Monday, April 11, 2011


"Remember," says Jonathan, "that mediocre is not a synonym of bad." You should work on your text from the center of your strength, never exhausting yourself. "The quality of your work should be excellent, of course, but your progress only has to be mediocre." A text improves in the middle.

This is also what I was trying to say when I suggested Woody Allen as a role model. He seems committed to accomplishing the film he is capable of every year. Some years he can make a Manhattan or a Husbands and Wives, or a Cassandra's Dream, to take a more recent and more controversial example of excellence; other years he "merely" makes a, well, Whatever Works. When a reviewer calls any one of the movies a, say, "clich├ęd morality play that may actually represent the lowest point of Allen’s recently chequered career", he simply isn't getting it. Allen's work is to be judged by the excellence that is accumulating at the middle, not by whether his latest film is anywhere near his greatest.

Look at the way he describes Match Point: "arguably ... the best film that I’ve made. This is strictly accidental, it just happened to come out right. You know, I try to make them all good, but some come out and some don’t. With this one everything seemed to come out right. The actors fell in, the photography fell in and the story clicked. I caught a lot of breaks." Notice he doesn't say he aims for "greatness" every time. He aims to make each film "good", an expression of his actual abilities at a particular point, plus that element of luck. And notice that this combination of luck and ability is applied not to the whole movie, but to each aspect of the movie, ultimately each scene.

You can think of your papers this way too. This semester you've got a paper to write, and you're pretty sure that you're going to be submitting it for review (perhaps there is a conference or special issue to submit it to, but perhaps you're simply disciplined enough to know that it really is going to be submitted). So you work on it, hoping that you're going to catch a few breaks (i.e., be lucky), that your ideas are going to fall in line, that your schedule won't be interrupted by extraneous factors, that your mind will be working well. You plan out the paper and draft it. And then you you spend some number of weeks, working on it paragraph by paragraph, trying to get it "right". At the end of it, you step back from it and assess the result.

"Allen has often described his filmography as consisting of a few C-grade films, a huge amount of B-films, and a select few A-films" (Shembri 2006). Well, what did you end up making? An A paper or B paper or a C paper? Think of this not as a grade but as a decision about what journal to send it to (or at least what journal you are expecting it to be published it in.) Don't think of it as career high or low point it. Just try to register what it was that came out of the center of your strength these last few months.

I don't know how often Allen makes a movie and then decides not to show it to anyone. Not very often I would think. He probably also doesn't have any serious problems in regard to distribution. This is analogous to getting your paper through peer review. If Allen wants to show a movie he can; you will probably have to wait for an editorial decision. But if you develop your talent with moderation, not seeking the extremes, you will always be able to write a paper about your research, just as Woody Allen is always able to make a movie. Easy does it.


ayeh said...

How about seeing Woody Allen's work as a representative of us, people, and our thoughts. Then, since we are not generally that sophisticated, first class, or any thing extraordinary, the movies shouldn't depict anything of that sort either. That could be the talent. Researchers, however, tend to view themselves and their works as noble magnificent abstractions of the world that could even be more "true" and valuable than life itself! Perhaps that's why easy isn't always there... or maybe i'm just ranting!

Thomas said...

I don't recommend that researchers romanticize their work in that way. It's fine for poets and novelists (and even for "serious" filmmakers, if they like that sort of thing). But it seems a bit silly in academia. See this post.

I think you're right that Allen's movies suggest that intellectual life is much more ordinary than many intellectuals like to think. He's got a great way of exposing existential anxieties as largely the subject of a kind of idle chatter among elites. Of course, some anxieties are quite real. Serious art does exist and does have a purpose. But it seems to me that the university offers a place to take things a bit less seriously from day to day.

As Jonathan says, your end goal is still excellence, even a kind of profundity. (And, in the end, Woody does care about people in love. He is not just ridiculing them.) But the daily struggle need not be all that dramatic.