The Hatchet Job of the Year—a prize given to “the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review of the past twelve months”—has been awarded to A.A. Gill for his Sunday Times review of Morrissey’s Autobiography.
Gill calls the Autobiography “laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling” with “a cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words.” Morrissey is “utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability”: “No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d’escalier.”
Sounds like Morrissey.
Last month, Slate’s Mark O’Connell complained that the award is “the worst award of its generation,” and took exception with Gill’s review in particular (and with Gill as a person, whom he calls “a demonstrably horrible guy”). O’Connell:
The Hatchet Job Award appeals, in its depressingly calculated way, to the basest and most self-serving of journalistic instincts, and seems to arise out of, and perpetuate, a misunderstanding of what criticism actually is. If I was looking for cheap vicarious thrills, I’d watch wrestlers smashing chairs over each other’s heads; at least those guys get paid reasonably well for their efforts. If these reviews were actually any fun to read, that would be something, but frankly I’d rather sit through a full Latin Mass than read any of these half-assed perfunctory takedowns again.
What’s most depressing about the whole thing is the certainty that reviews are now assigned and written with this award specifically in mind. Reviewers are going to seek out bad books precisely in order to display their dull hatchets to the utmost. Editors will seek out exactly the writers who will be most likely to hate and trash a book. And what we’ll end up with is a lot more hacky pot-shot delivery mechanisms, like this one you’ve just read. If I wind up getting nominated next year, I’ll take my mess of potted shrimp to go.
A couple of thoughts: I don’t think anyone writes a harshly negative review, especially for a major newspaper or magazine, with The Hatchet Job and a prize of potted shrimp in mind.
O’Connell makes a couple of good critiques of Gill’s review, and a couple of good points about reviews generally, but he also overstates his case. While I certainly agree with him that what matters is “interesting criticism—criticism that says something provocative or challenging or insightful,” sometimes an “insightful” review is not the right response. Sometimes a book needs to be thrashed. Moz’s certainly did (and I say that as someone who loves The Smiths).
Contemporary criticism is also relatively tame. I have read my share of heavily hedged reviews that affect an “interesting” and “insightful” pose but are neither. The Hatchet Job calls attention to pieces that spice things up a bit. What’s wrong with that?
Over at The Boston Review, Amy King defends contemporary poetry against critics who have decried its demise—and who are, she argues, calling for nothing short of poetry’s “depersonalization” so that they can “systematize,” control, and profit from it.
How does she know this? Well, she just knows:
The desperate beings who claim Poetry is dying because nothing new can be said are grappling for some semblance of control. Their anxieties reach an apex via treatises that strive to master what mercurially ignores such authoritarian muscle. Poetry is untamed in its potential and various permutations, and the cages of these naysayers are poised. The stakes are high; they are motivated by their need to affix poetry’s position in a material culture for personal gain or career acclaim. But poetry forever fails the marketplace with its messy complex tissues of connectivity and exploratory bravado, bringing together what shouldn’t be, conceiving that which hasn’t been, and undoing the certainties we’ve built lives on. It is complex and strange, despite our hope for simplicity and security via epiphanies or aphorisms that make us last forever.
* * *
The impulse behind these critiques seems to be a desire to narrow, conquer, and harness poetry as a means to establish footholds in a marketplace that disavows the necessity of poetry; poetry is useless as a monetary and status measure, and that is also its ultimate power. These critiques have forgone the complex personhood of poetry, the one that goes on intuition, lives on emotional intellect, and senses the spiritual that even a few lines of Whitman or Dickinson evoke. They suppress and resist the development of capabilities people are endowed with.
Sorry? Poetry critics who argue that poetry is in decline—many of whom are poets themselves or have spent their lives studying poetry—are capitalist vultures “motivated by their need to affix poetry’s position in material culture for personal gain”? Color me skeptical.
