. . . On Criticism

. . .

Simcoe, among other eminent weblogs, has pointed to one of those attacks on the fraudulence of Modern Art that crop up about as often as my gout. This one drags out dusty whipping-boy Mapplethorpe, but distinguishes itself by spending more time on the blandly corporate-friendly Gilbert-and-George, who apparently once managed to outrage someone. Probably the same guy who wanted to ban the Pet Shop Boys.

Yeah, so the art world of teachers, curators, critics, trust funders, and investors is absurdly indiscriminate. So journalist pundits aren't? We're given a choice of blindnesses -- are you philistine or are you gullible? -- that assume homogeneity among objects made and displayed by people and homogeneity among the people who look or prod at the objects.

As a gullible philistine, I apply the same pair of criteria to all art whether Ancient or Modern: Is it pretty? And is it funny?

Caravaggio and Botticelli and Pollock and Jess are in their different ways all very pretty and very funny. Piero della Francesca isn't exactly funny but he gives me a funny feeling, which is extra points. Duchamp is King of Comedy. Mapplethorpe is always pretty but only funny once in a while; I mostly think of him as a society portraitist, like Annie Leibovitz except prettier. "Piss Christ" was astonishingly pretty, which made up for the dopiness of the joke. On the other hand, the Koonses and Kellys remind me of those "Far Side" rip-offs in the paper: slick and inept at the same time. For sheer entertainment value, you're unlikely to find anything in the local art collections that'll compare to George Herriman. But that would've been at least as true 100, 200, or 300 years ago.

Art critics should explain why they think a particular piece of art is pretty or funny. Art teachers should explain how to make particular pieces of art prettier or funnier. Otherwise they're just being blowhards and they're well on the way to a successful career. And why all this fuss about the stuffed horse? I bet there are stuffed animals in plenty of English museums. Not to mention the House of Lords.

. . .

Chip Morningstar's Postmodern Adventure (via Cardhouse) is the best geeks-look-at-gobbledegook piece I've seen. But the peculiarities of the contemporary American academy have confused his take on the French origins of poststructuralist style: Derrida, for example, is a professional philosopher, not a critic; his work is interesting as philosophy (and, depending on one's taste, as literature), not as lit-crit. And Morningstar doesn't go far enough in his paralleling of the two communities. If I may demonstrate:

Academic Post-Structuralists Computer Programmers
Supposed Goal Improved understanding of artifacts Improved efficiency of tasks
Actual Goal Career in kinship group Career in kinship group
Problem-Solving Approach Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax Jargon-constricted language with unnatural syntax
Water-Muddying Foreign Disciplines of Record Philosophy, psychology Engineering, mathematics
Real Water-Muddiers Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity Obsessive-compulsive egocentricity
Destructive Kinship Rite Crossreferencing Long hours
Result of Kinship Rite Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work Smugness / paranoia about obviously unfinished work
Most Hilariously Unfulfilled Promise Social justice Ease of use

. . .

Modernist Class

You can tell by the jarring sound of "Zukofsky" in The Trouble With Genius : Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky that Bob Perelman is better read than most academics. He's also better to read: his observations are sensible and accurate.

But those being observed are "Modernist," and Perelman is "Postmodernist." And, apparently as a result, his tone is one of such versatile hostility that no book could escape censure. He holds the proselytizing rhetoric of critics against the writers' own works, and he's pissy about these four writers in particular 'cause they weren't able to meet the supposed "Modernist" ambition of perfect synthesis of every conceivable human goal. He provides a brilliant short introduction to the unique virtues of Ulysses and then claims that the lovely object he just described is proof of Joyce's ineptitude.

But it's not all that clear that such weirdly individualistic writers as Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky actually ascribed to the dopey ambitions Perelman posits, except inasmuch as any working writer has to deal with them: Sure, we got to try to do the best we can think of doing, right? And that can get pretty inflated before it gets punched down. And what we end up with is never quite what we thought we were doing, but sometimes it's still OK, and we can at least try to have a sense of humor about the yeasty smell.

After that performance, Perelman's sequel book, a collection of upbeat reviews mostly of his fellow Language Poets, is about as convincing as the happy ending the studio slapped onto Face/Off. Despite their own lunatic ambitions, Perelman's compeers don't piss him off the same way Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky did. Why? 'Cause they're "Postmodern" and so they're smart enough to undercut their own claims to textual mastery.

The trouble with that is that The Trouble with Genius spends most of its time showing how those stuck-up Modernists also undercut their own claims to textual mastery. I mean, out-of-control-ness is pretty much what you (and Perelman) notice in the second half of Ulysses or in almost anything by Stein or Zukofsky, and it's pretty fucking arrogant to claim that such a pleasurable (and obviously labored-over) effect is attributable to blind error with those guys any more than it is with Ron Silliman or Susan Howe -- or with Melville, Dickinson, Austen in Mansfield Park, the indomitable bad taste of Flaubert, or the wild line-to-line mood swings in Shakespeare, for crying out loud.

At the end of the book, Perelman says that blanket-statement theorists, snippy critics, and it-is-what-it-is poets are playing an unproductive game of paper-scissors-rock. Probably that's a fair assessment, at least when any of them are responding to professional challenges by the other players. But who except a rhetorically worked-up poet would say that a poem was a rock (let alone say that Ezra Pound was the Alps)? Who but an allegiance-drawing theorist would announce in print that any theorist was in any conclusive fermez-la-porte! sense correct?

What Perelman leaves out of his game and out of his book is the possibility of the reader. And publishing gets to be a pretty sad affair without an occasional appearance by that self-satisfied little cluck.

. . .

A Small Circle of Jerks

It's not always that critics are mean people. Sometimes we just tend to feel a little shy around what we love. Unfortunately that means we tend to be more expressive around what we have contempt for.

From schoolyard and classroom to bar and coffee-shop, American rhetoric is honed for debate and attack, for winning arguments and shooting off wisecracks. We don't receive the same level of training in the rhetoric of affection. And so even the most articulate of us can often only manage a fast embarrassed hug before dashing out the door. When what we should really be supplying is good solid Joy of Sex-type research....

. . .

Irony Watch

Chris Ware - art = Dave Eggers ?
'Cause I remember that comic Eggers did for the SF Weekly, and -- hoo boy, he sure ain't Chris Ware!

Among other equations derivable from San-Francisco-to-New-York transformation functions (well, more like Berkeley-to-Brooklyn, but you'd hardly expect a bohemian spokesperson nowadays to admit to being from Berkeley, would you?), we find that old favorite:

Snob + hypocrisy = Times rock critic

. . .

at the center...
"At the center, there is a perilous act, which is of the nature of thought itself." -- Robin Blaser
There's something that's always made me feel sick at writers conferences and exclusive parties and awards and academic intros -- and probably would at trade shows too if I gave a shit about my trade -- something about missing the point with so much fervor, and all of us participants cheering the process on....

Thus this Word of the Day is dedicated to the genuinely welcome return of Metascene:


derives from hypokrisis, "playact"...

which derives from hypokri, "explain"

The biggest problem with this roving critic shtick is the encouragement to play the smart guy. When what I like -- what I'm looking for when I find the stuff I like to write about -- is to not feel so smart: to be taken by surprise, to be changed.... That's why I hate teaching: no matter how self-deprecating you play it, you're still the guy in front of the class and therefore you're still the smart guy. Best you can do in those circumstances is keep the classes small and take lots of time off.

You may be sharp enough to play pure naif gorgeously, but only by losing the flexibility to say anything outside the role you've chosen. A role no closer to the naif-playactor than the smart-guy role is to me.

That's what's interesting about Metascene: a naif voice risking complicated subjects. Like any voice, it has constrictions which must be painful at times. (Thus the sabbatical?) But as constrictions go, I dig 'em.

If Metascene was speaking as a critic, I'd have to argue with him when he insists he's a bad writer. Instead he's trying to convey a mood, and the mood is perfectly expressed by his insistence....

... there is a perilous act

. . .

Condensed Time Since movies began, they've been swapping techniques with dreams. I think that's because they share a structural problem: how to maintain different rates for elapsed time and for narrative time -- expressing years in an hour, an hour in minutes -- in a medium where the narrative is directly experienced rather than related.

Rather than come to grips with this problem, the filmmakers of contemporary Hollywood tend to simply give up, appending more and more running time to avoid the question of condensation, and saddling clumsy voice-over narration onto the broken back of the "direct experience":

Hi-ho, Sliver! and away!
In another way, all narrative art, including written narrative, condenses time: creator time vanishes into the much shorter audience time. A novel may take a month or fifteen years to write, but almost always takes less time to read.

And with movies the time compression is even more extreme, especially if we start talking about people-hours....

Now, although there's always the possibility that I'm falling into the food-in-a-tube fallacy, it seems to me that this compression -- story as time-compactor machine -- is key to the pleasure taken in the curiously strong arts of narrative. As evidence, when there's little or no such compression -- as with the semi-automatic writing of Gertrude Stein or Lionel Fanthorpe, or the semi-automatic early moviemaking of Andy Warhol -- the results, fine though they are, seem more lyric than narrative.

We must think further on this, if we can do so without falling asleep....

Although a narrative work's creation takes more time than any single incident of its consumption, a certain type of audience (mine) may revisit it so often that audience-time eventually sums up bigger than creator-time. I know for certain that I've accumulated more days reading The Glass Key than Dashiell Hammett took to write it.

My type of audience includes most of the critics in the world, and we aren't shy about flattering ourselves (e.g., Barthes's "Those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere," undoubtedly referring to Joseph Campbell). But there's something distinctly unelevated about surrounding ourselves with these papered and videoed units of time, like so many Everlasting Gobstoppers, and I don't believe we escape the market through our repetitions any more than a kid with The Lion King T-shirts, action figures, picture books, and computer games fights the power by insisting on watching the original work again.

Instead our re-reading and re-viewing gives us the chance to treat time itself as a commodity -- something to collect, to hoard, to revel in -- becoming misers of time, diving and wallowing in our libraries for all the world like Scrooge McDuck....

Scrooge McDuck

. . .

(Continuing with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "that gentle degradation requisite in order to produce the effect of a whole"....)

Legs The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Married Woman

One of the nice things about works of art, and vacations and drugs, is that they give us delimited events to point to and say, "This -- this was the turning point. This was where my life changed," as opposed to the usual waking up to find yourself in a strange bedroom thousands of miles away with a resculpted nose and no left leg and the phone off the hook and the cops hammering on the door.

