Btb3
Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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10/29/2007

Comments

Daniel

I think it understandable that an author would state that rule in terms of the authorial intention, rather than as if the work existed independantly. It is an excellent rule though – one too often broken.

Jason Hyun

"Try to perceive what the author's book has accomplished. Do not misperceive it as an artifact of the author's "intent." Judge it according to standards appropriate to the sort of thing it is, not to the sort of thing you'd like it to be."

Fact is, you don't follow this maxim at all.

You also have several bad habits:

- You rarely if ever admit when you make errors.

- You rarely if ever concede anything, especially after commenting pejoratively about books that you have never read and admit to never reading.

- Your tone is always, always full of bitter complaints and constant laments. You never write warmly or with heart about anything--always bitter ideas or bitter contexts. What went on with you in your life with books and academic institutions that you feel so aggrieved?! Even your championing of Stephen Dixon comes inside of laments and bitter contexts.

- You always want to be correct.

Maybe you'll start following your own adage.

Tony Christini

"Critics who refuse to "close their eyes and zip their lips" when it comes to such derelictions may or may not be advancing worthwhile political objectives, but they're not contributing anything of value to literature or to literary criticism."

Well, here's my most recent failure to "contribute anything of value to literature or to literary criticism": Let It Fly: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/10/30/let-it-fly/

Dan Green

"Maybe you'll start following your own adage."

But your comments have nothing to do with the adage.

Jason Hyun

"But your comments have nothing to do with the adage."

There you go again. Missing the point. My comments couldn't have been more clear. Here you are posting "I would amend Updike's rule" but you don't follow the rule yourself. You go out of your way to impose your own agenda and judge work by what you want it to be. As a critic, you have very little generosity. You never critique the works that you routinely write scathing, loathing, bitter jibes about "according to standards appropriate to the sort of thing it is"...

And, as always, instead of directly engaging and addressing criticism, you offer more bitterness. My comment was about your post and how you don't follow your own rule.

Dan Green

"You go out of your way to impose your own agenda and judge work by what you want it to be."

You'll have to provide an example. There's nothing in the current post that exemplifies your observation.

Most of the work that doesn't fit my "agenda" (i.e., my taste in fiction) goes by without comment. I don't generally review work I don't like unless there's a larger point to be made. I acknowledge that some fiction succeeds at what it wants to do, but I don't find what it wants to do particularly interesting.

Jason Hyun

Give examples?! Your whole blog is replete with bitter diatribes against the abuses of all sorts of novels other than the ones that you like. Your reviews of reviews include digs and jibes at books you don't like without any regard for critiquing the book "according to standards appropriate to the sort of thing it is"...

Because of this, you are often no better than the reviewers that you purloin. But, as is often the case, you always have to be correct and you rarely if ever concede a point to anyone.

And, quite frankly, since you posted and offered a rule about criticism, you yourself opened the door for an assessment of how you practice criticism and not just in this post.

Follow your own advice. Instead of only promulgating your own "taste" (your word) and agenda, why not stretching yourself and actually attempting to read a book that does not conform to your taste "according to standards appropriate to the sort of thing it is"...

But, like as not, you'll probably think or say the following: "I don't and shouldn't have to critique books that don't fit my taste." If that is the case, then your criticism of the book industry's narrow coverage of postmodern or other experimental literature is slightly skewed because you yourself are not generous in your coverage.

Dan Green

"Your whole blog is replete with bitter diatribes against the abuses of all sorts of novels other than the ones that you like."

For example? We can talk about particular cases, but if you're just blowing off smoke we won't pursue the issue further. You just keep repeating the same sputtering invective.

I have no obligation to be "generous" in my "coverage."

Jason Hyun

You said exactly what I thought you would: 'I have no obligation to be "generous" in my "coverage."'

I am saying that this is a matter of the modus operandi of your blog IN GENERAL.

You do not practice what you preach.

When people give you examples--like I did previously about commenting on 2 books that you had not even read--you did not concede the obviousness of your error (perhaps your critical policy includes commenting on books you yourself haven't read). In another post you simply qualified that you hadn't even read the book you were speaking about. But to address substantively errors like this seems out of the question for you.

Now that you have a specific example, perhaps you will speak to it.

For me, you are of the same order as a far more mainstream-established critic like James Wood--just with different tastes. Both of you are only committed to your own taste at the exclusion of all else; you are a formalist, an almost neo-New Criticalist (without the assumed authorial intentionality) with a penchant for experimental fiction who believes that "meaning" is always in quotation marks as you put it in this post. Wood's moralist preference for a certain type of psychological realism is well known. Each of you are smart but unbelievably dogmatic with your close readings. Both of you are habitually in the corrective mode--correcting others according to your own tastes...just like the post that appears after this about that review and reviewer.

