Monday, December 29, 2008

Toward Ephemeral Criticism

Reading with the intent to find something worthwhile to say about what I’m reading is unavoidable. What I am aiming to reveal is perhaps ephemeral. It is through this process that I became interested in writing, and this practice naturally led to wanting to write about books. Thus, I became by default, a book critic. Rather, I like to think, a book commentator.

I’ve consciously avoided (sometimes) writing negative criticism.

Critics’ negativity is easy--it’s easier to swing a sledgehammer than it is to dovetail a joint. And if a critic is so desperate to tear a work down, doesn’t that say more about the critic than the work in question? As Roland Barthes says in Mythologies: “[...] if one fears or despises so much the philosophical foundation of a book, why become a critic?”

Criticism derived from a position of what the work in question is not is a sure way to go negative. This is like a demand for more of the marble to be left on the sculpture before Michaelangelo worked it away. Then there is the criticism that is merely comparative. Why draw the baseline so low that even those who can’t expect to be moved by anything unless it flashes on a screen or is operated by a remote won’t be interested?

I think of Joyce’s Ulysses, a work that has probably received more unwarranted criticism for the mere fact of it’s canon-wreaking status, and it’s presumed impenetrability, than from actual, considered, methodical and thoughtful readings.

Art takes time to digest. It’s not easy.

Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation,” (in the book of the same title) is one of those ground breaking essays that aspire to an ideal approach to criticism. 

Sontag makes the point in the essay that she only seeks to explore works that interest her, thereby largely avoiding the problem of negative criticism, perhaps. But maybe this has led to a lot of not talking about just how poorly written and conceived a work may be (say, a piece of fiction, James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning, for example). Talking about a bad work is unwitting publicity--it seems to be taken for granted that any publicity is good publicity, these days.

Skirting a whole boatload of problematic issues related to literary criticism, however, Sontag holds up film as offering possibilities for critical inquiry that do not follow in the vein of literary criticism, because, “cinema, unlike the novel, possesses a vocabulary of forms.” Further, “It also owes the happy accident that films for such a long time were just movies; in other words, that they were understood to be part of mass, as opposed to high, culture, and were left alone by most people with minds.”

I think this has changed somewhat in the forty-five years since this essay was written. I don’t dispute Sontag’s still relevant assessment of interpretive criticism, and in general, I would reason that an x for y translation (what an “interpretation” of a written work is, essentially) is often a logical way to attempt to understand a literary work. I think I understand Sontag is implying that the impulse to explain a written work through exegesis or elaboration is more or less merely a reiteration.

Sontag goes on to talk about form as a source for revealing the variety and character of a written work: “To the extent that novels and plays (in America), unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any interesting concern with changes in their form, these arts remain prone to assault by interpretation.”

The problem with attempting to discuss and deliberate formal innovation in a work of literature is that it might not be the thing that jumps up and bites you on the ass with its obviousness. Whereas an interpretative tack in criticism allows almost anything in the work to be taken for something else and elucidated into the light. A least common denominator view tends to guide the general and mass view of the work (For example: it’s published. It’s a literary work. It must have merit).

Milan Kundera, in Testaments Betrayed, and an essay on the abuses of Kafka criticism, addresses this pitfall as he discusses how Max Brod promoted a kind of lazy (and popular) critical reading of Kafka which soon became de rigeur for looking at his work, what Kundera calls Kafkology. “Kafkology is not literary criticism (it does not examine the value of the work: the previously unknown aspects of existence that the work reveals, the aesthetic innovations by which it affected the evolution of art, etc.) Kafkology is an exegesis.”

In The Art of the Novel, Kundera says that the “sole raision d’etre of the novel is to discover what only the novel can discover.” Kundera makes an intriguing case for a revolutionary approach to writing a novel, through the examples of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others—which also address the formal challenges put forth by Sontag, however unlikely it is to be acknowledged by novelists writing today.

Sontag asks, “What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?” The answer is a lofty goal. One that might seek to make every critic be an artist equal to the work they are reviewing. Sontag’s implication is that one needs to create an alternative work on top of the work under scrutiny. Isn’t it enough that the critic can enlighten us about the work in question? This is encapsulated in a remark Clive James wrote in the New York Times on this subject: “When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded.” 

Sontag goes on to say: “Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art—and in criticism—today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. This is the greatness of, for example the films of Bresson and Ozu and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.” And, furthermore: “In good films, there is always a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret”.

In its generally ungraspable ephemerality, isn’t film, rather, too open? Could it be said that because film is a visual medium that attempts to portray a representation of life through characters, that its presentation of this has multiple layers of nuance? Film looks, more or less, like life (or life-like). It is a much more passive medium than a work of literature. Reading a book requires a larger act of willfulness.

