W.H. Auden’s Rules for Critics

1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

I originally read this in an introduction to A.D. Coleman’s Critical Focus, written by noted Magnum photographer, Bill Jay. There are a few reasons I’m posting this, not the least of which being to make it easier to search for when I’m talking about the state of criticism with people. Which is ultimately the other big reason I’m posting it: the state of criticism needs to be addressed.

I’m not sure I really want to get into all the issues right now, as it’s a substantial topic, and I have lot to say about it once I’m a bit more together. The short of it is this: recently, several new media (in particular, I’m speaking of webcomics and gaming) have been publically criticized for their lack of “journalistic rigor” and poor overall quality. While I feel some of that criticism has been crude and exaggerated, I do agree with the general sentiment that most writing in these fields has been sub-par at best, filled with buzzwords, fan bias, and self-important egoism. That said, I honestly believe that the biggest problem is that most people (both viewers and authors) don’t understand the purpose of critique. As I see it, the most effective method to improve the situation is to teach people what it is they are supposed to be doing when writing a critical review of title. W.H. Auden’s succinct rules for critics (more of guidelines, really) does an excellent job (in my opinion) of illuminating the critic’s role.

Stacking Saucers

It’s currently 75 degrees and raining large, heavy droplets here in Hanover. I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past few days hanging out here, doing a lot of thinking, and a fair bit of talking along with it. It may not all be coagulated enough to put down in written form, but I’m going to give it a shot, because it’s an important subject. Of course, the subject itself is somewhat amorphous, multifaceted, and subject to interpretation. You could call it living an authentic or genuine life, but I prefer calling it living a passionate life.

As some are aware, I define being a geek as being genuinely interested and engaged by a subject. Theater Geeks, Movie Geeks, Anime Geeks, Book Geeks, these are all valid descriptions, but likewise there are Sports Geeks, Fashion Geeks, Social Geeks (not an oxymoron!), and these are just as valid, though we generally give them other names, like “jock”, “fashion maven”, and “socialite”. It all comes down to the same thing, however: being passionate about a subject and having it interest you so much that you learn all you can about it. It becomes a part of your life. You grok your passion.

Everyone has something that they are passionate about. It can vary wildly, and can even be unexpected to those around you. I’ve met people who are fascinated by the process of sewage treatment and water purification in the same way that I might talk about games. You never know what people are passionate about, and that act of wondering is a way that we can connect with others. A case in point; yesterday, I got to rambling about this topic in front of Collis, and randomly asked the girls at a table nearby what they were passionate about. Once they decided I wasn’t a nut-job (or at least a harmless one), the results were quite fascinating. These were people I’d never spoken with before, and yet when asked to talk about their passions, their eyes lit up and the conversation became animated. That passion for a subject is infectious, it becomes interesting to those around you whether they themselves share that passion or not. This is the power of passion.

That’s all pretty straightforward. Where I get all ranty and foaming at the mouth is the question of what we do with those passions. How many people are we surrounded by who are enthralled by a subject or topic or medium, but is never willing to take the step outside the safety net to actually pursue that as a profession? We go to college because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We get jobs that we hate because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Our passions are naysayed as too difficult, unattainable, unlivable, not just by those around us, but by ourselves, because we’re so afraid of stretching ourselves outside of complacency. For the most of us, the annoyance of living in the box is outweighed by the pain and fear of breaking out, and being who we want to be. If you have a passion for writing, be a writer. Write every damn day. Read other writing, read about writing, write stories, your thoughts, how your day went, that dream you had, a story, a poem, write about writing, write about reading. Live it, breathe it, embrace your passion, and it will embrace you. If you’re worried about it not being good enough or that it’s hard, or that there isn’t enough time in the day or that you want to watch your favorite television show or you want to go to that party, then ask yourself why you’re worried, and DO something about it. Afraid of the quality? WRITE MORE. Want to watch that show? Write about it, make it a project. It’s not just writing, either, it’s ANY passion. If you want to make art, bleed ink and paint. Don’t relegate it to a wistful sigh and a hobby, MAKE ART. If you aren’t pursuing your passions, then you deserve any unhappiness you receive.