I’ll leave others to sort out her remarks on conceptual poetry, which I think are somewhat closer to the mark. On the other side of the fence, she singles out Mark Edmundson’s recent essay in Harper’s. I have my disagreements with Edmundson’s essay, but I certainly didn’t see any evidence of a desire to control contemporary poetry in order to profit from it. And King simply ignores other critiques from folks like Dana Gioia, David Yezzi, Tony Hoagland, Jason Guriel, Arthur Krystal, William Logan, and many others, which in no way fit her simplified and abstracted argument.
Poetry is not dead. It certainly is not as healthy as it once was, but wherever there is civilization, there is literary and visual art.
That said King’s essay demonstrates relatively clearly what ails too much of it. Rather than looking carefully at the reality in front of her, she uses predetermined neo-Marxist paradigms (“poetry’s obituaries are aligning themselves with a capitalism that is patriarchal by default”), showy but meaningless metaphors (what does it mean exactly that poetry is “untamed in its potential” and “mercurially ignores…authoritarian muscle”), and thunderous self-assured pronouncements that, once the reader has taken the time to wade through them all, add up to nothing more than poetry is process and personality, fixity and flux, form and feeling—something all poets and critics know already and have for a long time.
I wouldn’t presume to read King’s mind, but the logical outcome of her argument would seem to be the silencing of all critics, who must simply bow the knee to whatever poets write:
You might be denounced as someone who plays in the lower realm of lyrical epiphanies, or as one ignorant of how language systems function. These are all coded ways of dismissing those poets who are changing—via slow burn—the landscape of thought and language in our current economy and cultural climate. Because many prophets of poetry’s death don’t render language beyond systematized methods, they feel comfortable insulting those who do as a way of jockeying for position in what they see as a marketplace poetics. If they insult the poets, they needn’t grapple with poetry’s particulars – or even read them.
See? All criticisms of a poet’s language are “coded,” ignorant dismissals, motivated by a desire to displace the poet from his or her position of power. Better, I guess, to accept unthinkingly (or “grapple with” in a positive sense only) poetry’s new “landscape of thought and language,” and bask in its supposedly warm rays.
Here’s how not to solve the perceived irrelevance of the humanities. The University of Central Lancashire has started an M.A. in self-publishing:
Having produced commercial success stories, such as 50 Shades of Grey, self-publishing is now a highly successful and respected business model for both new and established authors. This dynamic course, the first of its kind in the world, reveals how to make self-publishing work for you.
Does it come with a 30-day money-back guarantee?
The learning outcome for the course of study was apparently developed by someone from marketing and a lawyer: “We aim to develop publishing professionals who are independent thinkers and doers and give them the practical skills to be a self-published author.”
If you want to be a successful self-published author, I guess you have to do the Ph.D.
(HT: The Millions)
Alan Jacobs: “I don’t think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard.”
He had a talent for satire and parody and was a particularly gifted essayist:
But in the basics of the kind of storytelling he liked best — creating vivid characters and keeping a lively plot moving along — Lewis struggled, and I think at times he knew it. Note how in That Hideous Strength he has to pause to tell us what we are supposed to believe about his two protagonists: “Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker”; “It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging.” Apparently we might not have figured out those points without explicit direction.
Think also of the palpable creakiness, the lumbering joviality, of the whole Bacchus-and-Silenus passage in Prince Caspian; and the still more lumbering, and for CSL unusually mean-spirited and score-settling, assault on Experiment House at the end of The Silver Chair; and the endless explanatory talkiness, even long after the main plot points are settled, of Perelandra. (His dear friend Owen Barfield — one of the few people regularly to stand up to Lewis in dialectical situations — rightly commented that in writing fiction CSL was afflicted by an “expository demon.” To Lewis’s credit, he told this story on himself.)
(I would also add that Lewis’s dialogues can be rather stilted–particularly in The Great Divorce and the Narnia series.)
In fact, what we have in Lewis, Jacobs suggests, are not so much novels as “Menippean satires”:
What is a Menippean satire, you ask? Well, please see this definition from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: “The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. . . . The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.”
