Sunday, November 27, 2005

Aaron vs. Analysis

There is nothing like a semi-philosophical debate about the purpose and nature of analysis to sober one up. (You can try singing the previous sentence to "There is Nothing Like a Dame" but I don't think you'll get any further than I did.) In any case, it's practically a rule (going hand in hand with the whole 'not eating' thing) that every self-proclaimed artist have a manifesto. At the least, it's something bulky enough to burn for heat when the power goes out; at the most, should you ever make it, it's something strong enough to justify your success. So here's mine.

I believe the reader is just as much a writer as the author, and unless both are fully involved in the creative process, it's just literary masturbation (one-handed).

It takes two to tango, folks, and I'm sick of the chick-lit or junk novel, the light beach reads or glorified (and simplified) crime novels that tell you everything up front. An author's job should be to put words on a page - words that move him or her - and, as a teacher of mine once said, to let them live. Most readers, especially the stupid ones (but hopefully the smart ones), are just going to put words in your mouth (or is that page?) anyway. That is, everybody has a unique perspective, their own slant on language, and it's a guarantee that nobody will see exactly what I meant to be seen. So as I figure it, why even have a fixed image anyway? Just write something that's aesthetically pleasing, something that lives, that fits the premises (or doesn't, if that's the point), and allow the reader to take it with them.

Which brings me to the bane of my existence: Analysis. Considering how strongly I feel that a writer's work should be ambiguous, aesthetic, and enjoyable (so as to encourage personal thought), the idea that we should pick apart existing works and proclaim one solitary meaning (or pick apart the interpretations of others) is offensive. If you want to make an annotated version, that is, to research terms and to look for anagrams and wordplay, that's fine, because you're just pointing out an author's cleverness for stupid people. However, if you also want to explain what the purpose of each character was, to say that Quilty or H.H. was a double of the other (I have lapsed into Lolita here), I think you're mad. You know why? Because it doesn't matter. Even the annotated notes don't really matter. I should get whatever I get from the book when I get it. If I need Cliff Notes to understand it (as we're frequently training our students to use), it didn't have any effect on me, and we should move on to the next book. It's not necessary (or even conducive) that we understand every sentence, every phrase, or even every idea. Nor do I see how sitting about writing about this or that is going to add any value to this world. If you think the author was using a certain theme, and you liked it, good. Write a story that uses that theme.

Let me take a step back: the conversation originated with poetry. I made a comment that John Ashbery's poetic standpoint was very appealing to me. He writes poetry that's meant to be experienced, straight through, without mulling over lines or re-reading. If you miss something, you miss it, that's part of the experience (just like seeing a movie on the big screen, where you can't rewind). The very act of missing something will redefine what you even get from the poem, and if it's only one word, one phrase or a single image or idea (or even nothing); you've still gotten at least that from it. You don't walk away empty handed. Of course, to then try to analyze one of Ashbery's poems would be redundant. You'd be experiencing it out of context, as it wasn't meant to be read (just like Shakespeare is meant to be performed). If you want to justify historical references that are oblique (again, annotations, not commentary), then append away. That's why the appendix is that thing we don't need. The point being: poetry and fiction should move you WITHOUT an explanation. If you get moved my studying it, then you're attracted to analysis, not the work itself, and that's a whole other kind of sad: second-hand transfusions.

Now, lest I be construed as shitting in my own pool, let me clarify that there's a difference between analysis and criticism. Analysis, to me, is a deadening effect: it involves a thesis and, like many scientists in the Bush Administration, requires looking purely for the lines that support that thesis, while ignoring all other comments (or trying to explain them). That's no good, nor can it possibly be accurate. In fact, the only way to truly analyze something would be to go line by line, at which point you'd have just rewritten the novel itself. Why pick out themes and what not, just for the sake of illustrating what the "deeper" meaning was? If all I can do is float on top of the water, knowing there's treasure at the bottom isn't going to help me. And seeing pictures of the divers going under, that's just living vicariously through analysis.

Criticism, on the other hand, is a lively and opinionated affair. We're not trying to prove a point with arts criticism, not really. If there's any analysis, it's meant to be one-sided (and acknowledges that). We're just trying to say: hey, don't (or do) see this (read this) and here's why (why not). It's not meant to explain something to the reader: it's meant to convey an emotional reaction that one person had. In many ways, at its best, criticism should be like a creative piece itself. Refreshing, aesthetic, full of images and wordplay: enjoyable to read. There's no need for a plot summary; the point is to be visceral, not superficial. Or at least, so I believe. I can still remember Harry Knowles's "Fucking The Monster" review of Sphere (I met him at a conference once, when I was first starting out as a critic): not a single word about the movie, but damned if I didn't want to never see the film after reading the review. It's color commentary, edgy and productive, that gets me going, that justifies what we do.

Along those lines, I guess if people wrote "color analysis," I might be more interested. But too often, I find analysis to be derivative of the product, and criticism to be its own separate animal. Analysis is indirect in getting to the point; criticism should be short, sweet and a direct response. Which leads me to a rule: Analysis is always wrong, Criticism is always right. Analysis presumes to be fact-based and supported, but the text it uses is liquid and subject to constant interpretation, so it's no more supported than a leaf in a tsunami. Criticism is an opinion, and despite what some bad teachers may say, your opinion can't be wrong. Q.E.D.

Now, before this gets any more analytical (and self-defeating, to the point where I need to excoriatingly criticize myself to get back on track), let me just wrap things up, a plea to all writers, critics, scholars and creative geniuses:

There is only Write and Wrong. Wrong is Wrong. So just Write. (Period)

No comments: