Friday, October 13, 2006

Something We Fumblingly Call True or Real

I'm reading a collection of essays by James Wood (The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief.) Heady stuff, but his writing is clear and vivid, and it's interesting to me as a novelist to look over the shoulder of someone whose life work is based on critiquing the art.

Here's how he opens:

"The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists thirst. The real is contour, aspiration, tyrant...

[In] all fiction those moments when we are suddenly swayed, suddenly moved, have to do with something we fumblingly call 'true' or 'real.'"
I agree. As a novelist, I have mixed emotions about writers who piggyback on the creation of others. (Perhaps because I've been at the other end of that sharp pen, experienced both the panning and the praise?) I think that criticism helps illuminate aspects of the art, but I often wonder if most literary critics aren't frustrated novelists at heart. See question below...but first--

Great real-and-true reads from the past couple months:

Damned if I Do by Percival Everett, a collection of shorts. I'll get to meet the author in person next week - interesting to see the man behind the work, which I enjoyed.


Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Picaresque coming of age novel about a thirteen year old in England. Loved it.

Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. How did I get through high school without reading this one? Intriguing that the author had never been to war. Little factoid: Crane's first novel was a dud and, in a creative bout of self promotion, he paid folks to read it on trains.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Maybe the most layered novel I've ever read. I'm still going back to re-read sections, struggling with meaning and symbols. Ellison's genius deserved the National Book Award.

Flying Home by Ralph Ellison. Short stories, less "difficult" than the novel, but no less powerful.

Coronado by Dennis Lehane. Short stories from the author of Mystic River, which provided the truth and the oomph for Clint Eastwood to make the Oscar-winning film. The best story is "Until Gwen" a second-person narrative about the relationship between a conman and his son. "Until Gwen" has one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read. If you pick it up, I promise you won't put it down.

Question: Do critics secretly long to be artists? Have you ever bought (or stayed away from) a book because of a review? Thoughts? Posted by Picasa


Blogger Kern said...

I have bought several books based on picks from Entertainment Weekly, and I am usually pleased. I never buy books based on reviews in the Star-Telegram. Those are the only reviews I read.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Desperate Writer said...

I read reviews, but ultimately, I usually make up my own mind, depending on the subject of the book and if it interests me. I have been known to read books recommended by good friends, even if the subject does NOT appeal to me, and sometimes I've been pleasantly surprised, others, I haven't. Both resulted in a broadening of my literary horizons, which I appreciate very much.

I don't believe all book reviewers or other artista are frustrated creators, I believe some do it out of sheer love of the written word. But there are a lot who are frustrated creators, and those might turn out to be the most unobjective reviewers of all.

This topic reminds me of the song sung by Toby Keith:

"The Critic"

Tell it like it is...

He gets up real early on his mornin drive.
Down to the office for his 9 to 5.
He drives a 94, 2 ton, economy car.
Loves to tell the local bands down at the bar that he's The Critic.

Yea, I can hook you up, I know everybody, in the business.

He flunked junior high band he couldn't march in time.
He tried to write a song once, he couldn't make it rhyme.
He went two or three chords on a pawn shop guitar, he just never quite had what it took to be a star, so he's a critic.

I work for the Gazette man...I got a real job.

He did a 5-star column on a band he never heard.
He did a bluegrass review about an unkind word.
He thought it was time to ask his boss for a raise, his boss said I can't even tell if anybody's even readin your page.


So he thought...and he thought a little more.

He caught a young hot star headin into town, and then he hid behind his typewriter and gunned the boy down.
Here come the letters, the e-mails, the faxes, they raised him to 20,000 dollars after taxes.

He's a happy critic...

He's rollin in the dough...

Man I could do this forever...this is easy. Everybody's readin my column!

Please don't tell my mom, that I write the music column for the Gazette.
She still thinks I play piano down at the Cathouse....

7:40 PM  
Blogger dee said...

I have to admit that I do occasionally shy away from a book due to reviews....but every once in awhile I read on any way...and usually I am pleaseantly surprised....I don't if it is my low expectation, or disappointment in the critic, but I'm often wondering the same these people really know? Do they struggle over very word as we do? Or are the just looking for the next promtion or raise...can't balme them.... I've traveled the same path..but still you have to thin for yourself.... the world would have no critics if we weren't too lazy to read in the first place...just my thoughts....

6:44 PM  
Blogger dee said...

I sooooo can't type when I drink...stop laughing Kern...I know where you live.....

6:48 PM  
Blogger Britta Coleman said...

I don't think it's a good idea to balme the critics either...

Makes me think of Seinfeld. Who told you to put a balm on it???

7:28 AM  
Blogger Britta Coleman said...

Hmmm...broadening of literary horizons. I think that may be what it all boils down to.

Good literary criticism makes us want to read more, delve into it for ourselves. It sheds light, and we want to learn.

But then - does negative criticism snuff out a light that's already there?

That line: "so he hid behind his typewriter and gunned the boy down..." rings awfully true.

7:33 AM  
Blogger ScottM said...

It would make sense that many critics wish they could be artists. It is also natural that they are villified because they sit in judgement without being subject to judgement themselves.

But I don't believe in the maxim Don't criticize unless you can do better yourself, because that would eliminate most of the best critics.

I am more of a movie guy. I rely heavily on movie reviews, and if you read ten reviews of a single movie, how often do you get the wrong impression? Almost never, I'd say.

What would we do without reviews? We'd waste a lot of time going to bad movies and reading books that suck.

Why be critical of critics?

I guess Toby Keith got his feelings hurt once, and decided to fight back in song form.

But critics are just doing their jobs. If they think something isn't good, they have to say so. When they come across quality work I'm sure they are eager and relieved to be able to announce that the work is brilliant!

With so many books and movies to choose from, and with a very limited amount of time to spend reading and watching, you'd better believe I'm going to use all the information I can get to help me weed out my selections.

One thing is for sure. I am never reading Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and some other guy named Thomason. I heard it sucks bigtime.

6:36 AM  
Blogger Britta Coleman said...

I agree, we do rely on critics to weed out our selections - and criticism can be art in its own right.

For example, Christopher Kelly, who does movie reviews for the Star-Telegram,is a gifted writer and a talented critic. Even when he's snarky, he tends to be on point. I always read his stuff, even if I have no plans to see the film, just to see how he twists the words.

Stephen King does an interesting column for Entertainment Weekly as well...some of his pics of the year have introduced me to new fiction that I might otherwise have missed.

I do like your point - "It is also natural that they are villified because they sit in judgement without being subject to judgement themselves." Maybe that's the natural backlash - to criticize the critic.

And I'm betting, based on his repertoire, that Toby Keith has gotten his feelings hurt more than once...

6:59 AM  

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