The modesty imperative

It would be unbecoming for you to write a Wikipedia article about yourself. It would be inappropriate for a book editor to let you write a description of yourself on the back cover of the book you wrote, and they published.

It’s always more acceptable to let others do it for you and write stuff about you rather than do it yourself.

The trick is this: these people might not have anything to say or they might not matter. Why would anyone listen to them, even if they genuinely had something worth saying about you? And to find someone of consequence to say anything about you means you shouldn’t find yourself in a situation where you need their help.

This is the modesty imperative, and it is as crucial in publishing as the physical covers are for a book. It also has a fairly long pedigree. The ancient Roman poets Juvenal, Martial and Catullus used to refer to their own works self-deprecatingly as libelli or ‘little books’, although occasionally there was some measure of mock-modesty involved. That’s because the modesty imperative is never an honest business. No-one really wants to be modest when they promote themselves or their works. Although everyone expects everyone else to be. Hence everyone signs up to this strange Venetian carnival.

If the modesty imperative had traded at the Stock Exchange, its share value would never have been higher and stronger than it was in the Middle Ages. Far from the mock modesty of the ancient Roman tongue-in-check epigram or satire, the medieval literary modesty grew up to be what is known as a ‘topos’ or ‘commonplace’. This is basically a literary formula repeated across a certain genre. Because it’s contrived and expected, this kind of modesty is also false. But again, it’s expected, so authors brought up within the cloisters of Christian humility, make much of it in their writing, protesting their unworthiness, their unsuitability for the job and the fact that there are many others who are far better and more talented than they are.

You know you’ve left the medieval period behind when you find authors who become assertive and unashamedly proud of their own works – sometimes even aggressively bold (although some authors were like that in the Middle Ages, too). When an author is not ashamed to say ‘Yeah, I wrote this and I think it’s brilliant. You should read it!’

Our age hasn’t shed the heavy coat of the modesty imperative, it’s just made it a lot thinner and lighter. And I’m guessing we’ll never outgrow it because modesty is really at the heart of not just our literature, but of our social and political life as well.

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