Writers Who Say More Than They Can Say

Writers Who Say More Than They Can Say December 3, 2014

Writers with some authority frequently say more than they can really say, and it’s a little disconcerting, also disappointing. In a short tribute to the late P. D. James, the English novelist and playwright Nigel Williams says of her Children of Men that it “portrays a world in which human beings are finding it harder and harder to reproduce.” One can’t have read the book and written that, because the book is the story of a world in which human beings can’t reproduce at all. If you read the book, that’s the one thing you’d be certain to remember.

I bring this up not to criticize Williams but to flag a problem with much of our public discourse: Writers claim more certainty than they have any right to claim. So much of the discussion we read not only on the web, because who knows what will appear there, but on the major television networks and even in the serious magazines, is written by people who are talking through their hat. Much of it’s harmless enough, as here, but much of it is harmful.

Speaking with certainty of books of whose plots you are actually ignorant is one thing. More problematic is speaking of facts you don’t know to be true.

For decades, since my youth, every public authority repeated Kinsley’s claim that 10% of the population was homosexual. The figure seemed very high but anyone who gave a figure said 10%. TimeNewsweek, the television networks, the reporters for The New York Times, everyone. And as I remember, without even a qualifier like “Alfred Kinsey reports.”

The percentage being so high, certain political and cultural responses seemed called for, especially the normalization of the behavior, because how could we say no to one in ten people? If the number were one in fifty, the average person would feel differently, and as it turns out, the inevitably given figure was at least five times too high, the real percentage being at most 2%. But the 10% figure had its ideological use, so stated as fact it was.

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On another subject, Williams remembers James as a Christian. He says of her, “with her, Christianity was not an affectation or an intellectual fad — it was a reason for behaving well. . . . [S]he was always so concerned to look after the weakest person in the room.” The one book of Williams’ I’ve read, his novel They Came From SW19, the story of a boy whose mother is a spiritualist, is very, very funny.

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