The Conundrum of Beauty

(This article was first published on on March 18, 2014. It has been revised with only minor editorial changes.)

At 7:51 AM on January 12, 2007, a man walked into a subway station in Washington D.C. carrying a violin. For forty-odd minutes, he performed classical music as busy commuters rushed past him. Twenty-seven of those commuters gave him money, coming to a total of $32. Over one thousand people hurried past, either too busy to listen or not caring for the performance.

Why is this event at all remarkable?

Because the performer was a man named Joshua Bell, a Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor. And also because the violin he was playing on was a Stradivarius, an extremely valuable type of violin from the eighteenth century whose sound is widely considered superior. For a lengthy account of the entire experiment, complete with video, see this article from the Washington Post.

According to the article, Joshua Bell has played at prestigious concert halls and for prestigious people, and can command a salary on the order of “a thousand dollars a minute” for his work. And yet, when put in a Washington D.C. subway wearing unassuming clothes, with an open violin case begging for spare change, social recognition evaporates without a trace. He recounts, after the fact, emotions that will undoubtedly resonate with independent authors and publishers:

“At the beginning, I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn’t really watching what was happening around me. … When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you’re telling a story. … It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah, ignoring me. … At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change. … It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies. I was stressing a little. … When you play for ticket-holders, you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence?

Joshua Bell, Pearls Before Breakfast, The Washington Post

Philosophers have been arguing about the source of “beauty” since the beginning of time. Leibnitz takes the modular, deconstructionist approach: beauty is an inherent property of things. We perceive beautiful things as such because that quality is buried somewhere in their structure. Hume takes the reverse stance. To him, beauty is a social construct, a kind of "mass sentimentality" based on opinion rather than measurable fact. It is Kant who has created the most enduring definition, a complex theory of aesthetics. In a nutshell, Kant argues that both sides are right—mass sentiment and culture shape individuals who, when put into the right contexts, will recognize the inherent beauty of those things with inherent beauty to be revealed.

And therein lies the solution to our problem of Joshua Bell only making only $32 for forty minutes of some of the most beautiful music of all time, played on one of the most beautiful sounding instruments in existence: the situation he was put into created a context that encouraged people to make incorrect snap judgments about the quality of his work.

And most people, especially busy people with a lot on their minds, will not dig too hard to form a nuanced view of a work or art. They will jump to conclusions.

What about writing, then? Do the same principles apply?

I would argue that they do.

Below is the first paragraph of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

You and I both grew up in a world where William Faulkner is, far and away, considered to be one of the greatest English language writers of all time. We had teachers tell us this in high school. We had professors tell us this in college. We go online, and scores of literary people will sing the praises of William Faulkner.

Some people will argue that the beauty of this paragraph is inherent. They think that if you were able to rewind time and play through history over and over again, Faulkner would become a great literary master each and every time. Because there is something about him that makes him and his work amazing.

Let’s pretend for a moment that we have a parallel universe similar to our own. Let’s suppose an existential literary movement happened in this universe, and that there was a Virginia Woolf and a James Joyce. But let’s say that Faulker was never born. He never wrote anything. No one heard of him.

Now, suppose we were to drop a manuscript of The Sound and the Fury into this universe with Faulkner’s name on it. But remember: in this hypothetical universe, his name means nothing. No associations whatsoever.

I think most editors would stop reading after about the second or third sentence, citing a critique roughly like this: “Hitting is a transitive verb. You have to hit something, you can’t just hit; Stylistically, this paragraph is a mess. The sentence structure is repetitive and juvenile. The phrases ‘the fence’ and ‘hitting’ are repeated often enough and in close enough proximity as to be annoying; It is completely unclear who the characters are. Who are ‘they’? Why is the narrator obsessed with them? Is Luster a hunting dog or a human being? What is he hunting? How?”

In my opinion, the real beauty of The Sound and the Fury only becomes apparent when you can witness the novel as a whole. The reason that most readers see beauty in this first paragraph is because they are trained to believe that it should be there, or they are approaching the work for the nth time with the context of the entire novel in tow.

In music, the context is the location. Prestigious concert halls give musicians credibility. In the case of visual art, it is also the location. Prestigious galleries give painters and sculptors credibility. In writing, things are a little trickier. Publishers used to have a lot more power than they now do over an author’s credibility. But even decades ago, a publisher didn’t make or break an author (to put it a different way: some books that big publishers put out remain unpopular and unremarked upon). In writing, the context is neither a location nor an organization.

It is the writer’s own name.

In this universe, in this culture, when we see the name William Faulkner attached to a novel, the vast majority of readers will arrive immediately and implicitly at the assumption that the novel is good.

The reverse is also true. The reason it is so hard to break out as a writer is because until you have successfully seeded the implicit assumption that your writing is worthwhile, you must fight the opposite implicit assumption: people will see your name on a book and, lacking any association at all, are likely to jump to the conclusion that your writing sucks. You will then be fighting an uphill battle for the entire novel. Minor, trivial details will become validation for a presupposed conclusion—that the writing is inherently flawed.

Now, allow me to play my own devil’s advocate.

For all its surface naiveté, repetition, and simplicity, there is an elegance to the opening lines of The Sound and the Fury. The narrative structure speaks droves about the mentality of the narrator. The characters who are hitting one another are clearly present to drive some larger conflict—the coming pages will certainly make their role clear, and the narrator is clearly frightened of them.

The author has employed a difficult style in a way that is undeniably skillful. Truly bad writing looks very different. There is, for example, no question as to whether the author of the sentence, “Theres a stranger laying in my bed.” is using style to show us something interesting about the human condition, or if he’s unskilled at forming written words from his thoughts.

So, as authors, how do we proceed? Why even bother, if this is simply ‘the way things are?’ What can we do to stand out?

Answers are going to vary per author. I don’t purport these to be a definitive. These are merely how I resolve the conundrum for myself:

  1. My writing is about expressing something. Even if a majority of other people don’t find meaning in my work, I can at least say that I whole-heartedly made the attempt, and I work on honing the communication of my message with each and every piece. I don’t want to play the “writing the lotto” game, where the goal is to craft the piece of fiction that will be the golden ticket to fame. I don’t find that compelling or productive. If my work has meaning to me, it will have value for me no matter what its net monetary profit ends up being.

  2. I forge relationships with readers and other authors. I find the people who show an interest in my work and nurture an actual relationship with them, rather than treat them as a source of popularity or money.

  3. I promise respect for other authors and humility for my own work from the start. Joshua Bell described the humbling emotions that overcame him when he realized that most people in that subway station were actively ignoring him. The attitude of demanding more than basic human decency on account of one’s position is all too human, and also unavoidable. But, should any monetary or social status benefits ever come my way, I will perpetually recognize them as serendipitous (i.e. that I got lucky). Hard work does not necessitate such rewards, though it is a pre-requisite. And I will work to shine the spotlight on unknown authors whose work I feel deserves a fighting chance.