“Two things I don’t have are a critical theory and a theory about critical theories…” –April 6, 2003

Two things I don’t have are a critical theory and a theory about critical theories (known in some English lit. circles as a meta-theory). Perhaps because I am at heart a naïve enthusiast or because I have great reverence for the efforts involved in writing books or making movies or creating a great piano or saxophone solo, I shy away from the clinical dissection of cultural produce—some people use the word ‘art’ here. I guess I should, too, as produce is used for edibles.

There are things that overcome that reverence. I was, as an undergraduate, a fan of the Norwegian Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun, but I never read another work by him after I discovered his pro-Nazi sympathies. I am told Louis-Ferdinand Celine is brilliant, but his reputedly rabid anti-Semitism leaves him off my list. But then again, this moral turpitude standard is not a rigid measuring stick. I do listen to the alleged Nazi sympathizer Wilhelm Furtwangler’s recordings, and I view the films of the compromised Elia Kazan. But then, that is another digression I have fully illuminated in my notes for my startlingly adroit forthcoming autobiography, Hitting the Fan.

Ruminating on the critic seems to be an occasional preoccupation that flares up like a case of h—–s. Mostly, it is exacerbated by reading about or actually reading the bad review of an author that I have some knowledge of—like Michiko Kakutani’s recent unkindness to Don Delillo and Robert Stone. In those cases, I didn’t read her text, nor am I miffed at her, nor do I think less of her or anything like that (in fact, in the interest of my own ongoing Robert Stone scholarship, I may yet read her on Bay of Souls after my own second reading of Stone’s new novel). The thing is, I am now recalling my own past fits of ire and pique at MK and other critics for this or that critical transgression or failure to agree with my own apodictic judgements. But, hallelujah, I have seen the light. No more grousing about such things. This is made all the easier by my realization that what I found most wanting in Kakatuni’s reviews is that her writing is not interesting and beyond that, kind of joyless.

Which means I guess I think it is worse to be boring and dull than wrong. As I was trying out my new non-theory I chanced across a commentary on the new entry into the literary magazine world, The Believer.

Three irrelevancies in two sentences is usually enough to put me off:

For a new magazine from the Dave Eggers stable, The Believer has had surprisingly little hype. It’s quietly arrived in bookstores without the Eggers’ name anywhere to be seen (although his influence is obvious and everywhere felt) and is clearly attempting to distance itself from the rapidly disintegrating Eggers bandwagon.

But I read on because, well, I want to know what the kids are doing these days. And also because I am curious about the form attacks on the inestimable Dave Eggers and his enterprises will take:

The bigger point is that Heidi Julavits Means Serious Shit. …Julavits … sees this magazine as no laughing matter: "books are my religion"

This seems to be the commentator’s attempt to either mock or emulate what he calls "Eggers High Ironic." Part of this style, I guess, is capitalizing words other than nouns. Anyway, Julavits’ choice of words is not my cup of tea, but her heart seems to be in the right place.

But more, uh, insights follow:

…This magazine, in contrast, is going to be a big-hearted place, free from malice and scorn, a place where, in the immortal words of Alice, everybody has won and all must have prizes.

…It’s not necessarily a bad idea: accentuate the positive, and let the carping sour the pages of someone else’s journal. But what is lost is any concept of a dialectic.

On the face of it, this is a logic I cannot seem to follow. Sour carping is the antithesis of accentuating the positive? Hmm, there are some serious categorical errors tromping around here, all in the name of reifying the yet unproven or even unclaimed mission of a literary magazine to forward a (the) dialectic.

And then there is this doozey of a last graf:

So is The Believer worth your $8? I can’t see it, really…To read this magazine, you first need to be able to abide the cheap humour, then you need to get around the nasty design (columns don’t line up, one story has its final paragraph 100 pages on from its rightful place), then you need a real desire to read long essays about books you’ve never heard of by writers who are more interested in showing off their own literary chops than they are in actually informing you about today’s culture. It’s everything that’s bad about Harper’s, rebranded for the 24-35 demographic.

1358 words and barely a ray of sunshine (okay, he liked the piece on Nicholson Baker) except for this unintended, I am sure, piece of irony, "writers who are more interested in showing off their own literary chops than they are in actually informing you" or useful information unless you care about the "rapidly disintegrating Eggers bandwagon."

All this aside, let me enter some uncharted waters. Why write and publish this within fifteen minutes of The Believer hitting the newsstand? Why this apparent (willful?) failure to understand that a magazine, especially one that purports to be about creative endeavors, requires some breathing room and sunshine to flourish? The overload of cynicism oozing from the pores of this bleeding sore of a commentary has so little to do with trying to understand what is being attempted and what the real world needs that it suggests something else beyond "informing about today’s culture." But anyone’s guess is as good as mine is as to what that is. If there was trashing to be done it would have been more palatable if it were executed with some humor and stylish word play as opposed to this meretricious droning.

Squamscott River

April 5th on the Squamscott River

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