Among the many things I’ve learned so far from this barely three-month-old blog is this: speak my mind in the form of poems or postcards or any of the who-knows-what-they-are finger exercises I’ve been churning out to (hopefully) ferry myself to a next book, and it’s as if I’m talking to a void, only on occasion broken by my handful of friends who bother to make wisecracks about my writing attempts (and only, I might add, when the attempts are in the vicinity of kabastusan). But speak my mind in the form of an essay—a straightforward declaration of my take on a particular issue—and all hell breaks loose. I get texted, emailed, called, stopped in the hallway, invited out for drinks by people I know well, don’t know, know but don’t really talk to, don’t know well but talk to on occasion, and so on, all of them expressing their complete or partial agreement or disagreement with my take, all of them saying in few words or many how and why they think the way they do about the issue. Prior to this, my last encounter with a reader of my work arrived via handwritten letter slipped under my office door, a letter from a stranger who had read a poem of mine while riding the LRT (courtesy of NBDB’s Tulaan sa Tren project) and wanted me to know that he very much liked the poem. What a big difference the choice of form makes on the kinds of responses elicited from readers. “When is the last time a cultural magazine published an enraged reader’s letter about the fiction in the last issue?” says Cristina Nehring in a 2003 Harper’s Magazine review of several essay collections, including books by John McPhee, Ian Frazier, and Ted Kooser. “It must happen, but rarely. The only thing to attack, in such a case, is style and skill; you can hardly attack the writer’s point of view or the writer’s print persona. Any criticism is bound to be less urgent, less personal, and far less frequent than the criticism leveled at, say, the political columnist—the guy who makes claims, in his own voice, about issues on the reader’s mind. Such essayists take far more risks, in this sense, than do fiction writers, and when they’re attacked, it is not merely their literary skills but their entire personalities that bear the blow.”
Nehring’s essay, “Our Essays, Ourselves: In defense of the Big Idea” exemplifies quite well Ken Ishikawa’s point about readers claiming their power to criticize their writers. I recommend that you read the essay in full, since it makes statements that I think are quite relevant in our own context—where many are producers and consumers of comfort reading, favoring the veneer of gentility in communicating assertions and/or embracing wholesale the personal (i.e., bordering on, if not already, inconsequential) in the personal essay—such as:
“… the pettily autobiographical frenzy… has lately seized American essayists—a frenzy for cozy, complacent, and oddly insular self-revelation that has swallowed them up in numbers. When it does not take the form of pastoral angling tales, this frenzy easily assumes the shape of urban microhistories… Highbrow anthologies abound with this kind of essay—essays on the author’s memories of his first ice-cream cone or of her parents’ drugstore, essays about catching trout with Uncle Elmer or watching the sunrise with Hubby, essays about the author’s domestic peccadilloes or a visit to an old boarding school. At once backward-looking and navel-examining, these pieces lack Sturm und Drang; a consensus seems to have grown that the genre should be… a bit sedate.”
“Ultimately, this cult of personal detail, this hermetic attention to the self, is no less arrogant than the desire to tell people what’s best for them. It too often presumes that the author is infinitely fascinating for his or her own sake, that we should read him not because he says something that bears upon our world but because he himself is so fetching, so enthralling, so quirky, ‘so singular in each particular.’”
“Montaigne could say, in a single breath, that his essays deal exclusively with his private self (a comment routinely quoted by contemporary essayists) and that he is undertaking a ‘study, the subject of which is man’ (a comment routinely ignored by contemporary essayists)… The best essays of the past generalize ambitiously; they prescribe as readily as they describe; they are on the lookout for Big Ideas with Vast Application. If they offend their audience, at least they address it. If they are sure to err, they are sure to awaken as well.”
I think it is useful to consider Nehring’s points in light of Mark Cayanan’s observation that Adam David’s “bombastic use of language can get distracting, in that it sometimes overwhelms critical points which may otherwise be readily admirable in their astuteness and foregrounds instead the persona who’s doing all the talking (or writing, in this case).” While David, as critic, is necessarily outward-looking rather than navel-gazing, training his eye on other people’s work, it seems some kind of ricocheting—from the reader’s vantage point—happens along the way, where we end up paying far more attention to the messenger (and what a brave soul or what a jerk he is) rather than the statements made. I agree with Cayanan’s observation, but then again, it seems the very presence of an aggressive, subjective speaker is precisely what got people reading, responding, and debating in the first place, something that practitioners of the genteel approach to criticism (of which I am a part, especially when compared to David), are unable to do (or, okay, unable to do with as much impact and fervor). One of the upsetting things (and there are a number) David does in his reviews, according to offended readers, is name names, or “drag names through the mud.” Would it be more effective to operate in generalities, saying “established writers” or “senior writers” rather than citing actual names when making points about blurb or workshop or publication politics? By extension, would it help for example to do as Marc Gaba does in “Period Piece,” a review of the now defunct annual Likhaan Book of Poetry and Fiction, where he opts not to name authors in critiquing their poems, with the goal of calling attention to the works rather than the people who wrote them and underscoring the professional approach of the piece, lest people read it as a personal attack on particular authors?
With these questions (and many others) in mind, let me end (temporarily) with Nehring again: “We think by refutation, and an idea we consider wrong is more likely than just about anything else to inspire an idea we consider right. ‘It is not instruction,’ said Emerson, ‘but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.’ … Provocation we must have, and fiction writers cannot provide enough of it. This is why we need bold, brash essayists. Ours today are too cute, too modest, and too afraid to presume. ‘If you have been put in your place long enough, you begin to act like the place,’ wrote Randall Jarrell. So it has been for our essayists. We have socked them down for so long that now they are crouched and timid. It is incumbent upon us to restore their power, to raise them, so that they may raise us.”