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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

What Is "Art Of Conversation" For?

An updated vision of where this project is going and how we will do it.

“I like people to express themselves heartily, their words following wherever their thoughts lead.”

~ Montaigne, On the Art of Conversation

For seven years now, Art Of Conversation has been the only constant in my working and writing lives, both of which have been defined by an eclecticism that borders on an attentional disorder. In my non-writing work life, I have supported this project financially by working as a bookseller, a maintenance man at a care home for the elderly, a supervisor on the box office of my local theatre and cinema, and, of course, with the support of paying subscribers.

That same eclecticism has also defined the nature of Art Of Conversation, in its commitment to exploring whatever seems interesting or relevant in culture, and in turning to books, films, and music of any genre. The way that Art Of Conversation has manifested has also undergone a variety of expressions. Now, Art Of Conversation has become something I am incredibly proud of and that feels like it has found a form and function that work well. So, I want to guide you through the rationale behind this project and explain what we are doing here.

The main items of note are:

  • Having left Patreon, Substack is now the central locus of Art Of Conversation. The website is still up, of course, but Substack is where you can show your support by subscribing and even becoming a paid subscriber. I'm a big fan of the interface here, and I plan on using Notes in a way and to an extent that I don't use any other social media.

  • I will be aiming to publish once a week from now on. Once enough subscribers are paying for Art Of Conversation, I will be able to make this my full-time occupation, and that once-a-week schedule will be guaranteed. In the meantime, it's an aspiration but not a promise. You will be getting long-form essays and the re-vamped Marginalia (more on this below), and occasionally I will reach into the vast archive to resurface something worth re-reading or that bears some relevance to current events. Sometimes, the timeless becomes timely.

  • The only thing paywalled now on Art Of Conversation is commenting. The reason for this is to offer some kind of quality control over the conversation and to keep me, quite literally, sane. If the only space a person could respond to my work was in the comment section, I'd probably keep it totally open. But anyone who can get online to read this work can also start a blog and write as much as they like. They can say on their blog whatever they wanted to say in my comment section but not enough to pay for the privilege.

  • There is no longer a paywall on any of the pieces you read on Art Of Conversation. I have gone back and forth over the years on the question of whether to charge money to read my work, and how much, and on which pieces the paywall should apply. I'm sure I will change my thinking on this yet again in the future. My instincts tend towards keeping as much of my work as available to as many people as possible, and the first impulse of writing for me is always passion rather than profit. But I live in a society that demands rents be paid, and it is a fact that the more income I make from writing, the more writing I can do. The ultimate goal is to make my sole income from Art Of Conversation. If you want to support that dream and see Art Of Conversation grow, please do become a paid subscriber.

Art Of Conversation

In a percipient video-essay on the film Arrival, Evan Puschak states that “there is no thought without expression, no content without form, that an idea – however profound it feels to you – does not really exist until you can write it down”. Right from the first step in the causal chain of thinking, ideas require a kind of language to translate them from abstractions experienced by the thinker into rational items examinable by the mind. It is only in the expression of the idea that its reasonableness, its implications, and any holes in the fabric of its logic can be known.

This is also what happens when we express our ideas out loud for the understanding of others, when we write them down or speak them out. We feed into the machine of conversation our own contribution, that idea about a book read or an opinion on a piece of music, and our interlocutors are able to examine these notions and then feed into the machine their own linguistically expressed ideas. This is the dialectical process, the testing of propositions against others to constantly refine our thinking.

This is also a big part of why we read, at least for those of us who, in addition to pure enjoyment, seek growth, understanding, and varied forms of knowledge from books. We are interested in the ideas great minds have produced and want to incorporate into our own thinking those concepts of worth from art. And when we discuss with friends what we’ve read or heard or seen, when we read the opinions of others on artworks we have considered, and when we put into the world our own ideas in blogs, videos, etc., we are continuing the process. That’s what I have been doing with Art Of Conversation – attempting to play some role in the ongoing, cross-media, cultural conversation.

The great granddaddy of the essay form, Michel de Montaigne, loathed small talk and sought out conversations with depth, cultivating dialogic space for patiently exploring ideas through respectful debate. His disarmingly personal essay On Friendship explores the nature of the most profound friendship of his life, which lasted until the early death of his comrade. This friendship was predicated on intellectual and emotional intimacy, the nature of which he described as “a matter of the mind, with our souls being purified by practising it”. This is the kind of friendship that Montaigne says commends itself “in the sharpness and vigour of its communications”, and this is the tone I try to bring to Art Of Conversation.

