Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Nick Laird and the Dumb-Headed Criticism

It was probably 2006, maybe 2007, I don’t know. I was in Borders with Cassandra and I found a book of poems by Nick Laird, who, I read, hailed from Northern Ireland, a place I had a significant interest in. I had written two papers on Northern Irish poets in ’06 (Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian, both netting A grades, though the McGuckian paper was weaker, her work being harder to pin down). I had seen Carson read and lecture alongside Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley in DC. Seamus Heaney submitted a video tapped reading and lecture as well. McGuckian was supposed to be there but got sick, damn her. (It was 2007—I remember now.)

Where was I? Right—Borders.

So there was To a Fault by Nick Laird. I picked it up and sampled a few poems, liked what I saw and brought it over to the café section to sit and read some more, the lovely Cassandra by my side. After a few pages I declared that I needed to buy the book, though I didn’t (funds were tight, I am sure). And then I forgot all about it.

Three years later, Laird has three more books out. I snatch the first three with ease (Utterly Monkey I found used; To a Fault I ended up buying from Amazon; ditto On Purpose) and blaze through them in a flurry. To a Fault I prefer more than On Purpose, his second poetry collection, though the Art of War/Marriage stuff is brilliant. Utterly Monkey I read in three or four days last week. It’s a fine novel—a “first novel” in the sense that people forgive your first book especially if its protagonist resembles its creator. Okay, so Danny in the novel comes from a small Northern Irish town and moves to London and gets a job as a lawyer for a major firm and falls for a black woman. So Laird did the same. My first thought is: so fucking what? If he borrowed from his life, it makes no difference to me and certainly does not tarnish my reading experience. I really liked the book. I liked it so much that I went on Goodreads and posted 4 stars and looked to see what others thought. Like much interesting work, it netted some split reviews. Some hated it; many complained that the local vernacular was a hindrance (I loathe this complaint); others couldn’t get past the similarities between Laird and his character. I ask again, who cares? We privilege experience over imagination when it comes to celebrating movies that are “based on a true story” or all those lousy memoirs that we are dumb enough to believe in, so why is it we shift suddenly when it comes to fiction? If we think something is semi-autobiographical we grant the writer less credit, as if the sole mark of good writing were invention. We’re so fucked up. Someone actually used the word amateurish in their review, solely because of the above mentioned biographical factors. Jeesh… all those asshole snobs who lambaste horror writers and Sci Fi books ignore the fact that those works are all imagination, yet they are also quick to cut someone down for writing about what they know. Apparently, you can’t win with some people.

Sorry for the rant, but I do find it pretty annoying that we can’t separate the art and artist all these years later. I don’t buy all that death of the author French theory, but to an extent one should just look at the work itself. More annoying, in the case of Laird, is the constant comparison of his work to wife’s (Zadie Smith). I get it—people like to gossip, even in literary circles, but I don’t see what insights or appreciations will be gained by looking at these two different people and their different books other than the obvious compare/contrast stuff. It’s as bad as old Bloom and his “Seamus Heaney is not W. B. Yeats” bullshit. (See a few posts back.)

Anyway, I’m ankle deep in Laird’s latest noel, Glover’s Mistake. I’ll report back once I have ingested all things Laird. I did knock off the two new Ciaran Carson books (quite good, very elliptical and strange, a departure for him in some ways) and will be ready for McGuckian’s latest (soon!). It’s raining Northern Irish these days, though I have two Bolaños to look forward to this year and still need to get to A Twentieth Century Job by G. Cabrera Infante (aka G. Cain). The list gets bigger everyday. Ah, there could be worse complaints, right?