Film presents an overload of visual information, still much less than actual life; but in either realm, much is taken for granted, as if it is a priori. There are far too many details to claim the significance of one over another unless it calls attention to itself. It would be ludicrous to try to decipher the symbolism of John’s shirt.

This is clearly viable in literature: the reader is taking in one word at a time, one sentence, one sentence in the context of a paragraph, one paragraph in a chapter, etcetera. From a series of parts the reader extracts a whole, a unity (more or less). The intent is focused. What is brought to the work requires a leap of imagination toward being able to not reduce the story to words on a page—it requires of a reader to reach into their own imagination. Because in order to know that John has a red shirt, the author must tell us John has a red shirt, and therefore, impart a significance to that object through the tag of calling it out.

I think Sontag’s aesthetic brilliance let her get carried away by this notion of film as a kind of stand in for non-interpretive critical inquiry that literature should aspire to. Although I like the ideas she presents, I’m not sure the literary equivalents for what she is talking about are on most critics’ radar. It becomes more difficult when the slightly vague, poetic “luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are” is a goal for criticism.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bolaño Phenomenon Ambivalence

Considering the recent state-side publication of 2666, which I have not yet read (and am still considering for a slot in my fickle holiday reading), I am devouring everything written on Roberto Bolaño, and enjoyed this (anonymous?) clearheaded take in n+1 on the late author’s oeuvre:

“Why [...] you begin to wonder, are you reading these books? What for, if they are each going to eschew psychology, characterization, pretty language, and neat conclusions, and if the narratives are all to devolve into shaggy-dog Iditarods mushing after some fugitive poet or novelist about whom—even if he ever turns up—we learn next to nothing? Why read and write at all if these empty Chinese boxes constitute the only goods ultimately in receipt?”

I also wondered at times, in my post haste reading frenzy and romance with The Savage Detectives, why Bolaño’s other books were not capturing my imagination so well. Other than Last Evenings on Earth which I read twice (and a few of the stories paled on reading number two, although “Anne Moore’s Life” and the title story stand out in their excellence), I admit I had to slog through By Night in Chile, and never finished Amulet, hoping I’d find the inspiration at some future date.

Bolaño ambivalence, perhaps? n+1 responds to this, I think, quite aptly:

“[...]Bolaño somehow also treats literature as his and his characters' sole excuse for existing. This basic Bolaño aporia—literature is all that matters, literature doesn't matter at all—can be a glib paradox for others. He seems to have meant it sincerely, even desperately, something one would feel without knowing the first thing about his life.”

Intrigued as ever to delve into another nearly one thousand page behemoth (how can I avoid it?), I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I finally get around to reading 2666.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Serendipitous Beckett Pilgrimage

I’m almost always tempted to say, I’ve written about this before, because I think I have, only with less detail. It starts with a dream, or I should say, I can locate a resonance in a dream. I was walking through a park in a European city, along a lake, trying to find a consul building. I asked a man, in French, for directions. He was very helpful, my seer, I suppose, as I found what I was supposed to. I had no idea what it meant, only that this dream in particular had the presentiment of vital knowledge. I jotted down the details of the dream and forgot about it.

My friend was getting married, in Brussels. I’d been preparing my first work for my graduate writing program; in the previous two months I’d been re-introduced to my past, via Samuel Beckett, a writer I’d almost forgotten and had stopped reading over the previous fifteen years. My friend suggested I fly out for the wedding. Seemed like a crazy idea--for less than a week?--why not. That would make it a special trip. I was in need of some inspiration before I began the two years of my intensive writing program, so I booked a flight and was off by the end of the week.

I leave a gap in details here to cut to the chase.

I was in Brussels, given directions over the phone by my friend’s (future) wife about how to get to the wedding ceremony. I set out on the subway, seriously jetlagged, and made it to Parc Malou. As soon as I wandered into the road that curved its way into the park, I was certain I was lost. Or that I had been there before. A man on the grounds was working and I asked him, to my own surprise, in nearly flawless French, how to get to the consul building. When I walked through a canopy of trees I remembered, I had been here.

I mention that anecdote because it seemed to presage a taste of the magic that was beginning to occur with my writing.

