Friday, November 06, 2009

There's no sign of aesthetic tribalism Saskatchewan's writing community. At least not that I can see. I'm talking about the aesthetic tribalism described in this post on Table Music. If a lack of interaction is what creates certain camps, as Chris Banks suggests, then I can see why we are like we are. In Saskatchewan we interact all the time. Our doors are wide open. And while we find ourselves in various circles of like-minded writers from here and there across the country and beyond, place does matter. Saskatchewan's new formalists, surrealists, narrative-lyricists, popomos and everything in-between frequently sit down together at a table and break bread. We hear each other read. Then we sit down at another table afterward and chat some more. Writers of all types are brought in from across the country and we sit down with them. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild and The Sage Hill Writing Experience have been important community builders in this regard and have been for decades. Of course there's the Saskatchewan Festival of Words. The reading series Tonight it's Poetry in Saskatoon and the Vertigo Reading Series in Regina do this as well. And we spend time with each other and with writers across the country and beyond at the Saskatchewan Writers/Artists Colonies, which have been held for nearly thirty years. There we chat over three square meals a day and at happy hour and hear each other's work at the weekly readings. So I belong to no poetry camp. I can't imagine it. I have no fort. I like to think I could sit down with any writer anywhere and have a nice chat. I like to think I'd be welcome. This thinking sits down with me at every table.


Lemon Hound said...

It isn't that way here in Montreal.

In New York streams were quite distinct.

I might acknowledge these distinctions but I refuse to make them firm. There is nothing more exciting than an event that highlights vastly different ways of writing and thinking.

Tribalism seeks to eradicate such differences.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Exciting indeed! Difference leads to discovery. It appeals to my inner explorer.

Zachariah Wells said...

It's rather telling, I think, that the post traffics in generalizations, even while decrying them. Strawmen abound. Reality is far more complex and nuanced.

Brenda Schmidt said...

And here we are, three vastly different writers in a comment stream, aware of each other and interacting on some level. This is my experience of the writing community.

Zachariah Wells said...

Absolutely, Brenda. And of course the review I wrote of your book wasn't a review of your person, since I've never found you anything but funny, thoughtful and friendly. This is what is dismaying to me about much of the commentary surrounding book reviewing, is the assumption that the person who is willing to commit critical thoughts to print is engaged in some kind of petty act, provoked by anger, resentment, bitterness, etc. If this kind of gimcrack armchair psychoanalysis were performed in the course of criticizing a poem, the perpetrator would be--rightly--accused of ad hominem criticism.

In his post, Chris Banks says: "Whatever the goal is of the particular poet, I think it is the duty and responsibility of any reviewer to understand how the poetry is working before passing judgment on its merits. That way, even if a book is reviewed negatively, the review will serve as a dialogue and not merely as a shallow denouncement." Now, this is a bit tricky, as Chris doesn't actually use any specific examples--minus 10%, if you're grading--to illustrate his point, but given that, in an earlier post, he linked to a review of mine as an example of pathologically snarky behaviour on the part of reviewers, I think it's fairly safe to say he'd include me in the camp of shallow denouncers. Trouble is, I totally agree with him. What he said's impossible to disagree with! Who wouldn't want reviewers to do that? I know, as a reviews editor, this is a bare minimum expectation I have of my reviewers.

This, however, is complicated by the fact that I also totally agree with something said recently by Robert Pinksy (thanks to Rob Taylor for pointing it out): "I think that if an audience for any art is having a good time, they are willing to suspend the need for comprehension for a while—that’s part of the pleasure. So if the poem by Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore sounds great, is amusing or engaging or spooky in a way that we like… then like the devotee of opera or rap music or rock music, we are happy to understand only gradually, over many listenings. And if it doesn’t sound good, it is boring even if we understand it. That’s the trouble with a lot of boring art: you understand the stupid cop show, or the tedious sitcom gag, too soon and too completely. Same for the stupid middlebrow poem."

(Part 2 to follow)

Zachariah Wells said...

Again, who couldn't disagree that a "stupid middlebrow poem" is a bad thing?

