28 March 2008

Falling Into Oblivion without a Parachute

It ain't healthy to get too metacommentarial, but sometimes the zeitgeist blows such urges your way, and you neglect to duck. Or I do, at least. Thus, I have managed to get into some good conversations with a few different friends recently about our particular preferences when it comes to how we write and read book reviews, criticism, blog posts, etc. (out of laziness and a general aversion to taxonomy, I'm going to use the word "review" here to mean almost any commentary on books and other stuffs). Some of the conversations were sparked by thoughtful posts by Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen (e.g. here and here and here), some were sparked by reviews that annoyed one or both of us who were interlocuting (I know you and your friends just talk, but if you had the sorts of friends I have, you, too, would interlocute), and some were sparked by just saying to each other, "So what do you do when..." The ideas have caused me to keep thinking all week, and so I thought I would put some down here and see where they lead.

1. THE ARROGANCE OF WRITING ANYTHING FOR AN AUDIENCE
Larry's brave for having tackled the question of what a quality book review looks like, and I think it's a good exercise for anybody who writes about books to try now and then, but at this point it's not something that really interests me, because I've learned that my own ideas on the subject are mostly prejudices and are as full of exceptions as rules. I could, I suppose, lay out all the things I try to do when writing about books, movies, and tchotchkes, but I'd rather let the writing speak for itself. And anyway, who am I to offer pronouncements?

It takes a tremendous arrogance to write anything, and yet in most of the writers I know the necessary arrogance is tempered by a deep insecurity. For me, the insecurity wins as often as the arrogance does, and so there are as many days when I feel utterly mortified that I have ever put a sentence of my own in front of the world as there are days when I want somebody out there to pay attention to my sentences. Such feelings only grow more complex when it comes to reviewing -- what, after all, is more arrogant than spouting off in public about a book somebody has spent tremendous amounts of time and energy writing? (What's more arrogant? Asking somebody to spend hours of their life reading your book...)

There's tons of advice out there for neophyte writers, but the best advice I ever got when I was younger and more idealistic came from Calder Willingham, whose wife was head of the English department at my high school. Willingham was one of the few professional writers I encountered as a kid (the others were Jim Kelly and Lee Modesitt), and he got frustrated by my idealism. We mostly wrote letters back and forth to each other, disagreeing about movies and books quite vehemently, and some of his sentences burned their way into my brain, particularly these: "You say you have to write. Why? Who is holding a gun to your head?" Everybody else in my life had always praised the activity of writing as a wonderful and ennobling one, but Willingham knew better, knew that it could be nothing more than an extension of the ugliest egotism (he'd suffered insults from some of the most prominent writers of his generation, including Norman Mailer, who called him "a clown with the bite of a ferret ... [who] suffers from the misapprehension that he is a master mind"), and he knew that even when writing doesn't bring out the worst in people that it can consume an otherwise worthwhile life in an activity that, more often than not, leads to perpetual disappointment and the likelihood of almost all the effort disappearing into an abyss of silence.

(Here's my advice to neophyte writers: Memorize Hugo von Hoffmannstahl's "Lord Chandos Letter". And, for that matter, Chekhov's "The Bet".)

And yet we all keep writing stuff. I'm grateful for it all, too, and not the least for reviews and commentaries -- I love reading thoughtful writings about books, and often enjoy such things more than I enjoy reading the books being written about. To put it clinically, it fascinates me to see how people interact with texts. The nature and history of publishing interest me for similar reasons.


2. THE FIRST PERSON
People seem to have strong opinions about the place of first-person pronouns and personal anecdotes in reviews and criticism. This is an argument happening not just among editors and writers, but among teachers and students -- my high school students invariably have been told by their teachers before me that they must at all costs avoid first-person pronouns in their papers. I tell them not to worry about it, and instead to consider what is relevant or irrelevant for their purpose and audience. Remember Thoreau:
We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.
If I were teaching a class on reviewing, I'd share a review by Borges in which the great master writes more about himself than the book under review. Why can Borges get away with this? The easy answer is: Because he was a genius. The slightly less easy answer is: Because what he has to say is more interesting and illuminating than anything else he might say in the review, and it still tells us, in a sly way, about the book. Achieve that once in your career as a writer and you should be able to die happy.

