Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fire Your Inner English Teacher--Salute Your Inner Critic

When you first stuck an experimental toe into the waxing tide of storytelling, you were too excited about the prospect of getting words down on paper to care much about such matters as critics, reviewers, and least of all the great roaring tide known as critical theory.

All you had to do--indeed, all you did do--was put individuals down on paper, men and women who paraded through your teen-aged dreams after your component parts transposed them from the actual persons you saw in the warp and weft of your waking life.

Without giving it much thought, you set these individuals in motion with some idiosyncratic trait rather than any real agenda. You'd in effect taken a technique from Homer, whom, at the time, you believed to be one person rather than an undifferentiated group of poet-storytellers. Thus, the man with big ears. The woman with loud, clanking jewelry. The boy with egg yolk stains on his shirt.

Not until you were well past high school and into the deeper waters of storytelling did you even consider the implications of the critical essayist. With your own idiosyncratic belief that there was practical sense in becoming an English major in order to study writing, you shifted schools and the study of journalism and graphic arts to a university where there was an actual opportunity to major in English Literature, with profitable side trips into French, Russian, Spanish, and, yes, medieval literature as well.

You had only one book to guide you, Writing Magazine Fiction, commended to you by a high school teacher, published by a university press. Bare-bones advice for those who would, as you would, write for and be published in magazines.

An early glimpse into the world of the reviewer came your way as an English major, Byron's 1809 verse poem, labeled as a satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.  This was about the time when, in a Nineteenth Century American Lit class, you were being introduced to the joys of Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, and elsewhere, you were required to read and digest Reverend Swift's A Modest Proposal. Small wonder then that you equated satire with criticism. Over the years, the equation grew to encompass your definition of satire as a medium used to undercut some aspect of The Establishment, then suggest a viable, potential cure.

In the ensuing years, you gave more time to reviews, criticism, and critical theory, indeed teaching an undergraduate class by the very name Critical Theory. Today, your views of critical theory and exploratory essays is tidal, waxing at such writers as George Orwell, Edward Said, Joan Didion, and Simone de Beauvoir, waning at such critical pronouncements as those who declare the text to variously be dead or unimportant.

To this day, when the likes of Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Mark Twain, and George Orwell take the stage, you listen. At the moment, you're also quite willing to take Verlyn Klinkenborg and John McPhee into serious account. Indeed, you have two copies of Klinkenborg's Several Short Sentences about Writing on hand, one in the studio, one in the car, for immediate reference. Stashed within the bowels of your iPhone, McPhee's Draft No.4: On the Writing Process.

You have, yourself, been a critic/reviewer for any number of publications, some as diverse as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, The National Catholic Reporter, Borderline Magazine, the Montecito (CA)Journal, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner,the Los Angeles Free Press, and yet others.

You enjoy writing about writing, about things that have been written, about ideas awaiting interpretation and implementation. You've gone through a stage where you enjoyed writing take-downs and satire. You believe the stage has evolved to the point where you most enjoy writing about things that excite, enthuse, or bewilder you.

All of which is by way of speaking to your belief that each writer must delve into that area of personal taste and conviction in order to discover the things he/she stands for and against. Writing is political. If it is not; it should be.

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