“What exactly is so queer about Springsteen?” Naomi Gordon-Loebl writes in a terrific piece. “Is it his extreme butchness, so practiced and so precise that he might as well have learned it from the oldest lesbian at a gay bar? Is it because his hard-earned, roughly hewn version of love is recognizable to those of us for whom desire has often meant sacrifice? Or is it something simpler?” For Gordon-Loebl and I, both of us identifying as queer, to become infatuated with Tunnel of Love, the most heteronormative of Springsteen albums, is one of the more delightful ironies of the last few weeks. I especially relished what she wrote about “Walk Like a Man,” my least favorite track, read as an experience of “growing up in a body out of alignment with my gender, trying to walk a path that was not made for my feet and being constantly, painfully aware of the dissonance.”
ERNEST. The highest Criticism, then, is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not; that is your theory, I believe?
GILBERT. Yes, that is my theory. To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises. The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see; and the Beauty, that gives to creation its universal and aesthetic element, makes the critic a creator in his turn, and whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or graved the gem.– Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist.”
To write criticism is to wrestle with the artist for control of the art. Creation and interpretation are so similar as to be in permanent civil war. Continue reading
When students asked if I could speak for an hour about writing criticism, the request flummoxed me. I look in the mirror to fix my hair and write in my journal; scrutinizing methods hasn’t engaged me. After a fitful start, I cobbled together a PowerPoint that encompassed my most sapient points. Readers will get an idea by looking at this post’s title. I even managed to discuss for a couple minutes Pitchfork’s coverage of Taylor Swift this morning. Continue reading
At the best MoPOP Pop Conference of the last eleven years of intermittent attendance, I learned about the centrality of Geto Boy Bushwick Bill’s shortness to his rapping, that Taylor Swift and Spandau Ballet stare at each other across the wastes of history in the hopes of building castles out of all the things we critics threw at them, and smoked spaghetti and butternut squash soup are available at underground karaoke bars so long as you can endure my version of “Modern Love.” Did you know Karen Carpenter recorded a shelved solo album? Are you aware of the extent of Harry Styles and Young Thug’s fascination with feminine high fashion? Of the aesthetic and sexual fluidity of Associates singer Billy MacKenzie? Of how Seattlelites have a fealty to Uncle Val’s Gin exceeded only for their contempt for Miamians bearing umbrellas?
A safe space for a critical community assaulted by the sordid but inevitable union of the internet’s democratizing ethos and capitalism’s appetite for turning what is least fungible into the most expendable, the Pop Conference has an exceptional knack for collapsing what used to be called high and low culture; it has a special interest in the ways in which communities shape popular musics, for, let’s not forget, we live in those communities. In these eleven years of my attendance, I’ve seen how critics with journalism background have given electrical shockers to academic publications, and how research methods have deepened the reporting of the journalists where once these phenomena existed as a binary.
I was delighted to moderate a panel called “Contested Masculinities Across Pop” with stellar papers by Jenny Gathright, Marissa Lorusso, and Maria Sherman. I drank well, ate better, talked best. Here is When I’m Bad, I’m Better,” the paper I wrote on Angela Winbush and the politics of R&B crossover. Thanks to Ned Ragged and Kate Izquierdo, I’ve got audio of my presentation.
“Friends are fables of our loneliness,” J.D. McClatchy wrote in his poem “An Essay on Friendship,” or, to quote an artist cited a few times this weekend, thank you to “all the ladies and gentlemen/Who made this all so probable.” Eric Weisbard and his programming panel should feel proud. Let’s get back to work.
In the early ’00s when I taught more literature courses, my students read a lot of Robert Frost: “The Silken Tent,” “Directive,” “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” “After Apple Picking,” others. “The Road Not Taken” appeared on the syllabus too, one of the few poems my students recognized in bits. Accepted as a manifesto for corporate self-reliance and focus grouped sanctimony, Frost’s most popular poem is also what David Orr calls the most misread poem in America:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Not only is the speaker predicting he’ll one day tell this story with a “sigh,” but the use of a dash after the first “I” denotes a pause, a catch for breath before the admission of rue. Orr:
The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Frost’s popularity contributed to the distortions. By the time he fumbled through a reading at JFK’s inauguration – the first American poet to be so honored – he was selling as many volumes of poetry as any best-selling novelist. Jewel and Billy Collins are the only twentieth century equivalents, and they weren’t getting journal articles written (and if they are, you know how to reach me). Still, even mentioning these misinterpretations reactivates the arguments from a Pre-Cambrian period in American culture when the likes of Dwight Macdonald took the divisions between an artistic professional elite and the middle class seriously enough to coin new terms of condescension: “Did you know Robert Frost wrote dark poems?” My students were on to Frost’s game; he had ceased to be what Orr describes as “a symbol of Yankee stoicism and countrified wisdom.” He was one of the only poets we studied that semester whom they understood without explanations. They could memorize his verse without effort. If poetry is to “survive,” to use the word favored by Best American Poetry editors since the days of Franklin Pierce, it’s as pop culture detritus.
