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Two prominent Authorsden critics critize criticism.
Dear Mr. Two Emmas:
You are keeping one of the most provocative literary journals on the Internet, and I hope there will be no end to it. Thus far I have especially enjoyed Charlotte Bronte's acerbic critique: it was a resonating bong! amidst all the Austen noise.
Speaking of critics and critiques, I pulled a book written by Alexander Theroux off my shelf. I purchased it at a yard sale some years back, and finally decided to have a go at it yesterday afternoon. The title might pique your interest: An Adultery.
The following reviews appeared on the back cover:
". . . Part cautionary tale, part homage to the great books of the genre by Hawthorne, Flaubert, Tolstoy and James, An Adultery is a novel of linguistic virtuosity and riveting insight--a classic for our time." - Macmillan Publishing Company
"Theroux's new novel is a brilliant piece of work--a psychological masterpiece in which the prose is of classic stature, the imagery just, and the capacity for character analysis immensely sophisticated. . . ." - Anthony Burgess
"A fascinating, eloquent, thoughtful, and wonderfully written book." - Susan Cheever, "Los Angeles Times Book Review"
Here an excerpt from page 40 of the book. It is the last line I read before slamming it shut:
"But of course I went, one freezing night following her car in my own to a dimly lit side street on the outskirts of St. Ives where a mock couple, a mimic marriage, we had dinner and listened to music--she played soft jazz over and over--and talked in an anxiety-ridden preappointed mood as doubly indistinct as the faint gradations of tone perceptible in the sky outside the large winter window of the living room that brought a constant chill into rooms as sterile and white as the snow outside, a dampness which Farol, constantly feeding logs into the wood stove, sought to buffer in spite of the general caveat there, her husband's upon leaving, that she not waste wood."
I admit the novel could very well have been Theroux's "prose of classic stature" and "linguistic virtuosity" that, upon meeting with my own dullwittedness, compelled a resounding "ACK!" from my lips. But never mind me, I can see from your discourse on the Two Emmas that you are qualified to make your own critical assessment. I know I would be greatly pleased with it, and I hope you can spare it.
Addendum On An Adultery
Dear Mr. Two Emmas:
I realize your Emmas are two of the finest creatures devised according to the new Realism of their time, so please forgive me for intruding into your discourse on same yet again. I wish to add to my previous remarks on An Adultery before you come to a definite opinion on same. I do not believe I am impertinent for doing so. I was astonished to see Alexander Theroux flattered with a comparison to the great Flaubert. Alas, literature has decayed since Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert set pen to paper. What passes for fine literature today would cause them to spin in their graves if they could care at all for their own immortality as authors after their deaths. Alas, the art of writing has been degraded to such a confusing post-modern mess that anything that makes sense or sensibility will soon be rendered absolutely incomprehensible. If the tasteless trend continues, people will only think that they're reading and writing, for they shall have lost their ability to think, and therefore to write.
In all fairness to Alexander Theroux, I must admit that, when I first read the line I cited from his An Adultery for your highly esteemed consideration, I was struck with the fact that such an artful array of running sentence fragments could not have been the result of mere accident, say, like falling down a flight of stairs. Instead a marionette, an unwitting subject of deliberate manipulation comes to mind, one bade to posture and tumble down the stairs by virtue of a a higher power, exercised, of course, by the puppeteer.
I do not propose that the arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power has no place in fiction-writing. However, I believe the reader will subconsciously or otherwise perceive and be confused by the ambiguity of Theroux's sort of tyrannical writing. I quote two additional excerpts from An Adultery to clarify what I mean by this. The first quote provides a glimpse of the author's writing style including his tyrannical treatment of his main character, Christian Ford. The second provides a small taste of his "fascinating, eloquent, thoughtful, and wonderfully written book" (Los Angeles Times Book Review):
"I have a tendency to speak with the spasmodic cadences of a person who wants words out of the way in a hurry and along with something of a regional accent have a way of extending my vowels so that I seem to be racing through lists of possible meanings of statements in mid-word, almost stuttering to get on with an idea."
"I felt her in confidence immediately, a side of her (at complete loggerheads of what is expected in beauty of self-assurance) she ascribed, when I mentioned it, not to what I'd presumed was an unhappy marriage, though this entered into it, but oddly enough to her father, an artist, she from childhood loved far more, she felt, than he her--I thought I heard a therapist's echo--a matter of import apparently in that she admitted to an interest in the arts herself, drawing, sculpting, whatever."
