Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lee Siegel and "the Swelling Roar"

A few  months ago critic Lee Siegel wrote a post arguing against negative book reviews.

Apparently, nice people don’t do it, and besides, we should not be so judgmental about the works of other writers. We should, Siegel intimated, make room for mediocrity.

Inadvertently, Siegel echoed Sen. Roman Hruska’s defense of Nixon Supreme Court nominee G. Harold Carswell against the charge of mediocrity.

Hruska famously said:

Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance.

Siegel makes a similar point:

Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.

One does understand why Siegel does not want to be criticized. If that’s the best he can offer as a theoretical rationale, he does well to try to shield himself from criticism. To put it another way, it’s best not to defend mediocrity by writing mediocre prose.

As for his larger point, that our mortality should make us excuse mediocrity, it makes no sense.

Siegel was not alone in declaring war against criticism. His attitude fits well with certain segments of the culture.

In a world where everyone gets a trophy, and where everyone is taught that he or she is just as good as everyone else, critical judgment does not feel very nice. Besides, it’s judgmental, and we all know how bad that is.

And yet, if you are a critic you function as something of a filter. You help people to decide whether to see or not to see a movie, to read or not to read a book, to frequent or not to frequent a restaurant. Your readers’ time and money are valuable and you offer one opinion that might help them to spend both more judiciously.

Most of us have neither the time nor the expertise to evaluate the works of different writers and artists. We rely on critics for guidance. They help us to engage with the good and to avoid wasting our time on the mediocre.

And yet, critics are fallible. They have agendas. They often promote the works of their friends and ideological soul mates. For reasons that escape me entirely, critics love the work of Jeff Koons. Collectors spend tens of millions of dollars for his sculptures. In time the marketplace will pass judgment. I expect that it will not be a very favorable judgment.

Relying on individual critics, rather than on the marketplace, feels like an easily corruptible process. All told, it is better to allow the marketplace to decide.

Effectively, the blogosphere has stepped in to break the monopoly power that certain publications— like the New York Times— have traditionally exercised over the market for intellectual products.

As for the snarky put-downs that occasionally dot good criticism— the practice is more common in Great Britain than in the USA— it’s part of the game.

Writers who do not want to be criticized should try another line of work. Were it not for the fact that every other line of work involves standards and judgments, they would be fine.

I would add one caveat here. No one should allow a critical attitude to intrude on their personal relationships.

One suspects that those who inveigh against a criticism are not distinguishing public job performance from private relationships.

In today’s New York Times Book Review the distinguished writer, Francine Prose explained why she writes negative criticism.

Being a great writer she cringes when she sees mediocre talents receiving good reviews. Besides, if you are assigned a book review you have a moral obligation to offer an honest opinion. If you praise a book that you hate, you are lying to your readers. What’s the virtue in that?

Prose explains:

It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can phone it in, and that no one will know the difference. I’m annoyed by gossip masquerading as biography, by egomaniacal boasting and name-dropping passing as memoir. It irks me to see characters who are compendiums of clichés. I can’t explain precisely why a sentence like “His eyes were as black as night” should feel like an insult, but it does. It’s almost like being lied to. And it troubles me when a critic quotes “His eyes were as black as night” as an example of the author’s lyrical gifts! Needless to say, criticism is a matter of opinion. If, in someone else’s opinion, “His eyes were as black as night” is a lyrical sentence, that person is obviously entitled to enjoy a whole book of sentences like that.

All of this came to mind because yesterday when blogger Ann Althouse drew our attention to a new post, on The New Yorker site, by none other than Lee Siegel. In it Siegel argued that we Americans have gotten into the habit of mistaking the news for art. Apparently, he means that we watch real events in the media and think that we are watching a movie.

Althouse called Siegel’s essay “belabored,” which means that she is far kinder than I. To buttress her point she introduced her post with a Siegel sentence that certainly qualifies as belabored:

Or maybe our attempts to get at the truth of an imbroglio, like that involving Farrow and Allen, reflect a frustrated aspiration to retrieve some kind of shared collective truth, period.

If anyone thinks that that is a “lyrical sentence” or that Siegel is making a profound point, he is entitled to read an entire essay full of sentences like that.

Feeling forewarned, I plodded through the rest of the essay, until I arrived at Siegel’s final thrust:

Instantaneous news of what happened, or might have happened, has become our art, and, like the chorus in ancient Greek tragedy, we are all part of the swelling roar.

Siegel is trying to opine about the latest back-and-forth between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow. And yet, it is profoundly disappointing to see The New Yorker, a publication that used to be known for excellent writing, publishing such a lame attempt at metaphor: “the swelling roar.” 

Somewhere William Shawn is moaning.

Unfortunately, Siegel’s sentence was not even an accident. It was typical. Here, he described the works of great modern novelists:

… their books are sanctuaries of anti-closure and infinite perspective, of right and wrong mashed together and dissolved. 

Apparently, Siegel is trying to get at the fact that great literature dramatizes moral dilemmas. By making them together and dissolving them, it becomes art. Aside from the fact that he has offered yet another poor excuse for a metaphor, he is wrong.

If right and wrong are mashed together and dissolved, you end up with swill, not art.

