Talking about Writing about Writing

On September 7th, Melbourne’s generally fantastic Wheeler Centre hosted an event for talking about writing about books.  The event in question, Critical Failure, was a mixed bag of a panel discussion about the state of literary criticism in Australia that prompted an audience member to open the question-and-answer period by calling it ‘boring.’

Whether or not the comment was fair or accurate, it’s not exactly unexpected to most that a group conversation about writing about other writing lacked power and direction.  The conversation did, however, provide further evidence for two of our pet ideas for Cultural Events and Lectures:

  1. Writers are (ideally) great at writing, not necessarily at speaking in front of large audiences unless their name is Billy Collins.
  2. If you wouldn’t tolerate the conversation over adult beverages in your living room, you’re probably not going to love it while sitting in an ergonomically-poor chair surrounded by strangers.

The discussion had its interesting moments and enough wit (Gideon Haigh) and amusing arrogance (Peter Craven) to be worth the price of admission (free). As the Wheeler Centre and panelists have gone on to point out, the event was intended to spark further discussion, and it has.  Some of it (thank you Rebecca Starford) has been quite good – the rest I haven’t had time to read yet.

As a bolder audience member pointed out, the event itself suffered from the same faults as criticism itself: failure to engage the audience in a meaningful way. Writing about new books is challenging for the writer because reviews are a hybrid of news, commerce, and criticism.  As a result, the review writer doesn’t always balance those pressures in a way that is useful for the audience, and that makes the review challenging for the reader.  In a proper critical literary review, maybe the purest style going, publishers, critics, journalists, and other literary tradespeople usually discuss weighty concerns amongst themselves and hand out gold stars or detention.  Like Harold Bloom, it’s incredibly smart, obviously learned, and very little fun.

I prefer an alternate style, and the best examples that I can remember are by writers/storytellers themselves such as Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie. Both seem much more concerned with the audience reading their review than in determining the piece’s place in the literary canon.  When I read Chabon’s writing about ghost stories and comic books in his nonfiction Maps and Legends, or Rushdie’s discussions of imagination and Italo Calvino in Imaginary Homelands, I became incredibly excited about the idea of more reading.  I had never heard of Calvino or sought out out ghost stories, but I have since.

Like many of my grandfather’s stories, I often have very little idea of what’s being talked about, but I love the telling and it sends me spinning off to learn more.  Perhaps this style requires more space than most reviewers are allowed. Perhaps readers have short attention spans, so there’s no good reason for publishers to keep paying for and running long pieces to an audience of crickets.

Or perhaps not.  As Mr. Craven remarked with clever but unnecessary scorn, a good review needs “accuracy, style, enchantment.” It also need a critics who, for all else they do, respect their audience.   While a reviewer will always balance competing pressures, I would add one more: remember to tell us a story that tells us much more than whether a book is good or bad.

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2 Responses to Talking about Writing about Writing

  1. Sean says:

    Not only is Calvino an amazing author of fiction (some of my favorite books are his: Difficult Loves, If on a Winter’s Night…, Cosmic Comics, Invisible Cities — the list goes on and on), but he’s also a literary critic in his own right (“Essays on Literature”). He has also collected an anthology of supernatural stories, which, no doubt, includes ghost stories.

    Calvino has always seemed to me what Borges aspired to: someone who can create great fantasy and whimsy, but keep it firmly grounded in questions of the human condition. Borges used gimmicks (book reviews, etc.) to allude to the kinds of stories that Calvino *actually writes.* His “Garden of Forking Paths” is “If on a Winter’s Night…” in short story form.

  2. Pingback: Toothsoup » Blog Archive » #Critfail

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