For example, I used to be pretty normal about movies. I liked them and so forth. I'd say things like "Wanna see a movie?" and then later on say things like "That was pretty good."

Then, twenty-three years ago, I went to the Temple University Cinematheque (which I guess is closed down now) and saw Jean-Luc Godard's movie from thirteen years earlier, The Married Woman. And by the time it was over, I had turned into me.

An essential aspect of turning into someone is that other people don't simultaneously turn into the same person. Even while I sat there head ringing and sparkle-eyed, comments like "Did you get that?" and "Weird!" began to worm their way through my protective daze. On my shamble out, I stopped to thank the wizened Anglophile who ran the place. "I hate Godard myself," he said, "but someone has to show him."

Yeah. Nowadays I'm just embarrassed when I see those 1960s Godard movies, but I wouldn't blame the old guy for that any more than I would blame my mom for how embarrassing it is to think about toilet training. The only one I enjoy all the way through is his comedy noir, Bande à part, which reminds me of the Coen Bros., who, like Godard, seem to have been raised in some sort of white plastic box from which they take random stabs at what real life might be like -- there's a very thin crust of experience sagging under the weight of all these violent gesticulations, a bouncing on the plywood mood that seems to work best with dimwit comedy. Of Godard's work from the 1970s, I like the TV interviews with "real people" where he sounds like Charles Kuralt from Mars; from the 1980s and 1990s, his crazy old coot self-typecasting in Prénom Carmen. The only serious Godard moments that still work are the ones where he finds himself back in that white plastic box trying to figure out why everyone looks at him funny: for example, staring into a coffee cup while taking a break from trying to show off those supposed Two or Three Things I Know About Her that, nowadays, it seems obvious to me that he never knew at all.

How to Strip Not that anyone called him on it. There's no safer way for an uncool nerd to show off than by bragging about his up close and personal knowledge of women (or, safer yet, "Woman"). All those nouvelle vague guys leaned on that tactic big time; Godard, being Godard, just did so most explicitly. (As French censors realized, the title's "The" is an important part of The Married Woman's ambition.)

And, to Godard's credit as a forever uncool nerd, he was the only one of the nouvelle vague guys to try to engage equally explicitly with feminism. Unfortunately, he's also forever unable to approach female characters without interposing the clearest (and most brain-dead) demonstration of "inside knowledge": nude photography.

At the time, of course, I was more than willing to fall for such demonstrations; as an eighteen-year-old sex-crazed uncool nerd, they seemed like a darn fine idea.

And at the time, all such considerations seemed completely unrelated to what was most important about the experience, which, the next day, I inadequately described as the realization that "movies can do anything."

At the present time, my inadequate description would be that "movies can combine the discursive and the narrative."

I don't feel as comfortable with either account as I feel with explaining why they differ: It's natural for the individual who's gone through an ecstatic revelation to assume that there must be some relevance to the individual's life.

What's changed in my life is what seems relevant.

Twenty-three years ago, I probably thought of myself as someone who "could do anything," so that's how I was predisposed to understand the experience. Right now, I think of myself as someone who has to drag the discursive into every experience, so I think that the movie just happened to strike a natural-born critic.

You see, even though I promised a couple paragraphs back that I wouldn't bring blame into it, I couldn't just leave the question alone; I felt like I had to try to figure out what happened. For us natural-born critics, it's not enough to say, "My taste changed," or "Can you believe we used to like that stuff?" When we like something, it's a public statement, like pledging our troth.

Not that marriages really do last till the death-do-us part. What marriage means is that, having made a public statement of allegiance, you have to make some correspondingly public statement of divorce.

And then you get to make jokes about your ex for the rest of your life.

. . .

Doug Asherman queries: "Here's something probably no one cares about, there a conspiracy to hide all the good music from us? And the good books? Are people in the arts laughing at us for buying their crap? And if so, what can we do about it?"


Disclaimer: Ray Davis is a paid contributor to The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.
Despite my familiarity with Salon, I was surprised by the Reader's Guide. It's like stooping to pick up what looks like an ordinary mediocre valise only to find that it's been packed full of mediocre lead bricks. According to the official mission statement, "We decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides." These guides would seem to share one enthusiasm (the New York Times Book Review), one curiosity (what's on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?), and one path (to the trade paperback table at Borders).

I'm hardly a specialist in late-twentieth-century fiction, but if I'd wanted to provide a service to readers I would've found room for Joanna Russ, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, Carol Emshwiller, Jack Womack, Bob Gluck, Barbara Comyns, Thomas Disch, Alexander Trocchi, Wendy Walker, M. John Harrison, Pat Califia, John Crowley, would've asked someone to tell me more about Patrick O'Brian and Dorothy Dunnett....

In fact the book includes only two authors that really matter to me: Karen Joy Fowler (given a short entry) and Samuel R. Delany (a short entry). Broadening my selection to writers I merely respect would add Elmore Leonard (a short entry) and Toni Morrison (a long entry, because she publishes in the mainstream genre) to the overlap.

And it's not because I haven't heard of the book's choices, which are beautifully (if unintentionally) parodied by John Updike's inset guide to "Timeless Novels about Loving," apparently repurposed from TV Guide:
"Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - A young bourgeois wife seeks spiritual and sexual fulfillment away from the marital bed and runs grievously into debt."

"The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - Among the Puritan pioneers of Boston, a promising clergyman falls afoul of a dark-haired protofeminist and her wizardly older husband."

Yeah, my list is idiosyncratic. An idiosyncratic list is what you'd expect to get from a serious pleasure reader. Whereas the Guide is what you'd expect to get from a serious follower of publicity.

The depersonalized author selection ensembles beautifully with the reviewers' khaki prose. Dumbed down for ease of swallowing, it's the house style of virtually every free weekly paper: "authority" and "irreverence" and "wittiness" depilated of information or personality or humor. Journalistic blatherers used to flatter their readership by pretending it was full of good taste and morality while somehow simultaneously dumb as a stump. Nowadays the readership's still dumb as a stump yet somehow full of detached ironic wit.

Thus it makes sense that the only writer given full stylistic rein is "Pagliacci Dave" Eggers, who ends his celebrity roast of Kurt Vonnegut:

"So. Vonnegut is good. If you like books, and like to read them even if they are easy to read and frequently funny, you will like the work of Kurt Vonnegut, a writer. Also: He has a moustache."
Robert Benchley, move over! ... Or roll over. Do something, man! ... Guess he's dead.
Even John Clute, one of the most eccentric stylists ever to write a review, is sanded down to transparency here. Which is extra sad, since his argument against the tyranny of the "mainstream literary" genre lances so precisely the core of this book. Restricting yourself to mainstream fiction in the late twentieth century is like restricting yourself to heroic tragedy after 1650. The mainstream's just not where good writing is being done. Unless you crave watery flavorless writing.
How did this awful thing happen? One clue may be found in the opening of the entry for Angela Carter:
"Carter enjoyed little renown during her life, but after her death...."
"Little renown"? Say what? Angela Carter? The only way I can make sense of this is to translate it as "I wasn't assigned Carter in high school and I didn't read the New York Review of Books back then, but after I graduated...." An editor should've caught the gaffe, but since an editor wrote it, it was probably immune.
Someone on the staff did make time, though, to reduce my already undistinguished sentence:
"An early devotee of poststructuralist and feminist theory, Delany in 1979 began Return to Nevèrÿon, an archeological fantasy series that was to occupy him on and off through the 1980s."
to complete nonsense by deleting "in 1979." Maybe someone in the publishing business could clear this up for me: Are copyeditors paid more for adding lots of mistakes to a manuscript, like programmers whose productivity is measured by lines-of-code? Or do they fuck things up out of sheer gotta-leave-my-mark egotism, like programmers who work nights and weekends?
Another clue: from what I can gather, my topic was originally assigned to a friend of the editors who decided only when the deadline was nigh that it was too hard to finish the research. These aren't enthusiasts trying to communicate their enthusiams: they're a clique trying to act like grown-ups.

From the mission statement:
"We encouraged our contributors to think of you, the reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked, 'So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?'"
I find it unlikely that your auntie would be asking you such a thing unless she was checking how well you'd learned your lessons.
What we got here is not just smugness, but downright noisy celebration of shared limited knowledge. It's like that guy in the museum painstakingly explaining every perfectly obvious thing to his wife. It's like my geeky friends parroting TV shows. It's what they teach you to do in school. And it's what makes a successful journalism career. critics are they who seek to enjoy, without incurring the Immense Debtorship for, a thought thunk.

See Also: Anyone who enjoys this crap should probably seek out the opinions of more journalists. Those intrigued by my crackpot theories can find them expressed more calmly in a 1998 response to Jonathan Lethem.

Ray Davis will be appearing with other contributors to The Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Thursday, September 14, 7:30pm.

. . .

"a specialized shop, department of a store, etc., usu. catering to fashionable clients"

On Best Behavior Pamphleteer Juliet Clark writes:

Re the Guide to Feeling Hip Because You've Heard of John Updike:

I'd like to point out that Eggers misspelled "aficionado," and the copyeditor didn't catch it.

I think your copyediting/programming analogy is apt in a lot of ways. In fact the whole Salon Guide reminds me to a painful degree of startup culture: young people who won't be young much longer demanding to be taken seriously for not being serious; seeking the Big Time while clinging to a fantasy of countercultural identity; using strained irony, self-created urgency, and an excess of spin to mask a fundamental laziness.

All I can suggest is that you sell your author copy and use the money to buy a good book. Wouldn't that be, like, "ironic"?

And David Auerbach weighs in more fatalistically:
I do think that the Salon guide fills a void. We currently have no one to tell us which of the many, many idiomatically similar novels are the real thing and which are the product of overheated middle-class ramblings. The academics can't be bothered with it, since they're too busy keeping their own little flame alive. People like Lewis Lapham hate it all, and people like Michiko Kakutani are either indiscriminate (if you agree with them more often than not) or too harsh (vice versa), and they lack consensus-building skills. The remainder of the book-reviewing populace don't have enough credibility to be reliable. So I think contemporary mainstream book reviews, if there's a strong enough drive to hold people's interest, will go the way of movie reviews and devolve into capsule reviews, top ten lists, and "personality-based" reviewers. I don't think I can blame anyone for this process; it just happens when the collective standards of the producers and the consumers are low enough that the work being produced becomes undifferentiated.

Consequently, tho, Carol Emshwiller will certainly be ignored, and even someone like Disch, who has needed to work his material into ostensible potboilers for the last 20 years. There is a need for something of a unified conception, and Carol Emshwiller may as well be Les Blank for all they care. (Which might make Michael Brodsky Kenneth Anger.) There definitely is a "celebration of shared limited knowledge", but who were the Salon editors to deny those who looked towards them for guidance?

