Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Detectives Beyond Borders' most nerve-chilling critical-cliché post yet

I'd planned to return to my normal high seriousness for this comment, but thanks to you, I had so much fun with yesterday's post about critical clichés that I'm offering a sequel.

1) When did it become a high compliment to call a work authentic, and can critics and reviewers vouch for the authenticity of the works they so praise? If I recall correctly, David Mamet once wrote a play about bargemen on the Great Lakes, and a review lauded him for capturing the cadences of Great Lakes bargemen's speech. How in God's name did the reviewer know Mamet had done this?

2) "If Author X wrote in Genre Y, this is the book he would write." Author X in this formula is often Borges, García Márquez or Kafka. (See "transcends its genre.")

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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17 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Grins. I can see an NYT reviewer calling something like Guthrie's The Way West "authentic."

Um, you, in your urban setting off Time Square, what do you know from the Oregon Trail?

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As with "richly textured," one can make fun of the critics who use the clichés, and the critics deserve it. But one can also ask why certain critical tropes become so popular. The cult of authenticity falls into this category, I think, perhaps not far below the high cult of originality.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P.S. I realize that praising painting and sculpture as true-to-life is a tradition many centuries old, at least in the West. I'm not sure this is more than distantly related to the matter at hand, though.

May 20, 2008  
Anonymous Iain Rowan said...

Two layers to authenticity, thinking about this, and in particular the comment about Mamet's bargemen.

The first is not what is authentic, it's what the reader believes to be authentic. The second layer is what is genuinely authentic. But if most readers don't know the difference, I think that the first can often be good enough.

Of course, you might also have the case where what the fake authenticity is so much closer to the readers' explanations than reality itself that faking it is more convincing than telling the truth.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never been more than a half-assed critic, but it seems to me that the criterion ought to be whether the depiction is convincing, not whether it is authentic. I mean, one of the basic lessons in any fiction-writing course is that good dialogue DOES NOT reproduce the way people speak. It leaves out the verbal throat-clearing and the meaningless small talk that may have social functions but that would be deadly boring on a page. That's my touchstone for considering the value of authenticity.

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Alexander said...

Perhaps the critic in item 1 was a Great Lakes bargeman? Or perhaps his father was a Great Lakes bargeman? Or perhaps when meditating on how to wage his war on criminals (a superstitious, cowardly lot) a Great Lakes bargeman was thrown through his window.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps...

May 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Alexander, your comment is great, as is your interest in ancient Greek historians in the latest post on your blog.

You're right, of course: Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps ... Of course it doesn't matter how the reviewer acquired whatever knowledge he or she had of how bargemen talk, if in fact he or she really did acquire that knowledge. What's interesting is that the reviewer, along with many others, thought authenticity a suitable standard by which to evaluate a work of art.

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Alexander said...

I think that's because many reviewers (and many fledgling writers) believe that what makes fiction work is authenticity rather than plausibility.

Having never written a play (outside of a high school endeavor), I can imagine that the craft of Mamet would lie in convincing us (or at least, that reviewer) that Great Lakes bargemen actually speak that way, while still maintaining engagement with the reader, advancing the narrative, etc.

Your point about most 'real' conversations is very true - I tune out 99% of the time when listening to other people's conversations at coffee shops.

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There has to be an interesting history to the notion of authenticity as a criterion of critical value. When and why did this happen? Is it a genuine critcal category, or is it in large part a marketing term, along the lines of "all natural?"

I'm sure there have been times when you were busy tuning out the vacuous cell-phone chatter and endless "So, I'm like ..." at a coffee shop, then your ears perked up because someone said something interesting. The interesting bit is what you'd include in a scene set in the coffee shop.

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Alexander said...

I know movies used to do it. I know movies still do it. The earliest I can think of was The Amityville Horror (the original movie - not the remake): Based on a True Story!

The horrible bit about the coffee shop story - it's happened to us. We've had to force a half-hearted stilted conversation so our neighboring coffee-mates wouldn't realize we were eavesdropping.

It's darned difficult to keep up a decent conversation when you're paying attention to another one.

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Brian said...

Matt Cheney is an insightful reviewer/critic and he touched on this very issue in his recent review of Money Shot by Christa Faust. He said:

"Its strengths are the development of the main character, Angel Dare (a retired porn actress), and the presentation of what everyday life in the world of porn is like. I have no idea how accurate Faust's presentation of porn life is, but that doesn't matter -- what matters is that it was portrayed with so many well-chosen details that it was convincing and vivid. All the accuracy in the world is useless if a writer doesn't know how to select and present details to create verisimilitude. Most good fiction writing, regardless of genre, requires some worldbuilding skills, because even if the story is set in a real place, fiction is just a representation of a conception of that real place, and the best "realistic" fiction has as much care for rendering an imagined place in the reader's mind as does the best science fiction set on alien worlds."

http://mumpsimus.blogspot.com/2008/05/money-shot-by-christa-faust.html

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Alexander, you might try carrying a notebook and openly taking notes of interesting conversations. The trick is to try to appear to be jotting down notes for an important meeting.

Movies "based on a true story" or "inspired by true events" are interesting, especially if the true story is not well known. I suppose the viewer is supposed to leave the theater shocked that such things could really happen to real people. Insofar as "truth" is used as a marketing hook, the phenomenon seems related the authenticity criterion, which, like so many other ungainly word combinations, sounds like a Robert Ludlum title.

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I shall definitely read that review based on the selection you posted. Money Shot is a good example. Are its dialogue and internal monologues "realistic" or "authentic"? Probably not; many are a bit too refined, sharp and snappy for that, which is why they work.

I wrote that Faust offered a "refreshingly nuanced" view of the porn trade. Leaving my high-blown language aside, I think that the selective details that Matt Cheney cited are responsible for this. That, and Faust's resolute avoidance of luridness and sensationalism.

May 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter,

Guilty as charged...I just lazily blurbed a book by saying "if Mark Twain had written for the Grand Guignol, this would have been the book."

Damn it.

Scott Phillips

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Au contraire. If Mark Twain had written for the Grand Guignol, I'd have wanted to see or read the result.

May 22, 2008  
Blogger Douglas K said...

I have nothing but an opinion, which is that 'authenticity' became a criterion in response to its disappearance from quotidian life. Most of us drive to work in the morning, tap on a keyboard all day, drive home again and numb the pain with TV. Actual life involving hammers, nails, ropes, boats etcetera is so far distant as to become itself unreal. We still have a hunger for the real, though.

Side note: thanks for the link to the Vargas translator, I look forward to the new book immensely.

May 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Douglas, that makes a lot of sense, and it sounds quite a bit like salvation through work. Our economies would have to shrink to a cataclysmic extent before many of us in the West find that sort of reality in our daily work lives again. No wonder so many of us seek it in books, music, urban gardens, and yoga classes. I suspect also that you may have read Rousseau in your time. One wonders if he is turning over in his crypt at the Pantheon at the thought that he is regarded by psoterity as property of intellectuals and other bookish types.

And I'm glad you enjoyed the Sian Reynolds link -- and that we have a new/old Vargas to look forward to next year.

May 30, 2008  

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