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Tuesday
Jun182013

On Two Feathers

To a wonderful critic on what would have been his seventy-first birthday.

A long-standing tenet of the unimaginative has been their aversion to fiction.  Their explanation is rooted in the proclaimed need for truth, for "things that actually happened" as if thoughts and emotions, the flour and yeast of fiction, never "happen" (I think we have all heard such arguments); fiction is regarded as a patchwork of lies, which in one way of course it very much is.  Yet the best fiction on both paper and reel is derived from a sense on the part of the reader or viewer that this event, these words, this gesture actually happened, if in a slightly different context.  Even science fiction, that bastion of the escapist, which often declares itself to be the greatest exponent of the human imagination, scours the most basic plots of melodrama and intrigue for the clotheslines on which to hang its fantastic details.  But let us not begrudge the science-fictionists their pleasures.  What does need elaboration, however, is fiction itself.  To that end, let us use the debate between two observers of fiction, Critic A and Critic B.

Critic A has been trained to study fiction.  What this means, for those of us who have not enjoyed such a privilege, is that he has read the canonical works in his language and translations of foreign classics, and has been given the tools and vocabulary to analyze fiction from a technical perspective.  While his credentials in this regard are impeccable, they are eclipsed by his passion.  He loves his work, he loves reading books and thinking about them during and after his readings, and he loves writing up his thoughts with enough flashy words to assure his audience that he knows of what he speaks.  Among his favorite works are the following: those with a political or social agenda that appeals to his own beliefs, those that exhibit devastating skill, and those that some other critics don't like very much because they seem constructed out of bromides, when in fact, according to Critic A, they are merely subversive.  He falls in particular for those cliché-ridden tales that feature a political or social element that some people – for all intents and purposes, everyone except him – do not fully understand.  These stories are dismissed by the vast majority of other critics and ridiculed years later as examples of the imbecile.  Not all such tales gain admiration on his pages, but enough to lead one to think that he, too, has a particular agenda.

Something else about Critic A: while his reputation is that of a contrarian, he is reviled for another trait – pedantry.  Why is Critic A pedantic?  Because he bandies about trendy terms as if he invented such jargon?  Because when one reads some if not most of his reviews, we learn much more about him than the works in question?  Or maybe because there is a red thread of liberal ranting that infiltrates everything he writes, with the result being that we often get factual mistakes about the works that better fit his paradigms?  In this last way, Critic A is a fiction writer, albeit a poor one.  We can forgive him his credos and slogans as well as the causes he alone appears to support like Atlas.  But what we cannot disregard is his presumably willful distortion of events and characters.  If he really has read the book he describes, why does he get some of the details wrong?  Why does he say "sister-in-law" when the character was really a "mother-in-law," if so young in comparison to her husband as to seem apt for the former title?  Why does he look upon a repulsive protagonist, one who is so unabashedly drawn as evil and self-serving and is digested by all readers in this selfsame fashion, as a "hero" and worthy of the author's admiration, when the author shows clearly from the first page how a horrible man can destroy himself and others?   Does he not get it or do we not get it?  Before we attempt an answer, let us turn to Critic B.

To the best of our knowledge, Critic B has never received any formal education in criticism.  He has become a critic by virtue of his voracious readings and his keen eye for human psychology.  His reviews (with a few notable exceptions) are wry and straightforward but rarely abusive, and while it is uncommon to encounter technical terminology in them, Critic B will use a learned word only if it is more accurate than any alternative.  Critic B has become very popular with his audience because, in his own phrasing, he has liberated criticism from jargon (jargon, after all, is but an unnecessary code for an allegedly exclusive club that no intelligent person would ever want to join).  Unfettered by nonce words and mumbo-jumbo theories, Critic B's reviews shine with the purity of gleaming truth.  Occasionally, one admits, they are a little too indulgent; they will opine that the quality of a work depends not on what it is about, but how it is about it.  Nevertheless the vast majority of Critic B's writings stand the true test of time in that they are read not for trends or his personal and political agenda, but for whether a work has any value as art.  Readers are duly forewarned about the contents of the work (some kind of plot summary or thread is invariably provided) and can always choose not to bother, like the ingredients of a dish often dictate whether or not you would even think of tasting it.  Every so often Critic B will lambaste a social crime or inequality and such howls resonate because we do not have to hear them every week.  To read Critic B's reviews is to enjoy someone who enjoys books and, more importantly, enjoys a life that is devoted to books.  To read Critic B is to read about a life consecrated to an undying love for the endless mysteries of fiction, which is nothing less than the history of the human soul.

