Most of all, Tyler Cowen talks like he writes. Every piece of repetitive, mediocre writing advice (the sort of thing aimed at dreamers on the lunch-hour rather than actual aspiring writers) says you should write like you talk. Cowen does the opposite. Most people talk boring. And write boring. Cowen writes pretty uniquely. He’s not a prose stylist; he’s a substance stylist. The associations, juxtapositions, perspectives, nuances, examples, and topics of his writing are unlike anything else I know. His blog posts are fusions, fantasies, and fugues. He once wrote in The Age of the Infovore that a good blog should be a bildungsroman of the author. This is what MarginalRevolution is — a biographical and intellectual evolution of Tyler Cowen and his thinking. This is the approach in the podcast, for both Cowen and the guest. Each episode is like a chess game, where the opening moves set the pace and expectations, which Cowen then tries to evade and evolve with a series of specific, selective, and challenging questions. It is disappointing if there is ever a “checkmate” moment, but it is often very clarifying and resolving. The aim is to develop, not defeat. This is not a podcast where you will get exposition: the background is minimal. No context is offered. Guest are expected, and sometimes told, not to explain. Thus, as the narrative tension is so much higher for stories that begin in media res and show you the created world without explaining it, the information density and value of the Cowen podcast is much higher than many others.
This compares well to great writers of the past, from who I believe Cowen has intentionally learnt many techniques. Shakespeare, for example, usually has an exposition, but not a formulaic one. Many scenes in his plays open with a question. I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall. This is exactly how Cowen might open. No sense of who these people are or what happened — the game starts with a speed bowl. In that sense, it is a much more dramatic podcast than most others and requires much better listening than usual. It is significant that Cowen prefers to read transcripts than listen to episodes.
In general, his compositional style, both as a blogger and interviewer, is like that of essayists. He has Montaigne’s freewheeling, Seneca’s sense of dictum, Johnson’s pugnacity delivered graciously. The seriously great non-fiction writers of the past constantly tread the line between obscure and illuminating. One of Cowen’s favourite passages from one of his favourite writers includes the line: wise men have alwaies applauded their own judgment. If that is the attitude Cowen strikes in his interviews, it is in order to encourage his guests to do the same, to set higher expectations for the listeners than they might otherwise be set by their podcast hosts, and to embody his belief that what is high status and low status ought, sometimes, to be reversed. One of the other writers he admires most is Virginia Woolf, and these are often the sort of interviews you might expect from the busily inquiring side of her mind, without any of its bitterness or sorrows.
You should not be put off by these, in Cowen’s words, high upfront context costs in principle. Most people enjoy such a lack of context in some area, notably sports or television. Simply turning on the television (or watching whatever Netflix recommends) is not seen as inherently off-putting. The difference with Cowen is that the tone, style, rigour, are much more intensive. One of my favourite posts on MaginalRevolution is this review of Derek Parfit. It takes some googling and head scratching to get all of it straight in my mind, but it’s the sort of thing an intelligent person might find bewilderingly addictive, like a first reading of The Waste Land or listening of Harmonielehre. (The extent to which the comparisons between Cowen and great artists are overblown is roughly the extent to which the mediums he works in are new and ultimately less “impressive” than those of the great arts. The comparison of these techniques holds true with one of Cowen’s favourite sports writers, too. I just happen to know less about that.) Anyway, the Parfit review is an extended version of the sort of questions he might have asked Parfit if they’d done an interview; and it was written many years before the podcast started.
If this appeals to you at all, even slightly, especially if it’s because you are confused and aspirational to be able to get more out of it, Tyler Cowen, and his podcast, is for you. Aspiration, in the sense that Agnes Callard writes about it, is the key note for almost all of Cowen’s work, if you want to be reductive about it. Conversations with Tyler will make you smarter in the long run by making you realise how smart you aren’t in the short run. How long each one of those runs is will vary for each of us, but if you know what I’m trying to get at here then you’ll know that making your short-run longer, in this sense, is largely the point. Extend the margin of what you are able to be confusedly interested in. As Agnes Callard says, “how do people get themselves to care about things that they don’t yet care about?”
You can find out why I wrote this post here.