Part of the reason so much first-person reviewing is annoying is because it doesn't establish that the writer's point of view is an interesting one, and so it just comes off as narcissistic. The narcissism of great writers is mitigated by their art; the narcissism of banal writers overwhelms any virtues.

It's all about what works. Writing is an attempt to communicate, sure, but it should also be an attempt to communicate in an interesting way. Functional writing might get the job done, but we seldom want to end there. An interesting point of view can be as powerful as an interesting style. Both can also be a distraction, particularly when the writer seemingly has little to say.

Judging whether a writer actually has something to say can be more difficult than it may appear. Academic writing in the humanities often gets criticized for saying very little in as obfuscatory a way possible. Much deserves the criticism, but I still grow suspicious whenever someone starts complaining about academics and jargon, partly because it's an old argument (see also some of the posts in The Valve's symposium on Theory's Empire), partly because it smacks of anti-intellectualism ("I can't understand this, therefore it must be BAD!"), and partly because it seems like a distraction from the real problem, which tends to be a a matter of purpose and audience. If your intention is to write for a general audience, then it's self-defeating to use a specialized vocabulary, and specialized vocabularies in the wrong context are as likely to seem smug and shallow as they are to convey any meaning. Exceptions require real skill -- I think Samuel Delany's nonfiction collections are successful more often than not at using a mix of specialized vocabularies for a general audience because essays and interviews collected in his books tend to be from a wide variety of publications, and the mix of original audiences for pieces that usually have some overlapping subject matter helps the reader make a transition from the more accessible pieces to the more difficult.

An "objective" tone is no more inherently good or bad than a "personal" tone. The more I read, the less patience I have for objective tones -- indeed, the more suspicious I am of them. Too often, the pose of objectivity is a disguise for shallow thought, because it's a rare statement that can be universally true. I may be an inveterate postmodernist, but you probably don't need to be as plagued by doubts as I am to realize that the truth of almost any statement we make is subjective and contingent -- it is a claim to truth at a particular time and from a particular perception.

The most annoying sort of "objective" writing (and it is hardly objective at all) is, for me, the sort that wants to claim great authority for sweeping statements. Oracular pronouncements belong in epic poetry; elsewhere they're usually pompous. Some people have built up their reputations by intoning their words as if those words contain some special glimpse of the Truth, but this is a performance of personality, not a way to advance an argument or contribute knowledge to the world. The writings of my own that I find most insufferable now are the ones in which I took what I've come to think of as the Old Man of Olympus position, a tone of certainty and universal truth. It's disingenous. It's why most manuals on "how to write" are drivel. It's why statements such as "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation" are useless. It's why I find people like Harlan Ellison occasionally entertaining, but more often obnoxious and certainly less worthwhile than more quiet, thoughtful, less certain, less combative personalities. Certainty is the province of fools. (He says with certainty.)


3. INTENTIONS AND AUTHORS
I keep seeing people say that a good book review judges how well a writer has achieved her or his intentions with the book. That seems to me to be more what a writing workshop should do -- there, you can ask the writer, "So what did you intend?" (Not that the writer always knows.) I'd rather read and write reviews that show what the book made the reviewer think about, because that's knowledge the reviewer can claim, whereas an author's intentions are generally both obvious and hidden -- obvious in the broadest sense ("I wanted to write a historical romance") and hidden in most other senses ("I hoped that by creating patterns of beautiful words I could resolve some of my feelings about poodles") -- and obvious things don't lead to interesting reviews, while hidden things are inaccessible. If the writer wanted to create an effect in the reader's mind -- and that's what writing does, after all -- then the reviewer will speak to that by presenting what it is the writing did in her or his mind, which is all a reviewer can truly speak to. I sometimes fall back on the fiction of saying a particular piece of writing does x, y, or z to "the reader", but I hope when I do so the fiction is obvious -- "the reader" is always and inescapably me.

