Know your Audience (When Your Audience is Yourself)
I’m staying in tonight, though it is Friday and I am twenty-six years old, because I have to get up early tomorrow and do things. Also, I’m in something of a cranky mood. My novel-in-progress is looking less and less progressive, less new and interesting, every time I look at it.
So, I’m turning my cranky face on this week’s entry in the endless wishy-washy harrumphing that has plagued the relationship between writer and critic since one was born of the other’s loins centuries ago. (Note: I’m unsure which bore which. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing. I know that, in times like this, both come across as equally boring).
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m talking about a dust-up between an assortment of mostly intelligent men and women, many of whom are regular readers of this blog, who have been engaged in the trading of monologues on the subject of reviewer responsibility. I started hereand here and then went here and here and here and here and then here and likely a few other places that aren’t on my radar. Before clicking on the links, I need to warn you—they won’t make you live any longer, and quite likely they will make your time on this earth slightly less rewarding and productive. Also, I happen to think that the offended party (Table Music’s Chris Banks) has more than ample reason to be offended by Palmu’s cursory reading, but that’s not quite the topic of this blog post. Okay, consider yourselves briefed on both caveats.
Talking about reviewer responsibility is important. People should be doing it as much as possible, they should be doing it at the expense of other conversations, about things like voice appropriation and spiritualism and post-modernism and other things that might be fun to say, but don’t actually contribute to the production of good books. Having responsible, engaged, and committed critics is as important, if not more important, than having good poets. They’re rarer. Sometimes I think we’ve been gifted with such a critical community in this country, and other times I don’t. I haven’t fully decided either way.
So talking about this stuff is important. Essential, even. This is why following the flow of banal witticisms and counter-witticisms over the past few weeks has been so numbingly disappointing. Because it’s not really a conversation about any of the things it pretends to be about. It’s not about reviewing style, about the satirical vein of literary criticism, or about aesthetic objectivity (which doesn’t exist, for the record, and whenever a critic is asked to write an objective review they should first demand to see an objective poem). It’s about two groups of people with a personal dislike for one another, one that I know only bits and pieces about, but that I understand has been going on for some time. Someone called someone else “mean”, someone got on someone else’s case for tattle-telling. I get it. We are a slightly more evolved sub-set of the species, us poets, I honestly believe that, but in the end we’re only just people.
I am fully aware that these gripes are based on elements of critical practice, and that they may even be merited (see above). But they are no longer professional disagreements, they’re personal. And even after you’ve deleted the most noxious and jejune postings on your blog (if you’re confused, Zach Wells–Yes, I’m talking about you, but I’m betting you’re not confused), that personal component of the disagreement remains obvious to your readers. I sense that, with every sentence I type here, I can feel myself getting pulled into something that doesn’t directly concern me. And if it was really about poetry, then as a poet, I wouldn’t feel that way. What I’m tip-toeing along the edges of is a public argument, a group of people in a restaurant calling each other out on long-held animosities.
I’m getting into it a bit because most everyone involved is doing a massive disservice to the conversation that’s the most important one from where I sit in the world: how to use language in the service of art, and, to that end, the benefit of the world. When you use this topic as a smoke-screen, as an excuse to talk about things that wouldn’t otherwise befit a public venue, you’re demeaning the conversation, making it entirely about you and your insulted heart. And that, at least, I take personally.
So please, and I say this to a group of people that I have read and respect as poets and/or critics (except for the one of you I haven’t read yet, and so have no way of knowing), grow up. It doesn’t matter that you’re good with words and can craft a beautiful argument in favour of your position. We’re all good with words. We’re poets. All you’re doing in the end is crafting flowing, multisyllabic ways of calling someone else a jerk, because they called you a jerk first, in just as many words. And this stuff, this personal-posed-as-the-professional, kills actual criticism, it chokes off its oxygen. And some of us, in small ways, rely on critical discourse to get by, to make our way through the chaotic worlds of sound and ideas, in the hopes that we’ll be able to make something lasting and accurate. To put it another way, I believe in criticism, in much the same way that other people believe in certain gods or professional sports team, I need to know it’s more than just a game people play, that it has a real and honest role in the progression of art. When you play games with such a thing, when you use it as a platform to get back at somebody, you’re letting down that percentage of us who feel the same way.
All I ask is that you be aware of why you’re saying whatever you’re saying, and for you to admit to it. Take me, for instance: I just said all that because A. I believe it and B. Some of the characters in my novel are shallow and uninteresting. But I suppose, so are some of the characters in my life.