Wonkish

A repeated criticism that I get for my writing is that I am inconsistent in the level of expertise I assume in the reader. For instance, many people who don’t know much about music assume that musicians always get paid for their work (hah!), and so their first response to 4’33″ is that Cage got paid for not doing anything. In my book on 4’33″, it was well worth taking one paragraph at the beginning to dispose of that objection, rather than let it stew unresolved in the minds of the uninformed. On the other hand, I indulge a bit of technical analysis on the Cage String Quartet at the end of the book. And so a few academic critics took umbrage that I was writing for the general public at the beginning, and for experts at the end – I couldn’t decide who my audience was! My editor at the Village Voice taught me that if I wanted to present technical information, to save it for the last fourth of the article – anyone who’s read that far, he said, is not going to stop reading just because one paragraph goes over his head. I found that excellent advice, and it worked for the 4’33″ book as well. The couple of pages of technical analysis are in the fifth of six chapters, and I never heard of anyone who stopped reading at that point. As a professional writer, I’m trying to reach as many people as possible. Academic writers, of course, gain more prestige the fewer people are capable of reading them, and so they criticize me, the professional writer, for not aiming my discourse at as narrow a sliver as possible.

And now, in my book on the Concord Sonata, I’m deliberately and intentionally doing it again. Some chapters will be wonkish and readable only by trained musicians, and some will be general interest – since I know how to make even general interest material interesting to the experts, and sometimes how to make wonkish material entertaining for the novices. And once again, in the “peer”-review process, and in reviews afterward, the academics will criticize the professional writer for casting too wide a net (as well as for my “breezy, casual, journalistic” style). I can feel it coming, and there’s no side-stepping it. Fuck ‘em.

 

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Comments

  1. luk says

    I’m looking forward to your new book! When is it projected to be out?

    KG replies: Oh, it’ll be several years. I’m only a few thousand words into it, and it’s not going to be a short book like my last two.

  2. Allan J. Cronin says

    I have to agree with the comments and tone of the first two commenters. I find your work quite readable. And I find that the “wonkish” issue is true no matter what subject area one reads in. Whether in music or theoretical physics or any discipline in which a given reader has little expertise there is always a risk of coming across sections of any article or book which lie outside that expertise. But isn’t it more a comment on the anti-intellectual bias of such critics to suggest that a reader should somehow be protected against having to learn something new? My god, I can’t imagine why someone should bother reading at all if they are afraid of having to work at comprehending it. Any area which interests me compels me to learn more about it and I, for one, enjoy learning. When did that become anathema?

    Keep up the “wonkishness”. It won’t deter the truly interested. And I am glad to read the work of a musician who gets paid (even a little) for doing what he clearly loves.

    KG replies: With peer review, the greater danger is that they’ll object to the explanations thrown in for the less advanced reader.

  3. Brian Jennings says

    Yep, fuck ‘em. I wish I understood music writing better. I have frequently found myself having to quit reading books because I knew my knowledge wasn’t up to snuff. Yet I continue to read music writing to understand my own love of Satie, Ives, Antheil, Partch, Cage, Duckworth, Ashley, etc. Through dent of effort, I finally began to understand what Wagner’s relevance is (though I’m no greater a fan). Through dent of effort, I’ve understood (to some degree) 12-tone and I love Berg, especially his operas.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that when I read your books, I am reading exactly what I want to read, someone who writes to my level and then challenges me to learn more, and I do everything I can to rise to that.

    What I remember from English grad school was attempting to teach that, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not good. Thus the Wagner reference. Just don’t like him. Mozart either. But I do understand why they matter and why they are good. I loved your book on 4’33″ and I still think of getting the tacet score tatooed on my arm. And I love knowing that there are different scores. It actually means something when I listen to the music.

    But the real question is, when is your book on Ashley coming out? There is not a book I am looking forward to more.

    KG replies: Thanks. Illinois says the book is due in the fall. I don’t know why it takes so long. You turn in a manuscript, and months layer you get a box full of books in the mail.