So how on earth those damned books are done? They must be done somehow, if my only dream is to spend the rest of my life in an armchair covered with genuine leather, under a library ladder sliding eastwards and westwards on little wheels, a flute of 1664 in my hand. There must be a professional approach to this.
There are very few beautiful books in the humanities, and each of them has puzzled me in its own way. Often by the extreme simplicity of their making. This was the impression when I read Ranciere's Aesthesis. As if you just cannot tell why it is good, but you fancy you keep this book. Such obvious things he says, apparently, but there is some kind of ordinatio and dispositio in them that just make the book a delightful property. A kind of rhythm. By the way, I've never finished reading it, but I stayed with this impression of clarity, lucidity.
Most books are insufficient in their way. Steiner's Lessons of masters, for example. At the given moment, they grow shallow. So you keep them, but as if conditionally, out of the 1% that is not that of the ERC, but that of what? Some kind of philosophia perennis, I would say. By the way, in Amsterdam I would like to have a copy of Huxley's Perennial philosophy, even if I have a Polish translation that was one of my most prised possessions since early nineties, and there is a free PDF online. And Corbin's Imagination creatrice.
Perhaps this multilingual library of mine is the starting point and the source of all the answers concerning Proper Writing. Perhaps the first reason why you write these kind of books is their connection to something living, something that does exist beyond the words. Something that makes you the chosen one, the guardian, the preserver. And it's often 2 am, and 3 am, and 4 am, and you stay with your things, and your only worry is the fog and humidity lifting from the channels.
And it is not at all about any ERC grants or millions of euros. If they give you nothing, next year you will go to Africa and live a very simple life, with your only worry to write all the things that need to be written, and to find the way to be in the 1% of the perennial. Not to make yourself immortal, on the contrary, to make those things live.
And the proficiency? Had they been proficient, when they wrote these things? Certainly, in a way. You seek and find the mastery you need, against your insufficiency just as the swimmer swims and leans against the water.
And yes, returning to the 1% that the ERC legitimately requires in exchange of money and privilege, I have an idea of how I pretend to justify the excellence of my books to come; certainly, not by any impact factors or visibility that might convince the people I leave behind. But the proficient books I have in mind do have something in common that distinguish them clearly enough from the remaining 99. They are fluid and elegantly written, and highly readable, that's sure. They present a synthesis implying a larger perspective of phenomena, times or rhythms, not just an analysis of a part without a whole. They bring about the material that is non-obvious in the time and space of their publication. They are well informed and based on genuine competence, yet engage a darkness. And the genuine in them truly communicates with a living force that makes their author the chosen one, the guardian, the preserver of things living beyond the mortality; there is passion in them.
In fact, I've been seeing various clusters of publications right now; I've spend all day in those musings. And as I see it's rather easy to find a 100 leaving the printing press without the one that might fulfil the criteria stated above.
There are further criteria as well, such as those of a foundational text, opening a new field, a new current of thought, that apply perhaps to one in a thousand. Yet I do believe it is possible to distinguish, to tell where the thing is and why it is truly good, better than tens and hundreds of apparently similar items.
In the meeting with my ERC adviser, I've asked if there is an official definition of what the excellence is, if they have it written somewhere in their documents (of course they have assessment criteria where they break such things down over 13 pages full of sub-clauses and charts; mostly out of scope in the humanities). It took me enormous time to construe it, perhaps years, comparing CVs, and books, and rankings, and distinctions of various kind. Yet possibly now I can claim I'm able to fathom what actually happens among people, publications and ideas in the top 5%. These 5% make an enormous vertical space, going from what is simply good to what is perennial. It starts just beyond the usual frontier of a decent achievement, like 5 reasonable and well informed books plus 150 or 160 papers in a lifetime of a scholar. It reaches the exceptional and the epoch-shaping, like the 40 books of Giorgio Agamben. I don't really mean the numbers for their own sake, but these things tend to grow exponentially. The more you have properly written, the easier it becomes to you to write even more properly. This is why the difference between the upper 2% and the upper 1% may signify a progress more significant than many a scholar's entire lifetime achievement.
Nonetheless you never find the books pre-ranked, even if people would prefer to rely on an indicator, such at least as the recognised editor or any specialised opinion accompanying them. Essentially you receive such things one by one, and they are quite normal-looking, small, often strange, or on the contrary, quite simply written and readable. Certainly, I failed to recognise them many times in the past, I'm sure, when I wasn't told in advance what they were. But mostly I kept them instinctively, without being told. For my multilingual library.