Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Dreaded Bell Jar Curve

Bark blogger Brett Ortler
     In "Too Many Writers: The Best Problem in Contemporary Poetry", Blogger Brett Ortler writes:  "If there are too many writers, yes, you’ll have a lot of schlock (most of writing produced will be middling or bad).  Nevertheless, if you have a glut of writers, you’ll also, by definition, have an excess of good writing."

     Given that he produces a science blog, Brett has committed a surprising error.  It becomes evident the moment he trots out the dreaded Bell Jar Curve. 

     Can you spot the mistake?

     No, Brett, a glut of writers will not necessarily or even generally produce "an excess of good writing."  Indeed, it hasn't.  The reason is simple:  "good writing" does not refer to "the best of a bad lot."  We have models passed down through millennia to define this.  Rather, the inept majority might form a voting bloc to preclude any initiative or funding that might allow more talented artists to reach and please an audience.  As for the less gifted horde, even if 100 chimpanzees with 100 typewriters do produce Shakespeare after 100 years it won't register as more than an imperceptible dot--an inconsequential fluke rather than an outlier, let alone meaningful data--on your chart.

     The Bell Jar Curve is made for random/natural phenomena that trend toward a middle ground:  crop yields, rain patterns, golf scores.  Standard deviations are useless for art not because humans are unpredictable but because, for better or worse, they are easily influenced.  It would be like measuring crop yields during a hurricane or golf scores in three feet of snow.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #11
      For poets of yore, a pyramid would be a more representative shape.  There were plenty of William McGonagalls at the bottom, none worth distinguishing from the others.  Only Shakespeare would be at the top.

     The disappearance of fundamentals, coupled with the death of poetry in the early 1900s, squeezed the pyramid.  The center was lost as average poets were replaced by ConPoets who think doggerel or lineated prose will please an audience, even as they avoid listening to it themselves.  Now the pattern is a thick vertical line with two progressively tinier dots after it.  The first signifies those few hundred out of 2 million who know trochees from iambs;  after that, we see the handful who can create something interesting with that knowledge.  We can't chart this because by the time the smallest speck of skilled authors becomes visible the column of aspiring muggles may have stretched itself twice around the moon and be heading home.

     Times change.

"There are more poets (soi-disant) than ever there were, and proportionally less poetry."

- Lord Byron

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