Oh, I don't really blame the Salon editors; I imagine it's pretty hard to resist the temptation to milk the cash cow when it's looking up at you with those big brown eyes. I just wish I hadn't seen the result. And I probably wouldn't have if the usual uncentrifugeable muddle of curiosity, vanity, and sense of responsibility hadn't talked me into becoming a contributor.... Being a critic, of course, although I blame myself, I attack them.

If Auerbach's right about the editors' ambitions, the match was doomed a priori, since I'm even less of a consensus-builder than Michiko Kakutani. (Case in point: For the last twenty years every single time I've tried to read the NYTBR I've ended up throwing it across the room, and so I didn't even recognize her name.) When it comes to art, I don't see that consensus is necessary, or even desirable. That's probably what attracts me to the subject: I wouldn't be so exclusively an aesthete if I were a more enthusiastic politician.

One clarification / pettifoggery as regards "personality-based" reviewing: It's true that I believe a critic can only speak as an individual, and that criticism is most useful when individual works receive close attention as individual works. That means that I consider generalities issued from a presumed position of consensus to be bad criticism. It doesn't mean that I consider class-clown-ism a guarantee of good criticism. In my tantrum I emphasized voice because voice was being emphasized by the book's publicity and reviews, but what really set me off was the 400-page-long lack of new insight into individual works: a generic free-weekly voice was just the means to that dead end.

In my own practice I use an overtly performative voice only because I have to. When I attempt a detached tone, I become too stumble-footedly self-conscious to move; when I do the jutht a darn-fool duck shtick, life seems better. That's a personality flaw, not a deliberate choice. Behind the Dionysian mask, I'm ogling those Apollonians plenty: I empathize with Jean-Luc Godard's film criticism but I'm in awe of Eric Rohmer's; Lester Bangs is a role model but I'd be so much more uncomplicatedly proud of something like Stephen Ratcliffe's Campion; my favorite Joycean is eyes-on-the-page Fritz Senn; my favorite historian is no-see-um Henry Adams; I loathe the bluster of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia....

What matters is whether you communicate anything of what you see. If you don't have to keep twitching and waving and yelling "Hi, Mom!" while you do it, all the better.

. . .

Talking to yourself in a public place (prompts via NQPAOFU and Alamut and David Auerbach)

Insider Art is art produced to fit the particular marketplace in which it's exhibited. Outsider Art fetishizes the disconnect between the artist's assumed goals and the audience's assumed attitude.

Of course, most inedible artifacts have at least some chance of outliving or being shipped outside their original context. Which is to say that, just like all writing eventually becomes readable as Literature, all art eventually becomes viewable as Outsider Art. But that's in the long run, which is notoriously hard to plan for.

In the short run of our lives as producers and consumers, what we'd like -- what we turn to these models of artmaking for -- are rules that will guarantee success and relief. Unfortunately, neither model guarantees anything but occasional outbursts of wistfulness or petulance: industry pressure usually leads to disappointing results and, in contrast, purely personal initiative almost always leads to disappointing results. Back-and-forth-ing between "insular self-absorption" and "meeting expectations" is what most artists seem to compromise on, but, as critic Nora Charles concluded in her exhaustive genre investigation, "it's all pretty unsatisfactory."

For completely other reasons, a correspondent directed me this morning to the critical work of Gerald Burns, but, coincidentally, the only online piece I can find by him is this truly horrid poem addressed to his old Harvard classmate the Unabomber:

Just yesterday a young maybe gifted writer said he'd write a poem
about Nabisco executive offers, sock it to 'em. I told him Socrates said
a cobbler has two jobs, making shoes and persuading people to buy them.
"Writing is the easy part." Buried in a mimeo'd magazing isn't an action,
and told him at least you had distribution. He liked the wit of that.

. . .
Why'd you do it isn't interesting. I know why you did,
pretty much. It's much the reason I write poems in sections.
Paleface Potter

So why I don't want to persuade people to buy my shoes must be much the reason I don't send letter bombs...? Insular self-absorption looks better all the time.

. . .

Movie Comment: Ghost World

"The reason why so many critics like Elvis Costello so much is because they all look like Elvis Costello." -- David Lee Roth interviewed by Dave DiMartino, Creem, 1980

. . .

I don't like Pauline Kael's writing, and I didn't like her influence on movie criticism. And it's not like my opinion would have bothered her or interefered with her influence, but now I feel like I was being a little unfair, albeit cheating in a different game. Who would've been allowed to become a major American movie critic in the 1960s and 1970s except someone capable of creaming over Bertolucci? Is the virus to blame for the filter that lets it through?

After all, Manny Farber, the only American movie critic (that I've read) who's approached the level of the best French movie critics or the best American music critics, all the way back in 1966 was already smickety-smacketing his painfully sensitive skull against the terminal decline of the Hollywood studio system:

In a situation where what counts is opulence and prestige -- a gross in the millions, winner of the Critics' Award, Best Actor at a film festival -- the actor has to be fitted into a production whose elements have all been assembled, controlled, related, like so many notes in a symphony....While today's actor is the only thing in the film that is identifiably real, his [sic] responses are exploited in a peculiar way. His [sic] gaucheries and half-hitches and miscalculations are never allowed their own momentum but are used self-consciously to make a point.... The idea of movement per se has also lost its attraction to moviemakers. The actor now enters a scene not as a person, but like a Macy's Thanksgiving balloon, a gaudy exhibitionistic fact. Most of those appurtenances that could provide him with some means of animation have been glazed over. The direct use of his [sic] face as an extension of the performance has become a technique for hardening and flattening; and the more elliptical use of his [sic] face, for showing intermediate states or refining or attenuating a scene, has vanished, become extinct. In fact, the actor's face has been completely incapicitated; teeth -- once taken for granted -- or an eyeball, or a hairdo, have all become key operators. They front the screen like balustrades, the now disinherited face behind.
(Live with the [sic]s, please; Farber's talking about Jean Arthur and Faye Dunaway at least as much as he's talking about Gary Cooper and Warren Beatty.)

So what was Farber supposed to do? Hold out, violently ill, for the all-too-passing pleasures of '80s horror and Bill Murray and the Hong Kong boom? And then be faced with the final blockbust of the '90s and 'oughts? No, better for Kael to stuff her timely craw till even it could take no more....

. . .

Movie comments

Some writers like to write about food, or about sexual experiences, or about how tough they are or how sorry we should feel for them (usually in combination), or they try to make a person's life into a narrative. Critics are writers who like to write about artifacts. And that's about all there is to criticism.

You'll note that the job description doesn't explicitly require an attitude of jealous spite or a habit of sneering. Sure, reviewers, like students, can permanently lose their appetites due to force-feeding, but burn-out is possible in any genre. And sure, the dialog-from-a-distance nature of such encounters overly encourages l'esprit de l'escalier. And of course some combinations of personality-and-artifact (e.g., morose loner meets rock band) are more optimized for envy than others...

Well, OK, I guess critics are messed up.

But my point was that, in fact, plenty of critics prefer enthusiasm to contempt: enthusiasm is what revved up their motor-mouths in the first place. Paying-and-drawing attention to what one loves seems like the best deal all round, and that's certainly the writing I'm proudest of.

Critics are no stabler than anyone else, though. And just like the artists themselves, even if it is special nice to be like all life-affirming and shit, sometimes we're too depressed to handle the job. When you're feeling awkward, a kneejerk seems much more manageable than an interpretive dance. Thus:

In the Bedroom

I was hoping that the title referred to the fortune cookie game, but the first disappointment of the movie was its lickety-split explication as Symbol: "For all you Academy voters in the audience, this means your wife is like a big bug."

Watching this passive-aggressive argument for crush-'em-before-they-crush-us vigilante class warfare, it's hard to believe that the comparatively well-balanced Dirty Harry was once decried as fascist. But all movies occur twice (not counting sequels): first as genre trash, then as Oscar fodder.

In correspondence, David Auerbach, as always taking the high road, hopes it's a phase we're going through:

"In the Bedroom" was fairly anemic, "subtle" because it uses clicheed psychological signifiers without any direct reference to them, "moving" because it takes the shorthand of expecting the audience to settle on the obvious feelings rather than broadcasting them, "profound" because it has a young man's death in it. My optimistic stance is that Americans may be getting to the point where the signifiers are so codified that they become treatable as objects to critique rather than hash over for the umpteenth time. On the other hand, if Jon Jost is heralded as "the Ernie Kovacs of modern drama!" (Sure, his stuff didn't always "work", but...) twenty years from now, I guess it won't have played out so well...
If you want to see Sissy Spacek switch from nice to nasty in a pretentious film, I recommend 3 Women, which has many more laughs, having much more Shelley Duvall.
Gosford Park

Speaking of Altman and Oscar-grasping, you'd think that his high old web-of-caricatures approach would work wonders on this Upstairs-Downstairs material, and I'm still inclined to blame the specifics of his script more than the general notion. The only specifics that work, though, are closer to Beyond the Fringe than to Merchant-Ivory, and they aren't allowed much time. As for the remainder, the gasps of surprise we heard at the ending's "revelations" (Cecilia, or the Coachman's Daughter) could only be explained by bad sound engineering in the earlier part of the film.

And The Rules of the Game has been around for 63 years now. Isn't it about time everyone realized that they're not going to improve on its hunting party scene?

But I will say, with admiration, that Clive Owen is one hunky English guy.

Monster's Ball

Another misleading title (I was expecting Fuzzy Lumpkin maybe -- to be fair, it does have the most embarrassing Hollywood sex I've seen in a couple of years). And another Sundance-ruined genre: Prison movies nowadays are all about redemption, and sure enough, Billy Bob Thornton starts off like Spalding Gray trying to act macho, and ends up like Spalding Gray trying to act sensitive. [Digression: For years now, I've suffered false memories of a movie preview where Billy Bob Thornton intoned, "This is a pungent story...."]

And what a redemption! It turns out that the solution to American racism is for the middle-aged white men to 1) kill the young black men, 2) kill their male children, 3) kill the young white men, 4) put the old white men away, and 5) fuck the supermodels. Shit, we're halfway to Utopia already!

In short, the civil rights equivalent of American Beauty.

. . .

"Go on, our glory, go; know better fates."

