Archive for the ‘Nobel Prize for Literature’ Tag

Amuse-bouche: Saturday 7 November 2020

Things have been quiet here for a number of reasons, but the most important one has been that I just haven’t had in me (for a number of reasons…) what I feel is needed to put into a worthwhile piece of writing. Some of that hesitancy is likely attributable to that vice of perfectionism, which keeps so many from doing anything, so, I’ve come to understand that one way to post here more regularly is to loosen up and just jump into the flow of the moment, however turgid or whitewater, and share here, more or less regularly (weekly?), tidbits that have caught my eye, caught in my craw, or otherwise.

Some of my detractors (well, one) have accused my writing (and not just my poetry) of being obscure, academic, or, at times, pedantic. Despite some of their more uncharitable assumptions, I never set out to bedazzle, confuse or belittle. It turns out my approach is shared by that monumental polymath Buckminster Fuller, who articulated his stylistic credo as follows: “I made up my mind as a Rule of Communication that I wouldn’t care if I was not understood — so long as I was not misunderstood.” I would add to Fuller’s unapologetically sincere stylistic credo Marx’s Hegelian pronouncement: “There is no royal road to science (Wissenschaft), and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep path have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.”

And speaking of arduous climbs, more taxing than working at poetry is publishing poetry as a small publisher. Sadly, Beth Follet’s Pedlar Press will be shutting down operations in 2021. Pedlar’s aesthetic echoes the sentiments expressed by Fuller and Marx:  “Making no compromise with public taste.” It will come as no small surprise that such an uncompromising stance comes at a price, especially in a society where nothing escapes the dictatorship of the commodity form.

Follet shares a pithy reflection on what happens to small press publishing under the current regime in her Thoughts on Pedlar recently posted at periodicities.

I had the very good fortune to spend an evening in 1996 talking with American poet Adrienne Rich about my vision for Pedlar Press. She said one thing I shall never forget: “Don’t fall in love with the boys’ machinery.“ And what would I say is the boys’ machinery? Media space given over to awards talk and Best Of lists instead of reviews. Five-hundred-word reviews instead of complex critical analyses. The politics behind dumbing down. Technology’s reliance on algorithms which dictate taste, habits, purchases, ads, etc. Dictate lives. Ignorance about how readers of literature read or live in the world, and resultant misdirected and wasteful promotional campaigns.


I’m unsure I agree with some of the assumptions underwriting what Follett refers to as “the politics of dumbing down,” but a not unrelated phenomenon, no less pernicious than persistent, has imposed itself on my sensorium a number of times this season.

In her Foreword to this years Best Canadian Poetry, Anita Lahey writes about the poems included in this year’s edition as follows:

These were poems: real, handmade (and handheld) forms built to hold, and simultaneously express, universal truths about the human experience.

Lahey is in “good”, as it were, company in valuing  the way poetry, at least, expresses “universal truths about the human experience.” Lavinia Greenlaw, the chair of judges for this year’s T. S. Eliot Prize, recently said of the adjudicating process:

We had to be convinced by them as relevant in a profoundly changed world, which meant that we had to be able to connect with them at the level of essential human experience, which is where I believe poetry is really produced, and poetry is really received.

And the cognoscenti will surely remember that Louise Glück, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was cited “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Those who share my education, will remember such evocations of these “universals of human experience” from their high school, if not undergrad, English class, along with the Three Themes of literature, Man against Nature, Man against Man, and Man against Himself (sic, sic, sic, sic, and sic). That such an aesthetic can still hold sway in 2020 among people one would hope continued to live a life of the mind after completing their formal education is demoralizing. Lahey’s observation is especially ironic, given how Marilyn Dumont, this year’s editor, remarks how she proceeded with a keen sense of how “writers of colour, Indigenous writers, women, LGBQT2S, writers with physical challenges, have all been underrepresented in the publishing world”, namely, writers whose difference from that presumably universal norm has led to their being overlooked.

