Monday, June 21, 2010

Reading and Why

In a recent post at The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong uses numerous ideas from Walter Benjamin as ways into an insightful discussion of comics criticism. Along with text from Benjamin, the thread features quotations and comments from a number of HU contributors, and me. Most of the writers, myself included, paint a fairly positive picture of their motivations in writing about comics. But such uplifting beliefs seem like only a part of the picture. No doubt, we are often motivated by things like a genuine desire to “express ourselves”, “learn about something by writing about it,” “entertain”, “raise the public discourse,” or “elevate standards.” All worthy goals . . . But

there are many other possible motivations, ones that we -- or speaking for myself, I -- would usually prefer not to think about. What follows below is a post I wrote a few months back (I had posted it once and then deleted it, thinking it too negative . . .).

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When I'm tempted to write a screed against an artist, comic, or graphic novel, one I'll be clever enough (or self-deluded enough) to present as an “objective critique” (though clues to my real motive for writing will inevitably rupture this academic veneer), I try to remember to ask myself: “Why is it that I take this as a personal offense against me?” It’s one thing if the art endorses truly hateful or harmful ideas -- but otherwise, why am I so worked up? Why don’t I say, “This sucks” and move on? Or write a critique that deals with the art in a reasonable way?

But I sometimes think something like the following, which I'll put into words more honest than those I typically allow myself: “I need to set straight those readers and critics who just fail to get it, who foolishly admire X. If they were honest and read X carefully, they would feel just as I do. Must . . . correct . . . wrong . . . ideas. (My hard-drive has a few nasty critiques un-posted, like the first drafts of letters a therapist might suggest you write to your parents but not send . . .)

Sure, plenty of comics and cartoonists stink, and do so aggressively. But that’s life, right? I can enjoy a well-written critique of anything, but when it’s wildly out of proportion to the “offense,” the critic should do the hard work, not of analyzing the comic, but of analyzing his/her motivation: “Why does this make me so pissed off/angry/hurt/unappreciated? What sacred ideas of mine does it threaten? Am I even aware of these feelings or their origin? Do I evade dealing with them by characterizing my motivation in the unassailable terms of “high standards?” All of this, I can attest, is a lot less fun than going off on some cartoonist or comic book, or even another critic.

Perhaps at some level we all write because we want some kind of validation; it’s not simply a need to express ourselves or to direct fellow consumers toward or away from a given “product.” “My attack proves to others and myself that I am one who calls it like I see it -- Like It Is.” (Or: "My praise proves what a nice guy I am.")

(The Hyper-Aggressive Misreading always mistakes the subjective reaction for the objective fact.) And the best way to build yourself up is by tearing someone down, right?

The hyper-aggressive misreading likely stems, not from the critic’s interaction with the text, but from his/her ideas about something more amorphous, some kind of internal conflict triggered by, and then projected onto, the text (which therefore becomes invisible to the critic, obscured by self-deception). So the ostensible “reading” reveals only truths about the unsettled reader, truths that remain to be critiqued.

20 comments:

Noah Berlatsky said...

Nah, I don't buy it. For one thing, this is a critique that eats itself; you're performing a hyper-aggressive critique of your own critiques, which, by your reasoning, should render your insights worthless except as fodder for psychoanalysis.

And for another...why is it a misreading just because it's mean? On what epistemological grounds must truth always tend towards the friendly and cheerful? There's lots of great art that is based on angry or hateful reactions to culture (from Jonathan Swift on down.) Frankly, there are lots of things in this world to be hateful or angry about. Crappy comics may not be the greatest injustice in the world, but that doesn't mean it's not worth taking a few minutes to mock them.

Ken Parille said...

Noah,
I don't think so -- I think that I am at times motivated to write by things that are not positive, and it's helpful to see them -- my self-critique seems pretty dispassionate to me.

Not all mean critiques are of this type (H.A.M.), but some are. (And I mentioned questionable motivations behind writing praise). I believe that, sometimes, you can read a response that is so negative, it's as if the cartoonist had insulted the critic's ill mother. I have no problem with mean -- just certain kinds of mean. I think I have been mean to comics on this blog at least a few times. We are all dishonest with ourselves at times, is really what I am saying.

Ken Parille said...

It's all Suat's fault -- He said he would like to see me to post something different . . .

"On what epistemological grounds must truth always tend towards the friendly and cheerful?"

I say explicitly the opposite. That the truths we can learn about ourselves when we think about why we write can be unpleasant but helpful.

All of the things I am saying could be said about a H.A.M. that is excessively positive and willfully misreads the texts in order to be so. Same thing.

"There's lots of great art that is based on angry or hateful reactions to culture (from Jonathan Swift on down.)"

No doubt - I agree; many of my favorite cartoonists are angry and hateful people. I am not talking about great art, but bad criticism. Both can share the same kinds of motivation but end up with different results.