Over that visit I had a day to myself and decided to go to Paris on the 185 mile per hour Thalys. Just a day, morning to evening. My excitement at the arrival into Paris was both overawing (I never fail to feel an unparalleled thrill arriving in this city, especially by train. I had been there exactly eleven years earlier, and, another seven years before that. I make no apologies for my romanticizing of Paris, much to the disgruntlement of my grad advisors at that time--the literary baggage hauled through that city over the years is enough to satisfy my wanderlust.) The October air was summery, warm; the smell of the Metro--somehow like smoking rubber, I always think--was an intoxicating draught that told me, yes, I am here. I’ve arrived. Something about that dream had been providential, perhaps. (I’m not, or wasn’t, until very recently, a person who put a lot of stock in fate, or destiny; it’s hard not to view things this way now. I think it comes with age and a healthy interest in peculiar vision-quests). I knew that my graduate work was in the back of my mind, as well as in my backpack (Moby Dick). Being primed for inspiration, I set out for Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail. I sat in a cafe and had a thimble of espresso and decided I’d go find Beckett’s grave in Montparnasse. Why? I’d really wanted to start my psyche fire, so to speak. I’d come to Paris for twelve hours and I was going to come away with a piece of it.

In that wandering around, I eventually found it, quietly. Almost hesitantly. It’s not a remarkable slab of granite. Just plain, minimalist even, nearly unadorned, simple. Here lies the man. I know this will sound, basically, as if I am, possibly, not normal. I suppose I’m not. I don’t care. I felt his presence, benevolent; I felt welcomed. I wanted to acknowledge a debt to him and the integrity of my work that I’d nurtured from back in the early days of my writing when Beckett was my guiding light. This light for the dispossessed. Was I that? I was happy to be. A lightness, a sense of purpose, a confidence, seemed to settle around and within me. I thanked Beckett. I’d like to think I was acknowledged.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

From Impossible Lives

I'm pleased to see another publication of my fiction, "The Watch," an excerpt from my novel. Curiously, I'm the only XY chromosome presence in this issue, make of that what you will. This is in Driftwood magazine, see and order it here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

This Is America

My story in the Santa Monica Review, "This is America," which to my surprise opens their Fall 2008 issue, is briefly introduced on their web page, here. If you follow the page down, there is also a link to a brief excerpt. Editor Andrew Tonkovich promises that this is a "dark" issue, and I won't deny it. This fine journal is available only in print (finally!), not online, however. So order a copy, and see what some of us California writers are up to. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Residue Of Thinking

There is a level of purity, perhaps even idealization, in the art of fiction that conditions me to make it primary writing: fiction becomes sacrosanct. I would imagine a lot of fiction writers have this perception. The desire to express thoughts on any other writing can seem secondary, irrelevant, or too much of a distraction. In other words, if you aren’t writing fiction, you aren’t really writing.

Thus, I frequently find it necessary to justify the point of keeping a blog.

Just as in keeping a journal, a blog allows me to codify my thoughts, ones that may not be fully fleshed out. Here there is a compulsion to explain, perhaps to rationalize or discover the arrival at an opinion. When you work all the angles (or try), you may not avoid learning something new, or revising how you once thought about a topic or idea.

When I did my grad program writing, the process became most clear to me in the writing of annotations. The annotation is a more focused and detailed book reviewing, usually of a novel, although one can annotate any book. The discoveries came out almost organically from the material, as opposed to trying to validate a premise, a shortcoming of many of my so-called “academic” papers. The writing came to be what I called thinking on the page. It’s what writing is for me: ultimately a conveyor of thought, but essentially a residue of thinking. Through the writing I am discovering. But the goal isn’t necessarily about achieving objectivity, something that I feel inclined towards when writing a book review, if only to appease an editor. In general, objectivity will drive everyone toward safe, not unreasonable conclusions, or what will avoid being unpopular or controversial. But what has more interested me may be the illusion that what I’m driving at is highly unique and subjective. Abandoning politics, right thinking, trying to please any master other than myself, in short, avoiding playing it safe with my conclusions, is what this blog writing feels like to me.

The blogs I’ve come across run the gamut. There is the tightly braided academic language that uses jargon and excessive complexity to state something simple, possibly to cloak an idea the writer isn’t quite sure of. On the other end of the spectrum is the palatable to all, I-don’t-want-to-offend-thee pablum that is merely a form of soft self-hype, of little substance. I suppose I’m holding my own style up as an ideal counter-example.

My version of a blog is an attempt to subvert the spontaneity of execution that is blog writing. Maybe this is an anti-blog. I don’t just write the first thing that comes to me here--I don’t want to be that boring--nor can I be (dare I say it) eloquent without reflection. Andrew Sullivan’s piece in the Atlantic first got me thinking about all of this, as he seems to aim at justifying and defining the “proper” use of a blog. To which I offer: why deny what a blog can be?