Sunday, July 21, 2019

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Criticism would be better if there were less of it. Today anyone with an internet connection can post any nonsense opinion they want, with little regard for taste or even basic grammar. So with this review what I want to do, more than anything else, is to explore a little of my own methods, techniques and feelings on the nature of criticism, how I approach it, and what I think it’s limitations are, and perhaps, most importantly, why you should even be listening to me in the first place.
I suppose I wanted to be a critic from an early age, mostly because they got to do the things that I always wanted to do but was denied. They lived the kind of life that I wanted. I could never get to the theatre to see a play for example, so I read all the theatre reviews I could get my hands on. Likewise, the few novels that I could get my hands on were great, and always welcome, but it was always the book reviews that really stood out to me. More often the criticism was perfectly satisfying in its own right, complete and fulfilling enough to make anything more seem superfluous. However, the great majority of book reviews published today often give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is being dealt with.
And so, for me, when it comes to criticism and reviewing, two points are always paramount: (a) make your criticisms as honestly and forcefully as is appropriate, and (b) try to find any redeeming features in even the worst performance. Point (b) is perhaps the most egalitarian: hardly any book is completely void of some good qualities. It’s also important in a book review to convey accurately and succinctly what the author has to say before offering any evaluation whatsoever. Few books are perfect and many are defective in one way or another.
Whenever you read a review by someone that contains nothing positive at all, but only criticism, you should be especially suspicious, the reviewer obviously has an agenda or a vendetta or simply wants to look tough. A good reviewer must above all be fair, even when highly critical; so he or she should try to be as equally positive as well as negative. This is not to say that this will always be possible, or compatible, especially if the reviewer is at all honest. Tone and style are also both crucial tools in the critic’s belt. Although, the greatest difficulty, as Elizabeth Hardwick has said, “ making a point, making a difference, with words.”
My ostensible goal when crafting a review, is to celebrate the good and condemn the bad, but I am at every turn thwarted by the sheer mass of mediocrity with which I must contend with. Until one has had some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover just how bad the majority of them actually are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.
In essence then, criticism is highly subjective. But it is a sort of subjectivity which strives towards a universal objectivity. We all agree that things such as beauty, truth, pleasure and pain exist. But we don’t always agree on which forms in which they manifest. And really, what meaning is there in the word ‘good’ anyway?
Better Living Through Criticism attempts to answer this question, and is composed of six chapters and four dialogues, which opens with an imaginary, or perhaps not so imaginary, interviewer asking the critic: “What’s the point of criticism? What are critics good for?” And it says, just before it closes, that where criticism is concerned, “nobody has ever figured out where to begin, or what to conclude.” But does this mean we have gotten nowhere?
Well, no. Critics perform a vital service in the creative continuum, deconstructing movies/albums/books/plays down to their requisite pieces and casting the bones in an effort to call forth larger cultural themes and ideas. Henry James wrote that criticism showed the mind engaged in “a reaching out for the reasons of its interest,” and Scott, says something similar toward the end of his buoyant and argumentative book: “Let’s say that a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.”
In other words, the nature of the critic, is to try to unpack the underpinnings of artistic endeavor. But most people simply do not care enough to read about criticism, and so aren’t likely to read a defense of it, and people who are already committed to criticism don’t need it defended. Who, then, is Scott attempting to persuade?
This uncertainty about audience is one of the most important and symptomatic facts about the book. It appears most clearly as a problem of reference, which is always an issue in criticism. A critic must assume a certain community of knowledge with the reader, or else the argument can never get started. But Scott is hesitant to take for granted any prior literary or historical knowledge on the part of the reader. No matter who or what is mentioned, Kant, H.L. Mencken, Henry James, Louis XIV, he introduces it with a journalistic tag: e.g., “Moby-Dick, (Melville’s) grand, tragic, philosophically ambitious narrative of an ill-fated whaling voyage.” This says both too much, who is the potential reader of Scott’s book that doesn’t know Moby Dick is a whale?, and too little, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, three adjectives aren’t going to give you any real sense of it. Which makes the book extremely unfocussed in a way and I struggled to understand just exactly what the author wanted to accomplish. His measure of good criticism is almost too relative, too hard to nail down. Which is a function, primarily, of his laudable unwillingness to try to characterize what is good art or good literature given the variability of all forms of both and the tendency for many arbiters to see "quality" through a Western lens. But I would have preferred that he was a little more prescriptive about the principals behind what makes for good criticism which you would think is distinct from what is being critiqued. As a result, Better Living Through Criticism, ended up being a different book than what I was expecting. It was more personal and more abstract, really almost philosophical in it's approach to criticism. However, Scott does make a strong case for the inevitability of criticism as a feature of any society that values thinking of any kind and in the process, ends up providing an interesting history of criticism itself. Still yet, I do feel that the subject matter would have been better treated in essay form, rather than a full length manuscript.
Elaborating on what is perhaps the boldest argument Scott puts forth in the book, “All art is successful criticism.” Sukhdev Sandhu writes, “All artists find themselves reckoning with the past, judging its achievements, assessing its relevance for the present, revolting against or carrying the baton for it. Huge swaths of contemporary culture – from hip-hop, to the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers – are constructed from borrowing, quotation, and meta-commentary, much of it bracingly original. Seen in this way, they are not just poster children for postmodernism, but direct descendants of Shakespeare who ransacked the cupboards of high and low literature, history and folklore in search of viable scenarios, cobbling together scraps of Ovid, Holinshed, Latin comedy, and commedia dell’arte sketches.”
But criticism, even when it is not literary criticism, is still, nevertheless, a literary activity, it is a kind of writing. And a culture indifferent to writing will be indifferent to criticism. And criticism is always addressed not to fans, but to independent minds, people who express their enthusiasms through debate and analysis rather than dogged collecting and esoteric one-upmanship. And regardless of what may be believed, I do think it still matters what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. I’ve written about a hundred book reviews since starting this blog and I believe the book review is one of the most valuable literary forms and not at all easy to do well. And I would encourage everyone to write them and to take them seriously.
Whatever its occasional pandering, Better Living Through Criticism, does exemplify the rhetorical virtues it so enthusiastically celebrates as being peculiar to the critic: attentiveness to detail, alertness to context, and a hunger for larger meanings. Reminding us that in the end, it is the job of the artist to free our minds, but it is the job of the critic to help us figure out what to do with that freedom once we have it.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Ode to a Bluebird