Anonymous said...

A great essay that's very critical but not mean is Dan Nadel's comics comics thing on the Masters of Comics exhibition. Or Jeet Heer's post on Craig Yoe's book.

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading tcj.com for just this reason, all the "Crumb is an idiot" "Chris Ware made me mad" talk. And Lucille Ball and Kiss lyrics.

Anonymous said...

Well, that's not totally true.
I read anything by R. Fiore, who maybe grumpy but makes it work.

Noah Berlatsky said...

But how can you tell the hyper-agressive critique from a just standard critique? You're basically saying one kind of criticism is no good based on the motivation of the writer. But motivations are notoriously difficult to parse — even one's own.

I'm certain that I'm motivated to write by all sorts of things that aren't angelic — desire for recognition being the most obvious, and one that inspires pretty much anyone who stands up in a public forum. But I don't think that an essay inspired by jealousy or malice or vainglory is necessarily going to be worse than one inspired by love or generosity or just a desire for a few yucks. Creation is weird, and success has as much to do with craft and luck and what have you as it does with purity of heart. Lovecraft's best works were inspired, I'm convinced, by racism and misogyny more than any other motive; on the other hand, many folks who write hallmark cards probably really do want everyone to be happy. But Lovecraft's great and hallmark cards aren't, regardless of what inspired them.

"We are all dishonest with ourselves at times, is really what I am saying."

That's obviously true...but again, I don't necessarily think there's a one to one ratio between being honest with oneself and writing something worthwhile.

Which is good, because I think it would actually be truer to say that no one is ever really honest with themselves ever, rather than modifying it with the "at times."

Ken Parille said...

"But how can you tell the hyper-agressive critique from a just standard critique? "

The language seems to you to be over the top in some obvious way -- the writer seems too angry, too hurt, desperate for something from the reader . . .

"You're basically saying one kind of criticism is no good based on the motivation of the writer.

Only one very specific kind -- not just a misreading, or even an aggressive misreading, but a hyper aggressive one. I would say that misreadings are not "good" by definition.

"But motivations are notoriously difficult to parse — even one's own."

This is true, but there are plenty of exceptions. We all can think of examples of coded racism, for example, in which the speaker makes it clear the real motivations for his comments -- he would deny their origins in racist ideas, but we can tell.

"I'm certain that I'm motivated to write by all sorts of things that aren't angelic — desire for recognition being the most obvious, and one that inspires pretty much anyone who stands up in a public forum. "

"But I don't think that an essay inspired by jealousy or malice or vainglory is necessarily going to be worse than one inspired by love or generosity or just a desire for a few yucks."

Not necessarily -- but the motivations can creep in and make it bad. When I can sense this struggle in a writer I often stop reading. We all have to determine for ourselves if the reading is on target. There are plenty of writers who, when I read them, never give off a vibe that they are in any way compromised. Writer X may be desperate for the love of her readers, but it helps me to stay focused on her critical insights if I can't sense that desperation.

" Creation is weird, and success has as much to do with craft and luck and what have you as it does with purity of heart. Lovecraft's best works were inspired, I'm convinced, by racism and misogyny more than any other motive; on the other hand, many folks who write hallmark cards probably really do want everyone to be happy. But Lovecraft's great and hallmark cards aren't, regardless of what inspired them."

Purity of heart is not something that I believe in. But people's meanness and/or desperation can infect their criticism in a visible way and make it less compelling to me. As I make clear in my post, I am talking about when motivations erupt via language, often because, it appears to me, they can't quite contain themselves.

Noah Berlatsky said...

"I would say that misreadings are not "good" by definition."

I don't agree with that. First of all, I think all readings are misreadings in some sense; they're always going to be partial, and they're always going to be a rejiggering of the text by someone else. Borges argues that even an exact duplication would be a misreading. When I read a critic, I'm interested in what he or she has to say, not necessarily in whether they're true to the work in question.

In fact, I'd much rather read a stimulating essay that I think is wrong than a bland essay that I think is correct or fair.

"But people's meanness and/or desperation can infect their criticism in a visible way and make it less compelling to me. "

Again, this isn't true for me necessarily. "Desperation" is often just the flip side of passion; extreme meanness can be a sign that a person is really engaged with a work. I don't want fairness, or even necessarily self-control in a critic, at least not as a categorical rule.

I'm sorry for giving you such a hard time Ken. Perhaps as recompense I should say that I'm reading your David Boring piece in the Best American Comics Criticism book. It's a really nice essay — I enjoy it even though I hate David Boring with an extremely excessive mean-spiritedness.

Ng Suat Tong said...

Anon: "A great essay that's very critical but not mean is Dan Nadel's comics comics thing on the Masters of Comics exhibition. Or Jeet Heer's post on Craig Yoe's book."

