One evening I met in person a rather intelligent fellow I’ve known for a while on Facebook.
“I read you,” he said to me after he learned my name.
Before I could thank him for the favour of his readership, he was offering strong words on a piece of commentary I’d had published weeks prior. Here we go, I thought. It is the curse of a working critic that his job never ends on the page. It must continue wherever he is encountered by a reader.
“Fine point,” I told him after he explained his accusation. “But that is a different essay.”
Someone else could write that, I said; someone else should write that. My piece, discussing the effect praising Chinua Achebe’s storytelling above his writing has had on subsequent generation of writers, was about the present and the prominent.
My new friend was interested in the past and the obscure. There is a difference between disagreeing with what is written and wishing something else was written. But my friend couldn’t quite see the difference. This, I think, is a common error among people interested in critiquing the arts.
Our conversation was rambling as these things tend to go. And at some point I said to him in the Nigerian colloquial tongue: Bros, you want something else; I am not a scholar. He was aghast. How can you be a writer and not a scholar, he queried, looking like he expected me to whip out a lengthy bibliography. His umbrage at the idea of a non-scholar writer further revealed to me our difference.
The problem, as I saw it, was my friend trades in absolutes. He gets to the fact through the assemblage of all of the facts. In other words, he is an academic, or well, one of those who for a reason or another dwell on the fringes or are in thrall of the academe. I had to explain.
When I said I am not a scholar, I didn’t mean I am not reading and researching; that I am not seeking; that I am not thinking, striving for quality thought and quality prose. I meant I am not a scholar in the academic sense. But some people are nothing without the literal. This isn’t indictment of the academia as I believe there’s a space for that of course. (I do, however, admit to playing devil’s advocate in offline and online discussions with academics because they have a rather priceless look of chagrin.)
As an essayist and critic, however — the non-academic kind (I have to specify for literal readers) — one tries to arrive at the truth from a number of facts. You are always going to be open to accusations of cherry-picking. You are sifting the facts, weighing their relative relevance to the matter at hand. What can you discard without affecting the destiny of your essay? You are thinking about the truth and how to get there with the specified word count. Depending on your reading and on whatever facts are obtained, there can be several truths. This is the nature of subjectivity. It is how two writers on the same subject can on occasion produce opposing beauties. Each comes to the subject with their own learning.
The mainstream critic hardly has a year or lifetime to seek all of the literature, to use the academic phrasing. (Forget seeking; In Nigeria you barely have time to think.) The academic field was structured to hand to practitioners all of the time they need.
They are also a fount of knowledge so let them write conclusions without subjectivity and evaluate without judgment. The rest of us have our art with all of the messy subjectivity and the selection of facts that is inevitable. As a reader, what I demand is knowledge and taste and consistency within a piece of writing. What makes it work is how well you convey those thoughts. In other words, what I like to see in a piece of criticism is a well worked triangle, with these points: thought, ‘truth’, and good prose.
The impossibility of knowing everything was broached by AO Scott, the New York Times chief film critic, a few years ago:
“The other thing that I learned about criticism, that I needed to learn in a hurry if I was going to last, was that there’s an illusion of total mastery. It’s an idea that, sometimes, our schools are teaching: before you open your mouth to say anything, you have to have complete knowledge. But of course you never do. You’re always arriving late to the game, with very little information at your disposal. So what you have to do, what you have to learn how to do, is to credibly assert yourself on the basis of no qualifications whatsoever.”
For anyone thinking Mr Scott is advocating ignorance, see those two words in the last sentence: “credibly assert”. It should be unnecessary to say but here goes: Scott is acknowledging that there are limits built into the practice and the only to go about it to keep on learning as you write. You write with the certainty that can only come with insights even as you try to educate yourself. You do not shut shop because you haven’t read the latest post-modern theorist or seen the recent Terrence Malick or brushed up your Cahier du Cinema editions.
You can tell a quality essayist from an inferior one by his word choice, by the quality of thought, by how much thought has gone into the essay. And perhaps above all, by his not boring the reader.
Can the reader sense that some thought has gone into the piece of writing? Does a piece of insight strike the reader as fresh? Are his sentences sloppy? Is he trading on clichés of phrasing and of thought? Does he make the reader think so much that he agrees or disagrees? To use the example of two different giants of American film criticism: You could argue with the late Roger Ebert; he’d want you to. You can’t really argue with David Bordwell. Perhaps you can but the basis would have to be in the assembling of facts not the teasing out of insights.
Suffice to say that the campaign of facts above insights is borne of a failed imagination. The idea that the essay is founded on fact devoid of imagination is a flawed one, and already tells of the genre’s failure to capture the minds of many Nigerian writers. Imagination, as it goes around here, happens to the novelist. The essayist is beholden to a stack of facts.
But coming to the essay this way is like coming to chess with only a knowledge of mathematics: it’s useful but limited. You dissect and dissect something alive, forgetting that the instrument of dissection is also one of death. Slowly the academic style is being absorbed into regular publications so much that a friend once told me a book review carried by a popular website was like a term paper. The reviewer had carried over the discussion of literature under the subheadings of characterisation, plot and setting into a mainstream publication. The result was stilted prose and a piece of writing that struggled to breath under pressure from his infatuation with the academia. I speak of Nigeria but it is hardly limited to this country. The critic Lee Siegel commented on a similar thing happening in American letters:
…the university has offered refuge to scores of artists and intellectuals and, for some time, an academic style has been flowing back into mainstream literary culture. It boggles the mind that Harold Bloom’s impossibly dense and jargony Zagat-like guides…get defined as great “popular” criticism. Reading Bloom’s abstractifying impositions, you start feeling anxious, as though you just realized that the exam was tomorrow and you hadn’t begun studying for it.
For those watching in Nigeria, the situation is like being between a rock and a hard place. You get either sloppy writing or unreadable prose.
It used to be that The Guardian (the Nigerian newspaper) was the place for such criticism as delivered by luminaries of the Ivory Tower like Biodun Jeyifo (although they tempered it somewhat with the accessibility of pre-Jonathan Reuben Abati.) The Sunday Sun Revue, literary supplement of The Sun, provided a more literary debate of culture and it is tragic that it is now defunct. Online reviews have since come in. But where they are not sloppy as a result of the country’s poor editing, they pretend to seriousness by featuring joyless writers who, in a bid to be seen as worthy, embrace jargon.
The idea of the essay as freedom never seems to have registered to some of our new critics and writers. Hope abounds in a few well-written blogs but what the culture needs is a transfer of these gems to the mainstream.
Lest this devolves into a rant, I offer a plea before the trolls show up. Let us have our truths, debatable as it is. This is especially what popular criticism strives for. Let our readers think.
The essayist does not trade in absolutes. Academics do. The difference may be the drawback of both sides. But uncovering that difference, by the actual process of writing, is one reason the endeavour is worth all of the trouble.