Geoff Dyer on Earnestness and Reverence

20160525_191030-1A couple weeks ago I saw a talk and ping pong match between Pico Iyer and Geoff Dyer. They were old friends. English expats who’ve traveled the world. It made for an easy, spacious talk. At one point Iyer (who took the role of interviewer, chiefly about Dyer’s new book White Sands) asked Dyer about something he’d once said: that the worst things a writer could be were earnest and reverent. Iyer felt that Dyer were at times earnest and reverent in his new book. Dyer did a very gentle British scoff, shuddering at the idea. “I would hope I avoided being either of those things,” he said, and then quoted Nietszche’s saying that earnestness is the sure sign of a slow mind.[a] It’s similar to reverence, which holds the viewer or thinker in a static, deferential position. Why these are bad for writers is that they are atitudes that create boundaries, or hierarchic dynamics Dyer sees the job of the writer being to break down or transcend.

The way I’ve been putting this for years is that I know I can write about something when I’ve got perfect ambivalence toward the subject. I have to both love the thing (taxidermy, standup comedy, my past) and loathe it, or find it distasteful, in order to write my way in.

All this came to mind after writing my post earlier in the week about bitchy book reviews. In making the point about how bitchiness is a useful tool, I think I was somehow iterating Dyer’s point here. I worry that book reviews are too earnest, and that what they do to books leaves them static and dead, like relics.

Dyer went on to propose two things a writer should be instead: loving and admiring. Camus reportedly called these “the two thirsts one cannot long neglect without drying up.”[b] Loving, Dyer said, as those of us in the audience who were married well knew, leaves all kinds of room for criticism, commentary, disappointment. And admiration, too, keeps the admirer open to inquiry, explanation, and analysis?which form the basis for all good writing.

At any rate, it’s an idea I’m going to keep in mind next time I hear about the new sincerity.

Oh, and Dyer won the ping pong match, though Iyer’s line of people waiting for signed books was much longer.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I can find through about 5 mins of Googling no source text for this quote, other than an interview Dyer gave years ago with Interview, though some sources point to it maybe being found in Beyond Good and Evil.
  2. You can find the quote in context (somewhat) here.

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