The last time I saw Marc Laidlaw was when he worked at the law office and I worked at -- jeez, was it Aeneid? ("It's the name of a Greek god," explained the publicist in the neighboring cubicle.) No, it was earlier, because it was around the same time he said, "weird writers form mutual admiration societies in which we can sit around and admire each other's handicaps." During that lunch, though, Laidlaw seemed more interested in the games company he'd covered for Wired and the game he was novelizing.

Yesterday, I caught up with what he's been doing for the past five years:

He spotted a promising path and took it.

Which just sounds like good sense, or a chapter from Everything I Need to Know I Learned in First-Person Shooters. But good sense is a rare thing and few its acolytes.

Q: Do you miss your days as a novelist?
I don't miss the lifestyle that accompanied being a novelist, which can be described as: Work all day as a bored and frustrated administrative assistant or word processor or legal secretary, then come home and try to summon some creativity with the last dregs of my energy, late at night. I miss writing novels, and I'm planning to do more of them. But I think I'd rather be happy all day and not write novels than suffer all day and hope I can funnel my misery into a book.

An art form alive enough to make a living at, rather than one reliant on the sacrifices and squabbles of role-playing volunteers; too new, wet, squirming, and squalling to attract serious critical notice.... Aside from any practical considerations, such a path must hold a special glow for any historian of comics, or pop music, or movies, or pulp genres, such as fiction.

Myself, I'm too much a natural-born critic to join him on it -- as I've had frequent occasion to admit, we only join a party after it ends -- but I'm enough of a historian to appreciate the glow. And I'm heartened by what Laidlaw wants to bring over from his last art form: "mood, character, dramatic rhythm and pacing"; -- and by what he doesn't: "For me, the game design process is already granular enough. I don't want to make plot one of those elements."

'Cause it's not like narrative is a precious waif to be coddled on its sickbed: narrative is something we can't escape. And whenever I've been promised ambitious storytelling in hypertext or interactive multimedia or dynamic websites, whether by a heartwarming NPRish family chronicler or by a pin-cushioned anorexic art-school outlaw, it's always been something cohered only by triteness, like some self-congratulatory version of Stars on 45.

One of the reasons I moved into game design was because I wanted some new tools to play with, and new problems to think about. Sometimes the tools are useful for telling stories; sometimes they're useful for building traps or puzzles or exciting combat sequences. When I can figure out how to do all those things at the same time, it's most gratifying.

I am actually wary of games that promise a compelling story. I figure it's a warning that I might have to look even harder for the fun.

Although two or three years old, this is the cheeriest news I've heard about anyone for a while, so I thought I'd pass it along.

. . .

The enemy of my friend is confused; the friend of my enemy is instructive

I write to work out problems, and the stories of Karen Joy Fowler rarely leave me anything to say except "Read this."

Attacks on the stories of Karen Joy Fowler are a different matter. Richard Butner recently referred me to an appetizingly al dente specimen authored by Dave Truesdale and inexplicably incited by "What I Didn't See." (Not that the story doesn't push buttons; it's just not clear how it pressed these.)

To me, what makes Fowler's work mainstreamish is not (just) her emphasis on character, but her story structure. I would love a story in which I get to sit there and read about a richly developed character going through a significant change (or many changes). That is what I expect from an author -- to be shown such an evolution of a character on the page which I get to observe. Giving me that opportunity to observe is fair exchange for my investment in reading time, and for the money I may have spent buying the publication or subscribing to the website, etc.

But Fowler doesn't give us characters that change. Her characters are who they are. What changes is our perspective on them. She gives us information and, over the course of the narrative, we see the charactres differently. The change is in _us_. We're not observers; we're participants. That's what is mainstreamish about it.

I don't care for this technique. It makes me feel manipulated. It makes me feel lectured at. ("See those people? _This_ is how you should feel about them!") I want to be given access to a world, not be tricked into doing the labor that I expected the author to do.

Making the change happen in the reader, rather than "on the page," obviously causes some people to be impressed. They tout the virtues of the writers who do it. Fair enough. You're entitled to your opinion. But do all of you see how what's being served up is, to use my metaphor of a few days ago, a meatless entre which may please the vegetarians, but is of no appeal to a carnivore? There is simply no way talespinning of this -- call it "mainstreamish" -- type has a chance to favorably impress me, because it's not living up to my basic expectations of what a story is _for_.

This is absurd on the face of it down past the hypodermis, but there's something about it that interested me.

Face first:

  1. There's no genre activity less productive than defining the genre. No, not even masquerade contests. And when play cartographers start policing their delusionary border, they're promoted from nuisance to the rank of actively destructive parasite. Determining the worthiness of an individual work on the basis of its typicality is like choosing friends based on how closely they match the traits on a eugenicist's chart.

  2. Truesdale's fervor seems particularly misplaced here, since "What I Didn't See" is clearly science fiction: Where else could the Bride-of-the-Gorilla theme be treated seriously and realistically?

    Intragenre call-and-responsiveness also anchors Fowler's story. Its title points to James Tiptree Jr.'s "The Women Men Don't See," its setting and voice point to Alice Sheldon, and its acerbic mix of escapist eco-fantasy and repressive violence points to effects characteristic of both Tiptree and Racoona Sheldon, while the focus on those left behind is pure Fowler.

    A story, like it or not, which could only exist inside a genre and which has been published in the genre is pretty securely part of the genre.

  3. The supposed specifics of Truesdale's discomfort make no more sense, since the episode described by the story was a pivotal experience for the protagonist and her husband, pivoting the latter right into his grave. The characters change significantly, all right. They're just not necessarily happy about the change.

  4. The reader modification that Truesdale purportedly wishes to chase away is instead a long-time distinguishing trait of science fiction. What's "sense of wonder" if not a change in perception and what's "world building" but a way to accomplish that without character development? What romance authors have become successful cult leaders? How many libertarians were birthed by Mencken and how many by Heinlein? Is the New Yorker as responsible for Westchester as Astounding is for NASA?

  5. And if allowing the reader's understanding of characters to grow more complex over time counts as being "lectured at" and "told what to feel," what coercive terms are strong enough for writing that tells you exactly what attitude to take toward every character from the beginning (or even before)?

  6. No, what bothers Truesdale isn't lack of incident, or lack of change in the characters, or being bullied by assumptions about the characters, or even reader modification, but lack of expectedness. The revelations gained by Fowler's characters aren't the ones that intrepidly well-meaning white explorers are supposed to end up with. And it's not just a matter of pessimism: a Harlan Ellison story might climax in far splashier violence and much louder breast-beating without tripping up readerly expectations in the least.

    This question of fulfilled expectation has helped bisect the bookish world before, into "readerly work" and "writerly work," "passive recipients" and "active recipients," "text de plaisir" and "text de jouissance," "easy" and "challenging,""childish" and "mature," "novelized" and "novel." But it would be absurd to claim that the line divides "mainstream" from "science fiction" when both types of reader and both types of writer are also found, to their mutual irritation, in mysteries, thrillers, horror, porn, romance, and every brow level of mundane fiction.

    He has confused the genre and the generic.

  7. Given the nature of Truesdale's indigestion, a better analogy than "vegetarian meal for a carnivore" would be "offputtingly exotic meal in place of comfort food." Or, if we take the insulted host's point of view, "preparing gaeng kiao wan ped from scratch for someone who refuses to eat anything but popcorn shrimp."
What interested me:
  1. Like Fowler, "I like stories that only fall into place when you've read them." Obviously, you can't experience crystallization unless you've kept expectations in suspension. When I'm enjoying what I enjoy, I'm not thinking about how moral and intelligent and shit I'm being; "writerly," "active," "challenging," and "novel" are just the labels for what I need to stay entertained instead of bored and disgusted.

    But you may have noticed a hierarchy behind those dichotomies. As usual, academics and critics haven't been shy about exaggerating the importance of their trades' minor differences, and Truesdale's preferred mode of consumption has been blamed for such ills as global capitalism, the formation of subject-identity, and compulsory heterosexuality.

    Villainous though that makes him, I can't suppress a sense of fellowship with anyone who complains about feeling manipulated. After all, when not stunned by tedium, my reaction to "readerly" texts ranging from Steven Spielberg and Mike Resnick to Mark Amerika and Robert Hass has been a straight-from-the-gut "Get your filthy hands offa me afore I call a cop."

    A sleepy dog and a fidgety cat have different notions of fun and of irritation, and the switch between pleasurable "play" and aversive "manipulation" isn't always clearly marked. As Truesdale correctly insinuates, what I enjoy is also manipulation -- it's manipulation that provides the illusion of interaction rather than the illusion of being catered to, but it's manipulation all the same.

    As for the question of "maturity," every writerly writer I can think of started readerly and then switched teams; often, as with the Brontës, at the end of adolescence. My own childhood preferences weren't just readerly but speed-readerly, and I grew extremely annoyed when the work exhibited any bumps that might impede my progress. At puberty, bumps became more interesting and my reading slowed to its present Karloff-like lurch. But that doesn't so much imply that readerly readers are immature, as that the maturing of writerly taste is dependent upon having gained a certain amount of readerly ease with the conventions being disrupted.

    Regarding the broader brushwork, I'm sure I hope that a certain flexibility and a certain suspicion of narrative patness are healthy for the species. But is it necessary to be flexibly suspicious all the time? About everything? Would Franklin D. Roosevelt really have achieved more as President if he'd spent his free time reading Proust instead of gobbling murder mysteries like candy? Would you vote for Harold Bloom? Heck, I wouldn't even vote for Ralph Nader!

    To return to the dining room, some people find it unappetizing to have their attention drawn to the food they're eating, and others find it unappetizing to ignore the food they're eating. One might guess that the latter type of person is more likely to become a cook, and one might therefore call their approach to dining "cookly" as opposed to "eaterly," and think them handier in some circumstances, but that's about as far as my value judgments could stretch.

Not that this deflation of "writerly" self-aggrandizement is an entirely new idea. In fact, I think I first encountered it courtesy of Karen Joy Fowler:
... the escapist aspect is something to think about. It's seldom admired, and yet it seems to me often that if people's lives are hard and a book takes you out of it for a few hours, what's wrong with that? Why isn't that an admirable thing for a writer to have done?

. . .

Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers by Michele J. Leggott

80 Flowers was published in an edition of 80 in 1978, soon after Louis Zukofsky's death, and left at that. I didn't own any of the 80.

I first tracked down a library copy of Leggott's book not long after its own publication in 1989, but I didn't read it, really, just her citations. Like Stuart Gilbert in 1930, under cover of criticism Leggott had smuggled extensive excerpts from an inaccessible work. Although I was grateful, criticism of an unread work needs to be awfully coherent to seem anything more than discardable cover. I discarded it .

