Thursday, February 9, 2012

Literary Blog Hop - Art Criticism and the Self




What's the hop?

It's a serious, monthly discussion in between bloggers, about literature and it's hosted by the terrific, fearless girls behind the terrific, fearless and bold Blue Bookcase blog. They will talk about Melville and Louise Erdrich, but not about Jodi Picoult.

Can I participate?

Yes, go over to their place and register. It's free and it's a lot of fun. You will meet other people and make friends. It's not necessary to participate every month, but the more you do, the cooler you are to me. 

This month's prompt...

In the epilogue for FARGO ROCK CITY, Chuck Klosterman writes:


"It's always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they're really just writing about themselves."

Do you agree?

My answer...

Criminally underrated writer Kyle Minor was asked in interview this week if writers could be objective readers. This answer is basically the short answer to this question:

It's not possible for anyone to be an objective reader. Reading is an exercise in subjectivity. Writing, too, and also thinking. 

That's the jist of it. I can appreciate the beauty in Minor's conciseness, but the long answer is a little more complex than that. Or should I say nuanced. I don't believe in objective criticism of literature (or any form of art whatsoever). Usually, it's just borrowing somebody else's subjective discourse on an issue and applying it to another frame of reference. It's deluding yourself you're being objective as in fact you just agree with somebody about something.

There has to be a certain amount of subjectivity to criticism for the sake of intellectual honesty. If you want your readers to trust your opinion, you have to make it clear that it's an opinion and most important, they have to know who you are so they can identify to your material. "You don't need to know me because I'm a scholar" doesn't cut it anymore. Appreciating art is an exercise in subjectivity, like Minor said. An opinion.

I couldn't have appreciated Chuck Klosterman's insight on hair metal, if I didn't know who he was. If I didn't know that like me, he was an intellectual kid who grew up in a remote area, where it's not a winning plan to be an intellectual kid. Fuck, I'm going to listen to him just because of that. He uses the vernacular of young pop culture junkies, so I understand his process of thoughts, which is usually a few steps ahead of mine. It establishes a frame of reference we both understand and therefore I understood the deconstruction discourse in his work better than anywhere else.

But here's the issue. You can't criticize from too close. You can't talk about yourself in a way that has nothing to do with the subject. I read an alarming number of book reviews on a weekly basis that have a "the characters really got to me", "I could feel her inner turmoil" and "I really liked it" in the body of their argumentation. Right there, you're saying nothing about the book and everything about yourself. You're too close. To borrow from my boxing analogy again (that Christina gracefully quoted for her own answer), you can't stand too far because your points aren't going to hit and you can't stand too close because your points will be muffled my lack of perspective. You have to find the distance that works for you. That gives you a maximum impact on your readers.

Here's an example.

The best review I've read on the web during the last two weeks is Sabrina Ogden's review of John Rector's latest novel ALREADY GONE. It's even a lot better than mine! What makes it so great is that Sabrina introduces her review by telling us the story of her scumbag dope-peddling boyfriends in college. ALREADY GONE being a novel about not knowing somebody as well as you've thought, this establishes from the get go that she got the point. She sets the tone of the novel without spoiling the story and with an entertaining story on top of that.

So in a nutshell, I agree with Klosterman, but not everybody has the eloquence of tying up the loose ends of their lives with an intellectual point the way he does. I would go as fas as to say subjectivity is imperative (really, just read this blog and it's obvious), but its amount should vary from critic to critic, in regards to their level of comfort with the idea. Critics are not journalists. They deal with facts, we deal with art production.


13 comments:

  1. When I first read this post, I was trying to come up with a reply and, failing that, just wrote my own post. (Stealing liberally from yours.) I like the boxing analogy that you and Christina use; there is a sweet spot with reviews, and it can be hard to find that place that isn't too close to either the book or our own lives. I tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to reviewing, because I don't want to start tossing up those "reviews" that hedge around criticism by coming at a book from the perspective of, "Well, I don't know anything about this genre, but I really IDENTIFIED with such-and-such character's plight because of some incident from my own life..." But then, some of my favorite posts from my blog are the ones where I decided to goof around and write about my life as well as the book.

    I don't think there's autobiography in all criticism, but I do think Klosterman's correct that much of the BEST criticism contains some autobiographical element.

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  2. I agree with you. It's all about finding the correct distance from which approaching a book and this is a highly subjective thing. Depends on the person, but also on the book. Read Sabrina's review of Rector. She found the perfect distance. She shares something, but it's right in the tone of the book. She's telling you what the book is about without spoiling. Very fun and clever stance she took.

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  3. That line is extremely deep. Whenever someone gives criticism they are actually talking about themselves. I don't know. There's definitely something to this line because without one's unique perspective or take on things, you cannot even begin to offer criticism. Wow...your blog is deep today, Ben.

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  4. Thanks Mike! You know, I spend so much time doing that criticism thing that I have thought about it a lot. Guys like Klosterman and DFW gave me models to follow using a highly subjective approach, but subjectivity being proper to the self, well it's different for everybody.

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  5. First, thanks, I'll go register for the blog hop first thing.
    Then, the answer. Yes, I believe criticism is not at all devoid of highly subjective perspectives. I agree with you, being too close doesn't help your critique make sense. Being too far makes it too abstract and... far.
    As for everything, there should be a balance between the evaluation of facts pertaining to the literary work and one's own subjective judgement. But damn, they're both important!

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  6. Awww, thanks so much for this. You have no idea how much your kindness towards my review means to me. I sometimes worry that my personal stories make people uncomfortable, but in all honesty, they are the only way I can write a review. Reading is first for me... and it becomes personal. I like to share with other what the book made me think of as I read it. You sir, are very kind!

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  7. Hey Ben!
    Thanks for talking up tBB and the hop! You are a great advertiser for us. :)
    You know, the more I think about your boxing analogy, the more I like it.

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  8. Reviewing a review is something I like and something I naturally tend to do, so I'll sneak comfortably in this post! :)
    However I hope no one will feel offended if I sing a bit out of tune here, specifically in reference to the Already Gone review. Don't get me wrong, I liked reading it as it was a nice short article which linked the book to some biographic elements with humor and wit.
    On the other hand, I personally would not buy the book only based on that particular review because it doesn't tell me any of the things I need to know before I can possibly switch into buying-mode.
    The review is almost entirely focused on what the book is all about: a dark past barging into one's present. Then it tells me it's a page turner. Full stop.
    But what kind of reading experience was it? What style did the author use? Was the writing good? What was the book reminiscent of? Or where was it original? Were there any weaknesses or any strong suits? What about the protagonists - multifaceted or figurines? How does the autorh play with space & time in the novel? What about the unravelling of the plot? And was the ending rewarding? I could go on forever.
    I mean, I'm not looking for a 50-pages literary study... but at least a tiny answer to at least a few of the above questions is something I love to find in what I call a satisfactory review.
    The most beautiful reviews, IMHO, are those who manage to give me some of those answers through the original filter of the reviewer's eyes/heart/brain/memories.

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    1. Gigistar, I look for the same things when deciding to buy a book. As far as I'm concerned ALL reviews are subjective which makes them humane and fun to read. I like reading reviews where bloggers struggle with and write about the feelings the story has evoked in them for one reason or another and I also like the reviews that can look at plot and character building.

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  9. I agree: objective criticism of art? That's an oxymoron. Criticism of any art form is necessarily subjective.

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  10. Good argument! I took a different angle in responding to this question, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, I think we agree. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

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  11. Thanks Jamie! Thank you for your comment. Come back, I love to scratch the grey matter here and there.

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  12. Yep I completely agree with you. In fact I think you put it a lot better than me!!

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