Wednesday, June 11, 2008

the Dana Gioia correspondence

This is from May of last year, thought I'd revisit it, in case anyone from this new neighborhood would be interested in the topic. I followed the "Fallen Western Star" debate in the Bay Area when it came out, as usual I seemed to wind up with the less popular view that criticism matters. If there's any point we can take from the career of Dana Gioia, that would be it, I think. The other side argued that criticism was unnecessary, that one's success could be gauged by readership alone. Since Gioia made his point, hundreds of people went on to flame him, but one can notice that criticism has come back, if not in every magazine - and really, who has time to read them all? - then at least in the blogosphere.

What happened next is that I forgot about the issue for a couple of years, then noticed the collection of essays Fallen Western Star Wars, edited with a quasi-dialectical style by the very polite-in-person Jack Foley. I read this and then wrote a response as if the debate were still going. It had pretty much cooled by 02, and I wrote my essay in 05, then managed to send it off to him in 06 sometime. Here is his response, and I'm going to preface it all by saying that I see criticism today in much less either/or terms, but I never saw Gioia as the unyielding Pontiff of Criticism, nor some kind of party-pooper that everyone made him out to be.

"Dear Doug...

I am complimented that my essay, "Fallen Western Star" has interested you so much. You are right that this piece stirred up much discussion - pro and con- when it appeared...I found your response very intelligent and interesting. I have only two small disagreements. If you want to make an economic analysis of literary culture using the concepts of supply-side and demand-side, the Northeast Corridor dominates both the supply and demand side literary economies. It prints most of the books that supply literary culture (as well as supplying most of the jobs) and it generates demand through reviews and publicity. The importance I put on literary critics originates in my sense that they create and sustain the public discussion of the arts that forms both opinion and demand. People in the West often claim their independence from critical opinion, even as their behavior betrays their almost utter dependence on received opinion.

My other small disagreement is with your notion that I think the internet is a way of creating a new collective artistic culture. This is far from my opinion. I do think that the Internet now allows artists and intellectuals to communicate more quickly than at any other historical period, and that this situation had major cultural impacts. But the main point of my essay was that virtual reality is no substitute for local and regional culture. We continue to live in the physical universe, and where we live shapes how we write and think. On this point we agree.

In any event, I was delighted by your letter, and honored by the length and seriousness of your response.

Yours truly,

Dana Gioia

here is what I wrote on it last year -

So, I believe I'll take what he's said into consideration - I had not thought of demand-side at all in my construction of this, but I suppose it's still valid. On the point about internet culture, I don't think I was being clear. So, some work there. Of course, I was hoping he'd say he'd publish it -! but, I didn't ask for publication, only review.

and this year, I'll say this to it, and consider the debate pretty much over:

yes, demand-side is not only still valid, but it is still in many ways the law of the land. In some respects professionally, I have overlooked this. Many people don't think of 'punk' in economic terms, but I can imagine it as sufficiently so if I merely embody what would normally be a fashion or political gesture with an aura of self-sufficiency, which is not that far at all from what punk had to say originally, if you think about it. So, I don't view the lack of criticism on the west coast in comparison to the east coast as part of the Decline of Western Civilization - great movie - but of course the institutions here are newer than those in New York, and Criticism when it appears on the same level will likely be an entirely different animal.

I would say today that the landscape has changed, so that if criticism is truly what you're looking for, you're only a mouse-click away from a reliable opinion. But, one has to seek it out in their desire to improve their craft, if they have such a desire.

The other debate that went on in Bay Area over this topic was about whether we could call ourselves critics without a sufficient body of work already beneath us. Sometimes a guy would tell me that they didn't like Dana Gioia' s poetry, so why listen to his criticism? My thought is that those are different specialties in writing, and we can train ourselves to do either, or both.

In case anyone is still interested, links:

Some local critics did agree with his assessment of the critical scene, especially Scott Timberg of the Los Angeles Times, who was inspired enough to later co-edit The Misread City with D.G., published in 2003 by Red Hen Press. They were interested in what the new literary Los Angeles was all about, at a critical level. What did L.A. have to say in literature, after noir, after Bukowski, after Joan Didion and Bret Easton Ellis?

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