In 1997, the Flowers were finally reprinted.

Last month, while browsing another library, I rescued Leggott's book from a misshelving and decided to read it anew.

There are three ways of defending and elucidating a pointedly difficult work. They build on one another: the upstairs neighbor gets access to the downstairs neighbor's heat, but she's on shakier ground.

  1. The close reading

    The thing itself and you yourself, nose to nose, mano a mano, pas de deux, no time limits and no props other than the ones you walked into the room with. Structure is grasped, experience is applied, pleasure is described. When faced with relative transparency, a plot summary might be attempted. When faced with apparent chaos, a celebration of apparent chaos is likely. Rewards are hit and miss, as followers of this site may have noticed over the years.

    Kent Johnson took more or less that approach in his 1996 essay, "A Fractal Music: Some Notes on Zukofsky's Flowers." For hit, he usefully described Zukofsky's 8-line-by-5-word stanza as a grid of multidirectionally associative vectors. For miss, he then vanished into Catchphrase Forest with his fuzzy-wuzzy friends Quantum and Fractal and Noneuclidean. (Few English majors notice that Zukofsky's own mathematical figure for poetry was the frumpish chore of calculus.)

  2. The researched reading

    You maintain the pretense that some ideal reader -- an ideal reader who doesn't trade on any personal relationship with the author but who has fingertip access to all other possibly relevant sources of knowledge -- might have the reading experience you describe. You give up the pretense that it's you. Instead, you seek to become that ideal reader. The work supplies your checklist, your syllabus, your scavenger hunt; assignments radiate from the object and are reflected back again. You report as the person you've become.

    Volumes of the OED circled round him, David Levi Strauss took more or less this approach in the first published criticism of 80 Flowers in 1983 (sadly excluded from this online edition of the book in which it appeared).

  3. The genealogical narrative

    The author-artifact barrier is perforated, leaking special knowledge, special relationships. Work sheets, drafts, charts, conversation, and diaries are brought to bear. As scholarly infotainment in its own right, or as instructive example to those learning a useful craft, this is straightforward enough. As criticism, it seems to assume that if the writer had something in mind and can document it, then it's up to the reader to find it communicated.

    The assumption is flawed:

    • Experience teaches us that intentions often fail to be carried out. Or at least it teaches me that. A lot.
    • If you introduce authorial intention into the game, then the game becomes one of communication. In a communication game, the author must be judged by how clearly intention was communicated. And embarrassment on that point is presumably what led the critic to this pass in the first place.

    Nevertheless, the strategy has proven a useful defense against charges of arbitrariness or sloppiness, Stuart Gilbert being the pioneer here, too.

Michele Leggott took the top floor approach to such heights that Hugh Kenner (who must've encountered any person's fair share of genealogists among the Joyceans) called it a new critical method. Certainly it was a new critical voice -- a combination of Robert Burton and Fritz Senn, I think.

. . .

Ressentimental Journey

When the Happy Tutor and Turbulent Velvet and Jeff of Visible Darkness convene, we should choose our words (or rhetorical figures) carefully, if only because it suddenly sounds like we're living in an Alan Moore comic book, where words (and clichés) actually count for something. (The Happy Tutor's costume we know; TV I picture masked as V as in Vendetta; JoVD, a bit blurrier, as a John Constantine / Swamp Thing morph who blends the sartorial approaches of Chow Yun-Fat's two Jeffs. Actually, I guess that would just leave him looking like Alan Moore.)

There's an immediate appeal to the ethic that satire should only be directed upwards. The difficulty is in determining just what direction that might be. When Peter Parker or Clark Kent quip at the expense of villainy, is that bullying? Or does it only become so once they're suited up?

With increased power comes thinning skin. It takes less to insult a king than to insult a peasant; traditionally, a child or wife can infuriate a parent or husband simply by assuming equal status as a human being. Should I be noticed insulting the king, the proper king has me whipped or hung: I have wounded his sensibilities.

In the United States (every man a king), such injury usually releases itself in an aggrieved whine, the bully's whine: "I never get what I really want" (that is, everything).

When anyone (no matter how powerless) takes offense at some asshole's thoughtless words and actions, it gets called "fascism." When anyone (no matter how podunked) disagrees with someone who controls continent-spanning broadcasting, it gets called "censorship." When anyone (no matter how politely) fucks or worships in an unfamiliar fashion, it gets called an "attack." And so it shouldn't have so surprised me that the French have received the rhetoric historically due a war's aggressor merely for declining to join the war we initiated.

William Bennett cannot sleep easy so long as a single reader enjoys unprescribed work; Pat Robertson's soul will not be free until all on earth agree with him and have donated their savings accordingly; Wall Street Journal editorialists writhe under a tax yoke unjustly shifted from the shoulders of lucky duckies. Despite the protection of their god, their wealth, their state, and their family, they still feel victimized. And when they crush the peasant, the villain, the upstart, they do so in self-righteous self-defense.

The process is hardly confined to talk radio. Here in liberalville, few will admit to security or to influence, and fully-tenured mistresses of the postmodern are as scrambling and resentful as the merest billionaire.

So in this game of loser-takes-all, who wins the right to satirize? The last great period of Hollywood comedy taught us that cheats (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy) and the crassest wealthy (Rodney Dangerfield) are lovably put-upon underdogs fighting against the repressive forces of hard-working sincerity (the EPA, snobs, and literati), and I know which camp I'm assigned to.

Rightly so. I, singularly, find myself with no kicks to make. American, white, male, hetero, clever: I know exactly what further privileges I've gained thanks to those enviable starting points, having counted them one by one as they released into my convulsive grasp, and I'm very pleased with each.

That being the case, who's left for me to mock? Snoop Dogg? Because otherwise, by their own sincere admission, everyone else is worse off than I am.

And so I try to mock only those who I can't imagine weeping over my attacks. Given my hot temper, sometimes I guess wrong, and then I'm very sorry. Or sometimes I attack myself, and (being a critic, and thus myopic and trembly) scatter my shot. Still, that's my rule of nose-thumbing: harmlessness.

This would make me an ineffectual satirist. But I'm no satirist. The blind gesturing obscenely at the blind, the deaf whispering insults behind a broad hand -- is that satire? Dixit insipiens, at most.

Why take the risk of mocking at all?

Well, see, me, I like being criticized. And although I don't like hurting people's feelings, I also don't want to be ignored. A tawdry impulse, but, like most tawdriness, heir to its own peculiar glamour. A dream drives me, as it drives so many, a dream best described by that no-hit-wonder of unpopular music, Professor Anonymous, in his big non-hit "Got To Let It Out":

So let me tell you that it feels great
To really believe that it is my fate
To make people happy just by being alive
To make people happy just by being alive

But people are hostile shit-throwing little monkeys, and if we want to make 'em happy, we must accept the consequences.

+ + +

The Happy Tutor had in fact already pegged me as no satirist, and my little essay would have benefited by careful study of this chart.

We regret any inconvenience.

. . .

Then am I / A happy fly, / If I live, / Or if I die.

One of the pleasanter aspects to being a critic rather than a pundit or preacher is that we, by definition, don't want everyone else to be the same as ourselves. Because if they were, we'd vanish.

It's odd how many of us want to throw that advantage away.

Let us follow instead the example of Musca domestica, who buzzes and infects without debate or enmity.

. . .

Our (First) Motto

"Nobody asked for your opinion, Walter. You're just a simple little farmboy and the rest of us are all sophisticated beatniks."

What I want to say is:

Love the evidence; hate the conclusion.

But that may be a little harsh. Critics compulsively draw conclusions, and I should allow for the possibility that we do so to some purpose.

Revised, then:

The evidence is more valuable than the conclusion, in the sense that a cow is more valuable than a cup of milk.

'Course, not all folks feel up to maintainin' a cow.

Rockwell Hunter, chicken farmer


Sophisticated beatniks write:
Gold is more valuable than what it earns as investment, more valuable than what it buys. OR.
It takes its value from those things it can make possible.
That chain won't break, not even in the dry-lab under the electron-pulse hammer, its contiguity is impervious to the most disinterested analysis.
Without the milk and, by extension, the flank steak and suede, the cow is a grain drain.
Maybe you're stuck in the time thing again. value now/value later giving preference to the now. But now just went and become that this, which was later, which took/takes the name back even as it became/becomes... well... this, again. still.

. . .

The Liebestod of the Author

(Started as a response to John Holbo at The Valve before it merged into another piece & became ridiculously long, but the original, its sequel, & their comments are at least as worth reading as this)
"And it does no good knowing certain biographical and historical facts about Wagner, or facts about his sources and influences, or even about his own before or after the fact and outside the score comments."
- sounds & fury
"Our acts, you might say, are always improper in the sense that they are never our property."
- Patchen Markell, Bound by Recognition

Truffaut said the auteur theory stopped making sense to him once he started making movies. And many critical homilies became doubtful to me as I became better acquainted with the process of fiction writing.

The solid ground of intentionality, for example, grows fuzzy and falls apart when we sincerely try to follow through and find that intention.

Most writers aren't particularly obsessive readers of their own books: indifference or disgust are more conducive to production of new material. When we turn to biography, we usually find it less effective as interpretation than as dismissal: "Well, she was drunk when she wrote it." (Or, in Jamesonian mode, "What do you expect from a bourgeois sexist imperialist?")

In a reminiscing mood, the writer may tell us they began a work with intentions that were overturned along the way. Characters speak for themselves. The form has a mind of its own. Something happened on the walk to the grocery store; it seemed to fit. Simple boredom incites revolt. And yet what we're given to interpret is a whole and entire object rather than the process of making.

Then there's "style", best defined as that characteristic stink we're unable to cover up or scrub away. Our experiences and reactions aren't products of a sovereign will. At seismically active bedrock, the structures and accidents of our language are a given.

Tellingly, the writers most notoriously insistent on conscious agency also notoriously refuse help to critics: "But Mr. Hicraft, what does lie behind this passage if not subconscious compulsion?" "The page speaks for itself." "But Ms. Locraft, why that particular phrase?" "Because I have to make a living." These remarks aren't useful except insofar as they keep us from prattling nonsense, and at that they don't seem to have been very successful.

Even given access to the ideal a perfectly conscious close writer who's also a perfectly articulate close reader what do we hear when we press for the meaning of a passage? "As far as I can remember, I intended this effect on the reader, and this effect, and a nuance of that, and an echo of this previous effect, and a set-up for this later one and this even later one. [Pause. Politely:] Did it work?"

