Monday, April 4, 2011

Reading Report!

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon, possibly via Google Alert, an essay by Jennifer Moore in The Offending Adam called "No discernible emotion and no discernible lack of emotion." It caught my interest because, yes, it quotes me (specifically this post on the old Pshares blog, in which, to be fair, I'm mostly quoting Ana Bozicevic on "The New Childishness") as well as Absent founding-editor-at-large Simon DeDeo on Tao Lin.

It's good to see someone looking at Tao Lin's work from a serious critical perspective, as opposed to the usual knee-jerky reviews and responses he tends to garner (both the "I hate Tao Lin" and "Tao Lin is my messiah" varietals). I liked the piece a lot so I wrote to Jennifer, and she sent me the longer paper it's from, which expounds on the "aesthetics of failure" in contemporary poetry, focusing on Lin as well as Matt Hart. It's really good (I had a chance to read the whole thing this morning, thanks to jury duty) and I hope she publishes it in an anthology or something so it's available for teaching. Some half-formed thoughts it sparked:

* This is an academic paper (she's currently getting her PhD at Chicago) and part of what makes it so enjoyable is its complete avoidance of value judgments. I can't tell by reading it if Jennifer Moore likes or dislikes the poetry of Matt Hart and Tao Lin, and I don't really care. There's a lot of hating on "theory" and the "academic" out there, which seems to rise from the pretense that academic language is always obfuscating (and that interesting ideas can always be communicated in simple, accessible language). I don't really agree with either premise, and I think a resistance to "theory" often amounts to laziness or at least insecurity. Without "theory" (which is just formalized thinking) and reference, criticism usually devolves into a value judgment, and this is what makes so many reviews boring and forgettable. An aversion to theory seems like an unwillingness to give up the thing you can be sure of, which can't be refuted: your subjective opinion. "I just like it" or "I just don't" isn't a theory, so it can't even be wrong.

* JM positions the work of Hart and Lin, representing The New Sincerity and The New Childishness respectively (insofar as either "movement" exists), as a reaction to language and post-language or "post-avant" poetry: Hart rejects "a poetry which is either too committed to experimentation [...] or whose difficulties end up alienating its readers," while Lin claims "I don't want to make people feel stupid when they read my writing," implying that language and/or post-language poetry are inaccessible and elitist. Fascinatingly, the language poets had very similar goals; they felt that the American tradition of the lyrical first-person poem, giving voice to a single poetic self, was elitist and hierarchical, tending to produce authoritarian "closed texts." So what emerges is an absurd cycle of movements reacting against each other despite sharing the same humanist, populist, even utopian aims. In other words (you could say), both aesthetics grandly fail. They are not merely "culturally ineffectual," but fail even to embody or convey their own principles on a superficial level. (You could say.)

So. Aside from serving my civic duty, I'm doing another cool thing: judging a book award, which means I'm reading some really great books that I might never have gotten around to otherwise. Ah, the pleasures of leaving one's filter bubble. I'll say more about these books when the judging period ends. Also in the works: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by the disarmingly, nay, irritatingly pretty Marisha Pessl (although she seems to only look like a model from certain angles), and I've got a bag of 17 kinds of deodorant sitting by my right foot.

P.S. A P.G. Wodehouse story is a guaranteed good time.


  1. I think my time in my early twenties when I first got exposed to theory (and, admittedly, this was some time ago, so the feminist and de-constructionist stuff I read is probably way out of favor now) was really, ironically, good for my poetry! I don't know that I use a lot of theory in my book reviews but I think it informs my creative writing quite a bit, if I can use that irritating use of "inform."
    PS Good luck on the judging! And I was just thinking about getting a complete book o' Wodehouse!
    Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I wanted to like it more than I did. Great title, though.

  2. Jeannine, I started STICP several months back and abandoned it after 6 pages or something (too Zadie Smith-ish, voicewise), but picked it up again today and it was good for killing a couple of hours at jury duty. Not sure if I'll make it through the whole though -- c'est longue, tres longue.

