It had been a beautiful retour to a city j'adore, la ville de Québec, golden in the magic hour lightthe Plains of Abraham. On the train ride south I had planned to reminisce, possibly make some notes about my short stay, indulge in nostalgia for the place where I have spent so much time over the last six years. But my seat partner had a persistent cough. And it is flu season, and I have been travelling...
I lowered my computer screen, turned my head to the window and was trying to nod off when he tapped me on the arm. Pardon me, but I am a curious person, and I saw your name and I checked out your profile. Do you mind if I ask you a question? What? He'd been spying on me? Could he have found my name so easily? Mon Dieu! What had I opened, what tab exposing me to some kind of violation?
Of course my website is public and I encourage people to visit it, and it turned out that his motive was to gather material for a talk he is giving to his MBA group on the definition of success. Noticing via my site that I have been a longtime writer he couldn't resist asking my opinion, he said. And while I still think it is creepy that someone should assume he has access to my screen, his question nourished some thoughts I've been having about my recent surrender to stats.
Success? Can't measure in terms of best sellers, because none of my seven books have sold enough to qualify for those lists. Prizes? A couple. Publication? I've succeeded there and reviews, while not often widespread, have always been good, sometimes very good, and for my newest, The Reason for Time better than that. But now there are other measures. As my friend Allan Ludwig says, it's a numbers game. In his case, a Flickr account, through which he has amassed more than five million views under a nom de plume, Elisha Cook, jr. Despite my scepticism regarding social media, yet also knowing it's join or be beaten, I can now check how many hits/likes/plays/followers I have on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Blogger, Soundcloud and ITunes. I try to discipline myself about checking these sites, and maybe I will get better about that when they are less of a novelty.
Is it that Descartes still dogs us with his insistence that everything can be reduced to numbers? (Okay, okay... oversimplifying.) There are other views, including a well articulated summary of the Aztec view of happiness, for example, in a recent Aeon article. But would such philosophies persuade the cougher's MBA colleagues? From what I know, it's all about the bottom line with them, not as in the bottom line of a drawing or an I Ching hexagram, but the line that reveals how much money is left after expenses have been subtracted from profits. Yet I have heard of companies that encourage work-life balance and provide opportunities for employees to improve their health and education, I admitted, and then our conversation drifted towards cliché territory. He put on his headphones and I re-opened my laptop, being careful this time to angle it away from him.
I used to tell my students that spontaneous insights, the gift of a fictional voice that just seems to come, that making what you imagine real for readers, those are the things you get instead of money. Then there is what one of my favourite writers, Walker Percy, wrote in The Moviegoer:
"It is impossible to say why he is here. Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world? Or is it because he believes God himself is here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants? Or is he here for both reasons: through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God's own importunate bonus?
It is impossible to say."