So it was nice to see you commenting on your "Rule" (revised from Updike). But not so nice to realize that you don't follow that rule yourself IN GENERAL.

You make generalizations about the state of fiction and publishing all the time in asides, including recent generalizations (sweeping, I might add) that publishing more genre short fiction will not expand the "narrow" market for short fiction. You also generalized about the 19th century magazine short fiction too...So, since when did you have to have specifics to respond in kind and concede anything?

Practice what you preach, Dan. Follow your own rule. Or were you just putting the rule out there without saying that anyone should follow it?

Dan Green

I don't have an example. I don't know which posts you're talking about, and I don't know what specific criticism you're making of them. You keep making broad assertions with no evidence to back them up.

You're wrong. I almost always back up my generalizations with specific examples or with extended reasoning, or both.

You're also wrong about my comments in the following post. I'm not correcting the reviewer. In fact I agree with him that the novel in question doesn't provide the expected pleasures. I simply suggest that this isn't always a bad thing. This is known as a critical disagreement. I'd be glad to have one with you, but you provide me with no specific content with which to disagree.

Tony Christini

Bernard Smith by way of T. S. Eliot puts the issue pithily below, where he quotes and comments on Eliot's view that:

"The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards."

Upon which, Bernard Smith comments (in 1939):

"To this has esthetic criticism at last come - to a realization that non-esthetic criteria are the ultimate tests of value. Whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social criteria, they are still the ideas that men have about the way human beings live together and the way they ought to live. The quest of beauty had become the quest of reality."

In my view, literature evaluated at its fullest is literature evaluated by both literary (i.e., aesthetic) criteria and normative criteria. Eliot thought "literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint." I think at its fullest that criticism of literature consists of literary (aesthetic) criticism that must be completed by a wide variety of normative evaluations of the work of literature, "whether they be called philosophical, moral, or social" etc.

A sheer kaleidoscope on canvas has marvelous aesthetic features. So does Picasso's painting Guernica. The normative features of Guernica however are highly accomplished, at least comparatively, whereas a sheer kaleidoscope (of colors on canvas) has comparatively little or no normative development. Is one necessarily aesthetically superior to the other? Not necessarily, no. Is one necessarily normatively superior to the other? One the one hand, there's no comparison. On the other hand, there's no competition, since Guernica exists and is achieved normatively in ways and to degrees that the kaleidoscope doesn't approach. So which work of art is greater? The question is beside the point in my eyes. Which work of art is normatively more vital? Obviously the one that treats the normative in detail - detail that happens to be skilled, moving, illuminating.

Dan apparently claims to not accept that the normative has any role in evaluation of art, because he conflates art with aesthetic; he sees an artwork as an aestheticwork. Others see differently and prefer both accomplished aesthetics and accomplished and extensive normative qualities both in particular works of art, if not all. A kaleidoscope after all is delightful. It's also perhaps not quite absent of some limited normative nature.

Bernard Smith and T. S. Eliot at some length here: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/02/14/literary-criticism-t-s-eliots-view-by-way-of-the-views-of-bernard-smith/

Chris

This might be a good time to highlight one of the more interesting differences between blogs and "the mainstream," as it were -- far more interesting, to my mind, than the debate about whether Blogs Will Take Over since it addresses the issue of the unique nature of the medium and the form criticism takes here without requiring the post hoc ergo propter hoc logic of the truism that the New York Times Book Review sucks to shoulder the burden of explaining what about litblogs is inherently excellent. Dan's got a one-man show, Jason. I don't think he has an obligation to adhere to any standards other than his own, or to discuss (or be fair to) books and authors that disinterest him, or, God knows, to service the needs of an audience. I do think that Dan may be dogmatic if he likes, and that he may air his "bitterness" to his heart's content; in fact there are entire blogs (see Attacking the Demi-Puppets, e.g.) that are composed entirely of bitterness, not to say paranoia. Your alternative, of course, is to stop reading Dan's blog: it's not a public service he's performing, and it's lovely that he's not under any political or economic pressure to temper himself. Lovely, too, you'll have to admit, that Dan has allowed to remain the several provocative comments you've made: it's been a long time since I saw a letters page in a "mainstream" publication that devoted any space to speak of to a back and forth between a reader and one of its critics.

