Confessions of a critic

I was a critic.

I know. You are thinking “Who are you to criticize?” It is a good question; a mite critical but a good one nonetheless. Trust me, I’ve heard it.

This all happened in college. I was really enjoying the superior point of view and doing verbal target practice on unwitting subjects. One of the best lines from my review of a concert by the school orchestra was: “Then came the intermission, which is always good.”

I didn’t start out to be a critic. I wanted to tell stories, to be a writer. As with teachers, I think many critics fulfill the adage “Those who can’t write, write criticism“.

I took a writing course and discovered that the dominant view in the class was that stories were too passé for words. It had all been done after all. My low brow ambitions were dashed on the jagged talus of S-T-Y-L-E.

Style was the rage. So long as you had cartloads of style there might not be a crumb of story in the whole…uhm, story and you could still shine. Once a student, the star of the class read his piece. It was an impressive jumble, devoid of character, plot, or even point of view. A stylish word salad. You should have heard the purring and cooing from the teacher and other students. Boy, was I in the wrong class.

The French author, Alain Robbe-Grillet (even his hyphenated last name was Avant Garde!) was brought in to speak. He was one of the perpetrators of the Nouveau Roman (French for ‘new novel’) characterized by long descriptive passages of inanimate objects and punctuated with no emotional content.

You know, ‘new’.

Take those descriptive passages out and you would barely have enough to fill a tract being handed out on Hollywood Blvd. on Saturday afternoon.

And that tract would be more interesting. Characters? I don’t need no stinking characters!

Did I mention redundancy? Much of the length of his typical novel is made up of repetition of previous descriptive passages (with just the slightest variations to see if you are paying attention). His novel that I read was dominated by the repeated description of a crumpled, blue cigarette pack rising and falling on the swells of the tide breaking against the sea wall at a Mediterranean resort. It was riveting. I think they were Gitanes.

One of the saving graces of his speech was that it was completely in French. I do not know French. He spoke for an hour or so to an uncomprehending audience and finished to resounding applause. Of course there was a translator who kept up with him and she did a good job I am sure. Even translated, what he had to say didn’t make much sense to me. But I’m just a rube from the wind swept steppes of Minnesota.

Before becoming a writer, Monsieur Robbe-Grillet worked as a machinist. He was famous in some circles for writing the screenplay of a movie called “Last Year at Marienbad”. It is a classic of the era, perfectly predicting the unraveling of Western culture that loomed then and by which we are now swamped.

It is a classic tale of a guy in a casino attempting to make time with a woman he may or may not know. (“Haven’t I met you somewhere before?”) She may or may not remember their supposed tryst (“last year…”) or care.

The sheer volume of meaningful glances and pregnant pauses can only be explained by thinking the production company was trying to save money on expensive subtitles.

This cat and mouse game is played out at stupefying length, with innumerable flash backs which may or may not have happened. Need I go on? It is the existential saga of man’s eternal search for… oh, never mind.

What I mean to say is the most stylish description of a cool glass of water will still not quench my thirst. Let’s get real, words is words.

However, I discovered something after the publication of my above mentioned review of the classical concert. What made me lose my taste for writing criticism was not the letters sent to the paper threatening to kill me dare I show my face in the music department.

Stylish pretention notwithstanding, I discovered the limited entertainment value in ridiculing someone else for their honest efforts. A good story needs more than that.

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