You know who else seems to have been more of a Menippean satirist than novelist (though he had more storytelling gifts than Lewis)? Walker Percy.
Read the rest of Jacobs’s excellent post.
Over at The Hedgehog Review—the journal of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture—Charles Mathewes and Christina McRorie, responding to a recent piece by Richard Williams, argue that libertarians are overly concerned about government limits on personal freedom:
Libertarian anxieties about the “nanny state” tend to focus on governmental incursions into freedom, usually identified with new legislation: Don’t tell me I can’t do what I want!, the thinking goes. Williams updates this concern to address the more subtle form that policy “tweaks” in light of behavioral economics might take: And don’t make me want what I don’t want!
This new fear is not just that government will limit the exercise of our agency but that it might also shape it in some way. Thus the complaint that a government that uses behavioral economics to tailor its policies will “treat you like a child.” What this assumes is that you are naturally an adult, someone who is in complete control of yourself, including your desires—absent government “nudging,” your selection when buying a car, to use Williams’ example, will be wholly innocent of influence from forces outside your own bare (and perhaps given) preferences. On this account, behavioral economics is not only a form of tyranny; it is also a form of creepy mind control.
But this anxiety rests upon a flawed and misleading picture of the human person, especially with regard to how desires are shaped. The fact is, our agency is always being shaped by external factors. We shouldn’t have needed behavioral economics to show us that we are not as rational and totally in control of our choices as we’d like. The homo economicus ideal of the rational utility-maximizing individual, impervious to outside influence, whose solitary choices and subjective preferences essentially construct his or her self, would have been laughed out of court by Plato, or Aristotle, or the Stoics, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or even Hume or Kant, had anyone been so clueless as to propose it to them. Modern thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Freud, and Bonhoeffer have also exposed the inadequacy of this picture of freedom. Even today, it doesn’t take a scientist to prove that such an account cannot make sense of the reality of our own lives. Not one of us grows to adulthood without being shaped by forces beyond ourselves, including our parents, our peers, our schoolteachers, and our cultural context.
I agree with Mathewes and McRorie that all of our choices are limited (the distinction between “shaping” and “limiting” is largely superfluous)—our bodies, our circumstances, our education, our brains, all have a limiting affect on our wills.
But not all limits are the same. Some are natural (my brain’s chemical balance–or lack thereof); others are established by habit or tradition (kissing hello and goodbye in France), the result of technology (the invention of the automobile), or other such things. In many cases, the limiting effect of the constraint is a secondary result of the activity or event. Cars were not invented so that I could not ride a horse to work in Houston, though this is one limiting effect of the invention.
While many governmental regulations are motivated—at least in theory—by a desire to do some good (limit pollution, for example, or make Americans more healthy), the limits imposed by such regulations are not a secondary effect but the very essence of the laws and regulations themselves. It’s what they do—limit certain activities. Mathewes and McRorie fail to make this important distinction.
Furthermore, while advertising may be one kind of constraint whose primary purpose (like regulation) is to limit (or shape) choice, there is an important difference here, too. Governments have far more power than individuals or corporations to make and enforce limits. Steve Jobs may have wanted all Americans to buy only Apple products, but the best advertising in the world could not have made this happen. But governments, if they so choose, can force us to buy certain kinds of light bulbs or health insurance.
Furthermore, history has shown that governmental limits are difficult to remove. This also makes them rather different from the shaping of advertising, which often only requires a click of the mouse or a press of the button on the remote to suppress.
All this to say, you don’t need to believe in an unconstrained free will to be concerned about the nanny state.
Mark Edmundson’s “Poetry Slam” in last year’s Harper’s was the latest in a series of laments for the state of contemporary poetry. Edmundson bemoaned the insularity of contemporary poetry and the self-centered preoccupation with “voice.”
Other recent essays in this genre: In 1998, Stephen Burt noted the rise of “elliptical poetry”—the use of “verbal gizmos…to undermine the coherence of speaking selves”—and argued in 2009 that poets should return to describing objects in the tradition of William Carlos Williams. In 2010, David Yezzi argued that poets should return to the elements of drama—character, setting, plot. A few years earlier, Tony Hoagland had put his money on narrative—returning to clear, compelling stories in poetry.
