Litblog Roundup is a bi-weekly overview of topics, trends and highlights from the literary Internet. In this roundup: there’s a push for a better critical vocabulary to use when we talk about books, reading and writing.
Boring is Boring
Weird Sister is a blog about the intersections of feminism, literature and pop culture. Caolan Madden has a new post there, on the word boring:
Let’s not reject this work on ethical grounds. But let’s reject it because it’s boring. Boring becomes this feint to avoid ethical judgment, to pretend your only rubric is aesthetic, to uphold your avant-garde commitment to innovation, to preserve the fantasy that art is the one space in the world that is free from ethics.
More on the work whose ethics are in question will follow. For now, my question is this: why should aesthetics have to do ethics’ job? Ethics and Aesthetics are distinct modes of inquiry. Certainly, “there are political realities from which art cannot hide“, but at other times aesthetics and ethics cannot overlap (when a work is meaningless, for example). Madden is correct, though. It is a poor judgment to dismiss something as merely boring. In addition to being, occasionally, useful as a “feint to avoid ethical judgment,” as an aesthetic judgment the word is inadequate. In many common cases, classrooms for example, a phrase like “it was boring” is indeed a euphemism, not for “I’m not paying attention to the ethics here” but for “I’m not paying attention at all” or “I didn’t really read it.”
There’s No Such Thing as a Fake Reader
Lincoln Michel, writing for Electric Lit, points out another lazy critical euphemism: a figure of speech about what “real” readers want. When finding fault with a book, some critics resort to a notion of what “real” readers want, but that notion is a fallacy. Michel says:
An appreciation of readers as diverse individuals with different tastes should be a basic tenet of criticism. Instead, it’s common for critics to imagine that their aesthetic preferences are the reflections of “readers” or a special class of readers—”serious readers,” “imaginative readers,” “brave readers,” or some other ill-defined category—whose views truly matter.
Moving from euphemism to censorship — have you heard about this shit? There’s an app customers could use to ensure that their copy of a book is free from dirty words. If you’d like to read all those words from the comfort of your not-work environment, there’s an excellent chart at Romance Novel News. Many authors weren’t pleased with this censoring functionality, and have called for the app to remove all the books from its sales catalog. Because e-books are licensed and not purchased, it’s conceivable that the app will die out altogether, since many licenses do not permit third parties to alter the books.
Kenneth Goldsmith is a White Man
Dirty words are one thing, but the truly offensive use of language is another. This month, when conceptual poet (and white man) Kenneth Goldsmith remixed the autopsy of Michael Brown, many were truly offended, outraged, confused, or hurt. Goldsmith’s poem treated the autopsy of Michael Brown as a found object, as a source of material for a collaged poem.
— Paul Soulellis (@soulellis) March 13, 2015
Jillian Steinhauer has a post on Hyperallergic about the response to the performance of that poem. The responses are generally more angry than descriptive, understandably. Rin Johnson has one of the few eyewitness accounts of the experience of the reading. Illya Szilak, a doctor who is familiar with autopsies, responds with an account of the impersonal and inaccessible nature of medical language that Goldsmith appropriated to create the poem. Cathe Shubert, young, white, student poet feels “hushed” by the situation. Kenneth Goldsmith responded to request that video should not be published of the performance and to say that his speaker’s fee will be donated to the family of Michael Brown. A manifesto has been circulated among the responses. Perhaps the most aesthetically-minded criticism of what the poem means, or doesn’t mean, is by Jason Guriel, writing in The New Republic.
Is this a case of an otherwise responsible subgenre going too far? Or does the use of Brown’s autopsy report expose a preexisting emptiness in conceptual poetry’s chest cavity? … [In Goldsmith’s poem] there is nothing for the audience to discover, except its own frustration, outrage, or boredom—which earlier avant-gardists could at least pretend were necessary conditions to making the audience more critical. But the beneficiary of Goldsmith’s acts of recontextualization is Goldsmith, who doesn’t even require readers.