Saturday 21 November 2009

Authorial intent, snark, and missing the point on purpose.

Lately, some of my contemporaries have been engaged in a rather nasty debate about the state of poetry reviewing, the apparent prevalence of snark, and the role of authorial intent in criticism.

Let's start with "authorial intent"

This is a much misunderstood and abused term, and I think some people might be misunderstanding it on purpose. It's a familiar term in critical discourse, and I don't know why it needs to be explained, but apparently it does. It has a specific meaning that has nothing to do with magically "knowing" what the artist was "trying to do" like some are claiming. That's just a red herring. That's not what it means at all.

Poetry is more than mere building blocks; it's communication, and all communication has a purpose, which to say it has intent. In critical discourse, engaging with "intent" has more to do with understanding how the poetry works within its given mode, understanding how a text has been assembled and reading it with an eye towards understanding its purpose, its message, and its content. For example, one would not (should not) measure a poem by E.E. Cummings with the same material yardstick one would use to measure a poem by Robert Frost, or whichever two dissimilar poets you might choose. The two poets have a different ethos, a different project, a different way of communicating, a different "intent" that is expressly manifest in their work.

It's disingenuous to say a critic cannot, given a close reading, determine the functionality of a text, and from that, extrapolate its purpose and gauge that against the traditions it either draws upon or tries to subvert. It would be an incompetent critic indeed who could not do that, but that is what it means to engage with the "intent" of a text in critical discourse. It has nothing to with reading the author's mind. If a critic understands the "intent" of a piece, for instance, he will not declare that a poem failed to be a sonnet when in fact it meant to be a lipogram, or vice versa.

Different modes of criticism have their own relationships with the idea of authorial intent: deconstructionists, post-structuralists, materialists, etc. Only the most rigidly fundamentalist critical approaches disregard "intent" completely. In doing so, they create large black holes in the reading of a text. They miss the point on purpose, so to speak. I dislike fundamentalisms of any kind, and that includes both critical and aesthetic ones. In poetics, at both the conservative and radical ends of the spectrum, you have those modes that fetishize their own kind of formalism to the detriment of (or even to the exclusion of) concerns about content. At either extreme these formalist fundamentalisms (say a revived take on the radical poetics of Oulipo or an orthodox approach to classicist meter and rhyme) you will find a kind of literary tunnel vision; the poems are toying with their physical minutiae, but they are disinterested in actually communicating much of anything. When such fundamentalists bring their aesthetic ideology (their dogma?) into the critical arena, they end up measuring poetries against it that aren't compatible with their criteria. Holders of this position cannot help but commit the fallacy of saying, "the non-traditional is bad because it is not the traditional" or vice versa. They mistake the rationalization or the justification of taste with the application of reason and critical rigor. They are, in a sense, defending a camp. They are saying: I have staked my poetic identity to this ideal, and now I must protect it and evangelize it. But creativity isn't fostered by defending a camp. It comes from exploring strange, new lands. The plural and open are fruitful, while the limited and the closed are doomed.

And what does this have to do with "snark"?

Quite a lot, actually.

But first, let's remind ourselves exactly what "snark" means in terms of book reviewing. The term was coined by Heidi Julavits in an essay in the March 2003 issue of The Believer magazine:
I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do [italics mine], even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers. I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community... (link)

So, according to Julavits, a refusal to engage with intent is a key ingredient in snarkiness. The critic is there to look clever and bitchy, and engagement with the books, and with literature in general, is secondary. Snarkiness is inherently self-serving, and generally at someone else’s expense. It’s selfish. I agree that this style of book reviewing has become all too prevalent in recent years. I believe that even if a reviewer dislikes a work, he can afford its author the dignity of treating it seriously, and if he does not believe a work warrants serious critical attention, positive or negative, then why review it? Just to be bitchy?

This raises another issue. Whenever the issue of snark or nastiness in reviewing is raised, someone, usually the offender, inevitably cries, "What? You don't believe in negative reviews?" Again, this is a simple case of missing the point on purpose. A bitchy tone and a critical value judgment are not the same thing. A snarky book reviewer is no more a “critic” than a muckraker like Perez Hilton is a “journalist.” A reviewer can offer a negative value judgment without being snarky, entertaining himself with his own barbs. Indeed, such a rancorous tone can be evidence of an ad hominem fallacy; if a reviewer's tone (or, indeed, his language) suggests that he believes the author is inept (rather than the text insufficient), then he is guilty of an ad hominem fallacy. This seems to go hand in hand with the fallacy that all insults are honest and all civility is phony, or that trying to hurt or demoralize people is a valid critical stance.
It isn’t.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

The Al Purdy A-frame in the Globe and Mail

The launch for The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology is tonight at Harbourfront Centre. York Quay Centre, Lakeside Terrace, 7:30pm.