You can see the problem right? Stupid middlebrow poems exist. Weak art exists. Sociological venalities exist. Sometimes, emperors walk around in their birthday suits. Sometimes, when people point this out, it isn't an indication of a personality flaw on the part of the pointer. This possibility rarely goes acknowledged in commentary like Chris's, in which a baseline assumption seems to be that because something has been published, it is worth taking seriously. I wish it were so, but it often isn't.

When I'm assigned to review a book, I want nothing more than to have that rare magical experience one has when reading great literature. Major understatement: It doesn't often happen. A reasonable second place is a book with enough interesting things and evidence of serious engagement on the part of the author to make it worth the time to read. This happens fairly often. Sometimes, not that often, one encounters very little evidence of honest effort on the part of the writer (and, by extension their editors and publishers) and, moreover, next to nothing redeeming in the book. In short, you get the kind "stupid" art that Pinsky's talking about.

An inability to appreciate such non-art is not a flaw on the part of the beholder. Beauty may be in the eye etc., but a turd on the tongue only tastes like chocolate cake if the taster has brain damage. When one encounters such things, one has options: a)Hold your nose and say it smells like a rose. b)Damn it with faint praise. c)Pass on it altogether. Or d)Tell everyone who cares to listen that it stinks.

To anyone who considers herself to be a professional reviewer, as I do, a and b are bad options because they are ethically compromising. You're basically lying, or at least fibbing in the case of b. C is likewise problematic, because, while not a lie of commission like a and b, it is a lie of omission. If all you have to report is good news, your credibility as a critic goes in the tank, no one pays any attention to anything you say, and you stop getting calls from reviews editors, which leads to considerably reduced income. (Let's not forget that all reviews published in magazines go thru an editor, so any accusations of bad motives made against the reviewer must also be made against his boss. Keep it up and you start to sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist.)

Again, since Chris doesn't make it explicit who he's talking about, I'll draw on my own experience. I've published reviews of various lengths of well over a hundred books. If you were to publish them all in a perfect bound book, it would run to damn near a thousand pages. Let's use that figure for the sake of mathematical simplicity. Of those 1000 pages, maybe 25-50 would be of the sort that gets decried as "snark": sarcastic, dismissive, ridiculing. I fully accept that I could be wrong about a book, but I don't accept that that kind of proportion is wrong, nor that the register of such reviews is inherently inappropriate. Certain, quite rare cases call for it. Some books are a waste of time and it's misleading to the review's primary audience--which is not, I hope it will be acknowledged, the author and his friends--to say that something could have been better when what you believe is that it couldn't have been much worse.

A review, first and foremost, has to do what Pinsky says a poem has to do: keep its reader engaged. Taking the edge off, extracting the personality of the reviewer, being unflaggingly "fair" makes, by and large, for exceptionally dull reviewing which, while offensive to no one, is also instantly forgotten and does absolutely nothing to spark discussions. Such as this one.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Oops - my 6:17 comment is an edited version of a comment I posted this morning at 11 or so but later pulled which is the comment Zach is responding to. I'd saved the comment. Here's my original comment in its entirety:

And here we are, three vastly different writers in a comment stream, aware of each other and interacting on some level. This is my experience of the writing community.

As far as the reviewing of poetry in this country goes, which the post goes into, I'm of a somewhat different mind as well. I remember not being too happy with your review of my second book, Zach, but my response was natural and quite short-lived. After a time I went back and considered what you had to say, took away what I thought useful and left the rest. A reviewer in your acquaintance gave the same book a very positive review. After I got over the glow (which needs to be gotten over as well), I looked it over, too, and took what I could from it. The book has had a pretty good life. A negative review didn't kill it. It hasn't stopped me from sending you comments or suggestions on poems you post. You've done the same. I certainly don't agree with everything you say or do, but that goes for everyone. I'm saying all this because I don't believe criticism needs to be a call for war. Sometimes a difference of opinion and a difference in aesthetic can lead to more interesting things.

Unknown said...

For the most part, I have to agree with the comments on reviews. I think whenever a writer or reviewer puts their thoughts on paper, there needs to be some aspect of personality, or individualism for readers to latch on to and enjoy. But a fair, even-handed review is useful in it's assessing of how successful a work is. I'm a reader/consumer so I like what keeps me entertained (art or review). In addition I think it important that there is something significant in what is being said or the way it is being said (art or review).

