The unacknowledged sophists of the world

Some might blame P.B. Shelley. Whether it’s his fault or not for the bit about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, creative writers holding forth on whatever political issue catches their attention has become rather pro forma. And it’s hard to determine exactly how this came to be considered a normal state of affairs. Granted there have been a few rather spectacular instances of literary authors leading or perhaps even embodying great political causes, like Émile Zola or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but I feel that in general it might have more to do with writers being in a particularly good position to shape others’ perceptions of their contributions and expertise.

Granted the track record of scientists, philosophers and other types of non-political thinkers expostulating on politics, from Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins, has perhaps not been a great deal better. Yet at least they made their names through rigorous analytical thought, and one would like to believe that it is simply ignorance, or perhaps a lack of being held to professional standars when speaking outside of their fields, that accounts for the sloppy thinking and dogmatism. The point is that there are at least semi-rational grounds for imagining that someone’s proven ability to think clearly in one area might transfer over in some measure to another, even if knowledge of the subject matter doesn’t. But as for creative writers…I fancied myself an aspirant to a creative writing career for several years, and so I’ve spent a fair amount of time around creative-writing types. They tend to be more emotional and intuitive than analytical, and even when their perceptiveness is keen it tends to be a sort of automatic response to diverting stimuli, like a cat pouncing at whatever is moving near it. Among college campus groups I’d probably put the creative-writing groupies at about the same level as the comedy clubs and the People Enjoying Every Possible Substance. I suppose authority as a “political thinker” is just a concretion of the more nebulous roles of idealist and “social critic.” Yet there seems to be something a little contradictory in the way many in the intellectual community are willing to excuse writers like Peter Handke for holding views that they find reprehensible as a prerogative of genius. Personally, I have begun to find the whole rubric that establishes “realistic” literary works as being almost inevitably social critiques a little tedious. Granted, it’s probably better than the patronage system of the past that kept writers employed as paid sychophants of the aristocracy, but there is a high price to be paid for forcing every story to be somehow typical or symbolic and hence–not truly individual. This is somewhat related to the claim, often made by realistic writers but less coherent the closer one views it, to be depicting a general but not a specific truth.

One Response to “The unacknowledged sophists of the world”

  1. Andy Lyon Says:


    I notice you’re interested in creative writing, and just wanted to let you know about a new creative writing website which is launching in the New Year.

    Have a look if you get a chance, and if you like it spread the word!

    Thanks, Andy Lyon

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