The problem, of course, is that a writer is not trilling sweet song direct from uncluttered soul to unpolluted air. The writer is trying to write. And so as we apply ourselves to realizing the author's intent, we move away from reading and towards the writing workshop. At Clarion '93, when Kate Wilhelm executed a one-on-one paragraph-by-paragraph line-by-line analysis of my most recent story, the experience was unforgettable, but it was the unforgettable experience of an expert mentalist act: "At this word you started trying to do this, but you gave up because you couldn't see a way out of the bind there, and so you tried to fake it with...."

Literature is art in language, and language is a medium in which we try to deliver messages. But literature is art, and only visible as art insofar as we perceive something other than message. (To take a simpler case, when we say "Programming is an art," the only people who'll understand us are its practitioners, because only practitioners of programming see anything but the results it delivers.)

I'm not saying "anything goes" in scholarly criticism. (Anything certainly does go in pleasure reading or utilitarian reading.) Although the literary experience can't be reduced to message, messages (intended or not) build the layers of tissue that make these bones live. We want to know the game we're in, a frame for the artifact. Some people seem satisfied to know its current context ("commercial junk" or "canonized profundity"); for others, alternative contexts add welcome nuance.

Dan Green, for example, can't find a position in his game for Middlemarch, which seems sad to me. I can easily find a position in my game for Lost in the Funhouse, but it's a far less rewarding position than in Dan's, which probably seems a little sad to him. Our difference may at least partly derive from the extents to which our preferred interpretive games include the deployment of multiple game schemes.

Found poetry, cut-up poetry, generated poetry, or mocking quotes in the New Yorker or Harper's aren't examples of non-intentional art, but they do help clarify the aestheticizing process. When we read appropriations, we usually don't feel fully satisfied until we're able both to guess at the original context and to guess at the point of the displacement: "Oh, I get it it's a nonsense parody of Wordsworth!" But satisfaction rarely requires us to verify our guesses. Much.

We attempt some comprehension of authorial intention, and, if possible, put it to use. But that attempt comes from the same analytical toolbox as historicism or genre studies: a collection of opportunities to widen the constraints of close or sentimental readings.

* * *

On the other side of the critic-creator divide, I've encountered offended authors who believe that Roland Barthes's most cited title was calling a fatwa. At ninth- or tenth-hand, they'd gotten the impression that the Critic had been hoisted onto the pedestal from which the Author'd been dragged.

Well, Barthes was a French intellectual, and they do seem inclined to present even their most benign insights in a "Grr! Grr! I'm a paper tiger!" tone. Maybe it's part of showing up on TV more often or something. But as I understand Barthes (and what's he gonna do, say I'm misinterpreting, hyuck-hyuck?), he merely meant that authors have better people to talk to than critics, and merely asks (in a grating nasal voice) that critics not obscure a text with rude presumptions about the text's writer. In critical terms, such presumptions are "The Author," and that's why "The Author" should be buried and replaced (when necessary) by the dessicated-but-dignified "Scriptor", who I picture as looking like William S. Burroughs.

As for the juicy bundles of meat who write or read texts, they're still entitled to all the imagination and experience they can manage to collect. I don't wish my friends harm when I declare that their writings will survive them. What higher goal do authors profess? What Barthes adds is that the work becomes posthumous even while the author's living. He may sound unduly cheerful about that, but very few ambitious writers would gladly argue that their success depends on a cult of personality. Our own (apparent) disappearance from the causal chain is what we labor at.

Having read too many biographies and critical works which insult the constructors of extremely skilled and subtle narratives by shanghaiing them into outrageously obtuse and trite narratives, I'm only sorry that Barthes's typical post-millennial tone was, as usual, unfounded. As long as Juliet Barker remains at large, The Author is alive and miserable and being force fed through a tube.


Aye, 'tis a dang'rous craft, it is that.

Brian R. Hischier writes:

It is a topic much on my mind lately, one which I felt was worthwhile to consider, while at the same time being at the height of worthlessness---my intention as of this moment is merely to write well (and what of the authors whose intentions are to write in a mediocre vein?). Barthes' text always seemed much too proud of its title, blinding its author to the real problem---that in the modern days the author will not die. He is either sunning himself on the beach or comatose, and neither state is good for the next text. I think too often our texts become our muses and after they've shunned us, we batter them with wishes and gifts until they finally give in, wrecked.

Bharat Tandon has reminded me of two favorite examples of ambivalent authorial death wish, both from John Keats:

our bodies every seven years are completely fresh-material'd seven years ago it was not this hand that clench'd itself against Hammond. We are like the relict garments of a Saint: the same and not the same: for the careful Monks patch it and patch it: till there's not a thread of the original garment left, and still they show it for St Anthony's shirt. [...] 'Tis an uneasy thought that in seven years the same hands cannot greet each other again.


This living hand, now warm and capable
Of eanest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine heat own dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd see here it is
I hold it towards you

Update, 2017-03-04: George Saunders distinguishes living writer from Intentional Fallacy.

. . .


(Also at The Valve)

Variations on a theme by Amardeep Singh

I have always liked Andersen's fairy tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Fundamentally, it is the symbol of my life.
- Thomas Mann to Agnes Meyer
At that moment one of the little boys picked up the soldier and tossed him right into the stove, giving no explanation at all. The troll in the box was most certainly to blame.

The tin soldier stood there, brightly lit, and felt a terrible heat, but whether it was from the actual fire or from love, he didn't know. The paint had worn right off him, but whether this happened on his journey or from sorrow, no one could say.

- Hans Christian Andersen
Every day you see his army march down the street,
Changing guards at the High Road.
He's a tin soldier man
Living in his little tin wonderland,
Very happy little tin soldier man
When you set him on your knee.

In Singh's account, a feminist critic of Toy Story would be pleased that a girl owns toys. A less sanguinely imagined feminist would also note the toys' rigid gender segregation, with girls relegated to support and nagging while character development, plot points, and boffos go to the boys. Another viewer might be nettled by the contrast between a story which merged handmade family toys with imported plastics and a production which contributed to the replacement of hand-drawn original characters with celebrity-voiced 3-D models. Or by the movie's recycling in more concentrated form an earlier era's conformist fantasies, newly trademarking someone else's nostalgia to push "like momma used to buy" security. And leave us let aside those misguided children who for some reason lack access to such lovably life-fulfilling objects....

I believe these reactions to the Toy Story movies are possible since, alongside cheerier reactions, I felt them all myself. And, as with Amardeep's reactions, I think they all suggest stories about criticism. He's struck (or stuck) a rich vein here as Hans Christian Andersen did when he first made the fairy tale a vehicle for meta-fiction.

* * *

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't an example of Andersen's meta-fictions. (I've made a long list of them and I just checked: "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't on it.) But as the ur-text of Toy Story 1 and 2, it might have something to offer meta-criticism. Let's see!

This particular tin soldier "the one who turned out to be remarkable" is disabled a birth defect left him only one leg and immobile. While the other toys gain autonomy and "play" (that is, squabble, jostle, chafe, bully, whine, and put on airs), the tin soldier stays resolutely toylike, moved only by outside forces.

But his immobility has nothing to do with his disability; on the contrary, it's his claim to mastery: No matter what threatens him, no matter who attracts him, no matter how it might benefit him to bend or speak up, he remains "steadfast", silent, at attention until the end, of course, when we find what stuff he's made of.

The troll-in-the-snuff-box curses the soldier for the fixity of his male gaze, its object an immobile paper ballerina en pointe. Misled by his unvaried point of view, he believes her also one-legged, and therefore a suitable match. He learns his mistake only a moment before one of the children decides to put away childish things with a vengeance.

* * *

I don't know how other folks take the "station" in "Playstation". I'm a Navy brat, so I assume it refers to a tour of duty something you're assigned to live through, pleasant or not.

For me, not; maturing seemed a continuous trading up. (Until I got to backaches and ear hair, anyway.)

But then my version of maturity like yours is a bit peculiar.

* * *

Advertising supports and depends on reader identification. This story is your story; this story is brought to you by this product; this product produces your story.

Our story, ours right here, is a story of salvation-through-consumption. No matter how we put it to ourselves, literary readers' status as consumers seems clear enough to publishers and copyright hoarders. What makes us niche consumers is our attachment to kid's stuff stuff we refuse to throw away despite its blatant obsolescence.

For most non-academics, including a number of English majors I've met, all literature is children's literature. Prepubescents get Gulliver's Travels, adolescents get Moby Dick, and college freshmen might be served an indigestible bit of Henry James. Once normal people have a job, they never again bother with such things until they have children of their own. Even if they patiently crate, uncrate, and re-shelve their T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson volumes over the decades, they won't place Amazon orders for A Hundredth Sundrie Flowers or Best American Poetry 2004.

(Which is why "fair use" nowadays tends to get narrowly defined as educational use. No normal adult would want access to a 1930s novel or magazine or song or movie for its own sake.)

In such a world, disputes between proponents of "realistic" and "experimental" fiction seem as absurd as a Federation-outfitted Trekkie snubbing a Dark Shadows fan for his fangs. Grown-ups know the real battles are between the Red Sox and the Yankees or the Christians and Satan, and know the only stories worth reading are True-Life Adventures of themselves. To the vast majority of Americans, all of us here are only marginally distinguishable from the arrested development cases depicted by Chris Ware or Barry Malzberg.

I carry some of their skepticism. It was bred into me, like my bad teeth and whiskey craving. I wince at a poem demanding that this war be stopped right now!, or at a blurb like "You can't spell 'Marxist' without Matrix", or at the ALSC Forum's complaint that community college composition classes stint the Homeric epic, and it's the same wince I made at Ware's "Keeping Occupied" column:

A lonely youth in eastern Nebraska came up with the idea of drawing circuit chips and machine parts on squares of paper and affixing them to his skin with celluloid tape. Hidden beneath his socks and shirt sleeves, these surprising superhuman additions would be just the things he needed to gain respect and awe while changing clothes amongst his peers before gym class.
- Acme Novelty Library. Winter, 1994-1995. Number Four, Volume Three.

. . .

The Real McKee

It's true that "authenticity" generally signals snobbery, racism, or willful ignorance up ahead. That it drags the Elmer Fuddish hunter into holes they wot not of. That it marks the hoarder and attracts the forger. And that I've built dudgeons high agin it. Why attempt to judge the Bushes by the authenticity of their bark when the poison of their fruit's so evident?