You've got to be joking. Comparing a comics historian (of sorts) with Indiana Jones is pretty mean in my book. Yoe reacted accordingly.

Ken Parille said...

Noah,

I think it comes down to this, in a way: I think something exists that you don’t -- that there is a kind of criticism in which the motivations show through (which is fine, sometimes) and get in the way of the criticism (not so good). For me, it then becomes too much about the writer and not enough about the object. True, all criticism is about the critic, but it’s a matter of degrees. For me, there’s a point in which the critic clearly becomes the unacknowledged -- to herself at least -- “work” under review.

Perhaps you either think that this does not exist, and/or that it is not possible to know the motives of the writer. I do.

We can disagree here and leave it at that, if you’d like.

And thanks for reading the David Boring essay and saying nice things about it. It’s my favorite action/adventure comic.

Anonymous said...

Yoe digs the term: "Here as elsewhere Yoe quotes Vice magazine’s flattering description of himself as “the Indiana Jones of comics historians.”

Noah Berlatsky said...

Hey Ken. I don't think that's quite the disagreement. I am somewhat skeptical about the ability to tell motivations. But I think the real bone of contention is that I just wouldn't categorically dismiss and/or necessarily dislike a piece of criticism in which the writer seemed excessively invested. I mean, I might dislike it — I dislike most things. But I wouldn't have to.

From what you've said, I think you feel like criticism should strive for balance, fairness, and that it should defer to the work in question, at least to the extent that the critic's personal issues/axes/baggage should take a back seat to understanding the work under review. I think you can write fine criticism using those criteria, but I don't think they're the only way to go, and they don't produce the only kind of criticism that I like to read or write.

Ken Parille said...

"Hey Ken. I don't think that's quite the disagreement. I am somewhat skeptical about the ability to tell motivations. But I think the real bone of contention is that I just wouldn't categorically dismiss and/or necessarily dislike a piece of criticism in which the writer seemed excessively invested. I mean, I might dislike it — I dislike most things. But I wouldn't have to."

Noah,

Perhaps the real problem is that you think I am making categorical claims -- and I don't think I am. For example, I have read a lot of writing online in which the writer seems excessively invested, and that's fine -- but all such investments don't lead to misreadings that are aggressive.
I try to emphasize the non-categorical, subjective nature of my criticism by using -- perhaps overusing -- phrases like "for me . . ."

Any kind of motivation could lead to interesting criticism, though certain specific kinds sometimes produce very bad -- according to me -- stuff. I don't assume as a principle that mean is bad, or that mean will lead to good writing, or that praise is better than negativity, etc . . .

And as far as identifying motivations, it's not always that hard to tell when someone is hurt or desperate.

"From what you've said, I think you feel like criticism should strive for balance, fairness,

I don't think that these are kinds of terms that I likely would use. All I really care is that it be interesting -- and the HAM is not interesting to me for the reasons I explained.
I shy away from terms that seem to be part of a moral vocabulary -- yet I *tend* not to like an attack that seems unjustified (I might like it if it's funny, though) -- and that language is sort of moralistic, I guess.

I usually need to feel that in some basic way, the writer is "connected" to the text; in the HAM that's not happening.

"and that it should defer to the work in question, at least to the extent that the critic's personal issues/axes/baggage should take a back seat to understanding the work under review."

Defer is far too strong a word - again, it's almost moral. My readings of many things -- such as the post on a Richie Rich cover or the ones on recent Marvel comics -- certainly don't defer to the comic in any way. But I feel that I have connected to something in these comics in some way.

There are no objective standards by which I could judge a HAM ahead of time. I'll read it and then make my mind up.

Ken Parille said...

I think we would agree that all sorts of motivations can lead to good/interesting/useful/funny criticism. I might, though, see something as an agreesive misreading and you would say it's not; I would say "That person seems out of control" and you would say "They are just showing their intense investment."

I think that's a reasonable assesment . . .

Putting all principles and catgories aside, we just respond differently to the same thing.

Noah Berlatsky said...

Hey Ken. That's fair enough!

Anonymous said...

The points has already been made but deserves emphasis: I'm not the one that called Yoe "“the Indiana Jones of comics historians.” Vice Magazine did that, and Yoe was happy enough with the comparison to quote it more than once. All I did was argue that Indiana Jones isn't the best model for good scholarship. Jeet Heer

Jason Overby said...

Hmmm... I'd really like to read Ng Suat's essay you're referencing, but I can never figure out how to navigate the HU site. Anyway, WB must be in the air (ipads, iPhones) cuz I just wrote this essay over at commentscomments that began with a quote from Benjamin and incited a pretty good discussion, I think.

Ng Suat Tong said...

It's not really an essay but here's the link. The only way to navigate HU is via the side bar titles and the search engine. Reading the comments on your post now.

Jason Overby said...

Gotcha. Reading your post now. Thanks!