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Wednesday, July 13, 2005
I gather that ILM has already pricked to death (this, by the way, is the appropriate phrase for what happens on ILM, moreso than "discussed" I think) this piece on fiction writers writin' about music (thanks Sean), but since it ties in pretty strongly with two recent posts of mine, we might as well give it a look, eh?
I. Things the article got right (pt. 1; Rick Moody likes peanuts)
There are certainly things to nitpick in this article, the sad-sack defeatism (in an alt-weekly no less!) and misguided grumbling about web critics chief among them, but the overall point has a certain degree of merit. While I never actually bought The Woods ('cause remember, Corin Tucker = Snickers), Matthew did helpfully scan in the liner notes for me back when I was bitching about "Entertainment," and sweet lord jesus they're horrendous. They were so bad I couldn't write about them; I still can't, even though I just spent a not-small amount of time scanning them for particularly juicy quotes. They're just all bad. It's breathtaking, like an over-the-top parody come to hideous life.
II. Things the article got wrong (pt. 1; Dave Eggers also thinks he sucks)
But then, as I say, that Rick Moody is a dingus is a "no doy" revelation, and after that Marah thing, reading what Nick Hornby has to say about music is like reading what Michelle Malkin has to say about politics. As for the other two writers actually called out by name, the idea that some Spin editor came up with the name for Eggers' column rather than Eggers himself is just ridiculous--Eggers has always been a bit Chomskyish in his anti-expertism, so writing about music under the rubrick "A Less Informed Opinion" falls right in with his worldview. Nor is there necessarily anything that bad about "less informed" people writing about music; generally, the worst music writing I've read comes from people who are way, way too informed (although also some of the best). I've read a few of Eggers' columns, and they're fine, agreeable little things, and for someone who I'd expect to be passionate mainly about puritanism like critics I detest, he's fairly generous. While the author of the article seems to dislike the generally positive bent of most novelists' music criticism, when you're only an occasional contributor, I think it makes sense to write mainly about what you love.  
III. Things the article got right (pt. 2; suckitude confirmed)
That said, I can't deny that they're writing about what they love in a not-very-good way, and not just not-very-good-within-the-bounds-of-rock-criticism, but not-very-good-period. This is in no small part because they're less writing criticism and more writing personal essays, and I think using the excuse of criticism to write crappy personal essays. 
IV. Criticism as art, pt. 1
And this is where I think the article misses a lot of the specifics in the course of nailing the general problem. It's not bad that they write about themselves (although yes, that is something generally to be avoided), it's not bad that they're being positive (although yes, that is often a problem with newbie writers even as it's also a big plus), and it's not bad that they aren't professional rock critics; to have that be your ultimate point is narrow-minded and blindly self-interested. But it is a problem that they are fiction writers rather than critics.
This may go without saying, but let's get a few things straight before proceeding: 1) "criticism" doesn't just mean "rock criticism," it means a whole range of criticisms; 2) "criticism" and "non-fiction" are different creatures; 3) criticism is an artform in and of itself, and at its best is worth reading even without any knowledge of or interest in the subject at hand; and 4) therefore, "criticism" does not equal "writing." Just because you're a writer doesn't mean you can be a good critic, just like how being a violinist does not make you a good cellist. You have a basic skillset that will help you make the transition, but if you don't have any training or experience, there's no reason to expect that you'll be at all good, and there's the distinct likelihood that even after years of lessons, a great violinist will still make only a passable cellist. They're different instruments, and so are fiction and criticism; if anything, the superficial similarities just highlight the differences, because people sometimes think they can make the transition without changing, and that is absolutely not the case.
V. Criticizing art through art
The article references Eggers' old thing about criticism, but deals with it too superficially. The letter Eggers wrote was just a rant, but the back-and-forth between him and Lethem was exceedingly well-considered, and the big point I got from that, even if they didn't mean to make said point or if they later disavowed it, is that if you want to criticize something, do it through art, both because that's more interesting and because yay, more art. He isn't in any way against people criticizing things, and proof of that is as simple as observing that the letter that contained his points about criticism was fairly, well, critical. Eggers and Lethem are in no way against the practice of criticism, just trying to envision other ways in which it could be practiced, and that generally seems like a good thing. Their idea in particular is one I've always loved, and I do my best both to find the critical ideas in non-critical art and to work criticism into my own non-critical art.
So I think that's what these writers are essentially trying their hand at: criticism of music, except not via criticism. They're responding to it with other art. Except the problem is that the art in question isn't music, it's essays. And it sucks.
Which leads us to a painful conclusion: responding to art with more art is a great idea, but you need to stay within the same genre, or else be just disgustingly talented and be able to pull off pretty much anything you try so it doesn't matter if you're responding to art or doing a triptych on sheepskin and tinfoil depicting Newton's mental state when he was devising the calculus. This is especially painful to admit for someone who's written three songs about books and one about a short story. But then, maybe this is different--I'm less responding and more referencing, and that seems fine. (I mean, if I'm not allowing cross-genre referencing, blooey goes about 1500 years of visual art.)
