A criticism of criticism; or, everyone’s a critic, but you’re a bad one.

I’m sure you’ve all seen this new list of the 15 most overrated authors:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/the-15-most-overrated-con_b_672974.html#s123773

To summarize, per Anis Shivani, they are:

Amy Tan
Antonya Nelson
Billy Collins
Helen Vendler
Jhumpa Lahiri
Jorie Graham
John Ashbery
Jonathan Safran Foer
Junot Diaz
Louise Glück
Mary Oliver
Michael Cunningham
Michiko Kakutani
Sharon Olds
William T. Vollman

Sure, everyone who reads that list is going to say, “OMG, ____ totally belongs there!” Shivani’s “compass” for making these qualifications of this interestingly diverse cadre of writers is this:

If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing. Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance. Good writing is exactly the opposite. Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself. These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism. They are uneasy with mortality. On the great issues of the day they are silent (especially when they seem to address them, like William T. Vollmann). They desire to be politically irrelevant, and they have succeeded. They are the unreadable Booth Tarkingtons, Joseph Hergesheimers, and John Herseys of our time, earnestly bringing up the rear.

I’m not even sure what that means!

How do we know if what we experience is showboating and narcissism versus a mode, a form, a device? Equally offensive are the cute labels Shivani applies to each author’s profile:

Sharon Olds (tampons and lactation)
Junot Diaz (Abuelos and Hijas)
Antonya Nelson (Alcoholics, Abusers, Addicts, and Adulterers)

It is facile to reduce down any author to a single dominant trope, concern, or identity, particularly when those traits seem to relate back to the author more than anything does. Does Shivani imply through his criticism that “tampons and lactation” are unworthy topics of poetry? Then he should similarly avoid Carly Sach’s great piece in Court Green.

I’m firing this off quickly in annoyance, but my issue isn’t wholly with Shivani. He’s clearly stirring a pot, and I although I abhor his approach and his methods, I also argue that a critical dialog is essential at every point in in literature.

I’m at somewhat of a loss to understand why someone would take such a reductionist, offensive, and wholly misguided tone in opening up a dialog about art. Why hasn’t he listed the enormous list of male writers who, like Antonya Nelson, have concerned themselves with “alcoholics, abusers, addicts, and adulterers”? Surely she has no corner on the market. And how can we truly assess the work of Junot Diaz this early in his career? We can discuss Oscar Wao, sure, but beyond that….? He may never write anything as significant again. Or he may become the most significant writer of our generation. Perhaps we can say, at least for this one, that it’s too early to tell.

When criticism works, it works because it places an artist’s work into a context, discusses what it does well and what it fails to achieve. A review that does only one of these three things and sacrifices the other two would be called a book report, literary fellatio, or a rant, respectively, none of which offer anything but the pleasure of their own existence for their authors.

I don’t believe criticism must be kind, but it shouldn’t expose our own shortcomings as human beings either. While I’d hate to see literary discourse become as structured and stifled as the dinner party in The Age of Innocence, I think we can, in the immortal words of Ouiser Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias, “take the dishes out of the sink before [we] pee in it.”

On LOCUSPOINT: Clarifying and expanding

From Eduardo:

The “Phoenix” installment of LOCUSPOINT is up and running. Go have a read. Notice anything? Each contributor has an MFA from ASU or works for ASU. This installment isn’t about Phoenix poets. It’s about ASU MFA poets and the ASU MFA program. That’s not a bad thing. I do like Sean Nevin’s work, and Christopher Burawa’s translations leave me wanting more work by Jóhann Hjálmarsson. Hey, I just noticed Burawa’s bio doesn’t mention his MFA, but I believe he holds an MFA from ASU.

I guess all the worthwhile poets in the Phoenix area have ties to Tempe. This narrow focus is disappointing. Especially after reading Charles Jensen’s introduction in which he mentions the arts community in Phoenix is “rapidly developing.”

If Jensen is only interested in the work of MFA poets then he should’ve enlarged the scope of this installment to include University of Arizona MFA poets. Why? Because the University of Arizona produces much better poets. Period. ASU is just beginning to catch up to the Tucson program.

Hey, nothing is perfect. And Jensen is bringing attention to some good work. I was just hoping to see work by non-ASU poets. But hey, Jensen is fighting the good fight. All I can do is bitch and moan.

Boy, I’m never going to be invited to the ASU Writers Conference now.

From me:
Hi Eduardo,

Thanks for your thoughtful critique of LOCUSPOINT, and for linking to it here. Just be reminded that no edition of LOCUSPOINT ever seeks to be “definitive” of a time or place, but is designed to be a subjective snapshot of an editor’s perception of place. If you look back at other editions, no one ever makes sweeping claims to summarize an entire city or region in seven poets; to event attempt to do so is an exercise in futility.