If you think that’s unfair, then I have to ask what you’re so afraid of that you would deny your passion, your potential for the delusion of safety. That’s not contentment, and it’s certainly not happiness; it’s complacency. It is one thing to let that which does not matter slide. This is not such a case, however. It matters. It’s your passion, it’s your interest, it’s a part of your LIFE, and to deny it, to relegate it to the sidelines is denying a part of yourself. I do not see how that could be driven by anything but fear, or some form of self-destruction. Complacency is the antithesis of passion. Care to see what complacency and fear do? Here’s a social experiment for you to do: sit on a bench on a street and look at people. Look them in the eye, and see the reactions. It doesn’t matter if you’re well dressed or in rags, angry looking or with a smile on your face, nine times out of ten, the other individual will look away. Some can be explained away by conversations or other distractions, but that sort of ratio is simply too large to argue away. (For the record, out of roughly 100 people I tried this with last night, only 3 actually acknowledged the eye contact, all others looked away. Your mileage may vary.)

What drives that sort of behavior, that shrinking away from the possibility of contact or acknowledgment? My belief is that we shrink away from contact because we are afraid of having our world view shaken, of being stretched beyond the bounds of whatever box we’ve chosen for ourselves. To communicate with others inherently holds the potential of being challenged, and that scares people. We mitigate this as much as we can by surrounding ourselves with the like-minded, in classes, conferences, workplaces, social gatherings. How often do we just stop and ask someone on the street how they’re doing, what they’re interested in? Why not? Are we afraid that we might be judged? Why does it matter if we are? It’s just someone on the street, there is no illusory status lost from a conversation not panning out. It is, at worst, a missed chance at enrichment and engagement. You have not LOST anything. Those who talk to strangers live the fullest lives.

Annotation: Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of Writing is not precisely a book about writing. Rather, it is a book about being passionate about what you do. While there are tips and tricks to writing and writing well, it is rather superfluous to the overall value of the book. In my eyes, where the book is most valuable is in encouraging you to be passionate. We have emotions, and yet so much of our academic lives are spent subjugating those emotions in a misguided attempt at objectivity. It is like a breath of fresh air to not only be told it’s okay to get angry or excited, but to be encouraged to do so.

The book is broken up into several essays, written over several years for various other reasons, collected into one book. As such, there is a bit of repetition in his subject matter (he comments on several of his stories several times through several different essays, often saying almost exactly the same thing), which can largely be forgiven. It really only irks when the points of repetition essentially boil down to some personal horn tooting on the case of the author (which kind of jives with what I’ve heard about Ray, namely that he is a very nice person but not all that modest about his talents). None of the repetition really harms the core of any of the essays, so no harm done, I suppose.

I thought about responding to each of the essays, but decided it would be more fun and rewarding to point out the parts that really struck me. In the essay “On the Shoulders of Giants”, Bradbury talks about the Science Fiction Explosion:

[…]and placed a gentle bomb on teacher’s desk. Instead of an apple it was Asimov.
“What’s that?” the teacher asked, suspiciously.
“Try it. It’s good for you,” said the students.
“No thanks.”
“Try it,” said the students. “Read the first page. If you don’t like it, stop.” And the clever students turned and went away.
The teachers (and the librarians, later) put off reading, kept the book around the house for a few weeks and then, late one night, tried the first paragraph.
And the bomb exploded.
They not only read the first but the second paragraph, the second and third pages, the fourth and fifth chapters.
“My God!” they cried, almost in unison, “these damned books are about something!”
“Good Lord!” they cried, reading a second book, “there are Ideas here!”
“Holy Smoke!” they babbled, on their way through Clarke, heading into Heinlein, emerging from Sturgeon, “these books are — ugly word — relevant!”
“Yes!” shouted the chorus of kids starving in the yard. “Oh my, yes!”
And the teachers began to teach, and discovered an amazing thing:
Students who had never wanted to read before suddenly were galvanized, pulled up their socks, and began to read and quote Ursula LeGuin. Kids who had never read so much as one pirate’s obituary in their lives were suddenly turning pages with their tongues, ravening for more. (Bradbury 102-103)

This piece right here is precisely what I’m talking about when I say that Bradbury’s writing is passionate and bordering poetic. It also strikes a very strong chord with me, on many levels. For one thing, I was one of those kids growing up, but in a later wave with a different fight on their hands. I had the side of the teachers now, and instead I was up against the other students, trying to convince them to just try it, and if they didn’t like it, they could throw the book in my face. I can count the number who actually took me up on my suggestions on one hand. A different but related chord is that the essay explains and encapsulates my feelings about science fiction so well. Science Fiction in so many ways should have stuck with an earlier moniker: Speculative Fiction. The genre is filled with ideas and notions and questions and ideals, some of which become reality, but that’s really superfluous to the nature of the genre. It’s the IDEAS that are important. And, for me at least, it is the challenge of Humanity.

