What Are You Writing For?

In a recent issue of The New Republic, Adam Kirsch writes of the decline of the essay, describing even good writers such as John Jeremiah Sullivan (or, one would imagine, Michael Pollan) as performance pieces that mask the author rather than expose them alongside their subject. In so doing, he worries that the prose “claims the authenticity of non-fiction while indulging, with the reader’s tacit permission, in the invention and shaping of fiction.” Elsewhere in that issue, Adam Thirlwell discusses a different inspiration to the modern author: Baudelaire, who found a new format for his writing — a “confessional mode” grounded in humiliation, in which the truly beautiful could only be grasped through “the banal and ubiquitous, through the everyday dresses and make-up and sex lives of one’s era.” According to Thirlwell, “the ultimate secret” and, accordingly, his strength, was that despite these “apparently flippant digressions and arabesques” he was “totally exposed.” In both cases, we cannot perhaps change our feelings or the facts that are being recorded, but we can change our tone about them, and therein create our own style.

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to my own criticism: after all, I’ve strong opinions on pretty much every subject, even things about which I am terribly under- if not uninformed, and have often relied on this to force others into heatedly correcting me. (I’ve very much enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate; in conversation, I thrill at seeing how others will react to unexpected or absurd lines of inquiry.) But there are now, thankfully, far more voices in the so-called blogosphere writing about the things I initially set out to cover, so there’s less of a need for me to fill a void or to call attention to a subject. Moreover, I find myself less excited about certain topics and formats that are increasingly the mainstay of print journalism (or in the web-based orifices of said entities); I’d rather engage than record, and while I’m still passionate about the things I take in, it’s perhaps necessary to find another medium, a new voice, in which to express them. In all honesty, the field currently undergoing the greatest renaissance appears to be that of video games, both in regards to the industry’s output and the reviewer’s response to it. I’ve read critiques written in the form of love letters, I’ve seen literally first-hand accounts in which people heatedly discuss their subject as they experience it (or mock it, MST3K style), and in general a more interactive form of wit, collapsing the boundaries between reader and reviewer, reaching a shared experience.

Not that this is all unique to a particular medium: the ways in which people interact with television and film have drastically changed, as superfans who all-but instantly create video parodies (or sweded homages) become supercritics on a frame-by-frame level, and hatewatching (and the corresponding reading of snarky recaps) practically becomes a gladiatorial bloodsport, giving truth to the lie (or vice-versa) that there is value in every artistic endeavor. Books can be blogged through on a chapter-by-chapter basis, or analyzed line by line, and these close-reads can be annotated directly to your digital texts: things that were once marginalia can now more than define the object itself, and this is probably where essays have most changed — interaction moving from a more sparing wide-angle lens to a words-are-cheap ultra-zoom. With high-fidelity screenings of live performances–perhaps directly to your home–it’s possible that we may consider theater differently, too, although that’s most likely going to stem from the more interactive, experiential works (like Sleep No More). The artist will ever define the performative medium as the critic attempts to catch up: there’s no tortoise-and-hare-like effect going on here.

All of which is a long way of saying not that I’ve given up but rather that I’d like to find some new way for me to talk about the arts-and-entertainment I love. I’d prefer to share an experience rather than render a judgement, or to focus on a specific moment that worked and maybe compare it or apply it to something in the world itself, as opposed to turning it back as a criticism on the larger work itself. Maybe to discuss something in a format other than an essay or your standard capsule review, perhaps with video, perhaps with audio, perhaps with art. Why should I settle or limit myself in the coverage of living, breathing art forms?

One bit of inspiration I’ll certainly be taking on, however, comes from a Q&A with long-time critic Clive James (also published in The New Republic, which has been sending me free issues in the hopes that I’ll subscribe). His answer to that oft-asked question of the critic’s role is as follows: 

The thing a critic should do is point toward the things he or she admires, for the benefit of the next generation. I’d like to be able to go back and add things where I thought I was insufficiently attentive to the qualities of a work of art. I’d be less interested now in attacking. Only be hostile in defense of a value.

As with Thirlwell’s discussion of Baudelaire, James also gets to the importance of the everyday. “There were plenty of people who were writing profoundly about the profound stuff,” he says, so he focused on the telling nature of the things that weren’t being talked about: “the stuff in between the shows, the link material, the sports commentators, the trivia.” Did these moments do any less to shape our culture than the art that they candy-coated? Who is to say, ultimately, what observation will give us that lusted-after moment of deep and unifying clarity? To that end, I’ll also be attempting to quote, gloss, and otherwise engage with things that I’m not covering — articles that I’ve read, episodes that I’ve watched, games (of any variety) that I’ve played — and see what might shake loose (about myself, about the world), similar to the work I’ve dabbled in at fail better.  But for now, I’ll give James a last word of warning, for it cuts to the specificity that I’m seeking: “It hurts everyone’s reputation to write too much.”

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