The Rightness Contest is Full of Winners


I understand that this blog has seen its share of roughntumble word fights, but it’s nice to be reminded of how much worse these things can get. Witness the casserole of ridiculousness triggered by Andre Alexis’s response to Zach Wells’s critique of his Walrus piece I mentioned here a couple months ago. I’m not sold on the original essay, but I remember being quite happy to see it. A pugnacious public rant in a decently-well-read magazine is the kind of occasional kick to the head literary culture in this country can use. Wells’s response makes a lot of good points, despite giving up his smarmy conceit (that of a faux rejection letter) three paragraphs in for a crushingly humourless piece-by-piece digesting of the original. All things being equal, I prefer Alexis’s botched emergency room surgery to Wells’s gracelessly studious post-mordem.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. What’s really notable is how shitty the conversation gets. Alexis matches Wells first on smarminess (“dear mr CN&Q, i am, of course, devastated by your rejection of my piece” and whatnot) and later on humorlessness . It’s a bit like watching two basketball teams try to grind out a defensive win, with the result being a 0-0 draw, and a sea of empty stands. What follows includes a series of “why pretend like you don’t care” messages and, perhaps least palatable, the appearance of some college sophomore who makes an simplistic analogy and is heroically attacked by the hoard of Supercorrect Rightness Warriors.

Twenty bucks says that’s the end of that kid’s interaction with contemporary literary criticism. We’ll lose him to the lawyers or the MBA schools. Well done, intelligentsia. Fortress defended.

I post this early into what I imagine will be an increasingly stupid event. I hate to shine my little flashlight on something so uninspiring and petty, as I know you have limited internet reading time, and i wouldn’t want you to waste it. I guess what I get out of this whole thing is a reminder that my intelligent, creative, friends, who don’t read contemporary literature or care about critical trends aren’t self-appointed philistines. Rather, they know a mug’s game when they see it, and have quite correctly moved on.

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12 Comments on “The Rightness Contest is Full of Winners”

  1. Michael Lista Says:

    As far as I’m concerned, that string of comments takes the cake for the most classless literary debate (if you’re inclined to stretch the term to include something as disgraceful as this) I think I’ve ever seen in the blogosphere. Lots of shame to go around, but I’m shocked at Andre Alexis’s behaviour in particular. For a writer of his stature to be comporting himself like that is absolutely disgraceful, especially in the context of his essay which decries “personal attacks and collegiate vitriol.” I couldn’t believe that below that very sound advice, he wrote to a young writer who had disagreed with him: “keep farming, son, maybe some day you’ll actually publish a book.”


  2. Jessica Smith has a somewhat-related story about a gang of petty thugs and cyber-bullies have laid siege to the comments section on Ron Silliman’s blog, stifling any useful literary commentary in the process.

    http://looktouch.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/the-silenced-generation/

  3. voxpopulism Says:

    Yeah. It’s a pretty wretched show, Mike. I mean, not to ignore the occasional flare-up that happens here or anything, but this is probably one of those exchanges that brings out the buffoon in all involved.

    That thing on looktouch is pretty sweet.


  4. […] the talk of Canadian Literary community of late. While the debate has been thoroughly discussed here and here, I’d like to focus on AA’s response to Wells (and others) in the CNQ comments […]

  5. Nathan Says:

    “What follows includes a series of “why pretend like you don’t care” messages and, perhaps least palatable, the appearance of some college sophomore who makes an simplistic analogy and is heroically attacked by the hoard of Supercorrect Rightness Warriors.”

    Since I was the only one who replied to that poor college sophomore, I guess I am the Rightness Warrior. Jake: read what the sophomore wrote, then read my reply, then read the soph’s reply, then mine. I disagreed vehemently with the idea that “joe lunchbox” gets turned off by heated debates and the odd spat of namecalling. The soph apologized and clarified. I told soph there was no need to apologize, and tried to further clarify the reason why the debate was so heated in the first place, while allowing that at least some of it was probably down to ego.

    You see this exchange as all this is killing people’s interest in literature. Question: what level of intensity should be allowed? Are jokes permitted?

  6. voxpopulism Says:

    Jokes are fine by me, Nathan.

    What intensity are you talking about, exactly? I’m not seeing a lot of evidence of intensity. More of a mumbled passive-aggressiveness, handed back and forth. About as low an intensity as you can get, really.

  7. Nathan Says:

    Jake, you are welcome to see the whole back-and-forth as petty and ego-driven (and I admit right in the thread that it is, to a large extent), but writers taking potshots at other writers is not exactly a new disease in literature.

    You can’t applaud a kick in the head then despair when some of the targets decide to kick back.

  8. Nathan Says:

    I also object to the idea that the whole thing was mumblingly passive-aggressive – I think we were all being fairly openly and forthrightly shitheady.

    The only passive aggressive comment on there is one from an anonymous commenter who – wait for it – agrees with you.

  9. Nathan Says:

    “I’m not sold on the original essay, but I remember being quite happy to see it. A pugnacious public rant in a decently-well-read magazine is the kind of occasional kick to the head literary culture in this country can use.”

    I don’t want to extend this thread to mating-snakes proportions, but come on, Jake, you’re trying to have it both ways, by giving incivility a hurrah then condemning it the same breath.

    Anyway, I think it’s pointless to keep going over this, and I honestly think the shark was probably jumped the minute the Walrus hit the newsstands, so I will bow out now.

  10. voxpopulism Says:

    That’s fine, Nathan. Again, I’m coming at this from an outsider perspective, and realllly don’t want to get pulled in. I retract anything I said that you feel was disingenuous. Including, as you see, the old comment above. But I don’t think I’m trying to have it “both ways”. The tone of the original essay, and the tone of the follow-ups (including the follow-up written by the author of the original essay) are quite different. That’s not really arguable, is it?

  11. Nathan Says:

    Dammit, Jake – you pulled me back in, you snake-humper.

    I agree the tone of the criticism of the AA’s article on the CNQ site was vastly different from the tone of AA’s article. Why would anyone adopt the tone of something they held in contempt? I thought the tone was one of the essay’s biggest problems – I would rather eat dead children than write something so anal and joyless about literary criticism.

    What you (and a number of others who have felt faint at the incivility on display) are missing is that most of the snark in that thread was directed not at AA’s original article – Zach did, I think, an admirable and thorough (if typically overlong and vaguely obsessive) job of pointing out some of its weaknesses, which even you concede – but at AA’s laughable attempt at a reply. Whatever else you think of it, Zach’s original post stuck to the issue of AA’s essay. It contained some snarky elbow hits, but so did the essay, so the door was opened. It was AA, in his reply, who really went for the ditch. After that, all bets were off, frankly. (And his later, even more ditch-worthy reply to our snarky merrymaking made fairly clear a nerve had been hit, which is why I bowed out of that thread shortly thereafter. It’s not fun to watch someone poop their pants in frustration.)

    So there you go: we have exhausted a comment thread about another comment thread. Perhaps someone can start a comment thread about this one, and the apocalypse can inch just a little bit closer.

  12. voxpopulism Says:

    I googled snake-humper. I led me back to this blog. Is that weird?


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