Saturday, March 15, 2014

Headaches and Head Butts

There was  an amusing story in Slate some time ago  where the editors queried a number of noted critics about what they individually considered the most over -rated novels they had the misfortune to struggle with; the responses from a group including Amy Bloom, Stephen Burt, Tom Perrotta among others presented some dour words over a fine selection of iconic texts. The idea was similar to that of the collection edited by rock critic Jim DeRogatis, Kill Your Idols, where he asked a significantly younger generation of pop music critics to write devastating reviews of what was basically the Rolling Stone magazine canon of the Greatest Rock and Roll Albums ever made.

Without going into detail, I will say that the anthology was a great idea that landed on the sharp rocks  by one negative review after another;  virtually no musician or band was as good as older scribes had claimed, a conclusion  you expected given the title of the collection, but the sensibility was put down and sarcasm, cheap insults, a strained irreverence that , with the repetition of one review after the other, sounded practiced, more inauthentic than the alleged phoniness of the albums under review. It was a bad writing contest, the contestants vying to produce the most wretched Lester Bangs impersonation.

Bangs, though, would have none of this; he bared his soul, he argued his reasons, absurd or irrational they might have been. He was a great writer, a first rate wit and good critical thinker who was fast to notice when artists, whether musicians or  writers , where getting by on reputation more than the quality of their. The writers in the Slate feature are likewise cracking good wordsmiths; what makes their grim reminiscences memorable was the snappy, stylish economy of their stated misgivings, quick blends of anecdote, revelation, critical assessment, clear and damning. The point is that the Slate article is merely a chance for some payback:  tired of the praise Joyce receives, have you had it with Salinger’s name sucking the air from the room, do you think Pynchon is all sizzle and no steak? Here is your chance to put these elevated middlebrows in their place. What we get are smart people, good critics, staying in the shallow end of the pool.

It's interesting that virtually any touted book that does not hold my attention beyond the first 200 pages instantly gets reassigned to the 'over rated" section of my book table, that stack of tomes I will give away, donate, sell as the opportunities arise. "Over rated", though, is as overused a term as, say , "brilliant", "masterpiece" or "ground breaking"; hasty dismissals and instant praise without a cant-free discussion about why these judgments were rendered exposes the opinions as being as inflated as the book one seeks to bury . Or to rise. Time was when book reviews, even the reviews available in middle brow magazines like Time, made you believe, even feel, the sluggardly pacing and torpor a bad stretch of prose could have on a writer. These days the field is dominated by wise cracks that are suitable for photo captions. 

Remarks  are fine for the chit chat that comes with book group debates about the relative merits of emerging authors or the swan songs of authors who have died are seem about to; to disguise a selection of rhythmic grumbling as an article is something else. Our critical discourse is cheapened and reduced to something you can read while going to the refrigerator for another O’Doul’s. Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that "remarks are not literature", and to that end I agree, literature is writing at length and writing that seeks to achieve something more remarkable than what the water cooler/coffee pot/ Good Reads cabal of laconic pedants offer as commentary. 

Even criticism that takes literature apart and inspects the workings of fevered personality taken to extreme graphomania ought to aspire to the level of the best books it takes under consideration. As it goes, though, remarks and not essays are the preferred method of judging new books, old and older. Remarks are not literature, nor are they criticism, but it is what people seem to read as the computers become repulsively more portable. It's a bad cafe drink: just a rumor of coffee, lots of cream, sugar by the serving spoonful.

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