Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time Is Short, Read Fast

Mostly I'm kidding. Of course there are books meant to be read slow, to be savored, maybe read a few pages at a time, set down, then returned to later, after they integrate; a lot of books of poems and sacred texts are like that. In my case, though, I've always been a fast reader, even when savoring slowly, regardless of any periodic intimations of mortality. What I don't do is waste time reading things I don't want to read. That list usually outnumbers the list of things I'd like to read. This latter list grows shorter on those days when I feel close to mortal, when what really matters gets sorted from the chaff, which is true for what you spend your time reading, too. When I'm feeling ill, why would I want to read a book that makes me feel worse? or is so badly written as to be an irritant rather than a balm? I'm not given to throwing books across the room in disgust, but temptation arises when impatience is a survival matter.

I'm not getting paid to write reviews; if I were, I would cheerfully read even something I hated in order to be able to write an honest (paid) review. So I mostly write reviews of things I wanted to read, anyway. Or which I read once before, and have re-read for pleasure, then written about in appreciation. If this makes for mostly positive reviews, so what; at least I'll say what I liked about a book, and why. I have on occasion written reviews as an antidote against prevailing taste; a rebellion if you will against the herd. I find myself often rebelling against the snobbery mainstream literary fiction mavens evince towards so-called genre fiction, even when it's demonstrably better written. Literary matters are far more tribal and herd-oriented than most literary insiders would care to admit, full of received opinions and elitist attitudes. I suppose it's no shame to be elitist when only you care about something anyway. But even the literary so-called avant-garde functions these days more as groupthink than as a group of genuinely independent, original minds. It is comical to witness how conformist many are in their cries for non-conformity.

Sometimes it takes me years to get around to reading a book. The more people tell me I should or ought to read a book, when it's still a freshly famous one, still heavily being reviewed and discussed, maybe even still on a best-seller list of some sort (there is a poetry best-seller list, but nobody cares), the less likely I am to want to read it.

I once knew some English literature graduate students who I met, of all places, when teaching martial arts classes. One woman in particular insisted how brilliant John Ashbery is as a poet, and how much she got out of reading his poetry. I had once owned and liked his early book of poems, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but hadn't liked much since, and nothing recently. This graduate student was adamant that he was a genius. So I picked up a recent Ashbery and tried again. My reaction was the same as before: I never finished the book. It never went anywhere, excited no aspect of my self except my intellectual wit, left nothing on my tongue, and I can't remember a single phrase afterwards.

Is this what "great poetry written by a genius" has become? Well, actually, in terms of those who like academic, gnomic, hermetic, convoluted, language-based poetry that divorces referent from meaning so that the words are the only thing present, then that is indeed what it has become. The so-called "post-avant" wing of poetry is nothing but this sort of writing. Meaninglessness is in fact proposed as a positive literary value—which has nothing avant-garde about it, in truth, but is only the decadent final culmination of the fragmentation and disassocation values of early Modernism. In other words, post-Modernism isn't.

Furthermore, I read an interview with the aging poet Ashbery about a year ago wherein he openly stated that his poetry wasn't trying to do anything, to mean anything, or be anything. I found that a bracingly honest self-assessment in these decadent days when mere logorrhea is mistaken for genius at every turn. Of course, we do have the post-Eliot critical-theory roundtable to thank for some of that.

When even the poet tells me that his poetry is useless and meaningless, what could possibly induce me to spend my precious time reading it? If the writer doesn't care, why should I?

Life's too short to spend time reading things you already know you're going to dislike.

The other day someone tried to convince me to read a book that he had liked, that I had said I had no intention of reading on the grounds that it was poorly written, by agreeing with me that the book was overly didactic—but it could have been worse. Now, I don't know about you, but the argument that something could have been better but it could have been worse just doesn't make me hurry to go read the book in question. Is praising something for its mediocrity an actual, serious recommendation? I am astounded at the absurdity of this.

What would have won my approval, at least for this person's opinion, is if they had said they liked the book very much, and why, and left it at that. In other words, an honest review, followed by an opportunity for me to make up my own mind. I always appreciate an honest review. I like it when readers show enthusiasm for what they like.

The problem is when they try to convince me I should like it, too. It's not common when an argument given in support of why I should like it too is so bizarre, but it's not uncommon either. Is it that people will use any argument to try to convince you that they're right? Is it that they so want to be right that they'll even agree with you in order to try to convince you, undercutting any logic in their own position? What I find bizarre here is the pretzel logic, which is usually a symptom of uncritical fandom rather than an honest assessment of a book's literary merit. Such pretzel logic is the opposite of convincing.

When I give a book recommendation, I always do my best to couch it in terms of a suggestion rather than an order. I don't like feeling bullied, and I do my best never to pass that feeling on to others. "Should" is almost always a coercive, quietly bullying word. "You might like this" at least gives one the opportunity to decide for oneself, even if the ultimate answer is Not.