We understand in short order that both Critic A and Critic B are moralists, but not of the same type.  Indeed, while Critic A does everything his dictionary allows him to insert bold strokes of his feelings and ideas, Critic B's mores rise slowly to the surface.  It is perhaps true that even when someone just tells you good morning, he is betraying some element of his personality.  With Critic B, however, one needs to read a handful of his reviews, preferably on rather disparate works, to acquire a notion of his world view, which embraces the open sea from the whitest cliffs of Dover.  And what does Critic A look out upon?  He, like Critic B, has a huge number of shelves; but while Critic B gazes upon them with admiration in the hope of matching the emotion and satisfaction in his measly words that he felt upon reading his favorite books, Critic A sees only the bars that the bindings seem to form.  His shelves are eclectic, consciously eclectic in the way that some people have of designing their home first and foremost to impress unexpected guests.  They have always entrapped him because he has clung to the duty of the trained literary critic, that of ancestor worship.  This worship is somewhat akin to assuming pedigree trumps talent, which it never has, even if pedigree and talent tend to be sensational allies.

But we said they were moralists, and they both are.  Critic A knows that things are wrong in society.  They are in fact terribly wrong and he might be the best person to fix them if he were not simply a critic.  In this way he simultaneously revels in and resents his profession, which cannot under any circumstances make for good reading.  Critic B, on the other hand, knows wrong from right in the way that we all know it, I suppose, although many of us try to contemn it with sham superiority.  Critic B knows that a book that doesn't know wrong from right is worthless.  He also knows that a book that glorifies money, relativism, violence, ignorance, or drugs might as well be converted into toilet paper.  He knows that spirituality is sadly perhaps not for everyone, but he does not dislike people who are spiritual; he dislikes people who insist that others adopt their particular spirituality.  Critic B lauds people who speak their conscience, people who work hard and do not blame others, and people who know history and yet strive to think for themselves.  He is always quick to point out moral contradictions and comment as to whether they have been resolved in a fashion consistent with the rest of the work.  He writes with love, tenderness, and very little acrimony, because acrimony should be reserved for those few people who hate you for what you are.  Inevitably some people must hate Critic B, but he does not hint at who they might be.

One of them could be Critic A.  Critic A also knows the things that Critic B knows, but he is very concerned that we might think he doesn't.  That is why, one supposes, we are proffered constant reminders of his learning often phrased in the most tortuous and self-congratulatory shape possible.  Critic A does have a remarkable passel of clever thoughts but he clubs us with them as if expecting them to enter our skin.  He takes stands against dumb and outrageous ideas, especially those that smack of white, middle-class apologetics – in short, bourgeois guilt and insincerity – but then turns around and defends the most unoriginal projects.  Without an ad hominem attack, which he often employs but doesn't himself deserve, one can simply gather his reviews and ask one plain question: are these about joy or about being right?  When you read Critic A, you have the distinct impression that he is disappointed that everyone does not agree with him.  Between his multisyllabics come sighs and groans as if he were an urban stage star in a hopelessly rural production.  He labors as any good critic should; alas, we see not only his review but all the work behind it as if we were looking at a skyscraper with those good, old-fashioned X-ray glasses made famous many decades ago when cinema was starting to catch up to literature.  We do not see much happiness in Critic A even though he is often right and more often observant, never mind his periodic botching of minutia.  As a fiction writer then, he has a lot to say but it all comes off as a diatribe against everything that came before him (there is even a theory about that, which I am sure he would like to forget).  Critic B, on the other hand, critiques fiction the only way it should be critiqued: with joy, wisdom, and a deep understanding of human motivation.  And that cannot be said for all those fact-laden histories.

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