But I feel Jiminy Heartworm stir. Despite (and through) my open distaste with the term, haven't I, in my own ways, profited from it? When I starved, haven't I played it up to cadge a meal? or get the loan of a book? or of an ear? When I lack even a (birth) certificate of authenticity?

And the double-edged crutches my own criticism leans on terms like "organic", or "grace", or "attentive", or (borrowing from the young Louis Zukofsky and the young Sal Mineo) "sincere" if I was forced to systematize them, if I reaped occasional rewards by dropping them in the nickel slots of academia or reviews or NPR, would they be any better than "authentic"? Truly?

Well, maybe a bit, if they address the workings of the song between us rather than denigrating-through-idealizing the singer.

Leave the art's conscience to the art. The only "authenticity" that should concern critics is their own.


True masks speaking through real veils

AKMA has a follow-up thread.

Ray Davis adds:

I won my first programming job over (probably) more qualified and (certainly) better groomed candidates because (the boss told me later) I'd "looked more like a programmer."

That's one reason I support affirmative action. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems unlikely that a similarly sullen, ill-prepared, shabbily dressed black kid would have "looked more like a programmer."

. . .

Spuriouser & spuriouser

I'm unhappy and writing less.

I'm not unhappy that I'm writing less; I'm writing less because I'm unhappy. It wasn't until I was thirty that writing began making me feel less unhappy, and if I ever start feeling happy again without writing I'll feel fine about it.

There's nothing ignoble about passive consumption. We are, after all, only speaking of consumption. Is it less polite to show appreciation for a good meal through digestion than by spurning it in our own rush to serve the 8 PM tables, or by afterwards pressing a scholarly finger down our throat, or with the long loud burp of the critic?


There is as you say nothing ignoble about passive consumption. Yet one does feel a certain ignobility in having written something (to continue the eating metaphor) delicious, and then to write nothing further. Many of us find ourselves en même bateau.

Now that remark really does make me sad. Should I desecrate the graves of authors I admire because they haven't published anything for a while? If not, do the living deserve less gratitude than the dead? No creator owes us a better end than Joe Brainard's view of Veronica Lake, with the flea circus barkers of "the art scene" lost in the flip-flap of pages of Victorian novels. May all our boats be drunken ones.

i'm trying to find out about why the word 'yellow' means someone is afraid or 'chicken'

You've come to the wrong place, my friend. I'm so pig-ignant I don't know what "aquarian pronoun" even means. (Do you?) But if I had to fake it, I'd fake like it referred to the jaundice of the lily-livered.

what are you unhappy about?
The ignoble-feeling One seems to be assuming that One's own dishes were so delectable and nutritious that others would starve without them. There are enough provisions in the world to last us all a good long while, even if we all leave off cooking. And so many of the dishes that we serve up ostensibly for others' delectation were never really meant to nourish anyone but ourselves, like the mouse pie that Ribby the cat so graciously prepared for Duchess the dog. (Admittedly, the pie did have bacon in it....)
Your readers might resist lumping your consistently illuminating eructations in with a pack o' "the critic." I felt a bit cheered coming across this the other day, (from Mr. Kafka): "It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy."
one writes not from discontent, but towards it

So I'm a discontent provider? That seems fair.

Brian R. Hischier writes:

All I know is that it's been over six months since I visited your website --- in the meantime, in fact in one short fortnight, I've come across nearly 659 blog-stories about T. C~~n Boyle. I'm fed up, sir. So I've returned to the false-footlift and found a lovely short two paragraphs (a couplet of chunks) about giving in to a less-than-blissful penna-less existence (I appear to have rediscovered for myself the hyphen: apologies). I did that last January. Stopped cold after depressing a man in Switzerland only 23 pages into the first novel. Starving the page lasted only six months, I'm sad to say. I started a new book in June. Coincidentally (in the true sense of that word), I'm less happy now than in January. And like you, not because of the writing.
I hates it when you is sad.

Count your blessings. When I'm happy, I can get pretty obnoxious.


. . .

Two Raves

  1. Low-end reviewer: "Eyes closed, eyes open, what I see's exactly the same. Come to me, my soulmate!"
  2. High-end reviewer: "Attaining disappointment took heroic effort."


The difference between reviewer and critic is that the former's subject is what you haven't seen, the latter's, what you have.

Seen subjects are sweet, but those unseen are sweeter.... I guess I'm an extreme critic type, but even as a completely clueless reader, I prefer that approach, like I prefer hearing gossip about people I don't know. Befuddlement makes the whole procedure seem more humane somehow....

. . .

Reference Work, 4

Ah ha, I can hear you saying, well I can tear the heart out of this pretty damned easily, I can smell its derivations from a mile away, in fact I need only open the book at random to find just what I want, just the right food for my article: I do not feel you have made the slightest critical effort to grapple with its form or its intentions. What you have actually succeeded in doing is to injure a fellow who feels himself to be a kindred spirit.
- Malcolm Lowry to Jacques Barzun, May 6, 1947
I have always been grateful to him for the tact he showed in refraining from reviewing any of my novels. We have had many exhilarating talks, have exchanged many frank letters. [...] In the present case, however, things have gone a little too far.
- Vladimir Nabokov to NYRB, August 26, 1965

Readers of our previous episode may have noticed that superhero comics aren't the only serialized genre with a weakness for apocalyptic conclusions.

And also that I never quite settled its central question. After all, my posited clash-of-values clashes high and low alike. Why should the low take special umbrage?

And Mister Wimpy is the referee
Our Hero

The answer's Purloined-Newspaper close at hand. Inveighing much more loudly than society painters or classical musicians, critics and teachers have traditionally raised the hackles who later come home to roost. To quote the powerful formula of the critic's mooching, pretentious, and despised name saint, "Let's you and him fight."

Nor was this the first time I might have found occasion to mention our own dear form. The "downward turn" marks the serious review as well as the serious novel it almost defines the subgenre.

What completely defines the entire genre is our naked dependency on reference. We obtain the product of someone else's hard work, usually for free, and then as our own hard work read, hear, or view it. From such moral low ground it's absurd for a TV critic to insult a novelist's interest in comic books or for a jazz critic to protest cultural "appropriation" and yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show.

Working artists may feel ripped off by extra-generic not-quite-peers who haven't paid their dues, and peacemakers like Campbell and Lethem reasonably argue that the apparent deadbeat may well be paying dues to a different union. But opinions cost nothing. What respect is due the pure parasite?

Near-universally, the answer is zilch. I could cite Lou Reed on John Rockwell and Robert Christgau, but more subtly Eddie Campbell cites R G Collingwood:

Let all such artists as understand one another, therefore, plagiarize each other's work like men. Let each borrow his friends' best ideas, and try to improve on them. If A thinks himself a better poet than B, let him stop hinting it in the pages of an essay; let him re-write B's poems and publish his own improved version. If X is dissatisfied with Y's this-year Academy picture, let him paint one caricaturing it....

Clearly there's no place for critics in this practitioners' paradise but I can't help but add that philosophers would be banished as well: If R G C doesn't believe professional photographer N should protect all possible sources of income and credit, let him stop advising it from the pages of a book; let him open a studio and lead by example.

Greatest of sinners, we're distinguished only by the blatancy of our sinning. As Lethem and Campbell say, all art is referential art. Even when aesthetic experience is more "contrast" than "compare", it manifests against a web of associations.

And performing against that web we project similar illusions. Mainstream fiction writers aren't sensitive to every nuance of human nature, mystery writers can't track down criminals, and literary critics don't approach their prey with intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. When we encounter such misconceptions among our readers we may be taken aback, but they arise naturally from formal demands. Certain narrative effects require trust and so a storyteller doesn't (usually) push against the audience's idea of plausibility. Similarly when our goal is to build a discursive structure we need only evidence enough to fasten the joints, and ignorance itself may find utility as a (hidden) dado.

Some of us exult in fraudulence as a windfall; some accept it as a mutually understood rule of the game, not worth further comment; some blazon our bad conscience on our pennons. "I find myself speaking about my adoption everywhere I go in this world."

* * *

Here we go, then:

I don't read much contemporary mainstream fiction.

Partly that's because I don't like much. Too often it tastes like watered-down soup, promising only an occasional fly. I've always been ungenerous and impatient towards DeLillo, for example, and I've got no interest in Franzen despite his being right about Peanuts.

Partly it's lack of urgency. At the moment I have easier access to exorbitantly priced academic publications than I ever expect again. Little magazines, comic books, and pulp fiction instantly drop out of print and out of sight. Whereas, much as I look forward to Chabon's big novels, I know I'll be able to find them later: few public libraries skimp on Pulitzer winners.

And I don't read for the sake of conversation, or at least not that sort of conversation: I care no more about the New York Times bestseller list than I do about the Super Bowl.

Although of course if I had a friend on a Super Bowl team I'd be very pleased for him, and maybe even inquire after the score....

The friend, in this case, being Jonathan Lethem.

We're not especially old or intimate friends no anecdotes of sex behind the drum kit and my position's not unique: Jonathan's at ease in a wide range of social settings, and dozens of people can claim closer acquaintance.

Instead it's been a familiar sort of intellectual friendship "a warm affection sometimes [invigorated] by exasperation." We approach very similar tastes and ideas with very different impulses from very different departure points. In particular, we share (and argue over) a stubborn antagonism to genre boundaries: I first met Jonathan while he was making his name as a writer of sf stories, but I first admired him as the editor of an artsy zine called Idiot Tooth.

As I gave up trying to write fiction and as Jonathan more often performed man-of-letters chores, a greater portion of our conversation took place in public, most concentratedly in what he called our Spy vs. Spy act for the New York Review of Science Fiction. In a way, this continues the act. But in another way....

* * *

In another way, I need to confess one more lie of omission, right at the beginning. It wasn't only the pressure of my day job that kept this essay unfinished in 2005 and 2006 and earlier this year. It was disgust at what the essay promised to become.

I write to gossip about artifacts, not about their authors. I've rarely felt conflicted when mentioning people I know. Just switching from first name to last is enough to do the trick.

Here, though, following Leonard's lead, I'd be dealing with some general issues but restricting specifics to Lethem's career that is, I'd use him as a very convenient whipping boy.

"Now look, Ray, when you found yourself with that book in your hand, what did you think about? Could it have been... 'consumption for use'?"

That's a poor reward for friendship. When Yvor Winters and Allen Tate publicly attacked The Bridge, they don't seem like courageous upholders of poetic standards. They seem like opportunistic back-stabbing creeps.

I can't say I escape a similar charge. But since I found myself unable, finally, to avoid setting up this ambush, I'm glad at least to be caught in the same crossfire. What else are friends for?


