The Prejudice of Amplitude Part One
I wanted to talk to you about size.
The subject comes up because, at this writing, the Facebook arm of the Inner Circle Writers’ Group has reached 2,500 members. The group adds members every day, in ones and twos, and has grown consistently since it was launched back in July last year. A few members are wary of this - they don’t want the thing to get so large that it becomes unwieldy and starts to contain material and conversations that are ‘off-topic’; several of them also feel that a smaller group is one in which they can ‘hold their own’, get some personal attention, and which feels like a group of friends rather than some kind of giant arena or marketplace.
I understand those concerns completely. I also know that, as an independent publisher, this group has helped to sustain my commercial enterprise by providing both writers and readers for an ongoing set of anthologies and other publications. I have, however, calculated that in order for me to achieve commercial viability the group would need to be about five and a half times larger than it is now - say, around 12,500 members or slightly more. If all other ratios remained more or less constant, this would mean that I could continue to do what I do into the future - that is, provide platforms and opportunities for writers not only to get published but to launch careers as professional authors. According to my arithmetic (keeping in mind that I officially gave up ‘mathematics’ as a subject in 1976) 12,500 members would generate enough money for me by buying the books I publish to be able to pay my publishing bills from the earnings from those booksales alone, which would be an ideal situation in many ways - for me, and for you if you are a budding writer.
But there are some important non-mathematical provisos. A group of 12,500 members would need to have the same level of interest and activity that we have now, if not more - which is, by the way, very high for a group of this kind, coming in at between 70% and 80% each month. In other words, out of 2,500 members, between 1,750 and 2,000 are ongoing, active participants in the group’s life to some extent - a proportion many other groups would envy. If, for the sake of argument, our membership grew to 12,500, then at least 8,750 of them would need to be active in much the same way, which would mean a lot of conversations going on. Could I keep up with them all? Could anyone? The idea would be that we have the same atmosphere in the group as we do now, just more people.
It’s probably possible. But it brings up deeper concerns and issues to do with size and numbers.
C. S. Lewis described something called ‘chronological snobbery’ which has been defined as the idea that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, just because it occurred earlier in time, based on the prejudice that people of earlier time periods were 'less intelligent'. It’s a powerful thread of thinking in modern culture - even the word ‘modern’ often contains the connotation that to be modern is to be wiser, cleverer, more ‘up to speed’ than earlier generations. Lewis and others dismantled this idea in their apologetic works and their fiction. But there’s another idea which is equally pervasive and perhaps even more deceptive, for which I will coin the term ‘prejudice of amplitude’. This is the notion that if something contains more numbers or is of a larger size, it is somehow inherently more important or more deserving of respect than if it were smaller.
Chronological snobbery probably grows out of a desire to feel secure in one’s own time, a contentment or complacency with one’s surroundings, and a lack of accurate education about the past - the lack of education stemming at least partly from the snobbery itself, and its attitude that the past has 'less worth telling about'. But the prejudice of amplitude, the belief that ‘bigger means better’ probably has an emotional component.
I have a fear of the large. When I was eight years old, my brother and I were transported with my parents across the world’s oceans on an old cruise ship. One day, bored of being beneath decks, he and I set off to explore. We came up to the green-hued B deck - each deck had its own colour key - and gradually made our way forward to the front of the ship, along narrow, slightly rolling corridors, down the central spine of the vessel. As we drew closer to the tip, the bow of the thing, rooms on either side grew proportionally smaller. At the point of convergence between the walls of the ship was a triangular lavatory. Stepping briefly inside, we saw the walls curving upward to a single sharp corner - the prow itself - and we heard the thundering of the Indian Ocean on the other side of those thin steel plates.
We fled in terror. The sheer size and loudness and force of the thing was overwhelming. Even now, I am irrationally afraid of vast shapes moving through deep, dark water, whether they be earthly vessels or giant marine creatures. Size can be innately frightening.
Part of that awe is attached to anything larger than ourselves. Whereas the mediaeval believed that he was living in a more-or-less enclosed universe which acted like a giant precision clock and held vast spaces but was basically finite and contained, modern humanity has no such luxury - when we look out into the night sky, we believe that we are gazing into a limitless void, looking at starlight from heavenly bodies which perished eons ago.
I recall reading a National Geographic article many years ago which contained one of those fold-out panoramas of ‘our universe’. It began with the Earth, then moved out to the solar system, then the galaxy, and so on, until I was in the end gazing at a cosmos so huge that it gave me a headache. These days many of us have seen the equivalent on the web: videos that unfold in ever increasing dimensions a universe the size of which is totally beyond human comprehension.
All of that carries an emotional wallop. We, in our tiny fleshy bodies, too small to defend ourselves from too much, grow to feel vulnerable in the face of all of it. But then we equate that vulnerability with insignificance, and that’s where we go wrong. As I have argued elsewhere, a thing’s size has nothing to do with its significance: if it did, a basketball would be as significant as a brain, or a truck more significant than a child.
The meaning of something is not connected to its physical dimensions.
And, as we will see, the true importance of that statement has much to do with our question about the size of the Inner Circle Writers’ Group. Should the group get bigger for its own sake? Or for deeper reasons?