Monday, October 10, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


For those of you wanting to identify the enemy, let me tell you a story.

Recently I was surfing the ‘net, looking at on-line comments about modern music. Some of them were quite intelligent. Most were hasty, unfunny or angry one-liners (you know what on-line discussions are like). A couple were appalling. But among them, I identified the enemy.

The enemy was a chap who claimed to have a “profound” appreciation of music because, he said, he didn’t just listen to the words and music of songs. He researched the life of the musician and found out about his politics and beliefs. Then, he said, he was able to judge the music more accurately.

In these words, I believe the guy stands self-condemned as the enemy.

His approach violates what should be the most basic rule in all reviewing and criticism. We should judge and appreciate the work of art itself – not the person who created it. A song is neither better nor worse because the person who wrote or performed it votes the same way you do, supports the causes you support or shares the beliefs you hold. It’s a gross distortion of all criticism to start praising or condemning works on the basis of how kindly you feel about the people who created them.

Why am I making a big issue of this?

Because I believe the “personality” approach has become one of the many things that plague modern critical discussion.

Let me switch from music to literature, about which I know more.

A culture of personality often means that a new book is first hailed with a journalist’s profile article on, or interview with, the author, giving an account of the book’s genesis, how he or she feels about the finished product, relevant matters in the author’s private and professional life and so forth.

All of this is perfectly valid as background to reading a book. I do not embrace deconstructionist theories about the “death of the author” and the irrelevance of  the author’s personality to the text. The author and the author’s worldview are very relevant to the text. But the moral character and the likeability of the author have little to do with the literary achievement or talent of the author. To put it another way, in literature, right bastards may have plenty of talent and very nice people may have little talent at all, but it is the talent that makes the work and that is what should be judged. (Yes, there are talentless bastards and talented nice people too, but let’s not lose ourselves in side issues.)

Problems arise when the categories are confused in criticism. As a reviewer, I define my job as reviewing the book, not the author. Once a Books Page editor asked me with annoyance “Aren’t you a fan of XYZ or something?” after I had filed a less-than-flattering review of XYZ’s latest novel. The question and the word “fan” assumed that once I had decided to like a writer, I would switch off my critical faculties about all that writer’s subsequent works. In this context, I am reminded of a situation in which C.K.Stead was getting grumpy at a girly piece of criticism where a woman writer was praised for her contributions to the cause of feminism. Stead riposted that he would judge her by “the words on the page”.

That, I hope, is my own approach.

Judging the author’s personality rather than the work can lead to those dire situations in which something is considered “worthy” because the author is a pleasant chap who writes about admirable causes. Witi Ihimaera, New Zealand’s “first Maori novelist”, has written about Maori political prisoners in nineteenth century Tasmania (The Trowenna Sea) and the mistreatment of Te Whiti’s followers in nineteenth century Taranaki (The Parihaka Woman). Gosh, he’s such a nice chap when he’s interviewed and his books are about such absorbing historical topics that, even before we’ve read the book, inspire oodles of sympathy. So, sight unseen, his books must be beyond criticism. Right?

We praise 14-year-olds if they write competent school essays or stories which we would regard as poor or mediocre had they been written by an adult. It is perfectly valid to respect their persons and not discourage them in this way. But that is not a valid approach to published works written by adults.

Ideally, in judging a piece of writing, it should make no difference to us that the author is a paraplegic war hero suffering from AIDS who climbed Mount Everest barefoot and has just generously endowed a worthy charitable cause. The only question should be – can he write?

Do I make any exceptions to this austere words-on-the-page, the-work-not-the-writer approach to criticism?

Consider the ordinary published thoughts of a bright, but not outstandingly gifted, young teenager as she reacts to her environment. She says little that millions of teenagers wouldn’t say in her circumstances, so I should really be quite critical of her work, shouldn’t I?

            But what if she’s writing as she hides from persecution in an attic in wartime Amsterdam? Then, as I read, I am judging her work as a “human document” – not as work of literature in its own right. I’m not being blasphemous in saying Anne Frank was not a great writer. We are touched and moved by her diary because she wrote in those particular circumstances, because what she says is so ordinary, so like a likeable bright kid and because we know that she died in a death camp. So there are these documentary occasions where the words-on-the-page rule is reasonably suspended.

This has led to a number of interesting phenomena, however.

One is the existence of what is now called “misery literature”, where memoirists (or their publishers) realize that there’s plenty of money to be made in accounts of appalling childhoods and awful backgrounds, in the full awareness that critics will apply my “human document” rule and suspend critical judgement as they proceed to sympathise with the (sexually-abused kid, refugee kid, orphan kid) authors.

The other is that such “human documents” are notoriously easy to fake. Read a good account of literary frauds and hoaxes sometime, and you’ll find that a very high proportion of them are fake autobiographies of stressful lives. First-person accounts of misery are almost the weapon of choice of literary hoaxers.  So even when reading “human documents”, we should keep our wits about us.

Utter honesty compels me to admit that something else may compromise by reviewer’s creed. New Zealand is a small country with a small literary community. Sometimes, when I review a work by a New Zealand writer, I pause and wonder if honest comment will lead to a punch in the face next time the author meets me at some literary function. In short, I do think about the writer rather than the work, and that thought has occasionally led me to be more tactful that I should have been. Oh dear.

By the way, a note for anyone wondering about the rather obscure title of this week’s thoughtful bit. Before it was the title of a Rolling Stones number, The Singer, Not the Song was the name of a High Camp, mildly homo-erotic British-made Western of the early 1960s. In it, a Mexican bandido (Dirk Bogarde in tight-fitting leather pants) decides that he respects a priest but won’t be buying his religion. He says he likes “the singer, not the song”.

In reply, I say criticism should be based on the song, not the singer.

1 comment:

  1. It is worthwhile affirming that a work of art should stand on its own merits and that any criticism is not directed at the singer, novelist or whoever. In assessing works of art, I wonder to what extent fine art can be examined without automatically feeding the cult of personality.
    It's hard to imagine works by Picasso, Pollock or Fomison being described or judged independently of their creators, because what is filtered through each psyche onto canvas is so distinctively that person. This doesn't mean that the work can't be judged on its own merits - just that references to the artists themselves seem inescapable. The drunken expressiveness of Pollock's lifestyle is splashed over his canvases, and the dark, haunted space of Fomison's mind looks out at us from every face on his textured hessian.
    If a biopic I saw of Pollock is anything to go by, he was a complete bastard and continues to communicate (or inflict) that manic energy on those beholding his tortured, multi-million dollar splatterings.