There is some good advice in all of these suggestions, and the one unifying idea in each is that the fragmented, indeterminate, blinkered, jargon-riddled lyric needs to go. Too much contemporary poetry still reflects the popularity of “theory” and exhibits the lack of experience that causes poets to replace emotional insight with verbal tricks and appropriation.
But let’s look on the bright side, shall we? Two late twentieth-century poets whose work is in stark (and refreshing) contrast to the above are Vernon Scannell and Alan Dugan—hard-as-nails, blue collar poets, whose poems are direct but evocative, crass but touching, simple but philosophical, personal but universal. Both were born in the 1920s, both served in the Second World War, and both had an affection for the down-and-out and the defeated.
Scannell, who is English, and who taught school regularly (or somewhat regularly) to support his family, was often drunk and would get into bar fights. (He had fought briefly as a professional boxer.) He was arrested for desertion during the war (though not while in battle) and for drunk driving later in life. While he was in jail at one point, his ten year-old daughter wrote to ask him what a “jailbird” was. He responded:
His plumage is dun,
His appetite indiscriminate.
He has no mate.
His nest is built of brick and steel;
He sings at night
A long song, sad and silent.
He cannot fly.
That last line is classic Scannell—honest, touching, almost entirely defeated except for the pleasure he no doubt took in how he formulated that defeat. In a poem for his son, who died in a motorcycle accident at 34, Scannell writes:
Now all the words, like last year’s leaves
Rustle senseless in the dirt,
These strings and woodwinds adumbrate
Something of our grief and hurt.
For Scannell, poetry, at its best, is like those “strings and woodwinds”—reflecting the real pain (and the occasional joys) of life. If it doesn’t, if it is unrelated to the nitty-gritty things of life like death, it is useless.
Blunt honesty, and a strong sense of poetry’s necessary relationship to reality, is something Alan Dugan shares with Scannell. Take his “Qualifications of Survivors,” for example. Dugan’s direct, concise vernacular captures the animal pursuit of survival in all its indignity:
Hide in cesspools, sleep well
on broken glass, and eat
shit. Kiss the whips,
hold the wife for rape,
and have good luck:
stumble behind a lamb
before the bomb bursts
and crawl out of the wreck
to be the epitaph:
“The good ones die first,
but I am not so bad:
Americans are worse.”
In a latter poem, “Speech to the Student Clowns at the Circus Clown School at Sarasota, Florida,” which is clearly addressed to writing students, Dugan admonishes his readers that “Art must be ugly or lovely or both / to be beautiful, but not nice, terrible / in its pitiful humors, but not cute”:
You innocents who want to play the clown
should be wounded combat veterans first.
You have to get the gut feeling, how,
when the fallen gladiator with a face
white in shock with two red spots
of panic on his cheekbones and his eyes
animal with black grief got the sign
thumbs down from the Emperor,
a bloody clown stripped off his face,
put it on, and danced around the ring
with a slapstick sward to tickle the crowd
Dugan’s crassness can sometimes bore in its repetitiveness—he can also be incredibly funny—but he is never merely “nice” or “cute.”
This is because for Dugan, as for Scannell, poetry is not a game, it’s not a means for acquiring the comfortable salary and minor prestige of a tenure-track professorship. It is an end in itself.
After Shakespeare, Jane Austen is the most widely recognized literary figure today, and in the past thirty years, there has been a seemingly endless stream of TV adaptations, films, books, and events devoted to the English novelist.
The 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice was marked last year by the publication of dozens of books, including the much discussed Jane Austen, Game Theorist and Jane Austen’s England, a couple of highly publicized rewritings of her fiction, and even a book of Jane Austen inspired quilts. A huge statue of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy was erected in the middle of an English lake in tribute of the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and there were Jane Austen gatherings and other events across England and America.