[And it occurred to me upon reflection not long after writing and publishing this post the sharp irony of Lahey’s,  Greenlaw’s and Glück’s all being women, that one class of human being that has had and must continue to fight to have its experience recognized as belonging among those universals poetry and art supposedly address…]

I’ll pass over in silence here the admitted dialectic at work that would both undermine my critique and harmonize Lahey & Co.’s retrograde aesthetic sentiments with Dumont’s more progressive ones, a dialectic, being a lively one, that would also overturn itself again, in turn, merely to note that the thesis that poetry is concerned with “expressing universals of human experience” was, in the anglophone world, at least, most forcefully articulated by Matthew Arnold. He, along with the architects of English as an academic study, weaponized English literature into a means of persuading those disenfranchised at home (Arnold writes Culture and Anarchy in the wake of the Chartism, that working class movement that agitated to expand the vote to include working class men), not to mention those in the colonies, that, despite appearances, the upper and lower classes, and the rulers and ruled, were really, deep down, just the same….

Against the zombie aesthetic sentiments skewered above, I’ll finish off here, today, with a quotation and, of all things, a meme.

Theodor Adorno makes in his “On the Crisis of Literary Criticism” (1952)” a characteristically demanding but no less morally scrupulous (and so much more pithy) claim:  “Criticism has power only to the extent to which every successful or unsuccessful sentence has something to do with the fate of humankind.”

And, finally, words to live by, some wisdomorty of Rick:


Twits in the Twitterverse: Ellis, Munro, and the Nobel

One splash Alice Munro’s winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature made stirred a teapot tempest in the Twitterverse, proving again, if any further evidence were called for, just how anathema Twitter is to thought. To wit, Brett Easton Ellis tweeted “Alice Munro is so completely overrated,” then expanded on his judgement an hour later:  “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages….” The cacophonous reaction was as swift, overwhelming, and damning as it was puerile.

First, I unreservedly applaud Munro’s winning the prize and the well-deserved attention the award will bring to her oeuvre. What interests me is why Ellis, given the kind of prose he writes, might be moved to remark what he does about the regard given Munro’s writing and the character of the Nobel Prize.

Even a passing familiarity with these writers’ works prompts an initial answer:  Ellis is a satirist of modern, urban life, whose writing is intimately bound up with the present, sociocultural moment, so much so his novels have been adapted to the screen and subject to virulent denunciations. Munro, on the other hand, is characteristically described by The New Yorker magazine fiction editor Deborah Treisman: “Her work is very provincial in that it’s based in small towns and rural parts of Canada for the most part. At the same time, what she does with the characters in those places is show us their universality, their humanity.” The same CBC article goes on to sum it up quite nicely:

Munro… has been called Canada’s Chekhov. Similar to the work of the Russian short-story master, plot is usually secondary.

Munro’s stories focus on striking portraits of women living in small-town Ontario. They revolve around small epiphanies encountered by her characters, often when current events illuminate something that happened in the past.

Clearly, the ends and means of Ellis’ and Munro’s writing couldn’t be more different. However much resentment might be blamed for Ellis’s tweet, the terms of praise for Munro’s work are revealing and illuminate the second part of Ellis’s second tweet concerning the Nobel Prize’s being “a joke.”

Munro’s stories are praised for focussing on character more than plot, on her characters’ “universality, their humanity.” The universal humanity of these characters is revealed in their experiencing “epiphanies” that illuminate their and by virtue of their universality our little slices of shared life. The critical idiom here is hardly as spontaneously universal as Munro’s characters’ epiphanies. Rather, it’s the discourse of a conservative, humanist, classicist aesthetic, the same operative, for example, in Yeats’  and Eliot’s being awarded the prize (despite their respective dalliances with fascism and antisemitism) but not Joyce. The drama and prose of the late Thomas Bernhard remain second to none in their stylistic bravura and social and existential profundity, but they would never have been considered for the prize precisely because of their obsessive style, pitiless intelligence, and relentless truthtelling. Examples could be multiplied.

The most telling judgement is Munro’s being called “Canada’s Chekhov.” But the Chekhov invoked here is the tamed, canonized caricature of the writer

who amazed his audiences in the early 1880s. He was particularly interested in the absurd, and repatterned the anecdote and vignette forms of the popular press into innovative forms of writing:  pieces in the guise of National Census questions, a test set by a mad mathematician, a proposal to the board of a medical school, the twisted “questions and answers” of popular women’s magazines….

The smug propriety of the praise showered on Munro is arguably as shallow as Ellis’ dismissal and the subsequent brainlessness of the backlash to his tweet. The bitter grain of truth in Ellis’ second tweet is that prizes, however much they materially further even a deserving writer’s career, are perhaps more revealing of literary values than of a writer’s worth.