ACK! I say again, but I am but one voice crying out in the Void, which is sufficient reason to be confused. Here then are other voices, no less confused by my estimation, and though I risk boring you with repetition, note the different ways some readers will rationalize their confusion, i.e., perceive the effects of unrestrained exercise of power by the author over their thoughts and feelings. I might add, the latter speaks to Theroux's "literary prowess" (I use the term loosely), otherwise known as the power to dupe:
'Another masterpiece from the other Theroux,' November 5, 1999. Reviewer: from Washington, DC.
"A wonderfully excoriating novel from one of America's greatest authors. Ever. Though not as rich and encyclopedic as the better and better known Darconville's Cat, it is honed and tightly written, and at home among the several great American novels written in the last 30 years. . . . As to be expected, the quality of the language and the vituperation in which it is often adorned is for its own sake worth the effort (and yes, effort is required) and worthy of the cited Frederick Rolfe."
'It grows on you,' October 21, 1997. Reviewer from Ottawa, Canada.
"After getting over the annoyance of Theroux's 'hoity-toity' way of writing, and the largely unrealistic dialogue, this book truly grows on you. You find that you have to force yourself to read the first 1/3 of the book, but after that, you then look forward to what's next. It may not be the 'Psychological Masterpiece', as it has been toted to be, but it is a very heartfelt and emotionally wrenching book." Reviewer: A Reader
'Hard going but worth the effort,' August 6, 1997. Reviewer: A reader.
"I wonder why this was not a best-seller. As usual with this author you need to work at it staying with him. It is sometime repetitious - or it seems so to the unenlightened like me." Reviewer: A Reader
"Ah! To stumble time and time again over impossibly tangled syntax, doze off in the middle of a paragraph--oh, excuse me, I meant sentence--and force oneself to stay the course through thickets of wholly inane, self-conscious dialogue is to be, forsooth, unenlightened. If this is the case, then we must view the following comments made by a Washington reader not as a genuine response to Theroux's An Adultery, but as a testimony to what surely must be her own mental defects: Insufferable characters, June 7, 1999. Reviewer: A reader from Olympia, WA.
"The only thing that prevented me from giving this book 1 star was that there were some good observations - otherwise the characters are annoying, the writing is pretentious, and the general effect is both creepy and pathetic." Reviewer: A Reader
I ask you, Mr. Two Emmas, what is the literary world coming to? I do not consider Mr. Theroux's An Adultery or at least parts of it, to be entirely without merit; any number of its sentences would surely win first prize in the prestigious Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the opening line of the worst of all possible novels. It is no simple feat to write non sequitur, maddeningly involuted prose with a deft hand, and a writer's ability to pull it off should indeed be noted, if only occasionally admired.
Of course, I do not want to unduly influence your opinion, and I certainly hope you will render it as soon as possible.
On Constructive Criticism
Dear Madame Me:
Reality is the death of me and I can't stand realism for long. I have taken your letters under consideration, and I'm afraid you have left me with the impression that literary Realism has become dog food because of the decadent reality that realists really represent because they live in the animal shelter. The hounds bark hysterically before meals and think they sing ever so beautifully.
Of course I do not speak of the reality of idealism but of the technological materialism that has turned writers into mechanical street-sweeper drivers. They resort to cumbersome formulas at public expense. The public thinks the street-sweepers are doing a lovely job, but once they have passed by, it becomes obvious to refined sophisticates that the dirt, trash and leaves have just been shuffled around to the sides of a broad wet streak in the gutter, thus the process is really a waste of time and money albeit only a few lucid people know it. Whereas the realists of old could not help making a mysterious romance out of reality while actually playing in the mud with humankind.
But I am no critic, Madame Me. I thank you for considering me as such even though I find critics personally revolting. However, I am a reviewer from time to time: I will be glad to give a friend's book a glowing review at Amazon. And I will honor your request for a critique of the brief excerpts you sent over from Alexander Theroux's book, limiting myself to same since they do not inspire me to look further.
After I received your first communication about this literary gift to the world, it occured to me that I lack critical criteria for critiques, that I have no standard for praise and blame except my own gut feelings, which depend on the frequency and quality of my meals. I had just eaten a good dinner, and I was not in a mood to do what so-called 'good' critics seem to do best, something that makes of the word, 'critic', a perjorative expression. Now most of the critics you just cited seemed to be flatterers, and therefore bad critics. I found myself in a quandry, and heartburn was setting in.