It is a little odd, perhaps, that a largely egalitarian culture preoccupied with sex and awash with pornography and novels like Fifty Shades of Grey should be so obsessed with feisty but highly moral young women who fall wholesomely in love with handsome, if occasionally rude or naïve gentlemen. Why is she so popular?
One reason, of course, is that Austen is a great writer. She is a gifted stylist—concise, witty, ironic—and a master of the miniature. A realist, she is also ironic, funny, and wise. Her novels were not popular in her (short) lifetime. But she had a devoted following among contemporary and later writers, such as Sir Walter Scott, William Dean Howells, and Katherine Mansfield, and was comparatively popular by the end of the 19th century. Appreciation (or at least awareness) for Austen’s skill has also grown as she began to be studied in college courses with more regularity.
But Austen’s popularity can’t be chalked up to style alone. There are other writers who are just as gifted as Austen but nowhere near as popular. Though I am undoubtedly in the minority, I find Austen’s preoccupation with portraiture occasionally tiresome—the constant sifting of motives, the immaculate dialogues on manners and morals, and the minor losses and victories of fragile aristocratic families. Her novels can be too long; her plots can drag.
The Wall Street Journal noted Austen’s “universal themes”—”love, money, power and status.” One theme the Journal doesn’t mention is personal happiness. Duty and honor are two of the most common themes in literature, and Austen touches on these in her novels, but her characters are overwhelmingly preoccupied with finding happiness. And so are we.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Aristotle argues that happiness is the only goal in life and that everything we do is in the service of attaining it. Augustine seconds Aristotle, though he adds the caveat that true happiness can only be found in loving God. Our love for other human beings is (or should be) an extension of our love of God, a point with which Austen may have agreed.
And, of course, another reason for her popularity is nostalgia—nostalgia for the chivalry and dignity of a previous age, imagined or real—a point which has also been largely ignored in last year’s commentary.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued that the age of reason would mark the end of the age of chivalry, ushering in a world organized not by tradition but by fear and power. He may have been right in theory, but, as our culture’s obsession with Jane Austen (or “Downton Abbey,” for that matter) suggests, tradition—especially regarding gender roles—may not be so easily thrown off.
Here are the top five links from Prufrock for the week. Enjoy!
1. Common Core and the assault on reading.
3. Writers attack overrated Anglo-American literature: “American literature is ‘massively overrated’, the award-winning author and film-maker Xiaolu Guo told the Jaipur literature festival–and fellow panelist and US novelist Jonathan Franzen.”
4. The 5 best punctuation marks in literature.
5. The thoughtless Thought Catalog.
Over at The Pacific Standard, Noah Davis interviews Julie Keefe, the “Creative Laureate” of Portland. What is a Creative Laureate? Well, it’s someone who, and I quote, “starts the conversation,” “advocates,” “facilitates,” and, perhaps, “brings something substantial to the position.” Davis asks Keefe if the United States could use a Creative Laureate. Keefe:
Absolutely…We need to have somebody who is honestly talking about why it’s important for our society to embrace creativity going forward. I went to China last month. Go to China and you’ll see why we need to embrace creativity. They are bringing it back like gangbusters over there.
I have been reading Vernon Scannell recently–an often drunk and wife-beating boxer, broken man, and gifted poet. He had this to say in his journals on teaching creative writing: “Young poets don’t want criticism…They want to bask in your silent admiration or perhaps purr softly as you stammer out superlatives.” Scannell, who suffered through an abusive childhood, the Second World War, and his own demons, was a patient and careful teacher, but he was not one to give praise or “advocate” where no praise or advocation was due.
You know what would help creativity in America? More people who–and I guess I need to specify, metaphorically, in case some creative professionals don’t catch this–skin artists alive. Let’s have more discouragement, more obstacles, fewer tedious conversations and more fiery ones, and send those who have the ambition and talent to write and paint to train with folks who won’t lie but give them the sort of truth that makes a healing cut.
