Which genius artistic works do you dislike?
I read a Facebook post this weekend from writer Andrew Davidson (author of The Gargoyle). It got me thinking and, like a pit-bull on the backside of a burglar, I could not let go of this intruder-of-an idea. Andrew asked the question, “Which genius artistic works do you dislike?”
His full post read: “Which ‘genius’ artistic works do you dislike? In the last six weeks I have read a lot of Samuel Beckett: two novels (Malloy, The Unnameable), a few short stories, Waiting for Godot (which I also watched on video), and a half-dozen short plays (which I also watched on video and, in one case, saw live). I hated all of it. And yet I know many people, whose opinions I value, who love his work and I recognize this is simply a matter of taste. So I’m wondering: who is your Beckett?”
I’ve never met Andrew personally – he was an online guest lecturer in my MFA program when I friended him on Facebook – so I very rarely do anything on his wall other than hit the Like button now and then. But this time I couldn’t resist. I knew instantly which genius work I disliked and I with only a hiccup of hesitation I wrote on his wall: “No brainer – Ezra Pound.” I have a long and tortuous relationship with Ezra Pound. But more on that later.
I did find it a curious coincidence that, while Andrew was immersing himself in Beckett trying to find something to appreciate, I was doing the same with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I’ve been reading Roger Sales’ analysis of the play looking for answers of my own. Looking for a way to discover enthusiasm for all things metatextual. But I digress.
In the Facebook community it wasn’t only Beckett and Pound that were problematic to Andrew’s chiliad friends. Other writers who incited ire (and there were 67 comments in the thread last time I checked) included Margaret Atwood, Ernest Hemmingway, Charles Dickens, Kafka, James Joyce, Henry James, The Brontes (All of the Brontes? Really?), Umberto Eco, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Timothy Findlay, Jane Austen, and Michael Ondaatje.
Writers weren’t simply named and shamed either. Some people reported actual visceral reactions – stomachaches or headaches – when attempting to read these writers.
There were also a few explanations offered. One of Andrew’s FB friends wrote, “I find most geniuses who ‘stretch the form‘ are a taste to be acquired. Some I acquire over time, others I never get. Hemingway, Marquez and Chekov I get. Rushdie, Llosa, Foster-Wallace I have yet to get, though I persevere. Bolano and Kerouac I don’t get- their lifestyles, like their writing styles, baffle me.”
Acquired taste? Maybe that’s it. But what makes someone persevere in their attempt to like something? And what makes a writer or a piece of writing worth the perseverance? Is it the genius label? And how does it acquire the status genius?
Years ago I wrote a letter to the editor of the Calgary Herald responding to someone who had lit-bashed a book that I liked. Okay, I confess. I more than liked the book; I loved it. I’d also been its editor. But back to taste…
The book, which had incensed a reader enough to pen a letter to the editor, had just won the provincial award for best novel. The letter-writer complained that this prize-winning book, like so many other Canadian award-winning novels, was inaccessible and unreadable and he most decidedly did not want any part of his tax dollars going to reward writing that he did not like.
My reply to the Editor was intended to be in the vein of Andrew Davidson’s Facebook friend who suggested, “geniuses who ‘stretch the form’ are a taste to be acquired.” Unfortunately, my youthful arrogance and hubris combined in a disastrous way and I wrote that reading fine literature was like developing a palate for fine wine. You begin your wine journey when you are you’re young. You often start by drinking Sparkling Duck or Asti Spumante. Years and many bottles of wine later and you’re more discerning and demanding. You ask more from a bottle of wine. And you’re willing to pay more. It is the same, I suggested, with literature. You begin early with, say, the Hardy Boys. Then perhaps shift to Clive Cussler, then Robert Ludlum, Northrop Frye, Bill Kinsella, then Rudy Wiebe (Ha! Just seeing who’s paying attention) and finally Michael Ondaatje.
I cringe when I remember this analogy because, while there is some truth in it – tastes do change with age and experience – it’s also pompous and judgmental. And worse, it’s a thinly veiled attempt at control, to insist your own opinion of worth onto someone else. I should have known better. I’ve been at the receiving end.