And I must disclose that I occasionally seem to offend fans when I challenge their pretzel logic. They almost never hear me when I say, I'm glad you liked the book, just tell me why, and leave it at that. Stop proselytizing, and stop being so zealous an evangelist. Stop trying to convince others that you're right and they're not. Let them figure that out for themselves.

The bottom line is: Don't try so hard to convince. Feel free to recommend, even to encourage, to enthuse, to evaluate, and to say what you loved and what you didn't. But leave the pretzel logic at home.

Life's too short to spend time reading things you already know you're going to dislike. But this is not the same as reading something you know nothing about, on speculation, on the chance that you might like it.

Usually books in this latter category are things I stumble across, rather than books people tell me I should read, or that they think I might like to read.

Sometimes a recommendation from a friend or literary acquaintance serves to point me towards very good reading indeed. It's always helpful to have a quote or two in a review, to get a taste for oneself. I've been turned onto a few wonderful writers this way. It's always a pleasure.

Most books I seek out those days when I feel most mortal are familiar books I've already read and loved, and want to re-read. It;s like comfort food, the touch of the familiar, which soothes the risible beasts of incipient mortality. Or new books by writers I invariably like, which are like fresh yet also proven commodities. Or books new to me that catch my attention, or otherwise seem intriguing. Sometimes It can take years for a book someone recommended to me when it was still "hot" to catch my interest; usually long afterwards, when I want to see for myself what all the hoopla was about. I regularly find some great books just by browsing the shelves. This might hopefully demonstrate that I am not closed to the new, in fact quite the opposite since I hope that I operate there myself as an artist, but selective. Even picky, if you wish.

But again, life's too short to subject yourself to experiences you already know you won't like. Sometimes that's because you tried it before, and had a bad experience. Hence, I have no desire to seek out roller-coasters, sashimi, certain narcotic classes of painkillers, falling off a bicycle, being bullied, or new novels by writers who have consistently disappointed me before.

Many of the most useful book recommendations come from writers I treasure now, who recommend a writer or book that they themselves treasure. More than one writer who I respect recommended John D. McDonald for years before I ever read any of his novels; now I see what they were talking about back then, and I'm convinced. If a writer whose taste I have found to have a sure compass recommends another writer I've never heard of, I'm likely to keep my eye open for what has been recommended, and am often rewarded. Occasionally I am underwhelmed, but then taste is always an issue even at the most exalted times.

Meanwhile, being the fast reader that I am, I will fill those hours when the wild hunt, the furies' hounds, bay close at hand with things more likely to keep them in submission rather than lure them closer. I will seek out those reading experiences that build me up rather than tear me down, even if the book is merely a bland disappointment. Life's too short for allowing oneself to be bored. Stasis is not growth, but a kind of stagnation, which eventually glides down the pebbly slope of entropy into devolution and death.

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11 Comments:

Blogger mand said...

Hear, hear.

Apart from the bit about being a fast reader, which I never have been despite learning very early. :(

Hi there {waving} by the way! :)

10:22 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I would take Ashbery’s remark with a pinch of salt. There isn’t a word I’ve written that wasn’t packed with meaning. The packaging was often in need of some Scotch tape but the contents always meant something. Who on earth sits down to write without wanting their work to mean something? So, yes I can say that most of my very early poems are crap but they’re not meaningless except from the point of view that each reader will come along and supply their own meaning. In that respect any meaning I imbued the pieces with is coincidental.

As regards my reviews I would like to think that all I’m doing are presenting perspectives for people to try to gauge how the book might sit with them. I’ve no axe to grind. Unless I feel that other reviewers haven’t given a book a fair deal. In the case of the Mantel book I really wanted to get one point over which I thought others had missed and that was, as I’ve already talked about, that I thought they’d got his intentions back to front. His intentions are like my poems’ meanings though. They’re neither here nor there. That people could get mixed up – and so many did – does suggest that he didn’t do that good a job.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Who on earth sits down to write without wanting their work to mean something?

Actually, that's precisely the stated goal of many in the what Ron Silliman calls the post-avant, a wide experimental poetry circle, including many of the Language Poets, and Ashbery. That's precisely the intent, and the intended result. It's all about the surface words, the sounds, the ways things float dreamlike without referents to what words are usually used to signify or point to. The lack of meaning is considered a positive value.

This is all there in a lot of their criticism and manifestos, both individually and sometimes as groups within the larger group.

One of the stated goals is indeterminacy, in the sense that the poet invites the reader to impose or project their own meaning onto the text. (One of Jackson MacLow's key points.) There's no meaning in the poem but what the reader finds there, or creates there.

The parallel in contemporary music is of course John Cage's use of indeterminacy in preparing the materials but not pre-determining the sounds that will occur. Each performance involves decisions made by the performers, and by chance operations, so no two performances are ever the same. There's no repeatability except in fragments.

How this works in the indeterminate poetry, however, is problematic in my opinion. Often what gets cited is what I've mentioned above, but in practice it's not so clear or easy to execute as with the sounds and music. Words always contain linguistic value, no matter what you try to do with them.

