Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Today is where your book begins. The rest is still well-written?

So, I just realized that I went on two unrelated twitter rants (what my friend Chris calls trolling) in the past 24 hours that both hinged on the term "well-written." The first started with this:
The second started with this:
Let me expound on these a little bit more (oh ha ha ha). The first is an Ezra Pound line that is always getting thrown around in MFA workshops and whatnot, up there with "Kill your darlings" and "Show don't tell." I just saw it somewhere again this week, and it's like when you delete 40 emails from some company before one day you remember you can just unsubscribe. Suddenly I had a deep urge to say WTF: This statement makes no sense! Why do we keep quoting it like it makes sense? The implication is that prose has to meet some bare minimum standard of "good writing," but that's not even true of published prose. "Poetry" and "prose" are just categories, they communicate nothing in themselves about the quality of the writing. People who have quoted this: WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

FWIW, I think that version is a misquotation; this appears to be the correct quote in context (a letter written to Harriet Monroe):
Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity). There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant's best prose, and as hard as Stendhal's.
I still don't agree with it, natch; poetry can do whatever the hell it wants to, go ahead and invert your book words.

As for the second rant, I was reacting to a comment I saw on a Roxane Gay essay about shame and self-denial. Obviously I think a lot about standards of beauty so I was interested, and the essay was striking and discomfiting in that it wrestles with how it feels when one's body "does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like":
My body is wildly undisciplined and I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine—most spaces inhabited by other people.

I deny myself bright colors in my clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society’s dictates for what a woman’s body should look like. I deny myself gentler kinds of affection—to touch or be kindly touched—as if that is a pleasure a body like mine does not deserve.
This makes me feel awful, in part because I hate our sexist, racist, body-shaming culture, but also in part because so many of the things she denies herself are things I allow myself without thinking. Like painting my fingernails (actually something I almost never do, but I engage plenty in the equivalent) or eating on a plane: "My best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat on the plane, but I denied myself that. I said, 'People like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,' and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said." Our own privilege is usually invisible to ourselves, and though I detest our beauty standards, I reap the benefits of meeting many of them every day.

Anyway, complicated feelings. And the first comment under the article was "This is very well-written." And I just did this massive eye-roll. Like ... isn't that totally missing the point? I mean, duh, don't read the comments, but this is part of non-comment discourse too; I've seen praise this bland in book blurbs. This is how I feel:
  • "This is well-written" suggests that the writing is a superficial layer on top of the content, or that the writer had the content and then did the work of translating it into good writing. Maybe so. But if that is the case, I'm much rather read really interesting ideas with so-so writing than "good writing" and boring ideas.
  • In a great piece of writing, the content is the writing, you can't separate it into layers. This is why people say you can't translate poetry, but really you can't translate anything w/ 100% accuracy, you can only approximate the effect in another language. (Not that I'm against translation, we do what we can do.)
Basically, I can't imagine any writer taking this as a compliment. If you're a writer, "well-written" should be your baseline, no? I mean, comedians don't want you to tell them their jokes are well-written, they want you to laugh. Presumably writers are trying to accomplish something other than producing passable examples of writing.

OK, whatever, end of rant. Now I have this song stuck in my head, and you will too!



P.S. Thank you to Ray McDaniel for this review of The Self Unstable. I have admired McDaniel's reviews at the Constant Critic for a long time so this is especially exciting to me. Example sentence: "Gabbert can pack a lot of weird into a very small picnic basket, and the familiarity of her approach – the sort of observational mixture of claim, question, comment and example that often comprises jokes, for instance – conceals, and usefully, some of her genuinely impressive and profitable ambition." Thanks also to Jacob Spears for the recent review in Pank! Example sentence: "In a world turning increasingly to the virtual, the brief prose poems in Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable read like postcards or dispatches from a new frontier in which the map is just as much a part of reality as the territory." Thank you, thank you, thank you.

30 comments:

  1. First, I totally agree with you about the lameness of the "compliment" that something is "well-written," but I think maybe--maybe!--because the standards of that section of XOJane where Roxane's (very good) essay appears are often really really low and therefore markedly *not* well-written. Still, overall, I like and agree with both of your rants!