In his essay On Three Kinds of Relationships, Montaigne wrote: “I am seeking the companionship and society of such men as we call honourable and talented.” I will appropriate that and amend it to “such people as we call interesting and interested”. These two terms are those that I make it my goal to be, partnered with my desire to avoid committing (to borrow from Christopher Hitchens) the one unforgiveable sin of being boring. Those two properties are the most basic requisites for flourishing conversation, because to be interested is to listen deeply and thoughtfully, and to be interesting is to do or say something meaningful about what you heard.

Listen, think, say something meaningful – this could be the motto of Art Of Conversation. As a description of the kind of criticism you will read here, I can do no better than A. O. Scott's account of why criticism matters:

"It's the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our own prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and to pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously."


“In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

~ Edgar Allan Poe

For a long time, I rarely read book and film reviews because they didn't seem to offer me what I wanted; they were too often formulaic recommendations to see or avoid a film or book based on the sweeping impressions it made on that particular reviewer. While the aim of most mainstream reviews is to give an opinion on the work as a whole, I find it much more interesting (and illuminating in offering potential approaches to interpreting the book or film for myself) to examine specific aspects of the work in question. Rather than concerning myself with judgments of quality, I want to have conversations with books and films, to interrogate what they are saying, to answer their questions and question their answers. My hope has always been that my long-form essays will play some part in inspiring and provoking you, dear reader, to build something like your own conversations with art.

It's long been fashionable to criticise book and film reviews. Many people over many years have lamented that book reviews are (seemingly) fuelled by nepotism and are superficial in their treatment of their subjects. In 1846, Poe wrote that critics “place on paper without hesitation a tissue of flatteries, to which in society we could not give utterance, for our lives, without either blushing or laughing outright”. In 2007, Steve Wasserman complained that “the pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers”. I have some sympathy for such opprobrium, but it can't be denied that reviews are invaluable to many who need a way of cutting through the dense overpopulation of entertainment output.

In recent years, I've noticed a few things about my own growing consumption of literary and film reviews. First, I rarely turn to reviews before I read the book or watch the film. I'm not using reviews the way I think most people consider the proper, or at least the usual, way. I seek out reviews as a way of finding out what others think about the same film or book. The second thing I realised is that this is an extension of the conversations I have with my friends after we've read the same novel, listened to the same album, or watched a film together. I'm curious about other people's ideas, and hearing them helps me to shape and refine my own.

I've received a lot of feedback from some of my long-time subscribers that they'd like to hear my thoughts on recent films and literature, in a relatively more casual form, and I like the idea of offering my critique as something you might pick up and read after the fact, as a way of starting or continuing your own conversations. I'm still finding my feet as a critic in this sense, and I imagine the form might evolve over time, but for now, expect one or two editions of Marginalia a month, each of which will have about two reviews in. If you have any suggestions for things you'd like to see in Marginalia, I'd love to hear them.

Finally, importantly, here’s the ask: if you believe in what I'm doing here at Art Of Conversation, if you get joy from reading the essays or value from Marginalia, please show your support by becoming a paid subscriber. Help me ensure that Art Of Conversation continues, that the quality remains high, and that we continue to grow by becoming a paid subscriber today:

Art Of Conversation relies entirely on the support of readers like you. I am a one-man operation here; I have no staff, no other writers, no assistants, just me. Art Of Conversation is coming towards the end of its first decade, but it is also just beginning something new. It will grow and expand and, I believe, continue to interest its readers. I am so excited to have you join us.


Further reading:

Arrival: A Response to Bad Movies, Nerdwriter1 on YouTube (2017)

• ‘On the Art of Conversation’ in On Friendship, Michel de Montaigne (penguin ed. 2004)

Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens (2001)

Better Living Through Criticism, A. O. Scott (2016)

Art Of Conversation is ad-free and relies entirely on the support of its readers. If you find it valuable, you can subscribe through Substack to contribute to its ongoing creation. In addition to supporting this project, you'll get exclusive access to Marginalia, a newsletter with behind-the-scenes updates.

Subscribe now to join the conversation.

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