The next most striking and invaluable essay for me was the title essay: “Zen in the Art of Writing”. It is one of his more straightforward essays, dealing with a (somewhat) more technical part of writing, namely how to do it. The entire essay can be summed up in one line: “WORK – RELAXATION – DON’T THINK – FURTHER RELAXATION” (Bradbury 144). The rest of the essay just explains that statement. What it comes down to is this: writing is WORK, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There is craft in addition to art, and that is the structure of writing, and the act of writing itself. That said, if you are stressed out, your work will be stressed as well — it will not flow, and it will not be nearly as honest as you likely want. Likewise, if you let yourself think about what you are writing, you censor yourself: get it OUT THERE, you can always censor it later — chances are, once it’s out, you’ll be glad it is, no matter what your censor tells you when you’re writing it. Which brings us back to relaxation: ideas are from a deep part of your mind, and it takes being relaxed and receptive to get them to the surface. It’s where the “Zen” in the title becomes slightly less of just a turn of phrase. A major principle of Zen is an acceptance and receptiveness to one’s surroundings. Writing is very Zen.

The third and final essay I’m going to write about is “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”. There is always talk about a “writer’s muse”, talk that never seems to get anywhere, mostly involving some people arguing against any outside source, and others citing divine inspiration. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. Bradbury seems more in the camp of citing the Muse as our subconscious. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the essay is very valid regardless of which “camp” you belong to. It is worth noting that in either camp, there is the agreement that a muse must be fed. It needs experiences to grow from and work with, and life is its food of choice. It must also have an outlet, however: whether the work is good or not or feels particularly inspired or not, you need to write to keep a muse. Or paint, or sculpt, or any other creative medium — take your pick, the fact remains the same: if you are not willing to let the muse speak through you, then the muse will stop trying to. Of this I am absolutely certain, speaking from first-hand experience. You don’t even realize how important the interplay between yourself and your muse IS until it’s gone, whether through abuse, or neglect.

Zen in the Art of Writing is definitely worth reading. I would recommend happily (and have) to anyone willing to spend the few hours necessary to read it (it is not precisely long, weighing in at 176 pages in trade paperback size… I read it in less than a day). Those looking for a how-to book on writing should look elsewhere… and then come back when their priorities are in order. After all, what is the point in knowing how to write if you have nothing to say?

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.

The Visceral Experience

Let me explain to you something about me, that I certainly hope explains at least somewhat why I write what I write on this site. (When I write anything beyond Site Maintenance, I mean.)

Some people don’t understand this, but it holds true for me: the viscera of life is a priority to me. The feeling on your face as the weather shifts from still, muggy, saturated air, to the turbulence and refreshment of a summer storm. The excitement and childlike joy that fills me when I see lightning and a thunderclap almost simultaneously, the fascination and eagerness of feeling those large, swollen droplets of rain splash onto my face.

The feeling of the heat of hot pavement on a summer’s day, scorching your feet, making you feel like a lizard, skittering along on it so as not to be burned. The feeling of trudging around in three feet of wet snow, warm in your snowgear, watching clumps of snow fall from the trees, listening to the activity that dwells within a sense of stillness.

The crash of the waves on a beach, a thunderous subsonic crescendo of noise, felt in your bones. The soft rustle of dry autumn leaves being walked through, hands in jacket pockets, keeping warm in the brisk air. The peace of lying down in a patch of moss, in a fern surrounded glen, listening to moisture drip from the trees, listening to things grow all around you.

This is what is important to me. This is what fills me with wellbeing, and happiness. I wish I could share it. I wish more people wanted to SEE.