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    1. Someone on Twitter said that! But I've read stuff on XO Jane that was "well-written" in the sense that it entertained me and was memorable. Like a confession about discovering that the source of a disgusting smell in the office was actually the writer's underwear. I mean, I don't go to XO Jane looking for Annie Dillard...

      Anyway thanks :)

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    2. Oh wait which section are you talking about?

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    3. Crap--I thought RG's essay was in IHTM for some reason, but nope. I was wrong. It's in Issues. Still, I think maybe it's the venue that's prompting that comment more than the essay? And sure, XOJ isn't "literary" typically, but RG's essay does stand out as exceptional.

      Unrelated--that song IS totally in my head now.

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    4. I kind of like that song TBH. IT'S WELL WRITTEN

      I see comments like that all the time, though. Like on the Rumpus or whatever. I think people think that commenting on the writing makes them look like a good reader.

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  2. I like that song too! SO well-written. Even, amazingly, when the best is still UNwritten.

    Yep--I think you're right overall. It's a silly comment. Cris Mazza's essay on IHTM (which I also really like) got some "well-written" praise, too: http://www.xojane.com/sex/vaginismus-no-orgasms But of course like you point out it's a compliment that shows up everywhere.

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    1. I'm guessing a lot of lit people never read that site until the hubbub over that IHTM where someone was like "There's a black girl in my yoga class" or whatever...

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  3. I think the prose I read should be at least as good as the poetry I write. I was chided recently for buying and eating a pretzel on the street in NY. The comment was we don't eat on the street and my answer which unfortunately I kept to myself was 1. Fuck you and 2. You were obviously never homeless and 3. This is the best pretzel I've ever tasted. Later I was told to put on some pants because I was wearing a dress without stockings I guess or nylons? I never did figure it out. I was basically by myself and had just run out of the room in which I was writing for a second. I think it's because my legs are very long and therefore powerful WOMAN WEAPONS since it was a woman who told me to put something on.

    I ramble. I hold my blog comments to zero standards.
    xor

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    1. A woman's legs are scissor blades!

      Since giving up the gluten one thing I really miss sometimes is hot pretzels.

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  4. Years ago I was in a workshop with X.J. Kennedy. (I'll never forget this: his right arm was in a sling. I was so excited to meet him that I gave his right hand a vigorous pump. He winced!) Some guy in the workshop had slathered words all over the page in a haphazard way that wouldn't do anything for you--he was just a culvert spewing sewage. Kennedy responded with the Pound quotation you find so irritating. And which is related, I think, to another Pound quotation: "Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths." This guy apparently thought that striking an avant-garde stance gave him carte blanche to shirk the difficulties of, for example, an "observational mixture of claim, question, comment and example that often comprises jokes...."

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  5. Yeah ... I just think what he meant was "Poetry should be good." Or maybe "Poetry can't just be bullshit." I think poetry has features atypical of prose aside from the line breaks. Take a poem like "I Know a Man," the thing about it that's great is not that it's "well-written prose" but in verse. Or almost any Bill Knott poem actually.

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    1. As I sd to my frizz, because I am always talking,--John, I sd, which was not his napalm, the dashboard sur-rubbers us, what can we do against it, or else, shall we & why not, buy a goddamn big carcinogen, drool, he sd, for christ's salami, look out where yr going.

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  6. The second rant is absurd. You are overthinking it.

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    1. I see you are using "overthinking" to mean thinking about it at all.

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    2. Well, I appreciate the context of the Roxane thing, but you tweeted it just bare.

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    3. All thinking is overthinking.
      All simplification is oversimplification.
      All writing is overwriting.

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    4. All statements are overstatements.

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  7. The quotations regarding body-image strike me as totally astute and exactly what's missing from many ostensibly feminist poetics which seem to adore performance, but don't explore fear of being "on-stage"/in public due to rather basic aesthetic anxietie as opposed to more high-falluting philosophical aporias. E G--thank you for highlighting your privilege and not making a space to catch yourself more cultural currency than you already possess. The eating chips in public example is perfect and perfectly terrible; and of course a trim gal could get crazy gaze enfranchisement for doing that: grease smears 'n boney frames, who don't love that (eye-rolls).

