Friday, March 11, 2005

Even grumpier than me!

Hey you thought I was grumpy, right? Wrong. At least by comparison.

I have mentioned before, once or twice, that I do try on this blog not to indulge in ad hominem, or, even worse, ad feminam criticism. For all kinds of reasons. The chief one being that I am a coward and I don't like the idea of people coming round here with a group of friends and beating me up. (And don't think it couldn't happen, just because it's books we're writing about.) Also, I avoid being too vitriolic and personal because I think we always have to remember that it's only novels (mostly) that we're talking about. We aren't dealing with anything really important, so we don't need to get our knickers in too much of a twist.

However, there are people in this world who are braver than I am. And also, says he, gritting his teeth, smarter. And one of these is a fellow called Dan Schneider. (Known to his intimates as Dan 'the Rottweiler' Schneider.) Compared with Dan I am not grumpy at all; I am the soul of tact and discretion; I also fall a bit short in the insights department.

You probably won't have noticed -- no earthly reason why you should -- but my piece on MFA degrees attracted more comment than most of my posts, and one of them came from Dan Schneider. He explained that he was the original publisher of Briggs Seekins's essay on poetry workshops, and he went on to suggest that he, Dan, had written an expose of a lady poet.

Now, as it happens, poetry is not remotely my thing. But I was intrigued by Dan's comment, so I googled him, as you do, and had a look at some of the things he's written. And this is how I came to start this post by suggesting that, if you really thought I was grumpy, you just haven't been reading some of these other guys.

Dan Schneider seems to be the driving force behind Cosmoetica. I haven't explored every inch of the Cosmoetica site, but it appears to be mainly about poetry (and hence not of much general interest to me), but it has a good deal of other stuff thrown in too. And Mr Schneider, believe me, is one of those guys who, if you've offended him, will not only come round to see you, but even without any friends to help him will punch you on the nose, kick you in the balls (if appropriate, because women are not excused his treatment), and probably piss on you while you're unconscious. He takes literature personally, and he takes strong exception to bullshit, of which, as we all know, there is an abundance. And the further you go towards the literary end of things, the more bullshit there is.

I will mention here just a few of the amiable Dan's pieces, and give you a flavour.

Let us begin with Dan's essay The Unseemly Rise of the Modern Magalog. This is an analysis of what passes for criticism in modern (American) poetry. (Tip -- make the frame of your web browser much narrower than usual and you will find the article easier to read on screen.)

Dan is not impressed by what he finds on the poetry-criticism scene, and, on this showing, neither am I. He demonstrates, with considerable force, that much of modern criticism is composed of cliches strung together at random, and he does not flinch from naming names.

Dan says, for instance, of one poetry-review magazine, that it has 'exhibited the most unabashed ass-kissing in its attempts to curry favor for its band of mediocre-bad writers.' He goes on to take apart, sentence by sentence, some of the sillier reviews from said magazine. And it's impressive stuff.

Dan's main point, of course, is that the reviewers he is criticising are all part of a you-scratch-my-back, grant-obtaining, don't-rock-the-boat racket which is, unfortunately, well established in literary circles in the United States and shows every sign of coming into existence here in the UK.

Later in the essay Dan moves on to comment (unfavourably, you will not be surprised to hear) on the standard of book reviewing in general. And most of the time what he has to say strikes me as being true.

His conclusion: 'Critics must weed out the crap that gets through, etc. For far worse than pornographers are the well-intended dolts that foist bad art on the public; & worse yet -- those who refuse to call it so!'

Powerful stuff. But there is more.

Having recently written a review of Life of Pi myself, I was interested to see what Dan had to say about it. And, er, it turns out that he wasn't too impressed by it. He points out that the book 'comes in at 354 pages, yet is, at best, a solid-good short story of perhaps 25-30 pages, consisting of perhaps five of its first part's 103 pages, twelve or so of its 215 page second part, and eight pages in its final 36 pages. Add in a few pages to connect and there you'd have it.'

Now that is a very cogent criticism. It goes a great deal further than my own rather feeble comments, but I hear what he says all right, and I can see the force of the argument.

Another thing about Dan Schneider is that he is not only extremely thoughtful, and exceptionally forthright, but he has actually read what he criticises; and not merely read it, but looked at it carefully and thought about it. This is not true of every reviewer, by any means.

Dan has done his homework on Life of Pi, and done it thoroughly. 'It took,' he tells us, 'just a quick online search to find out that Martel ripped off his plot from a South American novelist named Moacyr Scliar, who wrote a book about a boy on a lifeboat with a jaguar, called Max And The Cats. Martel acknowledged this steal by claiming he hadn't read the book, but said he got the idea from a negative New York Times book review by John Updike, although the claimed review never appeared. Yet, oddly, almost all the blurbs for the book declaim its "stunning originality".'

And so on. All in all, the most thoughtful and interesting review of a novel that I have read in many a long year. And it makes my own comments on Pi look distinctly superficial. Well, there you go.

Back to poetry and a final example of Dan Schneider's outspoken style. In On American Poetry and Other Dastardly -Isms he deals with several contemporary poets at great length and in great detail. And, once again, he is not impressed with their work, and can say why in a most articulate, if brutal, manner. Having clashed with one well-known poet at a public reading he declares that he has a 'possible bias towards this nasty & hypocritical woman.' Several other poets are also beaten up and dumped in a back alley.

All in all I am glad to have made the acquaintance of Dan Schneider. He hates bullshit, he feels passionately about his subject, and is not afraid to speak his mind. He reads stuff in great detail, thinks about it hard, and is totally undeterred by PC. All of these, in my book, are virtues.