Monday, November 21, 2011

They Don't Like Me, They Don't Like Me: Some Thoughts On Cognitive Dissing

Warring perceptions are both bane and “booty.”  They enliven discourse, keep potentially sclerotic channels open, and add to the sum total of human intelligence.  If they’re intractable, both can do great harm.

I will admit to having a deeply ulterior motive in mentioning these factions of the mind because I recently encountered them and would enjoy – if only for catharthis’ sake – talking about them.

I was recently “hired” to write an article about an artist of whom I had never heard.  In some circles, ignorance is shunned – or at least ignored.  I welcome it because it allows for initial perceptions – first loves of the mind that can lead to some very interesting relationships.  I went to this artist’s website and had a look.  I was relieved to find that, after a succession of images, I was not only engaged, but eager to formulate opinions and, in this case, share them.  The artist’s name is not important – at least not for my purposes; nor is that of our matchmaker, tempted as I am to “out” her.

She had suggested a number of formats, but did not insist that I follow any of them.  Her favorite voice is mankind’s most fundamental: the “I” voice that shows very well in a courtroom.  I agree that it has the charm of spontaneous expression, as well as the unimpeachable sincerity of a person talking to another person directly.  But it isn’t the only voice; nor is it the best possible voice if the “I” is reluctant to express itself.

My first order of business was to talk to the artist, whom I found good-hearted and forthright.  He had come from a long line of artists and was not only comfortable with the mantle dropping on his shoulders - he wore it with the dashing confidence of a seasoned warrior.  Not to say he was arrogant.  In fact, he was as close to the opposite of that as egotistical man and woman are allowed to be.  He spoke of himself in the collegial “we”, as if to say “I am one of many.”  He provided all sorts of instances that showed his solidarity with fellow artists who had done much to create the tradition to which he himself subscribed.  I was impressed with such an absence of ego – though it seemed so shrinking that there wasn’t a lot to grab onto in the first person.  In such a man, the first person is largely absent – except in the work he does.  Even that, however, was complicated by a tribal loyalty that was as unique as it was disconcerting.  To have him speak for himself seemed immodest.  As a result, I decided to speak for him.

The article I wrote was as laudatory a thing as I have ever written.  My nature is critical and cares a little bit less for what one does well – which it takes for granted – preferring the frayed wires and pulley-systems that stagger underneath a man or woman’s work.  In fiction writing, flaws are what make for character.  I believe that about artists as well.  Let me emphasize that the flaws wouldn’t be interesting if they were not surrounded by an essential excellence.  It is rare to encounter an artist or person who isn’t a blend of these two things – which is to say that something absolutely bad is so rare that it should be singled out as of a peculiar, but satisfying badness that appeals to one’s sense of the anomalous.  Why are upside-down airplanes so popular among stamp collectors?  Because most of the planes fly right-side up and get where they’re suppose to go.  To see an upside-down plane tickles an ordinarily sleeping sense of the absurd.  And makes the viewer want to discover it and show it to somebody.  “Is this crazy or what?” 

In any case, I thought this fellow so good, both in his character and in his work, that I wanted to emphasize that and went right to it.

I must admit to being pleased with the result.  I had not only refrained from criticism, I had written this artist the kind of mash note fictional characters so love to play hide-and-seek with.  Reading it is such an ecstatic experience that the character fears that he or she will get too much of it and makes it hard to find.  Or pretends to do that.  But he or she eventually finds it, devours it, and, if a cigarette is available, smokes it down to the nub. 

I thought the artist would be pleased.

But, no, he wasn’t – or wasn’t willing to admit it.  Rather, he felt that his friends and colleagues would think that he’d put me up to saying the things I did and would think him a smarmy egomaniac.  Or just a regular egomaniac who is adjectivally bereft.  I sent him a rebuttal that urged him to think of about private impressions versus worldly assumptions; that nobody can ever control how such a thing is processed and shouldn’t want to; that he might re-consider wanting me to suppress the article because no publicity is bad, a certain percentage of people are going to dislike him anyway, and it’s a safe bet that those who like him already are going to like him even more.  Or just keep liking him the way they’ve always done.  But he would not be persuaded.  He seemed to think that such a salvo would scuttle his ship rather than gild it.  Like so many people who are invested in a community, he feared “goin’ above his raisin’” and catching a break that may have been denied equally deserving friends and colleagues.  I suspect that he is a genuinely modest fellow who doesn’t want to be fussed over.  Can’t argue with that.  Yet I don’t think my article would have caused previously sequestered groupies to pour out of the woodwork and start assaulting him.  There are only a handful of artists who are sexily infamous enough to draw more than the educated enthusiasm of fellow travelers.  The really sexy ones can’t get over themselves and don’t want anybody else to either.  And, if we all don’t know who they are, they’re in the process of fixing that.