Here's what the Globe and Mail's John Barber has to say about it:

“It's not just a shack in the woods,” says Jean Baird, the Vancouver editor who is leading the preservation effort. “It has been a pilgrimage place for decades for young writers – for all writers.” Acolytes who never knew Purdy or drank his wild-grape wine out of old whisky bottles still leave totems on his nearby grave, according to Baird. “If the e-mails I get are any indication, the back roads of Prince Edward County are full of lost poets, looking for the A-frame.”

There's nothing else like it in the country, she adds. The boyhood home of Pierre Berton in Dawson City operates today as a writers' retreat, but that late author never wrote there and wouldn't recognize it if he were alive today, according to Baird. Purdy not only hand-built and lived in the A-frame, he made it and its landscape the focus of some of his finest poems. “Berton House doesn't have the clout of this place,” Baird says. “On a heritage meter, this one's off the charts.”

Not only a place of pilgrimage for such young, unpublished writers as Michael Ondaatje, the Purdy A-frame also appears to have functioned as the drunken boat of Canadian literature. Blackouts, broken legs and furious arguments mark the anthologized reminiscences.

Read the whole article here.

Sunday 1 November 2009

New on my bookshelf

Here's some more catching up with what's new on my bookshelf:

A Village Life by Louise Gl├╝ck

This is a warm, open and generous collection -- generous in the sense that the poet seems genuinely engaged with her readers in a giving sense. These poems are gifts. They are meant to be enjoyed and re-read, and they reward this over and over. It's a tremendous book that I want everyone to read.

Made Flesh by Craig Arnold

Craig Arnold's disappearance earlier this year while researching volcanoes in Japan is a terrible tragedy. This book, published last year, demonstrates an expansive and scrupulous literary intelligence. There is much to admire here, and I especially liked Arnold's "Hymn to Persephone." We are richer for what he wrote, and poorer for what he didn't have the chance to write.

Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook

Holbrook's approach to the poetic is steeped in the playful and the humourous. I like this. We need poetry to be fun as much as we need it to be the thousand other things it can be. For the most part, this book is delightful: lyrically sharp and poetically adventurous, but a few pieces did leave me cold. "POETsmart: Training for Your Poet," for example, takes a PETsmart advertisement for pet training and substitutes the word "poet" for "pet." The result is cute, but it works more on the level of a funny(ish) email forwarded to you by a relative. As a joke, it's old (so poets can be emotional and sloppy, okay and...?), and as poem, it's just (I'm sorry to say) trite.

Still, what's marvellous about this book is still marvellous. Read it for that.

Reticent Bodies by Moez Surani

Let's be thankful for Moez Surani. He has taken a multi-layered history and heritage and turned it into subject matter and backdrop for a delicately arranged collection of poetry that is engaged as much with its poetic pedigree as with its worldly one -- the result is a book that is enriched by its cultural relevence and its complex and unorthadox approach to lyric. Surani has that rare ability to write beautifully without ornament. His lyricism is stripped bare, unpacked, disassembled. It's effects are immediate. It's both stark and relevatory.

The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall

I really like this book. It wants me to think about epistimology, ontology and various psychological states without being all poncey about it. This is good. Hall can promise that nearly every line of her poetry will deliver something interesting, be it a startling image, a memorable sound, or a surprise or twist of some kind. The poems seem to invite the reader to read them, and if a challenge is issued, it's never adversarial to the reader's enjoyment. What more could you want?

Dave Bidini on Al Purdy's house and the effort to preserve it

In Canada, looking for ghosts is a mug's game. You don't have to look far. Places disappear after getting rezoned into bigger places, losing their borders and their names. Old brick buildings mortared with history fall to developers. And the only public recognition of past lives comes whenever city council or its heritage wing can agree on the weight of a person, place or event. John Lennon played his first concert without The Beatles at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, and Errol Flynn died on the steps of the Hotel Vancouver, but you wouldn't have remembered these events if I hadn't just mentioned them. In an empty country without many people, the forgotten often outnumber those who have failed to remember them.

Ameliasburgh, Ont., just south of Belleville, has its ghosts, too, or rather, its ghost: poet Al Purdy, the Voice of the Land. Al lived here for most of his life, although he later divided his time between his hometown and Sydney, on Vancouver Island. The late poet was regarded as cantankerous and combative by those on the outside, but to friends and literary accomplices, his hide was never as rough as his reputation. Over the years, he was an encouraging and congenial host with a soft spot for poets and for any artist who ever tried.