Archives for October 14, 2004
A reader writes:
I appreciate your reviews and your guidance. I must also say that I am so surprised that I agree with you so frequently because my politics are very different.
I hear this kind of thing a lot, by e-mail as well as face to face, and I never quite know what to say in response. I’m sometimes tempted to reply, “I know you think you’re paying me a compliment, and I appreciate your good intentions, but I wish you’d take a closer look at what you just said. I’m surprised that anybody who thinks the way you do about politics could possibly think the way I do about art. Isn’t that what you meant? If so, it’s not complimentary, it’s condescending. Besides, my aesthetic views aren’t governed by my political views. Why should they be? Are yours?”
If this blog has a credo, it is that the personal is not political. Anyone who believes it to be, or tries to persuade other people that it is, will find no comfort here. Needless to say, my own political views are far from secret (or simple), but I check them at the door of “About Last Night.” I think it’s important that there be at least one politics-free space in the blogosphere where people who love art can read about it–and nothing else.
Beyond that, I believe deeply that art and politics are essentially separate enterprises. Essentially, I say, and I chose that word carefully. Of course an artist who lives under a totalitarian regime cannot help but engage with it in some way or other, as Dmitri Shostakovich did in his music. But it’s one thing to seek to evoke the terror of life under Stalin in a symphony and another to write a novel (or paint a painting or choreograph a ballet) whose purpose, whether in part or whole, is to encourage its audience to take some specific form of political action. To do that, as Kingsley Amis has argued, is to compromise the very essence of one’s art:
Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don’t crush literature from outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we’ve all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy it themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes…
I can’t say it often enough: first comes experience, then understanding. I don’t think Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is a great piece of music because it’s tonal–I think tonality is valid because it is the basis for great pieces of music like Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. No more would I allow my response to a work of art to be conditioned by my political convictions. If anything, it’s the other way round: my experience of reality, which includes the reality of art, is the ultimate source of my philosophy, from which my political convictions spring. In art, experience is truth, and there is no greater sin than to say, “I know I liked that novel when I first read it, but it can’t be good because it’s inconsistent with my theory of fiction, so I guess I won’t like it anymore.” That’s the trouble with political art and politicized criticism: they start with theory instead of experience. I can’t think of a more efficient way to make bad art.
The only time I engage with political issues as a critic is when I’m covering specifically political art, and even then I always try to start with the immediate experience. Did the play I just saw excite me? Was I moved? Puzzled? Bored? In my experience, most political plays tend to be boring, precisely because the political playwright voluntarily places himself in an ideological straitjacket and thus is rendered incapable of responding freely to the call of inspiration. That leaves me with nothing to talk about but his beliefs, which then become fair game for fisking. On the other hand, I don’t want to write about plays like that, and given the choice I won’t waste time going to see them in the first place. They’re too predictable, and usually too smug as well. (In my lexicon of critical invective, “smug” is the supreme pejorative, worse even than “dull.”)
I’m as imperfect as the next guy, and no doubt I’ve written a few reviews in which I let my political opinions color my critical responses. But I don’t think it happens very often. I can’t tell you, for instance, how many of my readers are surprised to discover how much I love the films of John Sayles (which at their best seem to me a touchstone of how “political” themes can be treated in an unpoliticized, open-minded way) or the dances of Mark Morris. A fellow critic whom I admire recently described me as “a strong personality–and spectacularly unpredictable.” I myself wouldn’t put it that way: I don’t think unpredictability is a virtue in and of itself, just as I don’t think my aesthetic opinions are arbitrary. Still, I know what he means, and I treasure the compliment, in part because it is a compliment and not condescension in disguise.
My criticism comes with a warranty: I can’t promise that you’ll like what I like, but I do promise that I like what I like–and not because I think I ought to, either.
Aleksandar Hemon wrote yesterday in Slate about the
NEA’s Operation Homecoming project, which aims to get soldiers returning from service in the Middle East together with authors like Bobbie Ann Mason and Mark Bowden and writing about their experiences there. Hemon’s piece seems off-target and, just below the surface, unhelpfully territorial about the arts. Hemon fears Dana Gioia’s innovative program will turn out nothing but patriotic fables, and he seems to wish to pre-emptively discredit the participating soldiers’ work on this basis. His fear seems unwarranted, though, by anything the NEA has said about the project:
It is impossible to predict what stories will appear in this anthology. Much of it may be personal in importance — a soldier’s or spouse’s attempt to capture and clarify a singularly challenging moment in life. Some of it may rise to literature — vivid accounts of experience that arrest the reader’s attention and linger in the memory. All of it will have historical value as the testimony of men and women who saw the events directly. Operation Homecoming will capture these individual accounts and preserve them for the public record. American letters will be richer for their addition. [my emphasis]
Surely we should wait to judge the program until we see what fruit it bears, no? To my ear, Hemon’s piece seems directed less at appraising the potential of the project than at making extra-literary arguments about the U.S. in Iraq. Without actually considering any writing that has come out of them, Hemon treats the workshops as little more than a suspicious-looking arm of an administration he loathes. The whole piece seems animated by paranoia–“What is the real purpose of the project?”–and possessiveness.