Maybe the issue is that we haven't really learned yet to read criticism in non-critical art, and because of that, the response art that's coming out--or, at least, the art that's being consciously presented as response art--is being created with this lack of understanding in mind. In other words, they're being too obvious, too blatant, and neither of those are attributes that we generally assign to good art. Maybe what's required for criticism to permeate art is, ironically, an advance in criticism.
VI. Taking food out of the mouths of hardworking rock critics
At any rate (return to the text, grasshopper, return to the text!), it's really too bad that the article ends with an almost Morriseyan sigh, the back of the hand pressed rhetorically to the forehead: oh, these ig'nant, poseur fiction writers, taking the space of real rock critics, while the web, the only available free space, is populated solely by charlatans. Because man, that makes you sound stupid.
First off, the only space he demonstrates is being taken from rock writers is Eggers' column in Spin; everything else is either printed in something controlled by the writers themselves (the Believer or, uh, a book they published) or the New Yorker, which he admits is the best current venue for music writing. And even the Eggers column isn't some new deal; mass-market music magazines like Spin regularly solicit contributions from writers familiar to a wider audience.
As for the web thing, well, the web is not a print magazine; there's no space limitations, no style sheets, no editors. Write what you want and put it up and people will be able to read it. Sure, you don't generally get paid to do web stuff, but there's no startup cost to doing music criticism, so if you think you can do it better than it's currently being done, go the hell out and do it and people will be eager to read it. I don't know of a whole lot of criminally overlooked web writers, and even if there was one, well, point her out and everyone will link to her and then she won't be criminally overlooked. The web is the last place you should be worrying about, because if good criticism's going to come from somewhat, that, at least, will probably be where it starts.
But as bad as some of these fiction folks' take on music can be, maybe it's worth considering if there's a good reason for editors to think people would rather read Rick Moody rhapsodizing about some mediocre band than a run-of-the-mill rock critic judging an album on a whole bunch of criteria people who aren't music critics really don't care about.
VII. Criticism as art, pt. 2
Or maybe it's just that rock writers aren't good writers, that as odious as Eggers' pieces may be to you, it's the ideas (or, maybe more accurately, the taste decisions) that are offensive, not the actual quality of the prose. Rock writers have an odd tendency to see what they do as workmanlike, but there's good work and there's bad work. I understand that the realities of being a commercial writer can inculcate an attitude of cynicism toward what you do, and I also understand that the very place of music writing as a commercial activity can scare off people who are more interested in art.
That's why, though, I think it's important to recognize criticism as an artform, distinct from other forms and equally important--which is to say, not very important at all. Art doesn't have to be important to be good; what we are producing are undeniably trifles, but hey, so are most poems. Just because writing about music seems unimportant to you doesn't mean you shouldn't take it seriously, that you shouldn't work hard at it and try and make the writing itself, not the sum total of your opinions or even knowledge, the best it can be. Your duty is ultimately to your art, not your persona or reputation or even the music itself. It's to the art, and to that end it's important to recognize music criticism as inseperable from all other kinds of criticism, whether it be literary or art or social. This doesn't mean it can't be personal--some of the best criticism is, indeed, highly personal. But if you want people to read what you have to say, you have to do exactly what these fiction writers have done: be careful, be voracious, and be eternally unsatisfied.
 ...and, now that I have time to look around, apparently everywhere else--but fuck it, I'm finishing this goddamn thing.
 The writer seems particularly annoyed at people being enthusiastic about things that people who spend too much time listening to music know not to be so enthusiastic about, and while I guess I understand that reaction, it's really odious and should be repressed as much as possible. Remember, dude, you might think writer X is silly for thinking the Killers are the best thing ever, but writer Y thinks you're horribly naive for loving the Boredoms so much when they're clearly a pop band rather than a noise band. There is always someone with more particular taste than you, and that's very important to remember. Enthusiasm is good as long as it's not coupled with dismissal of something else.
 As for Lethem, the other named writer, I've sorta consciously avoided reading any of his non-fiction about music, although his non-fiction about other things--Kafka, the Hoyt-Schemerhorn stop--tends to be fantastic. I think his fiction about music, i.e. the second half of The Fortress of Solitude, is astounding, but that's for another time.
 For all I bitch about Pitchfork, the good personal criticism on there is, when it's good, better than anything I've read from a professional fiction writer.
 I mean, honestly, this guy has to be kidding: “'They’re scenester dilettante guys,' says one longtime indie-rock publicist. 'It’s exciting for them to have a piece of it. They just want to go to a party with Karen O.…They’re not music people.'” Mein gott. To quote Electric 6: "This is who you are..."
 The Joanna Newsom line that's quoted in the article is actually pretty great--sure, we know what she looks like, but that is sorta what we're supposed to envision, and the "schoolhouse" repetition is nice. Plus, it's not like there weren't a lot of "legitimate" rock writers going nuts for the li'l pixie, you know.