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My good opinion, once lost

April 14th, 2005

At Larvatus Prodeo, and at Catallaxy, they’re debating the question of whether you can dismiss an author based on ‘a brief skimming’, which I’ll take, along with some participant in the discussion, to mean five minutes of reading.

My answer to this question, which has arisen before now on this blog is “Absolutely”. At skimming or fast reading speed, five minutes gives you 5000 words, which is more than enough to conclude that a writer is guilty of gross logical or factual errors, pretentious or illiterate prose, repetition of tired and long-refuted arguments, or simple inanity. The idea, commonly put forward in defence of various indefensible types, that you can’t criticise someone unless you have read every word they have ever written is simple nonsense. It’s true that there are people who produce the odd pearl among an output more generally fit for swine. But in such cases, it’s up to their defenders to point out the gems: the volume of words is so great, and the average quality so low, that a demand to read everything is simply impossible.

I should concede that, on one or two occasions, I’ve got into trouble through misreading someone in the first five minutes, after which pride and prejudice does the rest. But in general, five minutes is enough to form a well-founded negative judgement in a great many cases.

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  1. David Cake
    April 15th, 2005 at 01:24 | #1

    I edit a small press science fiction magazine (as a hobby), and while I am an amateur editor I know plenty of professionals. Its industry wisdom that aspiring authors frequently believe they have not been given a fair chance unless you read every word of their story or book (and the truly amateur like to test the editor to see if they have read it), but a good editor can tell if something is worth the effort very quickly, often in a page or two.

  2. Peter McBurney
    April 15th, 2005 at 05:49 | #2

    Also relevant here is Len Evans’ Theory of Capacity: Since any one person can only drink (or read) a finite amount in a lifetime, a rational drinker (or reader) would not waste this capacity on inferior wines (books). One skims a book or paper in order to determine whether to read it more carefully. This is a rational strategy for a resource-bounded reader.

    I think the problem really lies with the many writers who, faced with choosing whether to Publish or Perish, select the wrong one!

  3. Rupert Willis
    April 15th, 2005 at 07:35 | #3

    It is said that everyone has a book in them – and that sadly too many people actually write it. Good post. Have to agree.

  4. jj
    April 15th, 2005 at 07:42 | #4

    Authors who exhibit atrocious grammar and spelling, and/or discuss topics that are trite, banal or decidedly skewed for the benefit of a specific cartel, are easy to dismiss. Unfortuantely, however, these same authors can be the source of some of the most fascinating ideas and innovations of our time. As a result, I believe it is a better strategy to dismiss not the author but the content of any work I encounter.

  5. Timmay
    April 15th, 2005 at 08:18 | #5

    Each individual, at any given moment, finds himself committed to some essential interest; he exists in a particular country with a particular religion, and in a particular constellation of knowledge and attitudes concerning what is right and ethically acceptable. All that is left for him to do is to select particular aspects of it with which he wishes to identify himself.
    (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History)

    And sometimes it doesn’t take long at all!

    (Just kidding, Prof. Q. It’s only true for those Catallaxy folk.)

  6. Steve
    April 15th, 2005 at 10:08 | #6

    Skimming and dismissing is not the same as disagreeing.

    When you skim and dismiss, what you are in effect saying is: This piece of writing lacks the authority to be a meaningful contribution to debate. I’m ignoring it.

    You might dismiss because of grammar/spelling/expression, because the argument is similar to one you’ve already read, because you know you have access to an authoritative source of info already, and its unlikely that the writing before you will dispute it, because you are familiar with the work of the author and the chances are they are producing more of their same trash etc.

    This isn’t to say that their writing is wrong, its just to say that you have better things to do than waste your time with it. The writer needs to work on the communication skills and on getting themselves effectively heard by their intended audience.

    In this day and age, if you lack even this basic information filtering capacity (and also the ability to communicate your messages to get through the filters of your audience), you won’t get very far in the public sphere.

    Take a look at this article in the ABC news today. Some students used a computer program to randomly generate an academic paper, and had it accepted for a conference. Whoops, sounds like the conference organisers were more interested in getting numbers at their conference, instead of properly filtering out dodgy work.

  7. April 15th, 2005 at 10:42 | #7

    I’m thinking that it’s important to engage with the stupider blogs – even though they may be stupid – rather than dismissing them.

    Without engaging these blogs they tend to grow unabated like weeds that rise up and choke rational thought.

    By engaging them, you may hope to introduce a new thought into the blogger’s mind, perhaps for the better – or die in the flames of their criticism.

  8. April 15th, 2005 at 11:36 | #8

    John, I’m having problems understanding your title. Am I just a dunce, or did you mean to type “My good opinion, once lost?

  9. Steve
    April 15th, 2005 at 12:02 | #9

    I think the sentiment is right David C, it would be good if ‘stupid’ blogs did not grow unabated like weeds.

    However, i think that reading such blogs, and commenting on them – even if it is in disagreement – is an effective way of creating interest and emotion at the site, and effectively providing it with cheap entertainment and ensuring readers come back again and again. If you just leave stupid blogs alone, eventually they would wither and die a lot quicker i think.

  10. Steve
    April 15th, 2005 at 12:04 | #10

    Ditto with stupid journalists. If you keep going back and reading journalists that you despise just so you can get that hit of consipicious indignation, then all you are doing is registering another hit with the journalist and encouraging the journalist’s editor to give them more column space.

  11. John Quiggin
    April 15th, 2005 at 12:25 | #11

    Quite right, Helen, fixed now

  12. derrida derider
    April 15th, 2005 at 13:47 | #12

    Shorter Quiggin: “Life is too short for bad books”.

    A sentiment I agree with.

  13. April 15th, 2005 at 17:39 | #13

    Depends what we are reading for. Stupid journos have to be read if we want to engage with current debate. I think, for instance, the mainstream religions failed to engage with the fundies, and the argument got away from them – into the weeds and out to the ballot box.

  14. April 15th, 2005 at 17:53 | #14

    It seems like an old age question:

    Do I intervene against the irrational blogger and perhaps make the problem worse by providing her with ammo, or do I not, and hope it goes away through lack of interest?

  15. April 15th, 2005 at 23:33 | #15

    Very well said indeed John.

  16. April 16th, 2005 at 19:45 | #16

    Couldnt you read 5 minutes of every one of their works, and judge each book on its merits? You may disregard an author just by skimming his worst book.

  17. April 16th, 2005 at 20:48 | #17

    Peter, re Len Evans’ Theory of Capacity, John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said on his deathbed “My one regret is that I didn’t drink more champaign”. Its a nice line, and the cap fits. But I read volume 3 of Skidelski’s bio closely and couldn’t find it. So I guess its Apocryphal.

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