Tag Archives: literature

Credentials Of A Critic

Source: geneanderson.blogspot.com

Source: geneanderson.blogspot.com

I am gravely sceptical about the touted significance of the role of a critic in literature or the arts. However I wouldn’t dare to completely tag the outsourced inference or even the paid-for favour of a critic as entirely obsolete since I do believe that a qualified feedback could fuel meaningful literature, protect unique writing styles and storylines from commercial slaughterhouses, and also engage minds in a meaningful comparison between the varying styles and formats. While one should remain open to criticism, unwarranted vociferous opinions and disapproval of so-called flaws and faults are distasteful and downright offensive. Is this policing necessary? Well that’s a completely different point altogether. My contention here rests on the unsettling premise that the role of a critic will not be reaching its extinction anytime soon.

These days everybody seems to have donned the expert’s hat and it is the rising score of self-invited advice and opinions that are frivolously thrown at the writer, with complete disregard for the latter’s craft, which has led to the steady decline of my regard for this venerated role. Perhaps it is the dearth of deserving critics that makes the presence of these unqualified opinion-dumpers increasingly unacceptable to writers and other professionals. In fact, I suspect it is the overuse or even abuse of this role and the very nomenclature ‘critic’ that has prompted me to believe that there exists a perpetual negative connotation to the word which was rightfully introduced to accomplish a more productive role however arguably redundant most of it still remains most of the times.

It is interesting how certain words, originally intended to mean something entirely different, begin to represent a separate meaning depending on the examples its users, or in this case its abusers, have set. For instance, criticism or the role of a critic was initially designed as an act of evaluating and studying the merits and drawbacks in an articulate manner which on an ordinary day would seem far more scrupulous had it not turned into a severe judgement or even an unqualified advice from a complete stranger, like it is the case now. The last one, of course, would barely qualify as ‘criticism’ in the proper sense. It is like the word ‘romantic’ that most invariably reminds us of a fizzy-eyed dreamer when the word also represents one of the most glorious eras of the literary landscape, with far broader connotations than the conventional definitions of the word. Another word that has come to be closely associated with the negative is ‘politics’ when primarily it implies the art or science of governance.

Besides the spilling out of the intended definitions and scope of the ‘critic’, it is also the overwhelming reach that another’s opinion bears on one’s work that concerns me. I have noticed, both as a reader and a writer, the sudden progression in the number of critics aka advisers as also in the amount of lethal power they possess over a piece of literature that a writer may have taken years to compile. The literary wheel seems to be spinning more often around the critic’s verdict that then somehow dictates the details and choices for a writer and a reader. We seem to be in a shadow-worshipping world where the actual work is liberally despised or judged.

I have come across a fair number of television and print ‘journalists’ (another word very loosely used these days), who drool over their own fanciful and snippy argots as they go about on their verbal rampage that is more entertaining than intelligent or insightful. They assume the right to denigrate a writer and, sadly, that sells more. I wish we knew that among the few things besides Rome that could not be built in a day it would be a manuscript and most definitely a published book! I wish we knew of the long hours of disciplined writing, the rigorous and brain-numbing rounds of editing and proof reading, and the frustrating wait for the cosmic forces to return the favour before we dismantled all the blocks of a lifelong dream with a single judgment. For me, a writer must always be respected for his attempt. Surely, a person who makes herself or himself that vulnerable deserves to be regarded in a more reputable light.

A few weeks ago, I happened to share one of my poems ‘Poetry vs. Cigarettes’ on a social forum for poetry readers, which turned out to be one of my greatest misjudgments. I was appalled at the level of highhandedness people assumed. One ridiculously concerned and presumptuous gentleman pounded me with his disgust for cigarettes and me, since he had managed to somehow perceive my poetry very literally and derive the most unimaginative implication from it, overlooking the entire metaphor that I thought I had so intelligently crafted. Wonder what would happen if I posted Mark Twain’s Art of Masturbation without the acclaimed author’s byline!

