Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Conversation

No, this isn’t about the superb Francis Ford Coppola film. I want to talk about literary conversation. (Big shock, huh?) In an earlier post I linked up this long, long entry on The Valve about traditional academic criticism versus “creative criticism,” the former being defended by the professors with books under their belts and the later being proposed as the next step in the evolution of the lumbering beast. Considering this blog, when it wears its bullshit literary critic hat, might qualify as creative criticism— assuming, of course, that there is a spark of creativity exhibited on these cyber walls—one might assume I am all for the creative thing. Well, truth be told, I am for both, and as for me belonging to one or the other: I couldn’t give much of a fuck. There are good literary sites out there; this is really just a blog about my interests, books being a big one, but at no time do I manage to be as inclusive and well-written as, say, the Conversational Reading blog. Scott Esposito, who runs the show over that-a-way, certainly is a champion of the creative criticism thing, as evidenced by the editor’s article on The Quarterly Conversation.

Now, before we all go running off the cliff like a bunch of literary lemmings, let’s step back a minute and think about the whole ball of confusion. There’s got to be room for both kinds of criticism. The university presses continue to churn out labored books of over-wrought prose dedicated to a minute aspect of a genre, era, author, or text that tend to get ignored by anyone outside of academia. Subsequently, there is a rallying cry around more accessible essays, articles, and books that discuss literature without employing the signs, symbols, and impenetrable language all too often seen in lit crit and theory. I do admit that there seems to be a conspiracy of sorts surrounding the need to intentionally make these books difficult and intimidating (not to mention downright dull) in order to mask the lack of ideas or originality within. Chomsky accused Foucault of this. People have been saying as much for quite some time, in regard to all aspects of literature. There are many, my father included, who accuse the literati of not really liking Shakespeare, but being too afraid to admit as much, thereby extending the myth that he was a great writer. To that I say: hogwash. Nevertheless, there may be some validity to the idea that one can mask their lack of insights in complex prose.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s all assume that a few examples of this charlatan criticism have materialized at some point. Does this negate the usefulness of academic criticism? Not at all. Why throw the theoretical baby out with the convoluted bathwater? For all the unbearable tomes of cumbersome criticism, there are some amazing ideas to be found, assuming the reader (that’s you and me) is adventurous and curious enough to investigate. It also helps to be prepared to wade through some murky waters. But often this is the thrill: the search vs. the find.

This, of course, does not mean that there is no room for criticism that eschews such dense language. Those not entrenched in academia are welcome to write reviews, essays, opinions, etc. though the academy will probably not look at their writings in the same light in which they view their own. There’s a PhD club out there. Joining it is what matters. And when you do, you are expected to talk the talk. Thus, easier to read criticism isn’t going to get the same recognition from the ivory tower onlookers or other academics.

But who cares? I am sure the advocates of creative criticism have a different audience in mind. Then again, I might be willing to stand behind that if it were not for the lengthy debate (mired in a lot of inscrutable prose and peppered with the word “disingenuous”) that was mentioned earlier on this blog. Why make such a noise unless you do want to sway the audience you most likely will not net?

So who are the creative critics trying to convince, their opponents or themselves? I could ask the same question about the academic crowd rushing to prop each other up and justify their collective existence. The whole argument is rather silly, when you strip it down to its core. So let’s move beyond the bruised egos and scrapping, shall we?

Consider this: criticism/theory, the kind that spawns Terry Eagleton and Stephen Greenblatt and Slavoj Žižek, the kind that can be exciting, has a place. Christ, wasn’t Greenblatt on the cover of Rolling Stone at one point? And the film Žižek! goes a way toward making cultural theory look fun. So, fun and theory are hardly mutually exclusive.

That being said, a lot (and I mean a LOT) of critical writing is dull as shit. It’s about time someone shook things up the way Hallman has done. Let’s all get along and go about co-existing. Please, I’d hate for critical writing to become the Gaza Strip of ideas.

The main point I want to make is this:

If creative criticism manages to turn people on who are normally turned off by lit crit, then that is a damn good thing. It’s all a big conversation and there is room for all, degreed or merely opinionated. Come one, come all, just come with something substantial to contribute to the conversation.

Now let’s all smoke a peace pipe and get back to reading.