At its best, criticism is itself a form of indirect self-expression. To read, say, Walter Benjamin or Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes is to encounter a sensibility as distinctive, and a voice as powerful, as any in 20th-century literature. “The motive of the critic who is really worth reading,” as H.L. Mencken put it, “is not the motive of the pedagogue, but the motive of the artist.” Mencken certainly regarded himself as a critic worth reading, so he was referring at least as much to his own work as he was to criticism generally. Books like Batuman’s, Lethem’s, Dyer’s, Baker’s, and Wilson’s bear out Mencken’s claim, while also revealing the motive of the critic as the motive of the autobiographer. Our experience of art can, after all, never be anything but subjective. To write about that experience in an explicitly autobiographical way might therefore be the most natural form of criticism, even if at the same time it is the most artful.
—This Slate piece, in part on Jonathan Lethem’s 33 1/3 book, is really good.
So I think I guess (haven’t read the Lethem book, but have read his previous music criticism, which…it certainly does keep getting published!) that maybe the important division between Colin Meloy’s failure and Carl Wilson’s success, which is brought up at the end, and which I agree with, is that Meloy’s book was about him whereas Wilson’s book used himself as evidence. There’s a big and very important difference, it seems to me, between “personal” criticism that’s using art as a kind of thematic center around which to write a memoir or personal essay, which is either not-criticism or not-good criticism, and criticism fundamentally about art that is open and honest about the critic’s personal experience. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about yourself, or even that you can’t talk about yourself at length; it’s just that this has to be in some way about your relationship with the piece of art and what that says about art, not what it says about you. Give us something we can use for our own experience of art, not just a well-written Amazon review. Carl’s book used some great illustrative examples from his life as a way of demonstrating how many people relate to Celine Dion and as a way of being open about his own taste, and that’s great, especially when (as Carl does) you start interrogating your past self and your present self about your role as an audience member or critic or creative. (This also doesn’t mean that personal essays involving art are necessarily bad; indeed, when something is more of a personal essay or memoir, we shouldn’t be too picky about the taste aspects of it, since even if the person’s thoughts about art are tasteless or banal, they are their thoughts, and as long as that ends up revealing something compelling about the person, who cares, really.) But I think if you are setting out to write personal criticism, you need to be aware of which kind of writing you’re doing. The fact that you’re writing about a piece of art nearly sacred to you can easily turn into a conviction that it doesn’t matter what you say because you are writing about the greatest thing in the entire world, and that lazy transformation of collectively-held art into personal totem or bullshit “but I was there!”-ism makes for awfully boring reading. The mere fact that you liked an album is not interesting to anyone but you. There are too many examples of the good kind of personal criticism out there now for you to have any excuse.
So this post, and Mike’s subsequent response to it, pissed me off a lot. I wrote about it over on Koganbot if you’re interested.
I’m sorry that my enjoying a particular piece of writing enough to link it pissed you off. I don’t find this quote “useless” at all; in fact, I find the underlying questions well worth considering, and this passage in particular rather inspiring. (My stance on criticism-as-memoir, or memoir-as-criticism, is that — as with any other form of writing — anything’s theoretically doable but depends entirely on how good the writer is and what she has to say.)
If that means I’m wrong and inspired by nonsense, so be it; the alternative is to sit around, edit Wikipedia, play Minesweeper and think about nothing, while possibly having the reassurance that I’m irritating one fewer person in the process.
I meant to write “quote,” not “post.” One problem with the quotes that float around Tumblr is that they function as aphorisms — of course they can be inspiring, as any aphorism can be inspiring, but it doesn’t mean they’re founded in reason or actually applicable to anything in particular. The response isn’t meant as a personal attack, but as a challenge to think of what it is about the piece that might be useful or not-useful, and build a better conversation from there. To me, distinguishing between autobiography and criticism as though these are hard lines we can realistically draw (as readers or as authors) is antithetical to actually writing good criticism. If I went around with “make sure this is really about your SUBJECT, not just about YOU” in my head, I’d never trust anything I wrote — and most of my best criticism would be negated as criticism :(. It’s comforting to me to know that it’s wrong, even if it “sounds” right.
EDIT: And now that I’ve had an hour to furrow my brow at this, I should say that some wires are getting crossed — in my initial post I was responding only to a conclusion paragraph quoted on Tumblr that made me raise an eyebrow, and then mostly to the claims that Mike made in his response. There’s a lot going on in the Slate piece, which I don’t have very interesting thoughts about beyond “huh” (and the bigger question of why academics are still freaked out about “bringing yourself into your criticism,” aside from the fact that egomania and self-loathing are rampant in academia). As a pedagogue, I’m put off by the Mencken quote, and as a critic I’m put off by claims of some form or technique being “most” this or that in terms of writing, and as a person I’m put off by the use of “our experiences are subjective” as though that explained itself.
So it took some work to sort out who was talking about what here, partly because I thought that Frank Kogan’s post was explicitly about this article, and that Dave had reblogged Frank Kogan. But the Slate piece is written by and for academics who are still freaked out about “bringing themselves into their criticism,” so it’s engaging with faulty ideas that have become accepted rather than trying to dismiss those ideas outright. Dave, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize the faulty ideas without acknowledging that they are brought to bear in this way.
Like it or not, an academic is expected to remove him- or herself as much as possible from the work being performed. That such a removal is considered even possible, let alone ideal, has explicit negative effects. Lately I’ve noticed the ideal used as a weapon in discussions of social relations, e.g. in order to propose nonsensical hypotheticals to muddle the discussion or to speak in absolutes that don’t relate to the specific topic at hand. You can also see its specter in Naomi Riley’s racist dismissal of the work of scholars of African-American studies, implicitly challenging a pedagogy that is less likely to operate within these types of constraints.
There are also a number of publishing-related factors that led to this piece: it’s nominally a review of a new book (which offers the piece timeliness) and its use of the trendpiece format allows it to speak to a specific type of criticism (which is, of course, not new, but is, perhaps, newly respected).
In one of your comments on Koganbot, you wrote, “In my experience with teaching younger people, the idea that ‘all theories are kind of wrong, including mine’ can be quite empowering for students. For one thing, it makes for better and more accurate theories. And for another, it lets people who might otherwise be intimidated from the mere posturing of thoughtfulness into the process of becoming genuinely thoughtful.” But you of all people should know that Internet media does not function by the same rules as a classroom.
Do you take the Slate piece as a definitive statement? It’s not really insisting on anything—it notes a “hybrid type” of criticism, speculates about the place of such writing, and relates it to past critics. It’s a conversation starter, not a conversation ender. Furthermore, I think you’re deliberately misreading Mencken at least as much as Mark O’Connell is; he implies that Mencken’s use of “pedagogy” is equivalent to “pedantry,” but your idea of pedagogy is almost certainly broader than what Mencken had in mind. Is it that O’Connell quoted Mencken on pedagogy at all? Certainly that citation carries a different meaning if one is familiar with Mencken’s writing on pedagogy than if one is not.
Normally I wouldn’t challenge the fact that you seem to think it’s not worth your time to make explicit the piece’s faulty premises, but is it worth your time to point out the fact that the piece’s premises are faulty. But since you’re insisting, here, on your role as an educator, why haven’t you bothered to educate?
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