On Not Knowing: Amateur Hour

by Emily Ogden

Fans are the people who know the quotes, the dates of publication, the batting averages, the bassist on this album, the team that general manager coached before. I am not a fan. Don’t get me wrong. I’m full of enthusiasms. But I can’t match you statistic for statistic. I haven’t read the major author’s minor novel. I don’t care who the bassist was. You win. I’m an amateur.

Amateur gets opposed to professional sometimes: the amateur isn’t making money from her skill or her knowledge. Other times, amateurism gets opposed to expertise: amateurs screw it up, experts fix it. These are not the meanings I intend. In French, an amateur is a lover; fan, a nineteenth-century US coinage, comes from fanatic. The amateur leaves some space for ignorance, letting the relationship to the beloved thing—the sports team, the artwork—retain the quality of an affair. The fan, in the particular sense I mean, gets lumbered under facts. There is something of the jealous monogamist about fandom, something of the checker for digital traces of the beloved’s secret life. Who hasn’t been there? But wouldn’t it be better if we hadn’t? When I say I am not a fan, I mean I aspire not to follow out that particular impulse. I aspire not to compete, at the cocktail party, for possession of Herman Melville, as measured in knowledge of his vital statistics.

Ownership of the beloved object is tempting but it’s not the shiniest prize that fandom holds out to you. The greatest temptation is a credential, a badge: you know all these things, so you must not be dumb. I’ve flashed that badge plenty, even if it would have been better not to.

When I was younger, people often seemed to think that I was stupid. They thought so not because I was stupid, but because I was a girl. A lot of people prefer to think girls are dumb. You can see their shoulders relax as they decide they can manage you. Even when the evidence told another way—when I seemed neither manageable, nor dim—my well-wishers were willing to believe the best of me. The more they suspected me of intelligence, the more they looked, in charity, for signs of its lack. At tae kwon do class, where I once bested a formidable teacher thirty years my senior in a public battle of wits, I was known exclusively for the time I got lost in the woods at boot camp. On the school newspaper, I counted as incompetent by comparison with my boyfriend, the editor-in-chief, for spurious reasons I can no longer reconstruct. All this was special pleading. But it reassured people.

From first grade, I burned with a rage to deprive my teachers of these pleasant dreams. I hated the multiplication tables that Matt could fill in faster than anyone and yet I longed to beat him. When Jacob could recite the presidents backward, I drilled on the backward presidents. I got as far as Zachary Taylor, forwards (I was working up to backwards), before I stopped. It seemed pointless even then. Winning the contest with boys was no substitute for a fair contest having been offered in the first place.

At some point I started writing poetry instead. I told the parent volunteer who worked on my poems with me—may she be rewarded for her goodness—that I didn’t care if people could understand my poems. It was as if I had swatted her on the nose. You should care, she told me. But I don’t, I replied. “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim,” declared Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last. But we cannot spend the day in explanation.”

To the backwards presidents, two answers seemed possible. One was a rage for data: fandom. The other, a flight to the aesthetic and the erotic, to whim. That was amateurism.

Fandom and amateurism remain two possible answers to the problem of knowing the world while competing on its unequal playing fields. They are two tendencies within my profession—which is literary criticism—just as they are tendencies outside of it. I do want to know the facts (having graduated to more meaningful versions of history than president-listing). At the same time, the best talent I have—far from the best one on offer to human beings, but the best one I have—requires for its exercise a temporary vacuum of fact and explanation, a temporary siding with amateurism. You do have to let the facts back in. But you can’t let them rule.

What is this talent? You could call it taste, or aesthetic judgment. It’s attunement. It’s the work of perceptive interpretation. It’s seeing a configuration, a pattern, a story, that flashes up among technically unrelated elements. Everyone has these experiences. We all see pattern. We see what we like, or feel spurred on by. Some of us see the lineaments of social life like a bright line connecting the texts of an archive; some see the hand of God, or serendipity, or conspiracy, or energy, or 11:11 on the clock more often than seems consistent with chance. For some people, such experiences become, for probably unfathomable reasons, the center of life.

What we see does arise from the lists and dates and statistics we know, but indirectly, as the result of our whole experience—not as the conclusion of a proof. You can’t pump your tastes up with facts; you can’t drill them. If you are to respect your tastes, be guided by them, you have to leave them alone from time to time. That’s not to say you can’t educate taste; you can. You can reshape it profoundly. Fandom’s fact-collecting can even be such an education, so that—setting out on a blurry, enraged mission to show the injustice of a patriarchal elementary school, and then a middle school, a high school, and a college—you might end up collecting facts that shape your taste into something better worth exercising than it used to be.

But no matter how educated taste becomes, there is something of the ignorant, immediate erotism of the amateur in it. Being a literary critic is thus an amateur art, despite the long years of enforced fandom that an education in it involves. To interpret, to see connections, I protect my whims. I diagram what I see without attending to what I know. I’ll attend to that again later; I’ll betray the whims I have to betray, if I see that they’re wrong, or ridiculous, or unethical. But in its own moment, taste is immediate and whole, like the scent of Florida air when you get off the plane. You can’t reason yourself into it or out of it. There it is. There you are. And you are, sort of, free.