I’m going to steal something from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built (1994) and not write about the book itself beyond this paragraph. Brand argues that architects should concentrate not just on how buildings are used but how use changes over time, and he suggests how this could happen . The book is filled with fascinating photographs of houses, factories, and other buildings transforming from one thing to another. It is very much in the spirit of John Ruskin, of The Stones of Venice, although the prose is entirely conversational and non-technical. It seems to have already become a classic in the literature of architecture, and is easy to recommend.
I don’t want to follow that thought. I want this one:
To completely reunderstand buildings would require both of the fundamental approaches to knowledge – observation and theory. I called them “Look first” and “Think first”… [T]here were two types of people in the world – those who deal with something new by really looking at it, devoid of preconception, versus those who prefer to form hypotheses first and then study the thing to see which ideas were right. Both are honorable and productive. (211)
Although he uses different labels than I do, Brand has identified one of my most important frames, a tool I use all the time to think about writers and books. The “Think first” writers are the conceptualists and theorizers, Alfred Jarry and Gustave Flaubert, writers whose works demonstrate their ideas. The “Look first” authors are those who learn by doing, who have to write in order to discover their ideas. I do not think I am distorting Brand too badly here – for writers of this temperament, writing is a major part of how they look.
Charles Dickens is the 19th century exemplar of the “Look first” author. He developed his unique comic voice very quickly, but for every other aspect of novel-writing – characterization, plotting, rhetoric, and so on – his development is visible in his novels, from novel to novel, sometimes even within a single novel. It is no coincidence that Dickens was the master of serialization.* I am recycling the example of Dickens, but it is the best one I know.
Why do I bother with these distinctions? Neurosis is a good answer, but that’s not it. Understanding the temperament of the writer (or of the book – perhaps writers change from book to book) can provide an entryway to a work. Conceptual novelists, for example, often abandon standard components of the novel. It is the “Think firsters” who are most likely to do without sympathetic characters, or clever plots, or common sense. The concept they are working with is often explicitly literary, a response to earlier literature. The writer is not incompetent, but is deliberately isolating the parts of the novel. The “Look firsters” generally worry less about literature, or about the formal aesthetic properties of fiction, and more about the world around them, the part of the world not contained in books.
Perhaps it is more accurate to imagine a continuum. Every successful conceptual novelist has to produce an actual novel, not simply describe his idea for a novel. Every successful exploring novelist has to discover something along the way, something that gives form and meaning to his journey. All of this is much easier to apply to art history, where the distinctions are often much clearer, where the difference between Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, great innovators of opposite temperaments, is clear enough, without having to resort to, I don’t know, Rembrandt and Yves Klein. Literature has been fortunate (although poetry has been less fortunate) to have avoided many of the conceptual extremes of 20th century visual art. Books consisting of a single word repeated ten million times exist, but most conceptual writers still produce novels that are recognizable as novels and poems that behave like poems. Weird novels, weird poems, but still.
I do not know if this is clearer than any other attempt I have made on this subject, but it is surely useful to define my terms once in a while, especially since I am, on the continuum, a “Look firster” who wishes he were a “Think firster,” a muddled and even disastrous combination.
* Flaubert serialized Madame Bovary, too, but not before he had written every word of it.