logos we have on our clothing, or what kind of car we drive, or what our vocabulary is like, and so on. Assume that it’s true that the broader the swath of the population we are trying to impress, the more obvious our choice of signifiers will have to be. Because of the interconnectivity of social networks, and the tantalizing promise of internet fame, the potential audience for our performance of self is always seeming more and more broad, so our choices will be forced toward the more and more obvious, the more and more heavy-handed.

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