When I edited Phoenix, I chose work by poets I knew best, people with whom I interacted on a daily basis. Since my professional life centered around ASU, that’s where my focus was. It’s not to say that another poet would choose the same work; I’d expect the opposite.

And, to wit, all the poets in this edition actually do have ties to the Phoenix literary community in a broader sense: all work in arts administrative positions either on a local or national level, and two of them have work that is based in Phoenix.

Just thoughts for you.

* * * *

And to clarify: each editor is allowed to choose if they edit a city proper or a metro area. They choose their own region. I chose the whole metro.

* * * *

I guess I should expect responses like this. The dominant critical mode in literature has been to reject subjectivity. It’s why responses to anthologies often read editorial assumptions and intent from the dichotomy of inclusion/exclusion.

When I think about criticism, I think a lot about something Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote in her blog some time back. Jeannine wrote about, to paraphrase, the impulse to write “sweeping criticism,” criticism that categorizes (in effect, limits) readings rather than expands them or allows for multiple and even competing readings.

Accessibility versus Engagement

I was thinking tonight about art.

Specifically, I was thinking about how art is art because it creates a response in the viewer—isn’t this the fundamental definition of what we consider art? That it makes us think, feel, reconsider, review, etc? Also, I think, art is sometimes art because it is presented in the context of “being art,” which changes the way it is consumed.

But I’m already starting to digress. I then wandered over to thinking about the long-standing po-blog debate about the level of “accessibility” in poetry. Many poets turn up their nose at poetry they deem to be overly “accessible,” which I take to mean poetry they feel is pandering to an unindoctrinated audience, or trying to please the “general public,” who may or may not care about poetry as an artform to being with.

I think accessibility is becoming a dangerous term. I don’t say this because I aspire to write poems that are accessible. (But that’s an easy out. Maybe I do.) When people describe poems that are accessible, I feel they are really commenting on a given’s piece ability to engage a wide audience in its meaning or methods.

I thought, then, of something Claudia Rankine wrote in an interview soon to be published in the next issue of Marginalia. To poorly paraphrase her, she said something along the lines of how sometimes people see a film and it has no impact on them. Other times, the work engages them. It creates a response within them. Whether or not the film fits into the limitations of accessibility is irrelevant in this case. Take for example, Yoko Ono’s film “The Fly,” in which the entire film consists of a static image of a fly running across bare human skin in extreme close-up. All the while, the fly giggles. Although this film isn’t “accessible,” I would say it is able to engage an audience and spur a response. They may not like it, but they respond to it. Therefore, under my parameters, it must be art.

People often cite people like Mary Oliver as a poet of access. Mary’s poems often seem simple and plain—of nature or basic human experience, without much hooha or fanfare in the language. Mary’s books sell like hotcakes. She had, like, five books on the 2006 poetry bestseller list. Clearly, her work engages people and spurs a response, but positive and negative. It must be art.

Accessibility is linked (in its negative usages) with dumbing-down, with ease, lacking complications or excess, perhaps even a lack of intelligence or craft involved in creation. But engagement operates on different terms. America’s Next Top Model engages many people, including me, and yet, I trouble myself to consider it art. But under the terms I set forth, it must be art.

If something that is less “artful” is still “engaging,” perhaps accessibility, then, is also about high art/low art—that other troubling dichotomy. And here we get into all sorts of poetic judgments. I’ll reveal something to you. I consider Dr. Seuss to be a genius. His books still provide me a kind of enjoyment in adulthood that I found in childhood. But he is not High Art. (Not yet, at least—time is generally the hobgoblin of what is high and low in the world of Art.) I would argue that many people feel Mary Oliver’s poetry is more pedestrian (“lower”) than someone like, say, Gertrude Stein or Lyn Hejinian or others. In our little world, difficulty denies access, denies some with engagement, although I, too, argue that any response—even confusion—is still a form of engagement. Therefore, Stein and Hejinian are art.

And take, too, Claudia Rankine’s amazing book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. An uncomplicated book in many ways: clear, concise, direct. It has exceptional levels of both engagement and accessibility and personally I think it is one of the most artful books I have read. Rankine’s other books were less “accessible” to me, but I still took from them a level of engagement. And what engages has value. Therefore, it must be art.

What do we succeed in doing by isolating the “accessible” from the “non-accessible”? Creating a culture of non-access seems to me to devalue participation by a wider audience. It creates a sort of “You over there/Us over here” split that only isolates poetry further and limits its readership. But here I expose one of my main values about poetry: that it can and should be read.

I don’t offer solutions here. I don’t have answers, just thoughts and observations that struck me while walking from campus to the car. Some people in poetry want to limit access to those who are indoctrinated. This doesn’t mean that no one outside of poets should read poetry, but that access to poetry is something to be cultivated and earned. Those aren’t bad values to have. Aren’t all good things earned over time? People rarely value what is handed to them without hard work.

But: engagement. Think about it.