  3. The accessibility shtick, like the ordinary-language shtick, has always struck me as one of those things writers say that shouldn't be taken esp. seriously. It has become extremely easy to use lately as one can pretty much assume that _any_ kind of poetry will fail to reach a mass audience...

  4. It does seem to me though that one can have valid opinions of, and reactions to, a piece of writing, whether or not the opinion or reaction is based on any theory as such.

    The essential difference between science and art is that the goal of scientific work is to create results that can be repeated over and over again: 2 plus 2 always equals 4; water heated to sufficient temperature, at sufficient barometric pressure, always comes to a boil; an atom of sodium and an atom of chlorine always (under the right conditions) combine to form salt.

    Whereas the goal of artistic work is to create results that are essentially unique: painting a hundred Mona Lisas or Van Gogh Starry Nights doesn't strengthen (or increase the validation of) the value of the original.

    It seems to me that this distinction extends to theory as well -- a scientific theory is valid because scientific method has produced repeatable results that validate the theory. The theory of gravity is valid because if you drop something within a gravitational field, the thing you drop will always fall "down" (i.e. toward the center or source of the gravitational field). It doesn't matter whether you believe in gravity or not -- if you fall off the roof of a building, you'll shortly hit the ground or whatever is the first solid object you encounter after falling.

    Whenever I try to think about any of the numerous literary theories that are floating around in the world, I have a hard time imagining any of them as a basis for writing, or (coming at it from another direction) imagining any of the writing I've read as providing validation for any particular literary theory.

    There are a few writers whose critical and theoretical writings I've found useful, or (maybe a better way to put it) whose critical and theoretical writings echo my experience and the experience of other people whose thinking I enjoy. They include Robert Bly, Kenneth Rexroth, Adrienne Rich, John Berger, Bertolt Brecht, Audre Lorde, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sharon Doubiago, Martin Espada, Susan Sherman, Thomas McGrath, and Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, Judy Grahn, Wendy Rose, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, among others.

  5. I don't think reactions to or opinions about a piece of writing need to be based on some pre-existing theory or framework. To me "theory" in this context is basically philosophy about literature. It just means you're thinking about it and developing ideas and arguments (or even just descriptions) that you're backing up with evidence. I'd much rather read a review that says "X book by so and so is like this and does this and here are some examples of this interesting thing it's doing" as opposed to "This book is good, see, I proved it with this excerpt." All readers aren't going to agree on what is "good." But we might able to agree on what the writing is doing, or trying to do, even if we don't agree on whether it's successful.

  6. Description rather than judgment--agreed!--but the borderlines are murky!

  7. Oh, I know ... and I'm always blabbing about what I like and don't like. But I aspire toward more "theory" (ideas), less "judgment."

  8. William Empson remarked somewhere that it's usually beside the point to criticize work you don't like (except of the most grotesquely incompetent variety) because the odds are you don't understand what it's trying to do. I don't fully agree with this but am somewhat sympathetic to it. I also feel that you may be strawmanning a little: surely most book reviewers claim the book under review reminded them of something else, albeit in the blurbish, "this has all the fierce tenderness of [book by a friend of mine]," way. So the distinction would appear to be between putting some thought into the review or writing it on autopilot...

  9. I'm not saying most book reviewers don't make comparisons. I'd argue, instead, that comparisons are a nod toward theory. Where are seeing a strawman?

  10. Hi Elisa! This is a really interesting topic, I think. Would it be possible for you to send this paper my way?

  11. Could you backchannel me about it? I'm not sure I have your current email address.

  12. Thanks for posting Elisa. I'd love to read the rest of the paper too, could you ask her if it's okay if you send it to me ( Interested in the idea of "childishness" as I've been thinking about Lin and the intersections with poets like Jason Bredle, Daniel Bailey's Drunk Sonnets, even Kendra Grant Malone.

    I'm interested in reading the thoughts on Hart/Pritts/Lasky esp. since I've read them a lot more than say Lin (only managed to read his Action book 'tho I've attempted the others).

  13. Dang, Jennifer needs to publish this thing STAT. The paper really focuses on Hart, not Lasky or Pritts, BTW.

    I'm going to wait until I hear back from JM about this before I send around the full thing, just in case. Glad there's so much interest!