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In Praise of Dispraise

Each year I attend 30 or more literary readings sponsored either by the colleges where I teach or by bookstores and community organizations. Their quality varies both in performance (writers are not necessarily good readers of their work) and in the writing itself. Sometimes I feel “like some watcher of the skies/when a new planet swims into his ken.” Other times, I am held hostage.

At one literary-nonfiction reading this year, when the writer (who is white) reached an insight she thought brilliant (signified by the dramatic pause)—“we are all slaves”—I stifled the urge to moan. A fake coughing fit would have allowed me to leave, but I would have had to return because I hadn’t come alone. And to be honest, I wanted the author to know that her work distressed me.

In a classroom I would have asked how the essay might avoid a phrase that dumps disparate human experience into one basket. I would have prodded the student writer to think in more-nuanced terms, noting that the institution of slavery deserves historical thinking. I would have asked her how, precisely, she felt “enslaved” and asked her to distinguish that feeling from those expressed in slave narratives.

This was not a classroom, however, and the introduction included the fact that the essay had been published and cited as “notable” in an anthology. Of course, within the broad category of “publishable” are subjective criteria not universally agreed upon, criteria that change over time and place. Today who reads Vachel Lindsay’s much-anthologized 1919 poem “The Congo” (subtitled “A Study of the Negro Race” and beginning, “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room”) without a roll of the eyes? Each era has a threshold for publication, and ours is low.

Publishing is a democracy, I tell students, a conversation that anyone can enter, somewhere. The fast-and-easy publishing offered by the Internet and print-on-demand can bypass quality gatekeepers. Anyone can edit a literary magazine or start a press, but not everyone is an editor who will, as the poet William Stafford said, save the writer from embarrassment. Once an essay is published, its chance of critique is slim because our culture produces far more than it reviews.

Maybe it’s the teacher in me who was irked that the writer didn’t realize how bad the piece was, and that an editor had chosen it for publication. I saw students in the audience and worried that they would think I endorsed it. But when, after this particular reading, I compared notes with friends, every person I talked to thought the essay was misguided. If only we’d had the courage to stand up, as if at a wedding, and say this should not go on.

Alongside a plethora of venues and a paucity of critique is the assumption that creative writing is a form of expression, not a form of thought. We imagine it’s unfair to criticize personal experience. Who are we to challenge what the writer felt? Yet woven with feelings is an argument that must be questioned, especially when its assumptions affect all of us.

More than a few of the readings I attend offer self-indulgent or trite work, but even those writers are cautious with the subjects of gender and class, not leaping to the conclusion that “we are all women” or “we are all proletarian” in an attempt to establish solidarity. By contrast, “we are all slaves” is a flashpoint. Yet for every Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who recently wondered if blacks were “better off” during slavery, and who was subsequently skewered, there are a thousand people whose misguided ideas about race receive polite applause.

When creative writers are offered only praise, including the default praise of publication, they aren’t pushed to improve. By contrast, at a toastmasters’ meeting, the audience gives feedback on both argument and delivery. Similarly, a scholar’s argument and its assumptions would be rigorously questioned by more than one person due to the critical response built into both scholarly-conference presentations and peer-reviewed publication.

The ancient Greeks and Romans routinely hissed and booed performances they did not like. Today it’s rare for audiences to make any negative gestures. At poetry slams, racism or sexism in a piece might be booed, but even then the stage is a largely protected space, a place for praise. We come to readings to provide community for the writer, hoping for, in Horace’s words, instruction or delight. Although we might get neither, we still applaud at the end.

In Quaker circles, the reading might have been treated to silent reflection, as applause inappropriately focuses on the individual’s ego. In American literary circles, being nice is more important than being truthful, and silence seems rude. Or perhaps booing or withholding applause—especially when writing has been published—is just too late. Our opinions must be kept private or shared as gossip later.

Once I hosted a famous poet and good cook who, at the reception in her honor, took the trouble to tell me that the kiwi fruit was not ripe and therefore she would not eat it. I was taken aback by what seemed like gratuitous rudeness, but perhaps she needed to let me know her standards for kiwis. Her reputation as a connoisseur was on the line.

Adults aren’t forced to eat food we don’t like, and we can stop reading books that displease us. At that literary reading, I heard words that not only burned on the way down, but also continue to give me indigestion. I wish there had been a way to refuse—or improve—them.

Natasha Sajé is a poet and critic who teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ M.F.A. program in writing.

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