Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing, and Publishing ~

Tag Archives: Literature

The #Danger of Being a #Critic


I’m writing this post as much for myself as for anyone else… The #Danger of Being a #Critic

I’m a writer; though, I’ve never been a professional critic (but, my literary criticisms lie strewn across my writerly landscape…); and, of all things, I’ve been extremely critical of many critics…

Perhaps we can avoid the dangerous territory of definitions and test the more solid rock of etymologies of “critic”.

From the Oxford Dictionary of English:

origin late 16th century : from Latin criticus , from Greek kritikos, from kritēs ‘a judge ’, from krinein ‘ judge , decide ’.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1580s, “one who passes judgment,” from Middle French critique (14c.), from Latin criticus “a judge, literary critic,” from Greek kritikos “able to make judgments,” from krinein “to separate, decide” (from PIE root *krei- “to sieve,” thus “discriminate, distinguish”). Meaning “one who judges merits of books, plays, etc.” is from c. 1600. The English word always had overtones of “censurer, faultfinder.”

For those who wonder at my avoidance of dictionaries and my embrace of etymologies, ’tis true that most etymologies lie in dictionaries; and, the etymology of etymology is:

late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from Old French etimologieethimologie (14c., Modern French étymologie), from Latin etymologia, from Greek etymologia “analysis of a word to find its true origin,” properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” with -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy) + etymon “true sense,” neuter of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true,” which perhaps is cognate with Sanskrit satyah, Gothic sunjis, Old English soð “true.” 

Anyone who’s just waded through all those blockquotes deserves to be given a charm against all critics…

So…

Last month, I read an article entitled, Why I Stopped Being a Critic.

A few excerpts:

“I grew up with a very critical father; and then, guess what, I became a critic myself. Not too surprising, right?”

Then, this brilliant revelation:

“…as the old Biblical adage goes, the son inherits the sins of the father, and I became a journalist and a literary critic. My job? Read books, find faults and pass judgment on them, in much the same way that my father and his father passed judgment. Ironic, right? In a way, I had become what I despised—a person who found fault with others and their works.”

So…

If you’re a writer (or, a serious reader), you may wonder what would become of the world if the realm of literature were to lose its critics…

A few more excerpts from that article:

“When I ‘panned’ a book—gave it a negative review—it reminded me of all the criticism I had withstood as a child. I thought about the author of the book reading my review, and how it had the potential to hurt that writer. All of this affected my spirit, and I began to think about finding another line of work.”

The author decided to write only positive reviews:

“Needless to say, my editors didn’t always agree. Any critic who only writes positive reviews doesn’t often develop a discerning reputation in our current culture, which delights in rampant and even vicious criticism. In fact, the most famous, celebrated and best-compensated literary critics today are often the savage attackers, the ones who write extremely negative and even cruel reviews.”

That author ends their article with this quote:

“One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise. When this is done, one can be a friend to the whole human race. If, however, we look at people from the standpoint of their faults, then being a friend to them is a formidable task.”

~~~Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 169.

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Bob Dylan? Nobel Prize? Literature?


You’ve probably heard that Dylan won the Nobel for Literature.

Bob Dylan - azkena rock festival 2010

Alberto Cabello from Vitoria Gasteiz ~ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

What do you think—is he a “poet” or just a “lyricist”?

Speaking of his songs, here are Dylan’s lyrics from 1962 to 2016

And, here are a few snippets of the coverage of his Nobel.

From The Washington PostSomething is happening: Bob Dylan wins Nobel in literature:

“The startling announcement out of Stockholm was met with both euphoria and dismay.”

“He is the most influential songwriter of his time, who brought a new depth, range and complexity to rock lyrics and freed Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell and countless other artists to break out from the once-narrow boundaries of love and dance songs.”

From The GuardianNobel prize in literature won by Bob Dylan – as it happened:

> music journalist Everett True: “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature pays lip service to populism, the same way the establishment’s championing of Bob Dylan from the 1960s onwards has always paid lip service to populism while simultaneously serving to put the rest of us Great Unwashed firmly in our place, a slap across the face.”

> news wire service AFP: “Dylan’s name has often been mentioned over the past few years but we always thought it was a joke,” said the French novelist Pierre Assouline, who could not hide his fury at the Nobel committee.

“Their decision is contemptuous of writers,” he told AFP. “I like Dylan but where is the (literary) work? I think the Swedish Academy have made themselves look ridiculous.”

From Israel’s Haaretz—Bob Dylan’s Genius Doesn’t Lie in His Writing, Nobel Prize or Not:

“There’s no doubt Bob Dylan deserves the highest form of recognition, but awarding him literature’s most prestigious award threatens to deepen an existing distortion of his work: That he is a great writer who is also a singer.”

And, back to The Guardian for today—Nobel panel gives up knockin’ on Dylan’s door:

“The Swedish Academy says it has given up trying to reach Bob Dylan, days after it awarded him the Nobel prize in literature.

“’Right now we are doing nothing. I have called and sent emails to his closest collaborator and received very friendly replies. For now, that is certainly enough’, the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, told state radio SR on Monday.

“So far the American troubadour has responded with silence since he won the prize on Thursday.”

Finally, from QuartzTagore, not Dylan: The first lyricist to win the Nobel Prize for literature was actually Indian:

“…as Bob Dylan might croon, ‘The Times, they are mistaken.’

“A Bengali literary giant, who probably wrote more songs than him, preceded Dylan’s win by over a century. Rabindranath Tagore, a wildly talented Indian poet, painter, and musician, took the prize in 1913.

“The first musician (and first non-European) to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Tagore possessed an artistry—and lasting influence—that mirrored Dylan’s.”

So…

What’s your take on all this?

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Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century


I don’t really “review” books here—I tend to mention them, make somewhat desultory comments that I hope characterize them (somewhat), then let you decide… Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century

So, this book—Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century.

I’ll first share what their blurb says:

“Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the fifteenth century introduced an era of mass communication that permanently altered the structure of society. While publishing has been buffeted by persistent upheaval and transformation ever since, the current combination of technological developments, market pressures, and changing reading habits has led to an unprecedented paradigm shift in the world of books. Bringing together a wide range of perspectives — industry veterans and provocateurs, writers, editors, and digital mavericks — this invaluable collection reflects on the current situation of literary publishing, and provides a road map for the shifting geography of its future…”

I, personally, don’t feel it provides a “road map”—more like a large group of “potential hints”

Here are a few excerpts that I found to be particularly potent:

Most people walk around with some kind of device or have access to some kind of device that allows them to choose how to use their time. . . . In a world with that much choice, books need to continue to evolve to compete for someone’s time and interest.”

“Evolve” toward something more than “content” to feed the ravenous masses, I hope………

Books travel through the world collecting strangers. They are public spaces. Readers meet in the margins, at the edge of a text they share in common.”

“The audience is as ready for change as we are; they’re ready to be addressed as readers sharing the common space of a book, strangers ready to recognize each other across difference.”

“A culture of reading makes an economy that is, like reading itself, slower than shopping. It’s conversational, open-ended, interested in detail, difference; it goes on and on, back and forth; it accepts what is available, rather than unilaterally demanding satisfaction.”

Now, a few that trouble me (from a variety of essays in the book):

“How the digital age might alter attention spans and perhaps even how we tell one another stories is a subject of considerable angst.”

“As Wired put it, when you buy the Kindle Fire, ‘you’re not buying a gadget—you’re filing citizen papers for the digital duchy of Amazonia.’”

“Some people still confuse the newspaper literary culture—a small subgroup, almost a fetish really—with literary culture as a whole.”

“Today, not many university presses are flourishing…”

Now, a particularly damning statement:

“Those of us who’ve worked in literary publishing for years know that some pigs are definitely more equal than others. You add class into it and you see that the literary world at the highest levels is a group of tastemakers comprised by a majority of male writers and editors who frequently hand publications, prizes, and other essential forms of recognition back and forth to one another.”

Here’s one from an extremely clear-headed person:

“The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: ‘How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?’”

And, there are one or two very biased individuals in the book (the following quote omits to mention that traditional publishing is just as much “counting on a miracle”…):