Isaac Chotiner unwittingly proves Christina Odone right when she wonders in a recent New Statesman piece if there is less and less tolerance for religious individuals who oppose gay marriage.
In the piece Odone recounts how difficult it was to put together a conference on traditional marriage:
I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to discuss traditional marriage—and the state was trying to stop me.
Incredible, in a 21st-century European country, but true. I was invited to speak at a conference on marriage last summer, to be held at the Law Society in London. The government had just launched a public consultation on changing the law to allow same-sex marriage. The conference was a chance for supporters of traditional marriage to contribute to the debate. The participants included a retired philosophy professor, a representative of the Catholic archdiocese of Westminster, the chairman of the Tory party’s oldest pressure group, the Bow Group, Phillip Blond (another Tory adviser) and spokesmen for various Christian organisations. The title, “One Man. One Woman. Making the Case for Marriage for the Good of Society”, could hardly have sounded more sober. I accepted without a second thought.
A few days before the conference, someone from Christian Concern, the group which had organised the event, rang me in a panic: the Law Society had refused to let us meet on their premises. The theme was “contrary to our diversity policy”, the society explained in an email to the organisers, “espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same-sex marriage”. In other words, the Law Society regarded support for heterosexual union, still the only legal form of marriage in Britain, as discriminatory.
Hurriedly, another venue was found, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in the heart of London. This publicly owned modern building is named after the supreme governor of the Established Church, and is situated across the street from Westminster Abbey, for nearly a millennium the symbol of Christian Britain. Who could hope for a better venue, in short, to discuss what the churches still regard as a sacramental union?
But with only 24 hours to go before the conference, managers at the QEII centre told Christian Concern that the subject it planned to discuss was “inappropriate”. The booking was cancelled. When challenged, the QEII centre’s chief executive, Ernest Vincent, cited its diversity policy as reason for the cancellation. A journalist asked for a copy of the diversity policy. The centre refused to provide it.
By the time I took part in the event, (which had been moved to the basement of a hotel in central London), I felt my rights as a taxpayer, citizen and Christian had been trampled. I began to wonder if I had been the unlucky victim of an isolated incident or was in fact encountering a wider problem. I started to research the issue.
Chotiner takes a few shots at a couple of Odone’s rather poorly chosen phrases and exaggerations. I think he’s right that Odone goes overboard in her description of the intolerance that Christians, Jews and Muslims face on the issue of gay marriage, but it is hardly the “incoherent…rant” that Chotiner claims it is.
In fact, he actually proves Odone’s point by suggesting that people should not be allowed to express their disagreement with gay marriage because being against gay marriage is no different than racism:
Odone thinks that people should be allowed to practice their religious beliefs, even if those beliefs include discrimination. (She notes the case of a couple in the United Kingdom who had to close their bed and breakfast because they wouldn’t allow a gay couple to spend the night.) I keep waiting for someone like Odone to answer the question of whether one should be allowed to discriminate against, say, a black couple if one claims it is a matter of faith. But no luck.
Yes, well, is homosexuality akin to race? That’s the million dollar question. Even if sexual desire for a person of the same sex where found to be genetically determined, does that automatically make it an aspect of identity? If so, why? And why just that particular desire and not others? We are the first culture in human history to view sexual orientation as an aspect of identity; and I, for one, think that our modern distinction between gender and sex will go down as one of the most absurdly fantastical human inventions proffered as fact.
But for Chotiner, it seems, it is a fact. Homosexuality is no different from race and any one who thinks it is immoral is a bigot.
This is the practical problem of conflating sexuality and identity. It transforms what should be an issue of tolerance into an issue of acceptance. I can tolerate a person’s choices, but when it comes to identity, I have to either accept or reject it.
And this means that, as the argument is currently constructed, there will necessarily be a winner and a loser. Either Christians and other religious persons will be forced by law to “accept” an “identity” they believe to be immoral, or homosexuality will again be viewed as an incurable mental illness or disease. Not the best outcome in either case, I’d say.