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How to be a critic – or not

When I write, I occasionally think in terms of mechanics like structure.  Generally, though, I’m sort of a gut writer, meaning that an idea pops into my head from god knows where, and I sit down and start writing.  I write until I can’t.  Then I mope about until more ideas from the ether inject themselves.  I write some more, stop some more, and so it goes until the thing resolves itself.  Those of you who have read my posts on this blog are probably not terribly surprised at this revelation.

I do revise, of course, and over the years of reading and writing I’ve internalized the rules of style and structure to the point where they function at the same level as the rules of grammar.  This is a nice way to operate, as it leaves me free to flit about like a butterfly and not think about rules until I’m ready to break them.  Which, come to think of it, is rather a lot, like right now.  On the other hand, thinking about them tends to send me off on a tangent, like right now. I have a friend who delights in finding obscure, forgotten poetry and reviving it.  This usually involves precise meter and line counts, cryptic messages, and rhyme schemes that blow right through the alphabet.  She whips up these delectable tiered confections as easily as if they were Aunt Jemima’s Buttermilk Pancakes, with absolutely no apparent sacrifice of spontaneity or evocative power.  I love what she does, but I’m afraid I’m better at granola, myself.

Anyway, I’m telling you about my writing habit to explain why I’m a lousy critic:  because the art of criticism involves re-externalizing all that stuff I’ve spent a lifetime internalizing.  Worse yet, it makes you read through all that scaffolding out where you can see it.  From a lit-crit point of view, I’m a terrible reader.  I take characters at face value.  I don’t care what Achilles symbolizes, he’s a jerk.  In short, I cheerfully fall for all the author’s tricks and traps.  I squirm and get crabby when people start talking about the true meanings of things in literature.  I want that stuff to soak in slowly, naturally, the way a gentle rain permeates the soil after a dry spell.  If I fancied a swill I’d get Cliff’s Notes.

I used to have an on-going argument with a friend, no longer with us, whose specialty was lengthy exposition of all the bits and pieces and hidden meanings of films.  Our disagreement concerned jokes.  I maintained that while you could get some pleasure from a joke that had to be explained to you, it could never match the pleasure of “getting” it spontaneously.  He insisted just as adamantly that it could, and that I was a heartless elitist, and probably a fascist swine to boot, to insist otherwise.  I put  poetry, mythology, and most other literature in the same category as jokes in that regard.  It’s fine, of course, to re-read, re-hear, and take as long as you like to reach that moment of enlightenment, but, to me, explanation diminishes it.

The upshot is, I can’t be counted on for clever comments, as a rule.  If you see something along the lines of, “The lyric keeps an outward appearance of spontaneity, but it is inevitably inflected with an awareness of its impermanence,” you’ll know it ain’t me.  My comment is more likely to be something like “That was grand!  You’re so good at that.” or some other such insightful remark.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s vital to my craft to know how to put the erector set together, and I even enjoy reading critical essays about literature in general, that is, about some aspect of it, rather than some particular work of it.  Then I find room internally for that information, and move on.

You know how you spend a week in some hotel, and unpack everything from your suitcase?  I’m pretty sure that if I ever objectified writing to the point that I could do an adequate job of criticism, I could never get it all crammed back into the suitcase.  At least that’s my fear.

6 thoughts on “How to be a critic – or not

    • To me, the ending doesn’t necessarily have to be happy, but I need to be moved in some way I consider positive, without feeling manipulated. The hard thing about writing is that, face it, you’re the manipulator, hence the dilemma in my previous post “Detective story.”

  1. Wow, hey, thanks, for the plug, of course, but also for putting into words, merrily and with aplomb, what I’ve run up against in writing genres for years. I’m an intuitive writer too (just listen to that alliteration!) who had to learn structure because people wanted me to teach what I did. Returning to spontaneity took foreeever, only to find poetry waiting on the front porch with its carpetbag of cool tricks. People have tried to explain trochees and dactyls to me, bolstered by the kind of essays you quote here. Their efforts fly right out of my head, but tell me, DUM-de-dum, DUM-de-dum, and I get it.

    I enjoy your style of critiquing. You use visceral language–hate, suspicion, sigh, etc. These reactions have technicolour, so I can assess what to adjust or be aware of. If I want you to not like someone and you don’t like him, yay! There have also been occasions where you’ve said something that made no sense until I let it percolate a few days. What a treat!

    You have done yourself an honourable thing here by identifying where you span most comfortably on the creative slide rule. And of course, the greatest fun comes from pushing at the boundaries…I wonder if I can get away with this…and this…and this…

    • Aha! From now on, if you ever accuse me of blathering nonsense, I can simply say you haven’t given it enough time. The more nonsensical, the longer it will take. Years, maybe. 😉

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