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

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Steven Augustine

Roxane Gay's critical framework, for determining some Lit "good" and other Lit "mediocre", is mysterious, when the material in question is published by well-known authors, at least... she has a soft spot for James Frey ("I loved Bright Shiny Morning...") and all kinds of other verbacidal hacks. Her critical framework is less mysterious when it comes to unpublished material she has any actual contact with: quite a lot of the stuff she deems good (or even "great") must come from friends or friends of these friends or friends of people she'd like to know, possibly. I can only shudder to think how horrible the stuff she was offered, and wouldn't "publish", is.

Roxane, the "editor", is bemoaning the befuddling surfeit of pulp out there? Are we supposed to greet that news with straight faces?

What I mean is this. Roxanne says that, eg, "Timothy Willis Sanders [...] is a great writer":

***You Have A Crush On Kells [EXCERPT)
by Timothy Willis Sanders

R. Kelly did the Tootsee Roll. Adina Howard watched R.Kelly. R. Kelly dipped and looked at Adina Howard. Adina Howard walked to R. Kelly.

"I like watching you Tootsee Roll," said Adina Howard, "Take me to that Kevin Bacon movie." She handed R. Kelly a folded napkin.

Later, R. Kelly got on the highway with Michael Bivins. R. Kelly unfolded the napkin on the steering wheel.

"Digits. Kevin Bacon movie," said R. Kelly.

"Big ass chi-chis. Go for it," said Michael Bivins.

"Hate Kevin Bacon though,” said R. Kelly. "Don’t know…she was with DMX. I think he’s in jail."


"I don’t know. Maybe you have to watch out for girls who make those kinds of choices."

"No. Why is he in jail?"

"They found a gun in his car or something."

"When does he get out?" said Michael Bivins.

"I don’t know. I don’t really know him," said R. Kelly.***


Well, now we know what happens when aspiring writers honor the vocation by watching lots of TV. Effortless Success is the American dream.

An excerpt from one of Roxane's own (recently posted) stories:

"The couple hunkered in the booth next to us are having a very serious argument, the kind so serious that neither party can bear to raise their voices. Instead, they speak in loud, ugly whispers, each word out of their mouths accompanied by a healthy serving of spittle that hangs from their lips for several excruciating moments before falling onto the dark linen tablecloths and spreading into Rorschach blots of moisture. My husband and I cannot stop watching this couple. We live for such episodes. Later, when we are alone in bed, our stomachs rumbling as they try to digest the rich meal we ingested so gleefully hours earlier, we will dissect the other couple’s argument. He will take her side and I will take his and we will recreate the complex history of the other couple’s relationship. We will advocate our positions so passionately that the entire affair will devolve into an argument about our own relationship."

If she keeps at it and is very hard on herself by being honest with herself, and is humble in the face of what writing is and does when done well... there's hope. But, as it stands, this is the work of a precocious eleventh-grader.

Ah, but, no: Roxane is " assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. I received my Ph.D. in September 2010 from Michigan Technological University".

It's a crushingly familiar, 21st-century sensation, watching the professional dancer who can't dance, the professional singer who can't sing, and so on. We can tell what Americans *really* value by wherever it is the standards are still held high; just try getting any attention as a crappy basketball player or a frumpy porn star.

The practice of Literature, as a fundamental cultural resource, is losing the battle. To take Roxane Gay, or any of her talent-free cohorts, seriously, is to admit defeat. Are we really going to go down without a fight?

Dan Green

I don't really think Roxanne Gay's literary taste is the issue here. I also think that in this context to bring in her own work for criticism is essentially an ad hominem attack. Her basic point about the proliferation of books and literary magazines is both coherent and correct. I have a different solution to the problem than she does.

Steven Augustine

"Her basic point about the proliferation of books and literary magazines is both coherent and correct."

And terribly ironic. Here again, the social dynamic of online literary "discourse" subverts any hope of critical frankness.

Also, I'd quibble with your use of "ad hominem", as my target is the quality (lack thereof) of her work... not her personality, the way she dresses, etc. (none of which is of any importance to me). I'd be singing her praises if the material (or her "critical framework) deserved it.

Dan Green

It's ad hominem in that you attack the messenger rather than the message. The message is entirely accurate and, I would say, quite frankly stated, RG's own work as a fiction writer notwithstanding.

Steven Augustine

Dan, unlike with fiction, such a "message" is not detachable from the messenger; the fact that the messenger is even quoted on the matter implies some sort of authority, no?

And if she's complaining about the market being flooded with mediocre work while helping to flood the market with mediocre work ...


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