When I decided to write I enrolled in Creative Writing classes at the local university. Everyone in the class had earned their place the same way I did; we all submitted portfolios of our writing to the professor who then selected the students with whom he wished to work. And so, while there were some students who were more experienced, more talented, some who had previous undergraduate and even Masters degrees in literature, we had all been selected. In this class we were peers. Yet it was from my peers that I first felt this sting regarding good taste.
While discussing writers and writing I would voice my opinions. I quickly discovered my opinions being routinely dismissed. That’s not the problem. People disagree; it’s part of discourse. Generally it’s the part of discourse and the Academy that I most enjoy. What rankled me then, and still does, was how the discourse was managed. It was a blatant attempt to control. I was told (and I paraphrase here), “You can’t possibly understand what I’m saying. Because if you really understood what I’d said, you would agree with me.”
My dislike of the Pisan Cantos and the genius that is Ezra Pound is my dislike at being expected to submit to control.
Ezra Pound. American Ex-Patriot. Poet. Translator. Traitor. A man often lauded and revered as genius.
Many biographies will tell you that Pound left America in search of the European literary scene. That he had outgrown America and left for Europe in search of true culture. Maybe. Or maybe he was looking for an audience who would listen to him. Either way, the catalyst to Pound’s expatriatism was not literary. He was forced to quit teaching in 1907 because he had been caught ‘entertaining’ an actress in his room. Pound was running away from his shame. Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, another genius, “He blushed to think upon his ignomy.”
During his first expatriate year Pound travelled widely, wrote and self-published his first book of poetry, A LUME SPENTO. After a year he went to London because, he said, that was where Yeats could be found. Pound famously declared that, “Yeats knew more about poetry than anybody else.”
Pound made literary pronouncements often and loudly. He took frequent and dramatic stands pro or anti one writer or another, pro or anti one poetic stance or another and then, if someone said or did something which aggravated him, Pound could do an about-face and run a nasty campaign against the person who he perceived had wronged him.
Buried in many of the Pound articles are subtle references to his ability to establish and maintain important friendships. Clive Wilmer, writes: “The range and brilliance of Pound’s contacts in all the arts convinced him that London was to be the centre of a new Renaissance. He cast himself in the role of impresario, editor, and advocate…”
Pound found himself at the centre of the arts in London. Through his editorship and contributions to the most influential magazines of the time, Pound was in the position to make a person’s literary career. And he did. He not only promoted Joyce, but Eliot and others as well. He relished his role as star-maker. He created opinion. And he liked it. He was a self-proclaimed elitist.
I suppose I am like a pit-bull on the backside of an intruder. I will, like Andrew Davidson, roll up my sleeves and plow my way through literature which is part of the traditional canon. I will work and work and work at reading something, even when I find it difficult. Even when it doesn’t resonate with me at all. I read Heart of Darkness every five years, waiting for that aha moment. But there remains something in all this that raises my hackles and I offer dear old treasonous Ezra as my favourite scapegoat and example.
Pound had voice and power. If you offended him personally, he might end you professionally. But if he liked you, if you took his advice, he might champion you and then you could be included in the ranks of writers whom we now call genius. His own writing has places, which for me, contain exquisite beauty. But he was also a confirmed elitist who believed in his own superiority and encouraged his contemporaries to write for the elite. For any of you who have struggled through TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, searching for its genius you should know that it was written under Pound’s mentorship. Pound’s own work, The Cantos, written while he was interred in a Pisan jail, is The Wasteland on steriods. The Cantos is riddled with so much obscure content (foreign language) that they require a companion reader thicker than the Cantos themselves, just to decipher them.
I obviously have a lot of problems with Ezra Pound. The biggest of which is that I can’t dismiss him; I adore some of his poetry and translation. But I know too much now about how Pound got-what-he-got and how he did-what-he-did and I can’t any longer accept his declaration of what is genius just because he said so.