It suddenly struck me that I might avoid putting your author down or raising him up, and instead provide a criticism that might flatter me! I remembered Niccolo Tucci's paper, 'On Constructive Criticism' - it appeared in the November 1949 issue of Partisan Review. It so impressed me that I kept a copy. The best way, I thought, to provide you with the critique you want, would be to simply write a superlative paraphrase of the first paragraph you submitted to me - a better paragraph on the same subject!
I retrieved Niccolo's article for better guidance - from under the bathroom sink - it was behind the hardened can of Ajax and the cockroaches, and was still in relatively good shape although stained brown. I sat down on the toilet and read this:
"I wonder if the 'constructivists' have ever paused long enough to consider what would happen in the other fields of criticism if their principles were suddely accepted. For example, music. Now, when a serious musical critic dismisses as symphony as bad, and gives only the reasons why it does not hold together musically, that is rightly called 'criticism.'
"If the same musical critic announced the next day that he has composed a symphony of his own, that would be rightly referred to as a symphony of his own. But if upon presenting his own composition to the public, he said: 'This music here is a constructive criticism of the symphony criticised by me yesterday,' he would righly be sent to the unholiest places and criticized, not once but twice: first as a critic who does not keep his place; secondly as a composer who pretends to be exempt from criticism because, until yesterday, he was a critic too."
Niccolo proposed that art museums allow space for critics' paintings next to the paintings they criticize. That is a great idea! I thought, and should be applied to libraries. As it is, we have a few volumes of an author's work on the shelf, followed by volumes of praise and blame. Why not rid the shelves of praise and blame, in favor of volumes of constructive criticism? War and Peace, for example, will be followed by the critics' versions of the masterpiece!
Niccolo pointed out that 'Constructive criticism' was a relative new phenomenon, most popular in the U.S., for it was purportedly 'democratic.' In his opinion, so-called constructive criticism is an attempt to tone down genuine criticism. It is equivalent to a happy ending in the movies. And to demand that a critic, who criticises a work based on common sense, should be expert enough to do it better, is childishly arrogant and demonstrative of the prejudice that one must be a specialized to be qualified to know the difference between good and bad work. That concept is sheer nonsense and often dishonest - common-sense criticism is so embarassing to political leaders, for example, that they insist on diplomatic and military secrecy in the "interest of national (their own) security.".
Furthermore, the objection that negative as opposed to constructive criticism is destructive hence worthless is cry-baby talk. The negative critic has no duty except to except to negate, and has no obligation to come up with a workable solution.
"It's like advertising," Niccoli wrote, referring to the constructive criticism of the trains going to the death camps. "The world goes to the dogs, everything is dark, but we here at the factory have a new toothpaste that will brighten your smile."
He thinks that constructive criticism is not really democratic but is a despotic attempt at getting critics to show respect for the people and theories they criticize. It was borrowed from masters of that technique: Hitler and Mussolini. It was called "criticism within the system" because it was not "criticism of the system." It got to comic proportions in Italy. He gives this dialogue in Russia:
Critic: We, the Russian people do not want these chains.
Stalin: You are prefectly right. I will give you better ones.
Critic: We don't want better ones, we want none at all.
Stalin: You are a pessimist, a negativist, a destructive critic. You do not believe that I am here to help you. If you tell me your grievances concretely, I may help you, but if you insist on asking for the impossible, I will have to eliminate you.
Well, Madame Me, Niccolo Tucci certainly made some excellent points, and I was glad I reviewed them. Nevertheless, when I got off the throne, I knew that the best way to criticize the paragraph you sent over was to write a better one. And that I shall do as soon as possible. As you may have noticed, I have been quite busy lately because the world is going to the dogs and something must be done.
Mr. Two Emmas
Enlightened Hothouse Intercourse
Dear Madame Me:
You shall find my constructive criticism directly below the text it criticizes. Since a critic once charged Flaubert with making coffins for illusions, I decided to portray an actual experience realistically in accordance with the new Southern American Realism, hoping that it might pass for good fiction notwithstanding the diction.