More substantively, Siegel wants to argue that great art has been replaced by news or by life. Somehow or other, he cannot seem to distinguish between the two. His reflection is based on the recent back-and-forth between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow.

In Siegel’s words:

Following the endless turbulent commentary on Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen, and the commentary on the commentary, you could be forgiven for feeling that literary art, as Trilling defined it, has been largely displaced by life—or, at least, by the pictures of life ceaselessly produced by the all-powerful media—as the realm in which we lose ourselves in a moral problem.

Again, the lines are poorly written, but be that as it may, the public is often transfixed by the spectacle of people turning their lives into tabloid fodder. It's like watching a train wreck. Regardless of the merits of the case, most people know that it is a bad idea to sell out to celebrityhood.

The phrase—“the realm in which we lose ourselves in a moral problem”—is obviously incoherent.

When we read about the story of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow we do not lose ourselves in the moral problem. We deliberate. We make a judgment. If the case is somewhat ambiguous, that does not make it a type of lowbrow substitute for art. It makes the problem more difficult to decide.

One does not know where anyone ever got the idea that we lose ourselves in art, but we do not. I am not even sure that we find ourselves in art.

If the Woody and Dylan saga feels like anything, it feels like a courtroom proceeding, where we the jury are being called on to pass judgment. When was the last time you heard tell of a "swelling roar" arising from jury deliberations. For that matter, when was the last time you saw the chorus in a Greek tragedy indulge in such nonsense.

As for the question of whether the news has replaced high art, it is worth mentioning the obvious: namely, that high art has never been consumed by the masses anyway. It has always belonged to the elite.

In part, the comings and goings of celebrities entertain and distract us. In part, they offer a cautionary tale. It makes little sense to denounce the common man as a Philistine for caring about the lives of celebrities. He paid the price of admission. Why shouldn't he enjoy the spectacle?

To clarify his notion of moral complexity Siegel compares the current national deliberation about Woody and Dylan to the Kennedy assassination and the Clinton impeachment.

To be sure, there have been public events beyond simple comprehension: the Kennedy assassination comes to mind, as well as the Lewinsky scandal. In retrospect, though, their complexity isn’t moral. Whoever killed Kennedy was bad, period. And, if it hadn’t been for virulent partisan politics, the moral challenges posed by Clinton and Lewinsky would have been run of the mill. There have been few, if any, events in American public life that match the ethical density of recent public controversies. This is hardly because life has become more ethically complicated. Rather, falling boundaries between private and public, an old morality increasingly muddled by new laws and new technology, and the dominance of a no-holds-barred media, have made moral conundrums that once never happened, or touched the lives of only a few people, the daily fare of millions.

Obviously, historical events involving political figures are not the same as tabloid gossip about the Kardashians. The Kennedy assassination involved the nation. It affected us whether we like it or not. It defined a turning point in our nation’s history. It defined our reality. It was not a distraction designed to prevent us from contemplating great art.

Siegel seems to believe that moral dilemmas are resolved when we can assign blame. In truth, moral dilemmas involve situations where there is no clear right or wrong, but where you need to make a decision anyway.

To reduce the moral dimension of the Kennedy assassination to a childish statement that the killer was bad is absurd. A single event changed the course of American history. If you have gotten beyond the first grade you should have some understanding of what happened, of why it happened and what consequences it entailed.

As for the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the fact that it concerned the president of the United States made it a political event, one that had an effect on the reality of everyone’s everyday life. The second impeachment of a president in American history is not tabloid gossip. When a leader’s sexual behavior is exposed in public, he loses stature and respect. The reason public figures keep their private lives private is because it distracts from their public role. it distracts from the agenda and undermines the ability to lead. When the president waves his willy in everyone's face, he loses respect and stature. When he does, the nation does too.


Lastango said...

I can see why Siegel wishes to defend mediocrity, and the lyrical value of muddle.

Mediocrity brings us no closer to the truth. Muddle - the place where we find "right and wrong mashed together and dissolved" - carries us away from truth.

Both are dear to the heart of leftists, statists, and Clinton defenders... the latter being a team that is springing back into action, in ways direct and oblique, polemical and insinuated with an essayist's skill.

Many years ago, after reading a national magazine's piece that stood the facts on their head to reach the author's gauzy collectivist verdict, I wrote to the editors. I pointed out that the article's own information supported an opposite conclusion. I received a written reply back from the editors, claiming that the author had been using terms like "capitalism" in the "literary sense". This was a revelation; even Webster's didn't know "capitalism" had a literary sense.

Folks like that desperately need their mediocrity to be unquestioned by harsh critics, and for gullible readers to think obscure language conceals meta-truth.


One other thing: I love the way user reviews on Amazon and elsewhere are helping us buy everything from gadgets to books. Siegel et al cannot defeat the public's newfound ability to discover that crap is crap. Even reading defenders' input is revelatory; when they're twisting, turning, and attacking, there's a problem. More than a few times, reader comments on Amazon have saved me a few bucks and much more valuable time.

Sam L. said...

Reasoned criticism is useful, whether positive or negative. WRT movies, one has to read and then verify for oneself the truth or falsity of the arguments. My local rag's editor I find to be consistently against what I am for; but every once in a while, he agrees with me. (I review my thinking when that happens.)