I'm all for the death of The Author. (One of my favorite authors is Barthes, I must admit. Another is Foucault.) "The Intentional Fallacy" is an old idea, and one not without its critics. Reginald Shepherd says things much better than I could here, and the conversation in the comments shows how complex the subject can become. (And yes, for the moment I'm pretending most of those complexities don't exist. We have reached the section of the post in which my doubts threaten to consume me like a cute, furry creature in the mouth of a carnivore.)

For all practical purposes, for most readers a writer's name is simply a handy organizing principle, a way to group some texts together. A reviewer's name, then, is a sign attached to a document about a document that has another sign attached to it as a byline. Booby traps of delusion and deception await when we pretend otherwise. The age of the internet has resurrected The Author to some extent, because now we can read their blogs and make comments and sometimes, if we're brave, even email them, creating levels of intertextuality previously impossible (unimaginable!) ... but texts remain texts, not people.


3a. THE FIRST TRY
Here's what I said in an email to a friend, and I don't think I've much improved on it above: "The problem with most fiction, actually, is that the writer's intentions are all too clear (so, alas, they are mostly discernable), which is just no fun at all. I want more Brechts who intend to foment revolution and instead end up creating rich and nuanced characters and situations. The writer's intentions matter during the editing process, but once the book is out there, the book is what matters -- that's part of what you're arguing, but you're going about it in a way that is not logically sustainable, because it seems to assume either that we have knowledge of the author's mind while creating the text or that the writer matters more than the reader. A great review is not great because it shows us what the writer intended, but because it gives us a particularly compelling chronicle of the reader's experience of the text. That is why discussions of the writer and not what is written are irrelevant and annoying."

4. LOST ART
Ideally, we write everything with an equal determination to commit art. Practically, this seldom happens. It's more common for writers to dash off reviews and spend years writing one short story rather than vice versa. Perhaps that's how it should be. There is something suspiciously parasitic about reviews -- the image of the critic who is incapable of creating anything himself, but who nonetheless writes about what others have created. And yet isn't all writing parasitic, sucking blood and sustenance from traditions of language and culture? Borges imagined reviews of imaginary books, and Lem wrote books of them. More broadly, fictional nonfiction has many traditions -- I found the following passage from Carmen Boullosa's review of Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas exciting:
As Bolaño acknowledged in an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, published posthumously in 2005, Nazi Literature in the Americas "owes a lot to The Temple of Iconoclasts by Rodolfo Wilcock...and The Temple of Iconoclasts owes a lot to A Universal History of Infamy by Borges, which makes sense, since Wilcock was a friend and admirer of Borges. But Borges's book, A Universal History of Infamy, owes much to [a book by] one of Borges's great teachers, Alfonso Reyes, Retratos reales e imaginarios (Real and Imagined Portraits), which is a gem. And Reyes's book owes a lot to Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob, which is where this all began. These are the aunts and uncles, parents and godparents of my book." I would add one more relative: Novelas antes del tiempo (Novels Before Time), a volume by the delightful Spanish writer Rosa Chacel, which consists of notes for novels, all charmingly related, that the author thought about writing but never did.
If only our book reviewers were more creative, more playful and artful! Do any of us have the courage to be so? The risk of failure becomes so much greater -- the risk of looking like an idiot in public, which is the great risk in writing anything, but we minimize the risk by writing in safe, hand-me-down modes. To aspire to art means to open yourself to a far greater possibility of failure -- indeed, perhaps the failure is inevitable and unavoidable, and that's why everybody quotes Beckett. Perhaps more accurate than the "Fail better" quotation would be this:
Yes, there are moments, like this moment, when I seem almost restored to the feasible. Then it goes, all goes, and I'm far again, with a far story again, I wait for me afar for my story to begin, to end, and again this voice cannot be mine. That's where I'd go, if I could go, that's who I'd be, if I could be.

