“Sell Out,” by Simon Rich
Appeared in the New Yorker under Shouts and Murmurs, January 28th, 2013 (online here)
“Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it is easy enough to see that the art shows forth, but cannot say anything. And, whatever it sounds like to call the poet inarticulate or speechless, there is a most important sense in which poems are as silent as statues. Poetry is a disinterested use of words: it does not address a reader directly. […] It is not only tradition that impels a poet to invoke a Muse and protest that his utterance is involuntary. Nor is it strained wit that causes Mr. MacLeish, in his famous ‘Ars Poetica,’ to apply the words ‘mute,’ ‘dumb,’ and ‘wordless’ to a poem. The artist, as John Stuart Mill saw in a wonderful flash of critical insight, is not heard but overheard.”
—Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye (found via this)
On the other hand, to the extent that criticism is an art in itself, criticism too is dumb.
“Shitty first draft” is a misnomer
A rough draft isn’t just a shitty story, any more than a painter’s preparatory sketch is just a shitty painting. Like a sketch, a draft is its own kind of thing: not a lesser version of the finished story, but a guide for making the finished story.
Once I started thinking of my rough drafts as preparatory sketches, I stopped fretting over how “bad” they were.
“The Burrow” (“Der Bau”), by Franz Kafka
First published posthumously in 1931, with the first English translation coming out in 1933; the Muirs’ translation is online here
Maybe it’s because I was in a bad mood, but earlier today, reading Michael Hofmann’s translation, I felt as though the narrator of “The Burrow” were my only friend.
“Agnes of Iowa,” by Lorrie Moore
Appeared in Granta 54: Best of Young American Novelists, June 20th, 1996 (online here)
I like the use of repetition here:
Over the next six years she and Joe tried to have a baby, but one night at dinner, looking at each other in a lonely way over the meat loaf, they realized with a shock that they probably never would. Nonetheless they still tried, vandalizing what romance was left in their marriage.
‘Honey,’ she would whisper at night when he was reading under the reading lamp, and she had already put her book away and curled toward him, wanting to place the red scarf over the lampshade but knowing it would annoy him and so not doing it. ‘Do you want to make love? It would be a good time of month.’
And Joe would groan. Or he would yawn. Or he would already be asleep. Once, after a long hard day, he said, ‘I’m sorry, Agnes. I’m just not in the mood.’
She grew exasperated. ‘You think I’m in the mood?’ she said. ‘I don’t want to do this any more than you do.’ He looked at her in a disgusted way, and it was two weeks after that they had the identical sad dawning over the meat loaf.
My instinct would have been to avoid repeating the meat loaf line, and I would have missed something: the sadness of the moment coming back sadder the second time.