There's a scared little boy that lives inside of me.
But I pretend he's not there, pretend he grew up.
Yet, I can hear him crying now as I write this.
But I’m too tough for him. So I beat him down and flick his ears and tell him to be quiet before someone hears him. 
And the strangers I meet never know he's there.
But late at night, when it's just the two of us, I let him out and tell him that I know he's scared, but not to cry.
And when morning comes I put him back.
And we subsist like this, with our
shrouded understandings, and it’s enough to make a man weep.
But I don’t weep.
Will you?

Saturday, July 13, 2019

A Gift and it's Discontents

The response I invariably give to the question, “What would you like for your birthday, Christmas, etc.?” is, “Nothing.”
People naturally assume that I’m just being modest, or at worst humble, and insist on getting me something anyway and of course it’s generally something that I couldn’t possibly want any less, something that even the most die-hard pack rat would look at and say, “Throw that out!”
And then they always ask me that most pretentious of questions, "Do you like it?” And I'm forced to say yes while a smug smile spreads across their face and I struggle to keep from choking on my own disappointment while simultaneously hoping that this piece of shit came from a retail store nearby and can be exchanged just as carelessly as it was purchased. Believe it or not there are some assholes out there that will go to such extremes that they'll do whatever it takes to prevent you from returning their gift. God help you if they happened to have made it themselves.
“But it’s the thought that counts.”
Really? How much thought could possibly go into a set of dish towels? My guess is practically none.
“Whose name did we draw this year honey?”
“Johnny’s “
“Ok here, lets get him this, so long as he has something to open.”
Who hasn’t had this conversation before? Anyone who has ever drawn names at the office or has forgotten someone on their shopping list. It’s the thought that counts? Come on, even if this were true nobody believes it. 
When you give someone a gift you are essentially attempting to evoke a response from the givee preferably a favorable one. But why do we want this? Is it because we want to make someone happy? It ultimately doesn’t matter; your interest in giving the gift will always remain self-serving since all purposeful actions benefits the self by the mere fact of the self-wanting to do them. Not to mention the phenomenon of me-gifting. Besides giving someone a gift they didn't want or ask for and then saying it’s the thought that counts is like a plastic surgeon, since your already under, adding an extra nose to your face because he thought you might like it and then expecting you to be grateful about it. What kind of bullshit is this? Not only does it obligate me to return the favor but I must now be grateful at having been made to do you a favor.
You know what "gift" in German means? Poison. We're all being slowly poisoned to death by people with supposedly good intentions. Leave it to the Germans to know a bad idea when they see one, except Nazism, they really dropped the ball on that one.
The only kind of gift anyone truly wants are the expensive gifts, and thats only because expensive gifts have no sentiments attached to them, which is what makes them desirable in the first place. It relieves us of the burden of having to get close to each other, allowing us to keep our distance while we engage in this consumer fueled emasculating barter system we call "gifting.’’