Nathalie Chicha is raising excellent questions about some of the dubious literary premises of Hemon’s argument over
at Galley Cat:
Hemon’s claim reminds of me Stanley Crouch’s recent (and widely reviled) attack on The Plot Against America for focusing on anti-Semitism instead of “the brutal anti-black bigotry that actually existed.” As a letter-writer put it: “The cheapest shot a critic can take is to criticize an author for the book he didn’t write.” To return to Hemon’s contention that “any account … that does not include testimonies of … Iraqis cannot avoid being a lie,” I have to ask: is any story, by this criteria, not a lie?
Well, now that you mention it, no. And it’s odd that such a practiced and decorated novelist would contend such a thing. If fiction and criticism since James has obsessed over any single literary issue (fantastically productively sometimes, into dead ends at other times), it has to be the inescapability of point of view. A point of view is not a lie unless it pretends to be objective, and Operation Homecoming looks to all appearances to be encouraging self-conscious subjectivity (I’ve never known a writing workshop that didn’t). My guess is that when reviewing a personal narrative, whether essay or novel, by an established author, Hemon would never dream of making so naive a demand as that she present all sides of the story. So why would he impose it on these men and women? We twenty-first century readers know enough to read their accounts as points of view; in fact, that’s exactly what will make them valuable.
Nathalie, by the way, is looking for reader feedback on the Hemon piece. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A novelist friend writes:
Have you ever considered writing fiction? I’m editing a collection of original stories and I was on the highway today when it occurred to me…what if Terry wanted to write a short story?
So I’m throwing the idea out there. Feel free to throw it back at me with “ARE YOU CRAZY?” But if you want to do it, I want you to do it.
Alas, dear friend, you are crazy. Not that I wouldn’t like to write you a short story, but I have on more than one occasion dug deep within myself in search of the stuff of fiction and found…nothing. I’ve gone so far as to start two or three novels, invariably petering out after the first few chapters. I did manage three years ago to write a full-length play, but once the first hot flush of enthusiasm and vanity wore off, I realized that it simply wasn’t good enough, and scrapped it.
I’ve always wondered what was missing from my psyche that might have made it possible for me to write fiction. Anthony Powell, if I remember correctly, once claimed that the reason why Cyril Connolly, a very gifted essayist and parodist, was unable to write good fiction (his lone novel, The Rock Pool, was a clever disaster) was that he was insufficiently interested in the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of other people. This may be one of those explanations that sounds good but doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny–or possibly not. Though I always thought I was interested in other people, it’s also true that I’m not the world’s best noticer. No sooner does a friend tell me that she’s in trouble than I’m all solicitude and consideration, but often I’m too lost in my own thoughts to spot the fast-growing pool of blood at her feet.
Whatever the reason, I’ve reached the age of forty-eight without once successfully completing a work of fiction (or unsuccessfully, for that matter), and though it’s not unheard of for incautious writers to unexpectedly extrude a novel in the middle of life, I doubt it’ll happen to me. I regret it bitterly, just as I regret never having learned to speak another language, but by now I’m reasonably content to stick to the cards in my hand and do my best to play them as well as I know how.
“In middle age,” Evelyn Waugh told a correspondent in 1960, “a writer knows his capacities & limitations and he has a general conspectus of his future work….A writer should have found his métier before he is 50.” I seem to have found mine. My self-designed business card describes me as CRITIC, BIOGRAPHER, BLOGGER. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
“‘How’s the literary grift go?’ I asked.
“He looked at me sharply, demanding: ‘You haven’t been reading me?’
“‘No. Where’d you get that funny idea?’
“‘There was something in your tone, something proprietary, as in the voice of one who has bought an author for a couple of dollars. I haven’t met it often enough to be used to it. Good God! Remember once I offered you a set of my books as a present?’ He had always liked to talk that way.
“‘Yeah. But I never blamed you. You were drunk.'”
Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse
Further praise for Erin McKeown comes from a reader in NYC:
I couldn’t agree with you more about Ms. McKeown. I was one of the lucky folks who got to hear her first set a few years ago at the Falconridge Folk Festival. Every now and then at New Singer/Songwriter showcases someone quite amazing pops up. For the rest of the weekend everyone wanted her on stage with them and her CD was what was played while the bands were setting up. I’ve seen her in person as often as I’ve been able to and forced her CDs on unsuspecting friends (it’s always been appreciated). She’s quite amazing.
And how do we know this correspondent’s judgment is trustworthy? Well, for one thing, she has superior taste in cities:
I was in your great town this past weekend to attend the 50th birthday party of close friend. My pals at work tease me that I’m a total flight risk whenever I visit, I love Chicago so much, and they are right. New York is my husband, but I’d have an affair with Chicago at the drop of a hat.
Saucy! Well, Chicago is kind of a sly temptress that way. Just ask my increasingly smitten co-blogger….