Jason Hyun

Dan, even when I refer to past posts and give examples you discount them. And no: *you* are wrong: You do not always back up your broad generalizations. Here's the example ***that I already gave in this stream and that you discount***. Several posts ago (the one about short fiction and broadening its audience titled "Saving the Short Story as a Whole") you made a generalization and said that you didn't think it was possible for short fiction to broaden its audience beyond its "narrow" present one. This was a sweeping generalization that discounted Ed Champion's emphasis on GENRE fiction. Like I said, this was an example I already raised and you still ignore it. You do in fact make sweeping generalizations like this.

Speaking generally is just as important as speaking specifically, especially when talking about TENDENCIES in a critic's practice in general. I actually gave several examples from THIS MONTH's posts.

So I'll be reading you and seeing if you following your own rule.

Tony Christini's characterization of your critical tendencies is quite apt, btw.

Chris

"Read more Blanchot and try us again."

Steven Augustine

"...you made a generalization and said that you didn't think it was possible for short fiction to broaden its audience beyond its "narrow" present one."

This is the "what if/anti-generalisation" argument of a teenager. Anyone not merely interested in indulging in passionate sophistry here knows that the audience for short fiction is, in fact, "narrow".

Yes, of course, compared to the audience for sonnets, short fiction is booming (break out the champagne), but comparing short fiction as a consumer activity (the reading of it; not the writing-of-it in lucrative workshops) to the many real-world drains on the audience's precious time, short fiction ranks only slightly higher than...yeah...sonnets.

The drag is that every time a critic like Dan Green writes an unpopular-with-a-certain-faction opinion, or floats a similarly "controversial" theory, the discussion gets bogged down in exactly this kind of quagmire, dickering over the Candide-ish possibility that the obvious, or even the typical, isn't true.

The question isn't whether the market for "short fiction" has shriveled to a blip in comparison to the booming curve of Fitzgerald's heyday; unless you can cite several non-Stephen-King-or-Updike writers pulling hefty checks for shorts on a regular basis (compare the number of *absolute unknowns* still making thousands on optioned screenplays, for enlightenment on a measure of where the audience really is), I'd suggest it's more interesting to dwell on *what to do about the situation* than pretending there isn't one.

That's one point. Next:

Dan writes: "Tony magnifies Updike's misconception by agreeing that 'Understanding what the author wished to do is necessary, of course'."

Agree with Dan to the degree that the critic is not a mind-reader, and, further, the author has no *total*, definitive knowledge of what he/she "wished to do"; no total control over the results, either.

What a writer sets out to do and what the text actually ends up being are two different things for even the best writers (in fact, I'd argue that such instability is fundamental to great writing); only rigidly formulaic, template-tortured writing of the most Procrustean type generates a text with no layers of surprise for the writer.

The critic can only make a subjective judgment as to what the *text* seems to try to be, and follow that to a subjective conclusion as to the successes and failures the text presents in that light. We can then agree or disagree.

Tony, I think your analysis of "Guernica" fails to factor Picasso's fame/visceral impact as a personality (his fame vs that of the event he paints about)into the equation, btw; one thousand years from now, I doubt that "Guernica" will pack more punch than anything by Klee or Miro. The march of time (on the grand scale) may well be a Formalist phenom. And is Munch's formally/historically ambiguous "The Scream" less "powerful" than explicit "Guernica"?

I'd also make the case that "Guernica" had less effect on subsequent military aggressions of its era than, say, a cultivation of the sensibility that prizes the formal qualities of experimental Art in general will have on a culture. That is to say: Warmongers tend to be conservatives who prefer "pictures that look like stuff" to "that crazy modern art bullshit"...I'd say you have a paradox on your hands, since your argument is essentially a conservative one.

Dan Green

Jason: You need to get your accusations straight. Yes, of course I occasionally make generalizations about various subjects that reflect my opinion about them, in this case the future of the short story. However, since, short of zooming into the future in order to investigate how things have turned out, I don't know how I would go about providing evidence for the generalization. It's my opinion, based on the current audience for short fiction. You're free to have another.

Your original complaint, appended to this post, was that I did not follow my own advice about *reviewing*. I've asked you to provide an example to back up this accusation, and you still haven't provided a single one.

Tony Christini

Steven, comments interspersed below:

SA: Dan writes: "Tony magnifies Updike's misconception by agreeing that 'Understanding what the author wished to do is necessary, of course'."

SA: Agree with Dan to the degree that the critic is not a mind-reader, and, further, the author has no *total*, definitive knowledge of what he/she "wished to do"; no total control over the results, either.

