Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Earlier this year I sent “Twelve Blackfeet Stories”, one of my Lulu POD books, to one of the online POD reviewers and he wrote a review, which I then reviewed. This bit of circularity worked well, as he was pleased to not have his review a) drop into a black hole or b) trigger a full scale assault on him. What was helpful about his review was that he was telling it the way he saw it from who he was: a youngish guy (compared to me) who values high adventure sci-fi. Taking on my anthropological stories about two hundred years of Blackfeet was a stretch, but he could see the structure and my motivations and gave me credit for that and for competent writing. He just didn’t like that it wasn’t a tight sci-fi adventure. I forgive him. What was NOT helpful was that he put the negative stuff in the first two sentences, which are what show up on a Google entry! Argh!

But this was a guy who read a lot, was intelligent, and though he’s an editor at a small Manhattan publishing business, was relatively humble. Even more humble were the arts bloggers on “Flyover Country” who said, “Hey, I studied journalism but I don’t know anything about art. I’d never be able to give you technical stuff about a play and I don’t ‘get’ classical music. I just know my own corner of the universe.” Or is that an arrogance? An excess of humility?

Well, it takes guts to go out there and confront stuff that isn’t familiar. Still, I thought the idea of journalism was NOT having all the answers but asking good questions. There’s nothing wrhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifong with asking to be educated and reporting the process. I was browsing through Laura Ritter’s charming “arts blog” on the : “Eye of the Beholder.” Great Falls, they say, has an “ugly stepsister complex” -- it’s not prosperous and sexy in the same way as the other big Montana towns. The population is a composite of airmen (and airwomen), grain farmers, and retired ethnic smeltermen (no smelterwomen). Sometimes their idea of sculpture seems to be cement garden gnomes and other times it is fine Charlie Russell bronzes that bring in connoisseurs from around the world. Sometimes their idea of music seems to be accordions in the park bandshell and other times one has to remember the Ozark Club, a genuine black big-name jazz club. (It’s just been reincarnated at the History Center, thanks to Carl Aaberg.)

So Laura plunges into the GF scene and comes up with stuff all over the map: an account of a big papier mache giraffe she made that refused to survive, a walk through “Cool Beans” coffee shop which is currently hanging huge paintings of animals with interesting personalities, and a phone call conference with the director of the Holter Museum who explained the difference between “modern” art and “contemporary” art, which she passed on to us.

Laura does not suffer from Harold Bloom Syndrome. Harold is the fellow who is very willing -- a little TOO willing -- to tell you who the real geniuses in the world are -- on grounds that it takes one to know one -- and why they are so brilliant, because he thinks you couldn’t tell otherwise. I checked his big fat “genius” book out of the library, tried to read it and took it back. I will wait until he can write a clear sentence. With that as my criterion, I doubt I’ll ever have to check out a book by him again. He is among those folks who are suspicious of anyone who does not have to be explained by an expert, preferably an unintelligible one.

ArtsJournal today had a link to the National Book Critics’ Circle Board of Director’s blog: “Critical Mass.” Tim B. had a rebellious and defiant reaction to what must have been the sub-text, as I had quite a different “take” on what was said. (Tim also posed a lightbulb joke: “How many vampires does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” which kept me obsessing about possible answers the rest of the day.)

The article, “Poisoning the Well” was by Lindsey Waters, of whom I had never heard until now. I think I am relieved, as Google tells me he is another of those lit theorists who analyze everything until it’s tied into knots -- all on grounds that they are doing it for “the people,” meaning the oppressed masses who seem to cluster at their feet. Tim probably already knew that, which is how he could pick up the subtext. Waters is a medievalist educated at the U of Chicago, but I don’t pay attention to that. I knew too many of them in the Div School. His Harvard resume says, “...he has contributed to scholarly journals feisty articles chiding certain branches of the academy for requiring tenure candidates to churn out books that often are unreadable, uninspiring, and a burden to their authors, publishers, and audiences.” That sounds promising. If he isn’t just talking about his own thesis advisers.

But then I read “In those glorious days of yesteryear just a little more than a century ago, when the future seemed to belong to the West, Walter Pater urged sensitive souls to always burn with a keen, gem-like flame.” Uh-oh. Genius talk. Tim might ask, “What’s wrong with a honkin’ big ol' priapic smokin’ TORCH?”

Lindsay says, “Beware, I say, lest the whole edifice of modern democratic society collapse if a stake is driven through its heart. That’s what killing books and arts reviewing means. We must constantly be indulging ourselves in the freeplay of critical intelligence.” For instance, he suggests, “Is the new De Lillo book good?” Now I see how the vampire image got into the picture. There’s also a virgin: he values the “virgin encounter” with art. Vampires and virgins always go together. (If I could just figure out how to get the light bulb in there... Hmmm. Dead. Necks. Ideas. Oh, well.)

So the idea is that we should go out there and encounter Art, but depend upon a critic to point out what reaction we should have and how to properly analyze it. It’s fine to read pop best-seller stuff, but one must properly understand what Paul de Man would say about it. It’s like the French analyzing the deep meanings of Jerry Lewis. I suspect that these fancy theorists have done a lot more to kill literature than a lack of critics.

I wonder what Richard Stern would say about all this. Do I dare email him while he’s on vacation? I wonder whether Lindsay Waters ever took a class from Stern at the U of Chicago. Heck, Stern is blogging -- maybe he can get something out of it. “Critical Mass.” http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/2007/07/poisoning-well.html

How’s this: How many vampires does it take to change a light bulb? Ans: If they’ve been reading literary theory, they’ll never get around to it. They’ll just talk.


Steve Durbin said...

You strike me as someone who would enjoy the movie I watched last night, "Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?" Thomas Hoving (former Met director) delightfully exemplifies the Lindsey Waters attitude; if he were an actor he'd be brilliant. (For the record, though, I love his extended interview with Andrew Wyeth.)

If you've succumbed to Google, you know by now how many philosophe vampires sucking the life out of literature it takes to screw in a light bulb: none, they prefer being in the dark. That's the standard answer, anyway, but I'd rather hear the ones you came up with.

Oh, and thanks for introducing me to Eye of the Beholder.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Your dismissal of Harold Bloom made me laugh out loud. I can't quite dismiss him because his writing helped me understand and appreciate the Romantic poets, but he does seem to love the sound of his own voice (or is it the sight of his own words)?

prairie mary said...


If you enjoyed my little series about arts journalism, this post (url above) is really a knockout, far more knowledgeable and eloquent than anything I could manage.

Prairie Mary