If blurbs to academic books are any indication, many of us have watched Harry Potter films, read Harry Potter books, and imagine ourselves to be British teens. What else could account for the proliferation of “brilliant!” with which we celebrate new books? In Harry Potter, and in the many other British shows we watch—we are academics, we *watch* British shows—“brilliant” is akin to “interesting” or “cool” as uttered by a 12-year old. It means, “something I had not thought of” or “something that will solve a problem” or “something that will help me” or “something I like” or “something that will help me escape this monster” (this last especially if one watches the Sarah Jane Adventures, which I really do like—I miss you Sarah Jane!). I suspect that all these meanings imbue our over-use of brilliant: this “brilliant!” book helped me avoid grading or this “brilliant!” book means I don’t have to think about minority figures or this “brilliant!” book quoted my work or this “brilliant!” book was written by my “brilliant!” student and reflects my own “BRILLIANCE!” As brilliance is also luminous. Or reflective. Or shiny.
I do not doubt that many academics are “brilliant!” Perhaps we are all “brilliant!” Perhaps we are all Harry Potter characters casting spells that save us from “he who shall not be named.” Perhaps.
I am still waiting to receive my wand in the mail.
If academics are all “brilliant!” poets and novelists are “luminous!” Prose is “luminous!” Poetry is “luminous.” Moons lighting dark paths to reveal hidden mysteries. Slivers of sunlight slicing through netherworlds to dispel the gloom of cold winter.
Creative prose is a torch with an unending battery—so bright that one need only take the right creative work on a camping trip. So bright it can guide shuttles into space. So bright the sun hides its face in shame.
And creative writers are light-makers!
Wielding their light-bearing words they slash through the debris of our uncreative world, saber-wielding warriors, cutting through our slack being with their wit and irony and pathos. Light-induced smiles and light-induced tears and light-induced heartache are always so much more profound.
Feel the light.
Feel the luminosity.
Do not gaze directly—it might blind you.
And then, the rare few.
Those who are both “brilliant!” and “luminous!”
Indeed, so profoundly talented are these that Doctor Who would fear taking them on as companions because they would overshadow him—destroy his recurring enemies once and for all. Kill the franchise with their luminous brilliance. At which point they might have to lose their memories and return to their petty lives, forgetting what they once were: luminous brilliance.
To state the obvious: we live in a hyperbolic age. And those we trust to “evaluate” have abrogated that role. Or, more likely, don’t really know what to do in that role.
Any teacher knows that it is far easier to write rote comments: “Your paper was written in good prose.” Or, “You use commas well.” Given that the average student doesn’t care about written comments, one might as well write, “Your paper met the minimum standards.” I’m not sure there is a qualitative difference in these statements.
Descriptions like “brilliant” and “luminous” and “foremost writer of his generation,” (almost always a he, by the way) are empty. I no longer trust blurbs by academics and writers. They are unreliable-favors to friends, students, and colleagues.
In the realm of the luminous, I find myself wondering about battery life. Will the book sustain the gleam provided by its nice, expensive cover with gilt lettering? Will the brilliance extend beyond the light metaphors in the first opening pages? Will the prose begin to sputter, die out on page 13, leaving one to wander through dark clumps of unwieldy, clotted, and uneven narrative?
I say this not to disparage “dark clumps of unwieldy, clotted, and uneven narrative,” because I value such narrative. I value uneven and clotted work, the paths of indirection, the shadowy moments of undeveloped prose. The fragments of possibility. I am genuinely excited when language and narrative rush through cliché and avant-garde experimentation, become promiscuous, playful, inventive.
Sometimes, I don’t want creative writing to be “luminous.” I want it to brood or sulk, to remain sullen and stubborn, to inch along slowly, to feel like treacle, to be agonizing. To force attention to halt—to slow down speed, to be unreadable.
Sometimes I want it to be like a matatu at midday driven by a hungry driver who needs to pee—to speed along sidewalks, to transform two-lane highways into five-lane possibilities, to veer and cut and hoot and insult and brake abruptly, to so disrupt my senses that disorientation is the only possible arrival.
Sometimes I want to sink into cliché, to experience the familiarity of white bread slathered with blue band accompanied by a mug of hot, milky tea.
Sometimes I really just want a cozy read. (And, yes, that row of sometimes draws from Britney Spears.)
Brilliance and luminosity are cutting. Edgy. Lasers that drill into brains. They also create anxiety. One feels stupid when on reading a “brilliant!” book blurbed by “brilliant!” scholars the books feels messy, incomplete, okay. One wonders whether one is not sufficiently “brilliant!” to understand the “brilliance!” celebrated by others.
These days, I am less taxed by “brilliance!”
I read for the useful, the interesting, the idiosyncratic. I read to discover paths I have not taken, appreciating the broad leaves on magnificent trees and the unwieldy undergrowth. Every so often, I pause to disentangle myself from too-friendly brambles, wincing ever so slightly at the slight scratches they leave. I am delighted to meet interesting companions along the way who tell interesting yarns about prison and transience and wild children and sound and food (to name a few of the yarns I’ve been hearing). I am pleased to experience pleasure and disorientation and boredom and irritation—pleased at the range of ways I can engage those who write and think.