-----------I've never said the opposite, and in fact agree. Wasn't the point I made.

SA: What a writer sets out to do and what the text actually ends up being are two different things for even the best writers (in fact, I'd argue that such instability is fundamental to great writing);

------------This sort of instability is inherent in everyday conversation and any sort of writing as well. Yet a lot of art from the great to the marginal conveys or illuminates very much of what their creators intended, that is, aimed for, aspired to, wished for - if never everything alone, which holds with anything. Great and even modest artists, their intentions and products, are often far from the playthings of phenomena you seem to make them out to be.

SA: only rigidly formulaic, template-tortured writing of the most Procrustean type generates a text with no layers of surprise for the writer.

-------------Sure, but no one is speaking of "a text with no layers of surprise," no one is speaking of "total, definitive knowledge…total control" – this is reducing a claim to an absurd extreme, thus of course leaving the claim itself unchallenged, perhaps unheard.

SA: The critic can only make a subjective judgment as to what the *text* seems to try to be, and follow that to a subjective conclusion as to the successes and failures the text presents in that light. We can then agree or disagree.

-------------Critics gather evidence from the text, which may need be critically viewed in context with the society and culture of the text and the writer, and critics use reason in analysis, of course. Thus can plenty of objective points be made, in addition to subjective insights. A critic might also comment on an author's stated intentions (whether achieved or not) that may cast additional light on a work, as might comments from others. Commonly, it should be to no one's surprise, purpose driven artists recognizing that people are not stupid prefer not to use an explicit preface but convey the main purposes or themes implicitly, and sometimes overtly, within the text. Any of these routes can be rendered wonderfully aesthetic and powerful. Such is the power of an artist and artistry. Moreover, an artist through the artwork itself can even aesthetically perform the function of critics within the text, both overtly and implicitly, and quite on purpose. Art can be purposefully self-criticizing, and be quite as clear-eyed as it gets. See Pushkin's great novel in verse Eugene Onegin, for example.

SA: Tony, I think your analysis of "Guernica" fails to factor Picasso's fame/visceral impact as a personality (his fame vs that of the event he paints about)into the equation, btw; one thousand years from now, I doubt that "Guernica" will pack more punch than anything by Klee or Miro. The march of time (on the grand scale) may well be a Formalist phenom. And is Munch's formally/historically ambiguous "The Scream" less "powerful" than explicit "Guernica"?

---------------I make no analysis of Guernica. I simply point out it has pronounced normative features. I'm not aware that Guernica had much impact and have never claimed it did. I raise it in this forum because I can be more or less sure readers are familiar with its normative focus. Plenty of works of art have significant social, political, cultural impacts, also psychological and moral and so on. There are some good studies on this, plenty of documentation. Whether the "The Scream" is more powerful than "Guernica" either now or in one thousand years is irrelevant to the point I'm making that artists may produce work with time and place, topic and audience in mind that is either aesthetically accomplished or aesthetically marginal but normatively focused - and thus, to one degree or another, normatively impacting...often in largely purposeful or predictable ways (e.g., Hugo's Les Misérables, and Ayn Rand's novels...). Such art has consequences, effects or inspires change. Plenty of data on this. "Guernica"'s normative focus is purposefully specifically directed in ways that "The Scream" is not. Whether or not it is successful and to what extent is another question, one I've never looked into, in the case of Guernica.

SA: I'd also make the case that "Guernica" had less effect on subsequent military aggressions of its era than, say, a cultivation of the sensibility that prizes the formal qualities of experimental Art in general will have on a culture.

---------------------That may be – I don't address it – but it is relatively clear, largely known, that Les Misérables and some of Ayn Rand's novels have had and continue to have much of the effect they were intended to have by their authors. There are plenty of other examples - of creator directed normative impact - for art of ever degree of aesthetic accomplishment, and probably for art of most every normative stripe.

SA: That is to say: Warmongers tend to be conservatives who prefer "pictures that look like stuff" to "that crazy modern art bullshit"...I'd say you have a paradox on your hands, since your argument is essentially a conservative one.

-----------------------Don't know what you mean by conservative. Hugo's ideals and intentions in Les Misérables were basically progressive. And a lot of the concrete detail in that novel helped to directly spur progressive reform in France (see link below). The same holds in England for some of Dicken's novels. So, no paradox either, though anyone who can't find paradoxes in virtually anything isn't looking.

Great novel of the people: Les Misérables
http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2006/10/11/great-novel-of-the-people-les-miserables-by-victor-hugo/

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