Friday, July 12, 2019

Notes on Reading

The first time I picked up Dean Koontz‘s novel, The Voice of the Night, I was still in high school. And I finished the book in one sitting after reading it for the entirety of an afternoon, one winter, in my grandfathers small convenience store, sitting by an old coal fired stove, used to heat the place.
I have actually longed to reread it, but I fear I might hate it this time around. It’s a legitimate fear of mine. I think if I was to reread it, I would be a lot more hardened towards it, simply because I’ve read a lot of books over the years since then. But I will always remember and cherish this one as one of the first, and certainly among the few, novels that have left a lifelong impact.
I also remember the first time I read, what would later become my all-time favorite novel, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I was again still in high school and it was fall or winter. Some of the best reading I’ve done has been during those dreary winter months. This time however, I was at home by myself reclining on the couch in our family room.
I remember reading the description Judd Crandall gave about the first person to ever be buried in the Pet Sematary, Timmy Baterman. As I read this section of the book I imagined the road that he shuffles up and down on at all hours of the day, as being the same road we used to get to our house. A real road that ran through the neighborhood.
Not long after I had finished reading this passage I received a call from my grandmother asking me to come over to collect some leftovers she wanted us to have for dinner. So I ventured out into the night. A cold chill still in the air. Nothing to light the way except one or two street lights that seemed to work capriciously.
Upon reaching the middle of the road I stood and looked down it as far as the light would allow and was suddenly overcome with the sensation that Timmy Baterman was shuffling towards me in the dark.
This is the only book that has ever truly scared me and I’ve reread it several times and it’s always had the same effect.
Once I was reading a short story collection, Queen of Cold-Blooded Tales, by Roberta Simpson Brown. Brown was a Kentucky native born in Russell Springs, at the edge of the Appalachia mountains, and our school librarian had read a few of her stories out loud to our class in preparation for our Halloween festivities. I liked the stories, so I decided to read the rest in her collection and checked the book out that very same day.
The story that I remember most vividly from that collection is, The Handle. The title referring to the handles that can be found running along the outside of a casket. Chills shot down my spine as my closet door slowly began to open right at the exact moment in the story when one of the handles turns up in Ernie’s room. The latch on the closet door was broken and would occasionally open on its own. It was nothing unusual, but it was always unnerving whenever it happened, made more so this time by the story I was reading. A story about a boy who comes back from the grave to claim his friend.
Then there’s Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. I was around eleven when I first read this one, an especially vulnerable age for tales of well-dressed self-loathing vampires wrestling with existentialism.
Everyone knows by now about the tragic child vampire Claudia, trapped forever in the body of a child, never to be independent, never able to live or to be treated like an adult. But what was so interesting about her was the fact that, for all intents and purposes, she didn’t have a human life before becoming a vampire. She was only five years old, so, unlike others, Claudia didn’t have a humanity to remember and to influence her. She was turned before she understood the difference between right and wrong, before she understood the value of life. And because of this she was cold, cruel, and vicious in her own unique ways, but she also suffered in her own unique ways too.
I have a lot of memories reading these books and whenever I think back on my adolescence, these are some of the books that come to mind. They all helped to shape me as a reader, and maybe even in some ways, as a person. Which is also what makes books so powerful. They allow us to reach back in time and, in a way, transcend it. Even now whenever I’m reading a book that I’m really enjoying, it feels as if I'm a child again, peering in through the crack in the door and spying on the adults in the other room. But, ordinarily, I’m always a little sad after reading a book I really enjoyed. I’ll never have that same feeling or experience again. It’s that same thrill that I’m forever chasing. I may enjoy rereading it, but that first initial experience of unmitigated enjoyment will be, as Roy Batty in Blade Runner said, “lost forever, like tears in rain.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Short Story Review: The Garden Party: a selection from, The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Miss Mansfield does not write what one usually thinks of as a “short story.” She is interested in people, not plots, in the substance and color of life, not the chess patterns that can be made with it. Her impressive ability to extract the beauty and vitality from whatever subject, no matter how mundane or difficult it might be, is not only greatly appreciated, but is revealed in full magnificence in her story, The Garden Party.