I must admit that such sensitivity is admirable.  But it’s also morbid.  Ultimately, an artist’s work prevails.  Those who write about it slide away faster than sober fireman down a steel pole.  Do you remember who reviled the Impressionists?  I do because my trivia-oriented mind catches such details while absolving itself of other, more important information that might save its life or allow it to purchase better automobile insurance.  But you probably do not.  Which is all to the good.  You don’t need it.  The Impressionists prevailed as dissenting voices lost volume, tracking, and legitimacy.  Picasso and other real egomaniacs crushed their critics.  When they couldn’t, the critics faded away all by themselves.  I don’t like Picasso and would have said as much if I were alive in 1919.  What would he have said to me?  Nothing.  He wouldn’t have known or cared.

There’s also the matter of my own small excellences being denied.  Art criticism of any kind is an ephemeral thing.  Those of us who attempt it know in their heart of hearts that, when death swaddles them, it will have its way completely.  If there are second acts for artists, critics flounder in the first few scenes.  It’s not that nobody likes them – which is mostly true; they just don’t matter.  Except to themselves.  Which – for them and me – has to be good enough.

With all of these nuances in mind, it has occurred to me to ask: “Why have they occurred to me only?”  Before I start to grumble, I want to finish my story.

One down and one to go, the second being my editor.

I will also admit that I was pleased with myself for having written the article in one evening.  That’s all the time I had, but still.  Doing it so breathlesssly had a vaguely heroic tinge which satisfied my vainglorious soul for a moment – after which it felt, as usual, starved.  When you think you’re being heroic, you generally want other people to agree with you.  Which didn’t happen.  Oh, well.  Perhaps all of this editor’s minions were as efficient as worker-bee’s.  If so, I was in good company.

To postpone ego-recession for a moment, I couldn’t imagine how my easy familiarity with the subject, my creditable sense of this artist’s place among his colleagues, my grasping his link to a far-famed tradition. . .no, I couldn’t imagine how these things could be so easily repudiated.  And yet they were.  The editor’s only criterion was that the piece was not written in the “I” voice I talked about earlier on and that was that.  Her editing colleague agreed with her – a double condemnation from which I’m likely never to be redeemed. 

As a writer who has immersed himself in his vaunted tradition, I can never understand, if the writing serves the purpose for which it is intended, why it is ever rejected, dismissed, or ridden out of town on a third rail.  But that’s just me.  Editors have loftier goals that are obscure to writers, who are thinking of abstract values – or of themselves.  Their valuable insights and helpful illuminations are just one of many things an editor must consider. 

On the other hand, if the writing’s no good, why would an editor bother?  Rather say: if the editor gets the format he or she wants, but the writing itself is lackluster, what purpose is being served except a literal one?

Before I decided to write for this publication, I skimmed its pages and was struck by its sophomoric quality – as if the subject could be digested without any of the agreeable complexities that might make its interpretation provocative and interesting.  Most of the articles were of the sing-songy type E. B. White warns us about.  Break up your sentences, says he.  Establish rhythms that are common to vigorous conversation and not da-di-da storytelling.  He says all sorts of other things, but these will do.  Almost every article was marred by this gangly approach to composition. 

One might say, in defense of such articles, that, if the information can be easily distilled, what’s the harm?  Plenty, in my opinion.  How you get something is just as important as where and why.  If one can present information with vigor and precision; if one can break it up with anecdotal asides; and if one can develop a theme or point of view that undergirds this presentation, the reader will come away refreshed and possibly eager to start a conversation so that certain premises and side-issues can be bandied about.  In other words, good writing keeps the ball rolling; bad writing drops it on the pitcher’s mound and runs away.

But, again, I could be concentrating a bit too much on my own concerns and not enough on the editor’s.

But what are they?

I know: an editor gathers things, arranges them, and “puts them out there.”  These things should address a common area of interest; they should stick to the facts, as these facts are known and understood; and they should raise the profile of the subject under discussion.  They should also – as I’ve already said – promote discussion of this subject because it would be counterproductive for them not to.

That is why I’ve bothered to harangue all seventeen of you.  My essential point of view, while it might be seen as parochial, should not be treated cavalierly.  Writers who are remembered are remembered for having a particular point of view, a grave appreciation of the subjects they presume to write about, and a style that sticks in the head like a piece of music.  Huck Finn might talk like a little boy you’d come across in any river town of the 1840’s, but he was also the creation of a man who knew how to use him.  In somebody else’s hands, Huck Finn would be sentimental.  Or a sly little fellow who hates wearing brogans.  Or a comic express train that hits all the stops except for the big ones.  Mark Twain created Huck Finn because Huck was the best vehicle to address the very serious subject matter other writers wished to avoid.  The writer chooses the format.  If it works, people pay attention if the thing is considered “good enough” to publish.

Let me assure you that I’m not setting myself up for Twainish distinction, but it is a very, very bad thing for something that has life-force in it – even if it’s a paltry profile – to be choked out of existence because of a silly format preference.  Or because its subject couldn’t bear to be ballyhooed. 

Ultimately, such a thing doesn’t matter.  Everybody will go about their business and the world will wag on.  I just want to bitch a little.  In the absence of real satisfaction, it’s an infinitely luminous occupation. 

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