Aesthetic tribalism seems a nasty word really. Something pompous and primative about it. I think this idea of tribes or cliques, at least in my own limited exposure, is easy and tempting to apply to Canada's writing community as a whole (aren't we all about minorities and distinctiveness?). How many times do we hear poets grouped by region (Atlantic, West Coast, etc) when really that's a classification by geography not the aesthetics of art.

This sort of tribalism may exist here in Newfoundland, but if it does I haven't seen it. I do acknowledge that these differences between writers can and probably do exist, but they don't prevent interaction, not that I've seen.

Brenda Schmidt said...

As far as the primary audience goes, I have no idea the size of audience for poetry reviews or its general make-up, but I suspect it's not that large and I suspect the closest reader of any review will be the author of the book. Then the author's friends and the reviewer's friends. I can relate to the call for more poetry reviewers and publications who go with a different edge in their reviews and have a different sense of what entertainment is. And we do find a different tone at the Globe and a different approach in How Poems Work at Arc and on Lemon Hound and I get the sense there's an appetite for more of that. It's like our preferences for movies. Give me The Hours in all its subtlety and elegance any day over, let's say, Poltergeist or The Exorcist. No matter how classic, no matter how well the latter movies were made, they're still too scary for me. And sure The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of a review keeps its reader engaged in horror, but that's not something everyone wants to see.

Zachariah Wells said...

Ah, but it's something everyone wants to talk about!

Whatever the demographic makeup of a review's readership might actually be, I think it's deadly not to imagine a broad, general audience. This failure of imagination is precisely, I think, what leads to the mistaken notion that a review is an epistle from reviewer to author.

For the reviews in Quill & Quire, the prime audience is booksellers, librarians and other people associated with the book trade. That's the mag's subscription base, anyway.

Anonymous said...


But who needs to mix? Who needs to care about the other "tribes"? Why can't one live and read books and not care about meeting other good poets, other bad poets? Who needs to break bread? It's the poetry that matters. Counting others as "friends" or fellow travellers based on how they write is overrated as a social activity. I think of Larkin, ensconced in Hull, hating readings and removed from the dull London scene.

This post thread has veered into the ethics and viability of telling the truth as one sees it in reviews, so I'll touch on that for a moment. Not telling the truth seems to me to be a kind of parody of oneself. I always shudder when I hear, "Try to understand what the poet is trying to accomplish." That is a big tell. Poems need to proposition ME, they need to come on to ME. Trying to divine what the poet set out to do is not evaluative, it's reductive. No one reads a great poem and says, "Wow, he/she's really completed what they set out to do." No, they stop at "Wow" and there's a whole world of a response in that exclamation. It's this astonishment that needs explication, and when astonishment's cousin, disappointment, is the real reaction, we need to give it its due too. We NEED the personal reaction, not the impersonal assessment of intention. Intention is for poets who can't write good poems.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Of course it's the poetry that matters, Dr. Ursus! Just as it's the medicine, politics, climate, birds or spiders that matter to those who focus on those things. As you well know, conferences and gatherings of practitioners, no matter the field, go on all the time. Do you attend? Next summer, at the same time as I'll be heading to Moose Jaw for the Festival of Words, the International Congress of Arachnology will be going on in Poland. It can be fun to gather and discuss matters related to one's practice and way of life, present work, catch up with friends or just hang out and eat cheese balls. Fun and useful. You never know what you might learn.

As far as truth in reviews is concerned, aren't there different, yet still ethical ways to table the truth about the books on which we feast? Presentation does matter. Like any meat, it can be beautifully garnished on fine bone china. It can come food court style in a waxy wrapper on a plastic tray. It can be hacked straight off a dripping carcass. Me, I'd like a little white truffle sauce over the pork medallions. Well-done, please. And a sprig of something pretty on the side.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Hm. Sherbet. I'm guessing I won't have to worry about him hogging the cheese balls. :)

Lemon Hound said...

Hey Brenda,
No, criticism certainly doesn't have to be a call to war. Agreed. Nor does it have to be a call for peace. Neither extreme is interesting.

Brenda Schmidt said...

True enough.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Here's Nigel Beale's take on all this.

And here's Steven W. Beattie on critical responsibility and best intentions.