Among the violations that the struggling writer in me has suffered, the most entertaining one was a feedback I received from a blank-faced e-stranger who conveniently rewrote my entire poem for me, robbing it of its rhythm (not rhyme). He retained only the title as a kind gesture so I would understand how I had to do justice to the title. In the end, he messaged: ‘Remember, it is Poetry vs. Cigarettes’ not ‘Cigarettes vs. Poetry’. I am still to figure out the depth of that sentence. Their confidence baffles me even as I battle to survive their unfinished sentences and obstreperous conduct. Though to tell you the truth I’d be far more worried or even devastated had he left a poem that seemed better fit than my own work. It was a scary stunt to have pulled over a writer, and surely a foolish one too, in this case. As the diva Madonna puts it (for Lady Gaga) under a similar circumstance, ‘It seemed reductive’. Touché to that!

As most of my literary wonderments invariably trail back to Virginia Woolf, in this case too she has, for me, remained the best example of a truly qualified critic. Firstly, her own views as a writer have been discussed, criticized or even left unnoticed just like the highly complex and bold painting patterns of the great Vincent Van Gogh, which were much ahead of his times, had been dealt with. This meant that she had faced the vices of criticism herself. Secondly, no criticism seemed to have dissuaded her from expressing herself (once again, like Van Gogh), which meant she knew the difference between a good critique and a bad one. Her ideas and writing style, even today, stand firmly as a hallmark of excellence in literature surpassing the lifespan of several critics and their opinions.

Virginia Woolf took the opinions of only a few writer friends like Eliot and chose to overlook the views of journalists, critics and fans too, since she feared that too much flattery, just like too many critiques, would influence her intent as a writer. She clearly did understand the roles of a critic and a critique. In her diary (Diary of a Writer) Virginia Woolf has neatly defaced many big names in the world of poetry and professionals whose works have overlooked the nuances of human emotions while they have solely glorified physical strength and valour as attributes of human strength; elements like emotional complexities and relationship subtleties have largely been ignored. For her, those intricacies of the human mind are in fact the true protagonists. She has discussed the writing styles of her contemporaries even as she has candidly dissected her own moods and works effortlessly. She has, in several cases, reassessed her own work and expressed her excitement or disappointment over it. To me that is a ‘qualified’ critic.

It is solely for the likes of Virginia Woolf that I remain hopeful of this probably-redundant-yet-not-completely-pointless effort and so I voluntarily continue to prevent myself from fully despising this role as an entirely wasteful occupation. After all, for the writer in me, none is more dangerous than the critic that quietly watches me from within even as I continue to write.

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013


Mental Blog: Short Vs. Long Sentences

Google Images: Virginia Woolf

Google Images: Virginia Woolf

Even as I continue to defend myself as an utterly straightforward person, barring the simplest complexities necessary for any reasonably reflective woman brought up in today’s quasi-modern atmosphere, I do acknowledge my unfaltered admiration for the seemingly unending sentences in literature and in one’s own writing. It is but just another style, equally honest and unadulterated as any other piece of art, that requires a skill completely linked to one’s love for vivid descriptions and a spirit of wonderment while toying with words and testing their potency each time by defying the rules that govern the parts and figures of speech, not to forget the insane amount of caution, craft and control one needs to exercise over the language.

Sometime earlier this week I received a message from a childhood friend who had just read one of my writings, and who happens to be a wonderful writer himself. The message read –

“I really liked the long sentences, like pulling on a pizza slice and watching the mozzarella strands stretch out, wondering how far you can get from the box while being impatient about biting into your very own piece of the pie.”

Hmm…was that a compliment? I sure hope so. But I must confess that I was so instantly in love with the choice of words he had used, perhaps the best I had received so far with regard to my long sentences, that I immediately decided to dedicate my next post to that lovely comment and a much wider mental block. Another interesting feedback I received from a teacher once was “I can’t really spot a grammatical error here, but something doesn’t quite sound normal”. I thought it was entertaining, though I didn’t tell her so.

I, allegedly among the very few in my generation, am proudly guilty of this somewhat sadistic trait of indulging in complex long sentences as a writer, and I am (wishfully) tempted to use the very well-known Charles Dickens’ style of writing as a reference point to rest my case on, where the first paragraph that consisted of around 150 words was invariably made of a single sentence! And mind you, there were several reasons in that solo Dickens’ paragraph that could send you looking for a dictionary… ah, another book that is highly ignored these days. Even as a young girl, it gave me immense pleasure to unravel the humour or pathos that those adjectives and adverbs so effortlessly conveyed along with the meaning and mood as they loyally guarded and adorned every noun and verb and lent more life into every character and scene.