Josh Lukin writes:

"What respect is due the pure parasite?" I'm sorry to bring it up again, but that question reminded me of my feeling that this is somehow the exemplar of its genre (Farber would appreciate it, IMO).

If Ansible only had an "As We See Others" column . . .

"and yet the pot still calls the kettle a minstrel show." -- I know you don't aim for targets this low, but you have inadvertantly devised the perfect put-down for Mister Sasha Frere-Jones.

. . .


From The New Yorker, July 28, 2008, "Fantasy Suite" by Hilton Als:
It's a note that Durang himself struck in a recent Times interview, in which he referred to "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" as his "one unabashedly autobiographical play." "My relationship with my partner has lasted twenty-three years and my parents' bumpy marriage lasted fifteen years," Durang said. "So I win." The only thing a playwright should be concerned with winning is a greater command over the truth and his art.

. . .

Three Wheels

Reading Robert Musil elates me; reading A Companion to the Works of Robert Musil depressed me. Musil's work embodies (engenders, swaddles) "the other condition" in temporal and social limits. His characters' disillusionments don't disprove or deny their intuition: it's left its ambiguously eternal spot of space-time. Musil's summarizers live once too far removed from Musil's unions. You either walk with the point or beside it.


Run don't walk: There's a metaMusil joke in there somewhere.

. . .

The Birth and Death of a Critic

"If one were to allow a character into life without a ticket, so to speak, if one were to give the bookcase key and the right to knock on existence's door, then that character would be forced during his sojourn among us about this there can be no doubt to devote himself to criticism, and criticism alone. Why? Simply because he of us all is the one most concerned with his own fate, because he must hide his nonexistence, a nonexistence that, you must agree, is more inconvenient even than being of noble birth. And so a creature less real than the ink with which he writes takes up self-criticism in a desperate attempt to prove his alibi with respect to the book: I was never there, he says, I was an artistic failure, the author couldn't make readers believe in me as a type in there, in the book, because I'm not a type and not in the book, rather I, like all of you, dear readers, am out here among you, this side of the bookcase door, and I write books myself, real books, like a real person. True, when the critic is making a fair copy of this tirade, he always changes 'I' to 'we' ('As we wrote in our article' 'We are glad to report'): all this is perfectly natural and explainable a creature with a poor sense of identity had best avoid the first-person singular.... What I'm trying to say," Straight went on excitedly (the critic couldn't get a word in), "is that not all characters turn into critics (if that were to happen, we'd all be done for!). No, the ones who become critics are the ones who deny their author's existence they're the book's atheists."

- from "Someone Else's Theme" by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy,
tr. Joanne Turnbull

The Wind that blows between the worlds, it cut him like a knife,
And Tomlinson took up his tale and spoke of his good in life.
“This I have read in a book,” he said, “and that was told to me,
“And this I have thought that another man thought of a Prince in Muscovy.”
The good souls flocked like homing doves and bade him clear the path,
And Peter twirled the jangling keys in weariness and wrath.
“Ye have read, ye have heard, ye have thought,” he said, “and the tale is yet to run:
“By the worth of the body that once ye had, give answer what ha’ ye done?”
Then Tomlinson looked back and forth, and little good it bore,
For the Darkness stayed at his shoulder-blade and Heaven’s Gate before:—
“O this I have felt, and this I have guessed, and this I have heard men say,
“And this they wrote that another man wrote of a carl in Norroway.”
“Ye have read, ye have felt, ye have guessed, good lack! Ye have hampered Heaven’s Gate;
“There’s little room between the stars in idleness to prate!”
[ ... ]
The Wind that blows between the worlds, it cut him like a knife,
And Tomlinson took up the tale and spoke of his sin in life:—
“Once I ha’ laughed at the power of Love and twice at the grip of the Grave,
“And thrice I ha’ patted my God on the head that men might call me brave.”
The Devil he blew on a brandered soul and set it aside to cool:—
“Do ye think I would waste my good pit-coal on the hide of a brain-sick fool?
“I see no worth in the hobnailed mirth or the jolthead jest ye did
“That I should waken my gentlemen that are sleeping three on a grid.”
Then Tomlinson looked back and forth, and there was little grace,
For Hell-Gate filled the houseless Soul with the Fear of Naked Space.
“Nay, this I ha’ heard,” quo’ Tomlinson, “and this was noised abroad,
“And this I ha’ got from a Belgian book on the word of a dead French lord.”
—“Ye ha’ heard, ye ha’ read, ye ha’ got, good lack! and the tale begins afresh
“Have ye sinned one sin for the pride o’ the eye or the sinful lust of the flesh?”
Then Tomlinson he gripped the bars and yammered, “Let me in
“For I mind that I borrowed my neighbour’s wife to sin the deadly sin.”
The Devil he grinned behind the bars, and banked the fires high:
“Did ye read of that sin in a book?” said he; and Tomlinson said, “Ay!”

- from “Tomlinson” by Rudyard Kipling

. . .

The critic as necrophile

I performed legal services for the Institute for Social Research. At first I was a lawyer and wrote stories. Only afterwards did I concern myself with film. Horkheimer and Adorno did not take me seriously as an author. They said, "He is a first-rate lawyer, we like him and are friendly with him, but he just should not make films, and in no event should he write any stories." After Marcel Proust, one can no longer write stories any more. That was Adorno's opinion. He sent me to Fritz Lang in order to protect me from something worse, so that I wouldn't get the idea to write any books. If I were turned away, then I would ultimately do something more valuable, which was to continue to be legal counsel to the Institute for Social Research.... I handled their reparations claims, among other matters....

For his mother nothing was enough for him, and she protected him from his father's cheapness. Adorno became a very sensitive man who knew music but couldn't ride alone on a streetcar. He led the impractical life of a very protected child.... When he was waiting for a streetcar, he changed into Franz Kafka and believed that it would never come. His wife always had to drive him around. It was, among other things, because he had to travel, first in England and then later in the United States, that he got married.

... he had no knowledge of the production sphere. He did not deal with it. He was interested in what Marcel Proust did, with what music did. He never really saw a factory, and that is why he sees society as a factory. That is why I never believed Adorno's theories of film. He only knew Hollywood films. He went with Fritz Lang, Brecht, and Eisler together as friends to Hollywood. They offered scripts nobody wanted. Fritz Lang made Hangmen Also Die. He did not need Adorno for such a film.

- "On New German Cinema, Art, Enlightenment, and the Public Sphere:
An Interview with Alexander Kluge
by Stuart Liebman, October 46 (1988) (via Mubi)

There are two sides stretching from the frozen moment, two fears guttering our desire for the immobile:

The fear of loss, the hoarder's fear that the beloved will be wrested from us before we're done. And by choice we only desire what we can never be done with; anything less would be, what should we call it, a waste of time.

And the horror of process, that the Queen of Brobdingnag eats and Celia shits, that sausages are made even if one isn't completely sure how, that toys don't spring ex nihilo from Mother Christmas's hands.

(I suppose his injunction against new poetry is more quoted than his injunction against new fiction because fewer people want to read new poetry.)


George Clinton kindly writes from 1978:

Lunchmeataphobia: The fear of being eaten by a sandwich.

Josh Lukin kindly writes more recently:

Incidentally, I long associated noticing and critiquing the Horror of Process with radical arguments (Marxist, feminist, Tory, Raydavisian); but now the Oxford Internet Institute has set me straight.

Yorick Wilks, ladies & gents, and who sez they don't make Tories like they used to?

. . .

The Death & Rebirth of Criticism out of the Spirit of Improv

Forgetful Muses: Reading the Author in the Text
by Ian Lancashire, Toronto, 2010

Fearing another polemic, I flinched at the opening Barthes joke. No need; the point is that Barthes and Foucault helped make room for scholarship like Lancashire's own.

Barthes's target was a particular sort of Critic (James Wood or Jonathan Franzen or Allen Tate, say) who allows only a particular sort of Work (a well-wrought urn full of well-burned ash), the titular "Author" being the Critic's implausible prop. With Critic and Author removed, Franco Moretti recently went on to elbow Reader, Theorist, and Work out of the Howard-Roark-ish Researcher's spotlight.

More generous, Lancashire instead invites another figure onto the stage: the Writer Writing. His book directs the tourist's attention to the distance between conscious intent and the actuality of creation, both as living process and in posthumous analysis in two words, muse and style.

Comfortably switching between the roles of researcher and reader, Lancashire can treat the "General Prologue" as Chaucerian Work or as bundle of characteristic tics; he can study Shakespeare as Author and as tic-bundler; he can turn Agatha Christie's pageturners and then winnow them for symptoms. To show his peaceful intent, he goes so far as to intersperse goofy monologues from his own first-draft stream-of-consciousness, who proves as insulting towards his fister as any other vent dummy. And again I marvel at how free discourse flows to bicker.

Even more more again I marvel at how, gathered at the Author Function, we collectively manage such both-ands. When Lancashire uncorks his inner Jerry Mahoney, by what magic do the undergrads believe that communication has occurred?

The accuracy of that belief is questionable, yes, but not its transient certainty. I still recall the shudder with which Henry James's overstuffed suspension settled into clear solution, counterpane into windowpane. And farther back in adolescent memory how the fraudulent assemblages of T. S. Eliot and cheesy pop musicians gathered warmth and depth and breath. And, more near and less pleasantly, watching in embarrassment Jean-Luc Godard's miraculous constructs scurf, slough, and collapse into scrap. How do the imprecise and formulaic grunts of Homer or Dan Brown transform, in the susceptible listener, into vividly imprecise and formulaic experience?

A question which may animate a less particular sort of Critic.

. . .

The Critic as Pornographer

This much is clear: for the Romantics, criticism is far less the judgment of a work than the method of its consummation.
- Walter Benjamin, "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism"

Like Wilde's "The Critic as Artist," much too flattering.

Critics merely describe a consummation and hope the description will incite readers to some brand of mimicry.

. . .

The Calibanism of minor differences

Repugnance towards that which almost accomplishes what you'd like to accomplish but not in a way you approve, embarrassing your own desire. The rage of Caliban seeing the photo of someone who looks a bit like Caliban.


On Facebook, I told Peli the origin story:

... it seemed the projected personalities who angered me most were ones I feared resemblance to. Not so much the damage they'd done as the damage I might do inspired by their example.
Hypocrite lecteur,— mon Sasha,— mon Frere!

. . .

Confessional Pleasures

It breaks me, I buy it.

. . .

Parasite, from the Greek for near the food, thus close reading.


just the four of us


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.