How I write
(Preface to the 15th year Italian edition of The Black Swan)
I met Luca Formenton, Saggiatore’s capo twenty years ago, in April 2002, in the eternal city, in a mozzarella bar-terrace near the parliament. I spoke in highly ungrammatical Italian; he addressed me in impeccable English, a practice we have sort of maintained for twenty years. That was the period when I very badly wanted to satisfy my failed childhood dream to produce literature, but everything conspired to stop me from partaking of that highly protected genus.
I was in Rome supposedly for a conference on risk but I just wanted an excuse to be in Italy (coincidentally I also made friends with Daniel Kahneman on the same day, another, more complicated story). Luca was the first literary editor who was interested in my work, thanks to an intercession by the late Marco Di Martino.
By then I had written the first volume of the Incerto, Fooled by Randomness, a book that was practically impossible to publish. It was a continental style meditative essay and the Anglo Saxon world, in spite of their infatuation with Montaigne and Umberto Eco, were about five hundred years late to the genre. The official “subject” (an essay is not supposed to have such a constraint as a subject) was a random mixture of autobiography, philosophy (of probability), mathematics, inductive logic, musings on historical events and financial markets. It included parables with fictional characters, one of whom seemed to resemble me, which appeared to be confusing since I also had explicit autobiographical episodes. “Why are you confusing the reader with both Nero Tulip and yourself”, I was often asked by those who did not find the mixture too uncanny and continued reading the text. “What’s wrong with confusing the reader?” was my usual answer. The good thing about inserting “randomness” in the title is that it allowed me to write about anything that crossed my mind, given the ubiquity of chance and, worse, the lack of awareness of it. Not unexpectedly, the reaction of publishing houses had been unanimously dismissive: why would anyone mix finance, Solon, and Proust? And why these mathematical discussions?
Now I have no problem with focus and precision: I do not want my vacuum cleaner user manual to be a stream of consciousness. I had written a specialized treatise in mathematical finance, and was embarking on a career writing scientific papers, which must be as narrow as possible. But literature should not have explicit boundaries: the confines of the subject are internal and may remain elusive and hard to express in words. Nor should literature have institutions formalizing and commoditizing things. And I wanted to do my own version of what is called literature. Literature must be idiosyncratic.
I remained undeterred by the insults in the rejection letters. Something I experienced even more acutely with The Black Swan, editors were not content in rejecting the book as a wise businessperson would reject an investment, by saying something like it may be great but I do not wish to take the gamble or politely appeal to caution. No; they went out of their way to explain with a lot of precision why it would flop, why nobody would read it. Both Fooled by Randomness and its successor The Black Swan were treated by the industry like Yevgenia Krasnova’s Story of Recursion(which few realize was about The Black Swan recursively talking about itself and its own future). All books acquire retrospective qualities after they become successful.
My belief has always been that primo, “books are not written for book editors” and secundo, almost all book editors don’t know it –it turns out that there are good editors in some elite houses (such as Will Murphy in New York, Will Goodlad in London, and those who replaced them) but these were still outside my reach then. Predictably, I refused to be edited, feeling that it disrupts the inner harmony of the text; the manuscript showed a fiercely stubborn personality, which editors easily confirmed upon meeting its author.
Finally, I miraculously managed to get temporarily published by a newly founded aggressive internet house who traded my refusal to be edited against lower royalties. The house was so patently incompetent (yet aggressive) that they rapidly became financially insolvent –the managers burned their cash on first class transatlantic seats and lavish author parties (not mine). But I had no reason to complain: only an incompetent-but-aggressive publishing house would have accepted to publish me. To cheat, Fooled by Randomness had been promoted to some as a business book (although the only business in it is its dismissal of business as both a vulgar and a random thing); to others as a philosophy of science manual though the demand for these was so limited that the last books in that category that were read beyond a narrow group of graduate students were by Karl Popper, fifty years earlier.
However, by the time I met Luca, Fooled by Randomness had been steadily circulating via word-of-mouth, thanks to the internet. Your local bookstore, in spite of the romanticism for the neighborhood business, is only interested in local turnover for what can be rigidly categorized, say the biography of an exiting president or the travelogue of a recently divorced suburban dentist’s trip to Tuscany. But a revolution happened around then. Amazon, the internet publisher, could now reach people across genres and connect authors to my kind of readers who may be locally rare but large enough across the planet. For the internet switched the focus from physical geography to thematic subjects –the shift was analog to the replacement of the Riemann integral with a Lebesgue one. This is what put me on the map and in the presence of Luca Formenton on that spring day in Rome.
It was Luca who firmed up a certain idea in my head. He said that Saggiatore, his publishing house, had for its best success the Italian translation of Triste Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss, which put a quarter million books in the hands of readers. Except that it was five thousand a year over (almost) fifty years. It evoked the joke about winning a million zlotys at the Polish lottery: you receive 1 zloty a year for one million years –but joking apart, here is the very idea of robustness: the expression chi va piano va sano –e va lontano is double edged. Lontano in Italian is both temporal and spatial.
Luca seemed to know it was my kind of book. The hidden story, of which I became aware when I started writing the Incerto, is that Triste Tropiques was written initially as a novel. What’s more, he started with the poetic, Baudelairian title (reminiscent of Tristesse de la lune), then embarked on the writing of the stuff. Anthropology, Brazil, the Amazon were some background topic. I realized that I was playing Levi-Strauss’s game: find some topic to furnish one’s autobiographically driven reflections. As I wrote earlier, genuine literature is not found in the Goncourt circles or among these salon people who go to parties and readings in New York and tag themselves with a “literary” label by deploying a certain vocabulary and mentioning Borges. No, as I said, literature was something fundamentally grounded in its creator, the individual.
But there is something more central to the story: this idea of surviving fifty years without anybody noticing is a great lesson on what came to be called in The Black Swan the Lindy effect.
How do I write? The common fallacy is that if you want people to read you in the future, you must project something related to the future, focused on the contemporary and be as different from the past as possible –say by populating your work with space machines, high technology, and revolutionary ideas. My U.S. publisher still tries to squeeze modern art on the cover when I am looking elsewhere.
No, no; it’s the exact opposite. I stood the idea on its head. If you want to be read in the future, make sure you would have been read in the past. We have no idea of what’s in the future, but we have some knowledge of what was in the past. So I make sure I would have been read both in the past and in the present time, that is by both the comtemporaries and the dead. So I speculated that books that would have been relevant twenty years in the past (conditional of course of being relevant today) would be interesting twenty years in the future.
Another discovery I made then, and to which I have been adhering until the present. If you consider writing a creative endeavor, then avoid practicing it in mundane matters as it may both dull your vitality and make it feel like drudgery, work. I find it painful to write outside of my books (or mathematical papers) –and immensely pleasurable to write in book form. So I limit my emails to one or two laconic (but sometimes incomprehensible) sentences, postcard like; the same with social media posts that are not exceprts from books. There is still such a contraption called a telephone. Likewise, I don’t read letters and emails longer than a postcard. Writing must have some solemnity. Reading and writing, in the past, were the province of the sacred.
Twenty Years Later: I was passing through Milan in the summer of 2022, and Luca wanted to meet. I suspected that, principally, he wanted to show me his gravel bicycle. But he also had a gift for me: a special, about fifty year old edition of Tristi Tropici. Inside the book was a photocopy of some accounting report. He said that the Cigno nero published fifteen years earlier became his new Tristi Tropici.