Unlike the other distinguished graduates of Partisan Review, Howe never surrendered the banner of socialism. The fact that he remained fairly isolated in his adherence to the old faith irked him. And it was his isolation that caused him to cling even tighter to the label — “a mantra for persistence and determination,” as Morris Dickstein describes it in his introduction. Some writers can never improve on their first youthful effusions, but Howe’s work grew steadily wiser and deeper, as did his politics. Over time, his socialism shed its utopian cast and became something of a tragic statement about the ever-widening gap between our ideals and the realities of the world. For a man who proudly, lovingly, announced his devotion to an ism, at a time when ideology was supposed to be over, he remained especially vulnerable to second and third thoughts. His commitment to socialism, he admitted, required “a capacity for living with doubt, revaluation and crisis.”
I’m not as familiar with Irving Howe as I am with Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and especially the great Alfred Kazin, the other giants of mid twentieth century American criticism, in part because until this collection his work has been entombed in libraries. Fans of Thomas Hardy though should make an effort to check his booklength study out of said library.
Watching the show in real time proved a challenge. In the early nineties South Florida “Siskel & Ebert” aired Monday morning at one. I’d record and watch the following afternoon home from work. I had already discovered Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael and was renting or watching (alone, usually) about fifteen movies a week, so while Gene and Roger didn’t keep me away from a movie, they introduced me to things in their “Video Pick of the Week” or, better, in the essays on “Great Films” included in Ebert’s collections: Le Samourai, Tokyo Story, and The Third Man. Ebert loved Hoop Dreams. He couldn’t stop talking about it. There was no way I was going to watch a four-hour documentary about inner city kids who want to play basketball — then and now. But in the year of Pulp Fiction and Red it was the kind of rogue pick that made a hash out of consensus.
Steven James, who directed Hoop Dreams, returns the favor with Life Itself, a commemoration of the indefatigable Roger. Dying of the cancer that robbed him of speech before taking his jaw, he wrote another hundred thousand words after 2006, a torrent of blog posts ranging from political ruminations to autobiographical confessions written in prose that was a newspaper editor’s dream: declarative sentences shorn of adjectives and the windy generalizations that often studded his reviews. More than a critic, Ebert was a reporter. Reporters discover new facts and present them to the public. The film makes the point that the boy from Urbana, Illinois whose parents subscribed to three papers didn’t go away — it condescends to boys, Urbana residents, and rural America. But James does follow the most powerful and chilling of Ebert’s demands: to show audiences his ugly, awful decline. Chaz, the wife whom Ebert credits for saving him from a lonely old age, looks reluctant. What a cruel coincidence: both Siskel and Ebert died of painful cancers.
Other than the politest of demurrals from Jonathan Rosenbaum (“There’s a limit to Ebert’s democratizing of film”), Life Itself lacks oppositional voices. A few days ago, falling into the trap of cranks everywhere, Armond White lamented Ebert’s influence on criticism (I won’t link to the review), which is like blaming Dickens for long novels. He also confuses Ebert the newspaper reviewer with Ebert the TV personality. But I have cavils too. Ebert was so attuned to popular taste that it often impaired his judgment; he was almost a politician instead of a critic. Now critics should be enthusiasts; they should occasionally bid farewell to sense when a movie’s excellence is so obvious that audiences need to know about it right now. An enthusiast, though, is not a publicist. The latter love movies so much that they can’t see the bullshit in front of them; they don’t puzzle over paradoxes or make unusual correspondences, so swept up are they in the moment. It’s amazing for instance that Ebert could endorse Forrest Gump and most Meryl Streep and Scorsese movies. To its credit Life Itself does show a disappointed Scorsese still reeling from the thumbs down Ebert and Siskel gave The Color of Money (it’s better than any Scorsese film between 1995 and 2013 though). He was a sucker for Movies About Ideas — boy, did he love Oliver Stone. He and Siskel loved Quiz Showfor the lamest reasons: “the rare American movie about ideas” and the Death of Our Innocence. That’s not criticism — it’s public relations. To review five or six movies a week on deadline means regurgitating press releases, and believe me, I get it (a friend wrote, “The guy had to write paragraph after paragraph after paragraph about the crappiest crap for DECADES. I think you HAVE to be a bit of a from-the-hip hack to manage that”). To me his best writing is in the Great Movies section of his blog, where he did yeoman’s work introducing them to a larger audience.
Succumbing — inevitably — to the pathetic fallacy, Life Itself argues for the struggle itself as the great balm. As his body withered, he became an enthusiast about writing. Cancer got him; logorrhea didn’t.