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    1. I recently read a good essay about the trope of the "cool girl" who is effortlessly thin and pretty and yet eats nachos and guzzles beer with the guys, etc. Recommended: http://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/jennifer-lawrence-and-the-history-of-cool-girls

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  8. Is there "effortlessly thin and pretty"--or do some people just naturalize discipline to the degree where it's indistinguishable from sentience? Do these gals take naps afterwards, or go hike a stair-master (mm, except that might make for big calves...).

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    1. Of course it is not actually effortless, that's just part of the fantasy of the cool girl.

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  9. Grins...on a vaguely related note: recently been watching Youtube clips of 90s Versace runway shows, and it' so striking how big many of those models' tits are; runway breasts are now quite rare, but those of yore can't help but seem off: how is a 24 inch waist (am thinking that's a high-fashion average, or is that figure a bit too high?) linking with surgically un-assisted knockers? BTW: I adore the star 90s models, and GV is a hero of mine.

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    1. It's funny that you say that because I was sick this week, so on Friday night I stayed in and watched a bunch of episodes from the first season of America's Next Top Model. I think it was in the early 2000s, but everyone looked super '90s...visible eyeliner, absurdly bootcut jeans, etc. But yeah those supermodels were not so waifish back then.

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  10. I've always understood Pound's comment (and a number of others similar ones he made during the same general time period) as a reaction against what he found to be slackness/sloppiness/laziness in a lot of the poetry in English of the late 1800's and early 1900's. He was trying to argue against poetry that exhibited artifically "poetic" writing.

    (I say the above, not in defense of Ezra Pound or his writing -- I'm not a lover or liker of Pound's writing, his poetry or his prose. I don't consider his writing to be well-written, generally speaking. Though I've tended to feel that the best of his prose, especially his early prose writing, ABC of Reading, etc., is a little better-written than his poetry.)

    "Well-written," well, yeah, not particularly high praise. It reminds me of the kind of thing that a run-of-the-mill high school English teacher might say about a piece of writing. (I had pretty good English teachers in school, for the most part, but I've encountered one or two whose wisdom I mostly disregarded.)

    Once I saw a cover blurb on a book of poems -- sometime back in the 1980's, a book published in the National Poetry Series, this was in the earliest stages of the epidemic of literary contests and awards that has since spread like a norovirus and laid waste to the earth -- in which the celebrity poet described the award recipient as "definitely a genuine poet."

    I had to reread it two or three times, to let it sink in and convince myself that the person had actually said that. Seriously? "Definitely a genuine poet"?

    HIgh praise indeed.

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    1. I'd sort of like to make an anthology of really middling, faint-praise blurbs. That would be great fun to read.

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    2. William S. Burroughs: [Samuel Beckett] gave me one of the greatest compliments that I ever heard. Someone asked him, "What do you think of Burroughs?" and he said--grudgingly--"Well, he's a writer."


      Susan Sontag: High praise indeed.


      Burroughs: I esteemed it very highly. Someone who really knows about writing, or say about medicine says, "Well, he's a doctor. He gets in the operating room and he knows what he's doing."

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    3. Some people will only admit that so and so is "a poet" in that sense -- not that they choose to write poetry, but that they are touched, have poet mind.

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  11. Or blurbs that describe without praising. One from Ashbery on the jacket of Robert Louthan's Shrunken Planets: "Robert Louthan's poems are simple and strange. They speak the plain speech of dreams, and are quietly but firmly committed to that kind of order." So does he recommend it or what? That blurb reminds me of Pinsky's comments on one of my Hopwood manuscripts. No praise, just description. But I was fine with that. I was young.

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    1. I'm OK with that, since there's so much praise inflation in blurbs. Ashbery probably wouldn't have agreed to blurb the book if he hated it? So the recommendation is implied.

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