5. CODA
Virginia Woolf, from a diary entry, 18 November 1924:
What I was going to say was that I think writing must be formal. The art must be respected. This struck me reading some of my notes here, for if one lets the mind run loose it becomes egotistic; personal, which I detest. At the same time the irregular fire must be there; and perhaps to loose it one must begin by being chaotic, but not appear in public like that.

Anton Chekhov, from a letter to Alexey Suvorin, 30 May 1888 (translated by Rosamund Bartlett):
It's time for writers, especially writers of real artistic worth, to realize, just as Socrates in his time and Voltaire in his, that in fact nothing can be understood in this world. The crowd thinks it knows and understands everything; and the stupider it is, the broader the compass of its perceived horizons. But if writers whom the public trusts could only bring themselves to admit that they understand nothing of what they see, that would be a great advance in the realm of thought, a great step forward.

Dambudzo Marechera, from "The Black Insider":
"Since reading is an industry in its own right somebody somewhere is getting the profits. Publishers, critics, lecturers, second-hand booksellers and shoplifters. It's a complete study of how parasites and their hosts exist. At the same time there are all the rest of them breathing down the writer's neck telling him he must write in a certain way and not in another way; and there are those who think that because they have read what has been written have got a perfect right to say just about anything to the writer and he is supposed to take it calmly. Every man is a walking collection of aphorisms. The thing about a story lurking round every corner, and a novel resting uneasily inside every human skull. Nonsense. Apart from the initial spark of creativity in the best and worst parts of the first book, the writer's road is littered with crumpled contracts, bleeding symbols, and broken teeth, all in the wake of big business. The hidden persuaders are well dug in behind the ramparts and they know exactly how to stimulate that kind of phoneyness which a complacent reading public takes for its own good taste. At the same time you get the heels crunching down on your spine to make you think that objectivity is possible where such things as language rule. Roland Barthes has tried to blow up that balloon and quite successfully too, though they have, of course, an in-built eject-mechanism and he will probably find himself falling into oblivion without a parachute."

Liz, who was staring out the window, said noncommittally:

"Those paratroops are still coming down. Something big is going on over there."

3 comments:

  1. One of the things you learn pretty quickly about posting reviews online is that no matter what you write and how hard you try to make it good, someone will come along and tell you that what you have done is utter crap and should have been done completely differently. For some strange reason I find this a rather appropriate additional comment.

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  2. Excellent post, Matt. Re-read this a few times before deciding what to say, since you cover quite a few points that I wish I had addressed more clearly in my posts on the subject.

    Don't know if I was "brave" in writing those reviews, though, as I think in part I was just venting about some poorly-constructed and argued reviews from people who I believe can say quite a bit more than what they have dared to date. But your point about the arrogance/insecurity issue is one that I wrestle with on occasion, except to that mix I used to add questions of "Will my comments reach their intended audience, or am I spitting into the wind here?" Thankfully, I'm slowly recovering from that.

    As for Borges as reviewer, I have learned quite a bit reading his non-fiction collections of prologues, introductions, and literary criticisms written throughout his adult life. But some of the best comments of his I found were recorded by his friend and fellow author Adolfo Bioy Casares in the edited diary accounts called Borges. No idea when that 1600+ page monster will be translated into English (if it ever shall be), but I believe you would be interested in reading how Borges and Bioy Casares analyze writers over the course of a dinner conversation. Just a small aside that came to mind as I re-read that passage about Borges.

    And as for Cheryl's link, that last line alone was worth the price of admission! Could say the same thing about social work and education majors as well (having taken a few classes with both, there is so much truth to that observation)!

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  3. I'm glad you quoted Marechera in this terrific post. He ought to be better known. I hate what AIDS did to that generation.

    And when you talk about anti-intellectualism, to which I admit becoming increasingly prone, you leave out what often sneaks up and clobbers me: "I can't understand this, therefore it must be GOOD!"

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