In fact, I have, on several occasions, tried to track the right reason that might have drawn me towards such multiple complex sentences or even concepts and ideologies like Virginia Woolf’s style of placing her characters across varying time zones. Was it the writers I followed? But this logic would barely throw any light on my research since I was equally drawn towards the works of writers like Satyajit Ray, Anita Desai, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, Enid Blyton, Earnest Hemingway, among an endless list of prolific writers whose works rested upon the element of soothing simplicity.

George Orwell, another word-wizard, could skilfully and almost magically craft an essay on a seemingly mundane topic like ‘how to make a perfect cup of tea’ with the simplest sentences and yet it remains so profoundly memorable and deeply engrained in my heart. In those essays he made his writing style the sole protagonist, which the plot followed like a dutiful obedient student. Style of writing is a dark horse that on several occasions has the power to rise much above the realms of a storyline. An endless list of names of writers comes to my mind even as I struggle to conclude my limited yet independent understanding of this subject of simple vs. complex sentences where the latter is quietly headed towards extinction (or execution?).

I am a lover of lengthy complex sentences and I do believe they have a unique unconventional elegance and zest of their own. I remember being pulled up on this account several times by teachers, friends and colleagues who have protested, complained and even threatened me of a sinking career while they have accused me of being insensitive to the ‘requirements’ of ‘today’s readers’, as these literary gatekeepers choose to amicably define this apparently rising clan instead of tagging them outright as ‘selectively incompetent’.

I am also told that today’s readers suffer from a declining retention span and a plummeting patience level when it comes to reading though scientific researches proudly announce the rising IQ of every successive generation – so where is the degeneration happening? Or as the locals in Singapore put it ‘so how’? I, for one, remain uncertain however if all this is completely true and if so, would catering to those readers be the primary objective of any writer? Who are our readers? When did literature become so time-bound? And if that were true, then why hasn’t Dickens’ or Woolf’s works become obsolete yet? Or perhaps the right question here would be: should literature be governed by such relatively trivial requirements always?

My vote, even if it shouldn’t or wouldn’t count, would still be for the supposition that literature or any art form should not be burdened with the need to either cater to or reform its readers or audience. And in case that should happen, it should be based on the writers’ discretion (a whole new point of discussion, I am afraid, though not completely unrelated to my ramblings). For me, writing is expressing and discovering one’s own signature style just like painting and dancing. Literature thrives for Literature’s sake. Period.

Even as I marvel at the rising number or contemporary writers with an overwhelming flare for and interest in reality-driven plots, somewhere deep down I crave for fiction writing that promises me a Wonderland or a Neverland – simple yet so fantastic! I crave for the likes of Pickwick Papers and a Mr Bennet, stories and characters that can equally effectively address the prevailing mindsets and social issues in a developing society without fully letting go of the literary magic, the wit ‘n satire element, that still retains the smile on their readers’ faces.

I crave for refreshing essays as those by George Orwell or Bernard Shaw and literary criticism by Virginia Woolf, radical and original, that might or might not be able to transform into a multi-starrer movie! But their writing made an impact, and still do, on the readers’ sensibilities. And, I crave mostly for those signature-style, well-crafted long sentences and elaborate writing styles that distinguished one writer from another! It is astonishing yet heartening to discover that Virginia Woolf was self-published just like many other great writers.

The only time I was taught to let the words flow out of me unapologetically, even as the trend-obsessed editor in me swung back to the typical short sentences, was when I had the opportunity to work with one of India’s best editors Mr Dilip Thakore during my stint as a journalist in Bangalore. His writing would carry a distinct style that I so ardently cherished and even tried to emulate secretly. Thankfully life has wantonly led me to these literary stalwarts and guardians of the world of uninhibited sentences and intricate writing styles, and so I have been sentenced for life to be an ardent admirer and a loyal crusader of complex sentences. There fortunately happens to be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of writing. Perhaps, both simple and complex sentence structures would equally represent the beauty and joy of the ever-expanding dimensions of expressing and experimenting!

Finally, I am well aware of my limited though not in any way stunted understanding of the world of literature. Hence, my sincerest apologies in advance to the offence-taking addicts and also a humble word of well-intended caution: there’s more to come. <wink>

© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013