Papa’s Persuasion or Sincere Biography

Persuasion mavens do not show their hand during the play which is another way of saying you never know the heart of a maven.  You never know exactly how a maven perceives the Other Guy, or precisely which Other Guy a maven targets.  You can’t be sure the TACTs the maven seeks and ultimately, you don’t know the Strategy, the final goal a maven seeks.  Persuasion’s motivation is known only to the maven because disclosed motivation reveals too much.  To criticize any maven during a play is a fool’s game.  And, perhaps, even after the play with all the interviews and confessions, any criticism must look over its shoulder, wondering whether even in death the maven pursues persuasion.

I shuddered with this observation when I read Fame Became Of Him, a 1984 biography of Ernest Hemingway as a public writer by an English professor, John Raeburn and a related 2006 book, Hemingway and the Mechanism of Fame, edited by Matthew Bruccoli.  I picked up these books thinking they would provide another view on an artist using persuasion as with Richard Wagner.  A unique case from a distant corner that reveals the art and science of persuasion, the place you’d never look to understand eternal principles, so I thought.  And Raeburn and Brucculi do provide some illumination here, but mainly they show their slips to reveal a disdain of persuasion when it appears with an object of admiration.  Start with Hemingway.

Of course he persuaded for his art and his success.  He did not throw his manuscript out from a garret window, then move onto the next book with no more regard for the past effort just tossed on the street.  He did not awaken one day to a pounding on his door, then open it to find a mob of adoring fans shouting quotations.  Publishing a book is an inherently and unavoidably social enterprise that requires a stable network of cooperating players.  That anything identifiable as Art emerges from this is a happy, but unpredictable outcome.

Raeburn provides an extensive, coherent, and orderly timeline of Hemingway’s activities as a public writer.  What emerges most strongly for me is the contrast between Wagner and Hemingway rather than the comparison I had expected.  In the mid 1800s, Wagner helped invent modern persuasion through a communication network.  By the time Hemingway came along in 1920 as a public writer that network was in full swing.  Hemingway invented no new persuasion tactics as Wagner did, but rather Hemingway simply used the communication network differently.

By all accounts, Ernest Hemingway struck most people as a compelling, fascinating, and powerful source.  As one easy illustration, when Hemingway returned to the US in 1919 on a troop transport following his military service in World War I, he was interviewed dockside by two different newspaper writers for two different newspapers.  Hemingway was 19 years old at the time and just another doughboy among the hundreds of others on that troopship.  Yet, two different reporters who talked with certainly dozens of different soldiers, decided to write headlined articles only about Hemingway.  They described him as the most wounded soldier in the war with over 200 injuries from his service.  Even before he became Papa, Hemingway commanded attention and comment.  Thus, it is highly likely that Hemingway would have been famous even without writing For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Furthermore, Hemingway combined art and life in ways that violate the stereotypes of many people, including English professors.  Playing Freud only briefly, his parents show his dichotomy.  His mother loved art and culture; his father loved the out of doors.  Hemingway grew up with an affinity developed by both nature and nurture that combined qualities often viewed as antagonistic.  He combined them into his charismatic personality and followed a life that is today sweetly played in The World’s Most Interesting Man ad (YouTube) campaign for the beer, Dos Equis.

Now, focus those attributes on a writer who could create great fiction and great nonfiction with an eye towards hitting the standards of an art audience and the mass audience.  Hemingway managed, I think, to lead an interesting life and create different kinds of written achievement along the way.  Combine Hemingway’s apparent charisma and you’ve got the prime ingredients for a massive success, artistic and popular, fame and fortune.  Hemingway appears to have just plugged into the mediated persuasion machine with his skills rather than inventing a new kind of machine as Wagner did.

Pivot here to the more interesting persuasion news in these two books.  Both Raeburn and Bruccoli seem to know that Hemingway should have produced several more great works, but because he pursued public fame, he squandered his talent.  Such thinking seems plausible enough – Hemingway produced less great fiction as he became more famous – but deeper reflection renders it as a convenient fiction people use when evaluating others.  Consider two challenges to the hypothesis that fame kills talent.

First, as William Goldman observed in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade about making movies: Nobody Knows Anything.  That’s how he explains the seemingly random variation from flop to hit to flop to hit the movie industry produces.  Certainly no one in the movie business wants to fail, but fail they do and because as Goldman notes:  Nobody Knows Anything.

Second, consider my first Rule of persuasion:  There Are No Laws (and If There Were Why Would I Tell You).  Anyone who knows the Laws of Persuasion is my Queen of Tomorrow fiction and would run the world just as anyone would rule Hollywood is they Knew Anything.

Now, if people like Goldman and me are wrong and people like Raeburn and Bruccoli are right, there’s an easy and obvious test to prove it.  Raeburn and Bruccoli should be able to identify current writers who are squandering their talent on fame (i.e. the persuasion media machine) and explain this to those writers who will then produce more and better art compared to those current writers Raeburn and Bruccoli don’t warn.

When you take such thinking and apply this kind of testing to it, I think its fallacy becomes obvious.  Raeburn and Bruccoli could not change the future with their assertion about the inverse and perverse relationship between fame and output.  They can only use it to explain what cannot change:  The past.  Thus, their criticism is truly and only counterfactual, a rewriting of a life and a history that is dead and unchangeable.

Which leads me to rhyme on my prime Rule.

All Bad Biography Is Sincere.