“There’s a role for self-publishing, definitely. But just playing the odds, if you’re a new author, it’s almost always going to make sense to publish with a big or small professional publisher, if you can—a proper editor, some degree of marketing, some degree of professionalism and advice. Want to upload your book onto a self-publishing platform along with hundreds of thousands of others that month, and hope for the best? That’s fine, but you’re basically counting on a miracle.”

Also, that last quote makes the assumption that self-publishing authors don’t avail themselves of editors and never think about book promotion

Still, the variety of voices in this book, from a wide range of disciplines and businesses, is a valuable consideration for those of you who want some important issues to think about—issues that do and will continue to matter in the Book World

So, to bring this non-review to an end, one humble, pithy, utterly true quote:

“One may counterpose the book to many things, but technology shouldn’t be one of them. The book is not counter-technology, it is technology. It is the apotheosis of technology—just like the wheel or the chair.”

Table of Contents:

Reading the Tea Leaves: Notations on the Changing Look of the Literary SVEN BIRKERTS

The Ends of the Book: Reading, Economies & Publics MATTHEW STADLER

The Amazon Effect STEVE WASSERMAN

The Self-Hating Book Critic JESSA CRISPIN

The View from a University Press DONNA SHEAR

Poetry in Translation: Hemispheric Perspectives GABRIEL BERNAL GRANADOS, KRISTIN DYKSTRA & ROBERTO TEJADA

VIDA: An Interview with Erin Belieu ERIN BELIEU & KEVIN PRUFER

19 Things: More Thoughts on the Future of Fiction JOHN O’BRIEN

Hold the Damn Door Open: Idealism Is No Currency MEGAN M. GARR

Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER

Comics Publishing DOUGLAS WOLK

The Art of Agenting: An Interview with Chris Parris-Lamb CHRIS PARRIS-LAMB & JONATHAN LEE

The Open Refrigerator GERALD HOWARD

A Culture of Competition: Some Notes on Writing Contests & Literary Publishing KEVIN LARIMER

Coming to Milkweed Editions DANIEL SLAGER

The Overnight Success of Lookout Books EMILY LOUISE SMITH

The Southern Review at Eighty JESSICA FAUST & EMILY NEMENS

What Is the Business of Literature? RICHARD NASH

The Future Value of a Literary Publisher JANE FRIEDMAN

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What Is “Literature”?


Defining “Literature” is a more slippery task than writing it…

What Is Literature?

Image Courtesy of ostillac callisto ~ http://www.freeimages.com/profile/ostillac

If you look to the root meanings of the word, you find it becoming a letter—written to the reader…

The best definition I’ve found is “well-written” and “dealing with universal ideas”…

Naturally, “well-written” does not mean written in a way that confuses the average reader—in spite of the opinions of various “literary ‘experts'”…

And, also naturally, “dealing with universal ideas” doesn’t mean the book isn’t exciting, gripping, and hard to put down…

Some folks would define literature as “not genre” (check out my past articles on genre); yet, I wrote, in one of those past posts:

“I’ve read ‘literary fiction’ that seemed to me to be insipid and tortuously self-contained—hardly wrestling with universal dilemmas; more like whining about over-valued pet peeves

“And, I’ve read ‘genre fiction’ that met every qualifier of that ‘definition’ of ‘literary fiction’.”

And, concerning “genre”, this comment, on the post I drew that quote from, by Jane Watson, is quite enlightening:

“I think that you nailed it when you commented on: ‘…how ‘issues’ can be created from ‘imagined’ ‘facts…’. Personally I think ‘genre’ of any kind, including ‘Literary Fiction’ is a marketing term used by publishers to ‘sell’ books to people, who they think can’t make up their mind on what to buy – but I believe readers are very smart and can tell if they like a book or not and usually judge and pick it, not on genre, but on whether it reads well for them in the first few pages or is described well in a review or a recommendation from a friend. I am hardly ever told by a friend recommending a book — ‘You’ll love this – it’s Chicklit’. — but am often told — ‘You’ll love this, it’s great!'”

So, shall we believe that “Literature” is in the eye (and heart) of the reader?

Then, perhaps, we could ask: “What does literature do for us, the readers, that other writing doesn’t do?”

One perspective on that question is explored in the article What Books Do for the Human Soul: The Four Psychological Functions of Great Literature:

  1. IT SAVES YOU TIME
  2. IT MAKES YOU NICER
  3. IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS
  4. IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE

And, if those functions of Literature seem less than worthy determinants for such important writing, watch this video:


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Words That Give Birth To Words . . .


WARNING: This post contains Poetry

I have a friend named John who writes some of the most amazing poetry–often, so ripe with meaning, I come away gasping for my literary breath.

In response to his poem, “No Longer Middle Ground”, I wrote these words:

“All is
Lost but the
Chance to
Lose it
All.”

John then produced …in interaction and appreciation of the poetic words of Alexander M. Zoltai…

I’m going to post the poem right here but first want to say:

When someone honors you for something you’ve written that deeply affected them, don’t consider why they honored you as much as considering why you should honor them :-)

JOHN’S POEM
in interaction and appreciation of my comment

Aptly expressed; a delicious thought, actually.
There is unequalled truth to this, the bailiwick
of those who know no doubt that blessings and curses
of this life are in fact inexhaustible, inextinguishable.

What is left then, but Creation, itself? What courage
does it take to approach all aspiration and consummation
in the ashes? Every planet’s doom is reunion with its star;
every star, its own appointment with the beginning

and the end of all that matters and energy’s just what’s left over.
And perhaps this is, after all, the raison d’être
for the inexhaustible,
the indivisible, inextinguishable

pain or sorrow, joy or bliss
within the mansions of this world.
If it is of God, it will last beyond leaving,
and as the longed for inauguration into the Next.

Be it the either which, expressed quite simply,
the Heavens and Earth may cease to exist–
in fact must in the end expire–but His Word
will never pass away, and neither the one

privy to Its existence;
and like all that is, we are in the end,
indivisible, inextinguishable.
Whilst we breathe, so, too, breeds our sacred company,

so, too, our own clear magnification in direct proportion
to recognition of one another and in the reality
of His oneness, our own dear being,
indivisible, inextinguishable.

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