So Cage's motivation of removing the composer's ego, and choices, from the musical process doesn't work at all the same with the post-avant poets, who in my observation are not about the removal of the poet's ego from the work (except maybe MacLow again), but quite the opposite. At least in practice, if not in theory.

I actually like and agree with many of the theoretical points the post-avant goes on and on about, especially where they overlap with Cage's ideas. But in execution, it's some of the least interesting writing I've ever encountered. Maybe if the poet isn't in the poem, that's why it's so bland and monotonous. This is one area where I think music has it over poetry, in that music doesn't require linguistic meaning to still be interesting or moving, or whatever.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi mand, waving back.

Hi Jim, I do appreciate your reviews, and I do think that's what you give us. What interested me about the Martel review exchange following your review was the way people circled their wagons of opinion. Pro, con, or neutral—and I think you were largely centrist and neutral in all that—but I couldn't help but be triggered by the occasional doses of anti-logic. I seem to get in trouble a lot lately by simply pointing peoples' inconsistencies and illogic. So I took my further thoughts over here, where they can mildew on their own, like Hemingway's chicken. Alone. In the rain.

I also readily admit my own impatience lately. But then, I've been staring my own mortality in the face lately, and it's a very bracing experience. You tend to want to cut right to the bottom line, and sometimes I can't help but skip the social niceties.

3:25 PM  
Blogger mand said...

I have sat down to write meaningless poetry, had (more than 20 years ago) a phase of automatic writing, and really enjoyed doing it! And as far as I can tell those few poems still stand up. Hard to judge though... ;)

9:56 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I don't think automatic writing is quite the same thing. The way the Surrealists did it, at least, is was more of a way of connecting with other parts of the mind, especially the subconscious. So what came out is actually liminal rather than purely meaningless per se. Granted, the conscious waking mind may find it incomprehensible, but the dreaming-body does not.

10:39 AM  
Blogger mand said...

OK, that's what I was doing. I forgot there's the word 'liminal', one of my favourites (having been a latinist), thanx. I feel the mind can't ever really manage meaningless, in the same way it makes patterns when looking at random dots. Et cetera.

If I set out to do truly meaningless, I'd probably start with liminal and set the product aside for a while, then come back and observe where unintended meanings (connections) were, and reverse one element to get rid of them - eg if I found I had an inward concept somewhere and an outward concept further down, I'd change one to a colour or sound or weight reference instead of direction...

It surely shows that I don't know what I'm talking about. Appropriate, maybe! ;)

But now I've set out that quasi-method I'm tempted to try it. Hm.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

The only way to sound purely random, as Pierre Boulez' Second Piano Sonata demonstrated, is to overdetermine absolutely every aspect of the artistic process. Maybe your method might succeed, but what one wonders in the end is it worth doing. Are the results worth the effort, in other words.

It seems to me that in writing, as well as in reading, that the effort expended should mean something. I'm not saying everything has to be goal-oriented, I don't feel that way at all. I love the aspect of pure play that creativity can bring, of not knowing where you're going to end up. Most poems, when I start I have no idea where I'm going to end up. But one reason I don't spend a lot of effort on formal poetry is that my experience has shown that, for me at least, spending the effort trying to write a sonnet never pays off. So I, hopefully wisely, don't waste my effort where experience has taught me that the results are not going to be worth it.

I guess I'm talking time management. Not the efficient creation of art, because art is not engineering, and its creation needs to be messy sometimes, but rather the efficient use of one's personal energy and time while in the act of creation. Or of life, for that matter.

1:19 PM  
Blogger mand said...

Semi-flippantly:
The point of meaninglessness (what an ugly word) is that it isn't worth it!

;)

Personally I enjoy the crafting of a poem as much as - nay, more than - the initial outpouring. But then I enjoy cryptic crosswords and Latin too. And I can't say I've ever enjoyed time management!

Maybe that's only because i have never succeeded in experiencing it...

2:04 PM  
Blogger Brent Robison said...

Hi Art -- Since I'm the guy who said "As for Martel's didacticism, it's true it could be done better, but it could also be done so much worse," I'd thought I'd chime in here. That observation was based on novels I've encountered that were didactic to a silly extreme -- part of that school of thought that if you don't get practical information from art, it's worthless. But certainly, there was not a single trace in my comment of "trying to convince you" to read a book you didn't want to read, nor did I use the word "should." Seems to me were just trading points of view; there's no pretzel logic involved. I was hoping you'd read my follow-up comment and give me more info about McDonald. Best wishes -- Brent

2:47 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

i appreciate the clarifications, Brent, and thanks for stopping by to make them.

In the context of the discussion, though, and considering that all one can interpret from is what one reads, if it's possible that I misinterpreted your tone and intent, my apologies.

I stand by my remarks, however, because in the context you didn't make it clear, to me at least, that you were comparing Martel to other, worsely didactic writers; the impression was that you were comparing Martel's new book to his others. In which case, I think my point remains an entirely valid one.

Best wishes in return.

6:29 PM  

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