As the title suggests, The Garden Party centers around an annual party held by the Sheridan family at their home. The Sheridans are a well-off upper-middle-class family, made evident by the very idea of a ‘garden party.’ One of the Sheridan children, Laura, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, is looking forward to the party and is keen to become involved in its preparations. But, while the Sheridans are preparing for their party, news arrives that a working-class man who lives in the poorer part of the village has been tragically killed when his horse reared up and threw him from his cart. Laura, filled with sympathy for the dead man and his family, pleads with her mother and siblings to cancel their party in light of the tragedy. How can they hold a party, with music and guests and laughter, when a family nearby is in mourning for the death of their husband and father? Laura finds, however, that the rest of her family are not as sympathetic as she: they assume the man was drunk, revealing their class prejudice, and that those types of people don’t expect sacrifices from the likes of them. Laura gives up trying to persuade her family to cancel the party, and retires to her bedroom to get ready before the guests start to arrive. Here she catches sight of herself in the mirror, all dressed up, wearing an elegant and fashionable black hat, with a decorative gold pin, and decides that maybe her mother was right and it would be silly and wrong to cancel the party. She decides to attend the party, and return to thinking about the recent tragedy only afterwards.
The party itself is treated in the space of just a few short paragraphs and after the guests have left, Mrs. Sheridan, suggests that Laura should take the leftover food from the party to the family of the man who has died. Laura does so, and finds the poor family grieving, with the dead man laid out in one of the rooms. She is encouraged to go in and see him and when she does she is overcome with an odd feeling, not of sadness, or of despair, but of happiness. Joy. Release. Contentment. She leaves the house, finding that her brother Laurie has been sent to look after her. And as they walk back home together, Laura tries to put into words how she feels. She cries, but whether they are tears of joy or sadness remains unstated. The story finally ends with Laura attempting to convey to her brother how she feels about life, but finds she cannot think of the words.
Clearly, the story Mansfield tells us is ultimately a story about failure. Unlike the others, Laura sees the situation as it is, she recognizes the injustice and the need to react, but in the end she is unwilling to accept the consequences. In the end she's more deplorable than any of the rest because she had the faculties but lacked the integrity to use them. And instead we witness her betray what was her innermost and honest, unspoiled nature.
But the beginning of the story seems to speak of something else; of an awakening and hope, of change and choices, where Laura's youth and character stand out so beautifully. There's something thoroughly offensive in her family's response: they can't call off a social occasion every time "a drunken workman" happens to die; we are made to sympathize with Laura's doubts and her reluctance to conform, gently seduced to take her side against the families staid social conventions. And when she surrenders in the end we feel the blow of that defeat.
Admittedly, this story offers us many things. It offers us a critique of the class system, a story of initiation into the adult world of sex and death, an amusing examination of family dynamics, and it offers us a touching portrait of a child struggling to establish herself as an independent entity in the face of nearly overwhelming parental influence. But once we juxtapose these competing perceptions, we begin to apprehend something a little more abysmal. That sooner or later we all escape into the comfort of the customs in which we we’ve been bred. Allowing all the “garden parties” that are yet to come, to take place. If they do or if they don't, it makes no difference. People will suffer as before, but the trick you must master, as Mrs. Sheridan might have put it, is to somehow learn to ignore them.

You can read the complete short story: here