"But of course I went, one freezing night following her car in my own to a dimly lit side street on the outskirts of St. Ives where a mock couple, a mimic marriage, we had dinner and listened to music--she played soft jazz over and over--and talked in an anxiety-ridden preappointed mood as doubly indistinct as the faint gradations of tone perceptible in the sky outside the large winter window of the living room that brought a constant chill into rooms as sterile and white as the snow outside, a dampness which Farol, constantly feeding logs into the wood stove, sought to buffer in spite of the general caveat there, her husband's upon leaving, that she not waste wood." (Alexander Theroux)
I followed Ruby Lee's antique white Volvo home one snowy night in rigid anticipation of what was to come in her husband's absence - I hardly heard my engine roaring and my chained tires crunching up the dark winding road to her secluded home in the woods forty miles outside Atlanta, towards Gainesville. As I pulled up behind her after she parked, she flung upon the door of her car, stepped with bare feet into the snow, stark nude, white against white in my bright beams - except for her glimmering bleached hair above reflecting tiger-eyes, shining red lips, two pinkish spots, and black magic triangle. "Come, leave the lights on, baby, come to me, he's gone, find my hot spot on the hood again!" Ruby Lee sang out, breath steaming in the frigid glare as she swung her hips round low to bump-and-grind Kansas City jazz blaring over bass booms from the new auto stereo Jack had installed for her birthday. "But what about the house? It's warm in there," I panted after I had hustled into her arms and spread her out on the warm hood. "What house? To hell with his house, baby, you set my house on fire, so come on in!"
Mr. Two Emmas
Reader Reviews for
"Critical Intercourse on Adultery"
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|Reviewed by David Arthur Walters
Reviewed by Ben Waugh (author) 9/19/2005
American criticism of any worth died with Hunneker. Who? Do you read? Any cyber somebody can slag his betters (in a sense, that is literary history) - but "having a go" is not reading - though the folksy sounding phrase does summarize much that is being written today, Mr. Walter's essay, for example.
Thank you for dropping by and for your comment. After due consideration of your submission here and the lack of postings in your own den, I must say that the question you should have posed is not whether I read, but whether you can write. lol!
Posted by Ben Waugh (author) at 9/20/2005 9:38:07 AM Reply to Ben Waugh
My compliments, with regard to your whimsical toques and apologies for not being much of a "blogger". I'm sure you've got me outgunned there. But the question is not whether or not I can write (oh, can I. lol) but, with regard to both your essay and your reply, remains do you (not can you - and poetaster can, refer back to my post.It's much briefer than the Theroux) read? If you are going relieve yourself on Mr Theroux, you owe him at least a thorough read as opposed to a spotty perusal which, apparently, served only to take your prejudices out for a preening (you mentioned, glowingly, Flaubert. If you have a taste for irony, "have a go" at Bouvard et Pecuchet).
Posted by David Arthur Walters (author) at 9/20/2005 4:15:09 PM Reply to David Arthur Walters
Please put on your reading glasses and try to pay close attention to Who is saying What LOL! I, in fact, said next to nothing about Mr. Thereoux, and very little about his work; but I did respond to a competent critic's remarks - some of which I agreed with -instead of attacking the author or his work, I submitted my own version of the events described in the fragment my critical friend selected.
Your intent is obviously to heckle your superiors with irrelevancies, and to do so as a member of the famous Anonynmouse Family, instead of producing something worthy of critical attention.
I do appreciate your attention, and wish you many suitable returns.
Having snacked on a bit of your "literature", I am certain Theroux's work will not be devalued by the opinions of any critic who has obtained to your esteem. My intention was not to heckle you (I will leave that drudrgery to the critics), but to register protest against the ridicule of a work you or your critic obvious neither read nor comprehended. You dismissed it as having neither "sense nor sensibility" - but if you read Theroux and retain that canned sensibility, you must carry on and dismiss Beckett, Joyce, Proust, etc. The novels are more than verbal cocatenations of events, they are events, histories of language. In any event, those who have praised them are your superiors and mine. But to toss out a famous idee recue; there is no accounting for taste.
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Posted by David Arthur Walters (author) at 9/21/2005 4:30:47 PM Reply to David Arthur Walters
Thanks for your continuing interest. Again, I recommend that you actually read material before you criticize it. At least be certain of who the author is. As for your affection for Theroux, I believe it would be duly appreciated at Amazon.com - and a link to my brilliant article, or what ever you might call it, will of course be deeply appreciated.
I hope I have not been too sarcastic to someone whose posted existence is so sparse - I'm sure there is a fine human being behind the facade, and s/he has my best wishes.
|Reviewed by Ben Waugh (Reader)
|American criticism of any worth died with Hunneker. Who? Do you read? Any cyber somebody can slag his betters (in a sense, that is literary history) - but "having a go" is not reading - though the folksy sounding phrase does summarize much that is being written today, Mr. Walter's essay, for example.|