Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Few Very Random Thoughts on the Impact of Feedback

Apropos of nothing in particular, I feel like rambling a bit today.

Back in the days when, fresh out of college, I was living in London and clearly downing far too many pints at my local pub, I somehow got it into my head that writing letters of appreciation to authors of books I liked was a good thing to do. I read a lot of biographies back then, and perhaps one of them detailed a thrilling exchange of
bon mots and life-long friendships that its subject had fostered through such correspondence. I honestly can't remember now why I felt so compelled.

One book that was all the rage in Europe while I lived there was by an African author whose style was considered important and fresh, and even though I barely understood why he was writing that way, after completing his novel I wrote to him. In the firm belief that the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, I composed part of my fan letter in the style he had created. (Go ahead, you can cringe...I still do.) He never wrote me back.

In fact, that author has never penned another book as far as I have been able to learn.

One day while remembering this, the thought entered my mind that perhaps my unintelligible letter was what had made him stop. "If people reading this book are this confused about what I am saying," I imagined him thinking, "What is the point?" I now have this mental image of him tossing out his laptop and moving to northern Finland to live among the reindeer shepherds.

Jean Genet once infamously claimed that Jean-Paul Sartre's biography of him was so revealing--such a meticulous, invasive exploration of his methods--that it crippled Genet's ability to write another novel. The legend goes that, upon reading Sartre's manuscript, Genet exploded and tried to hurl the pages into the fireplace. Indeed he never wrote a novel after that (but he did go on to write his most famous plays). In speaking once with Edmund White, the author of Genet's other, far superior biography, though, I learned that White was convinced Genet simply used Sartre's book as a convenient excuse for a severe case of writer's block. I suspect reports of Genet's dramatic outburst also helped build interest in the book that would help solidify his place among the greats of French literature too, but....

Before I spoke with White, though, I spent several years horrified at the notion that another person could extinguish a writer's, or artist's, creative impulse. This seemed nothing short of a raping of one's soul to me. I actually spent a few years researching an idea for an article on how Genet could have overcome Sartre's influence. I've since come to realize White must have been right, though. That Genet had seized upon a convenient excuse for the naturally occurring exhaustion from writing his novels (they certainly must have taken a great deal out of him).

Eleanor Roosevelt once wisely noted that, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I think when it comes to creative endeavors, the same applies to feeling incapacitated. No critique, no matter how blistering, can impact your drive unless you let it. In some cases, that's not necessarily a good thing (for the rest of us), but in most cases it suggests that the more thin-skinned among us take a tip from Andy Warhol, who reportedly once said, "I never read my press, I just weigh it."

I'll have more on this later this week I think...something I need to get out of my system. For now, though, that's it...

Labels: art criticism


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever write you back?

I have to admit I have been seized by this temptation but I have never carried it out. Interestingly, I think Edmund White is the first person I would write to.

Also, Genet's claim sounds dubious on its face.

2/23/2010 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

Actually, I could see how a detailed bio could hinder creativity, not because some judgement is rendered, but because the process is overly exposed (to the artist).

As a teacher, I am in the business of helping others become more intentional and aware, but there is a fine line because its important to not be too aware. This can result in crippling overly self-consciousness. Part of the impetus to create is in not knowing exactly how to do something. So change, like going to playwriting from novelist-ing, is key to continuing.

2/23/2010 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Did anyone ever write you back?

Actually, yes. One American author whom I maintained a correspondence with for about three years. She's still doing well (too well perhaps), but I haven't written for a while.

2/23/2010 09:57:00 AM  
Anonymous JL said...

As cringe-worthy as your fan letter sounds, your post nevertheless reminds me of a different story about what the failure to give or receive feedback might mean for both admirer and artist. It's in part perhaps a more conventional lesson, but still worthwhile, particularly in this telling. From Irving Howe's wonderful memoir, A Margin of Hope:

“Long before I thought of becoming a literary critic, I read with admiration the essays that William Troy was printing in Partisan Review. He was not part of its inner circle and had no apparent interest in politics, but each time he wrote—on Lawrence or Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf—I admired his clarity. Troy was a ‘pure’ critic and he helped—it was about time—to unsettle my provincial notions about what criticism had to be. There was an austerity to his work, a hard undeviating concentration on the literary text, which set him apart from other contributors to the magazine: he never bothered to be merely brilliant, he never rattled his emotions in one’s ear. Several times in the late forties I started writing him notes of admiration but always tore them up, suspecting I might be trying to cozy up to a famous man. A few years after Troy’s death I met his widow, the poet Leonie Adams, and when I told her of my repeated failure to write him, she let out a moan. In the early fifties he had been a troubled man, uncertain of himself and his work, and the admiration of a young stranger, she said, might have given him pleasure. She wheeled on me: ‘Why did you worry so much about your motives? Suppose they weren’t pure? Don’t you see that what matters is what we do?’ Her words shaming me as few stronger rebukes ever have, I turned away in silence, to carry with me through the years a dislike of that vanity which drapes itself as scruple.”

2/23/2010 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Failure is beautiful. Like the canadian skater who was so certain he would get Gold, everybody telling him he would, runs in 1st for most of the course, then finished in 4th.

What failure is the most powerful or poetic between being the last or the 4th? You loose, you loose.

Feedback will hurt you if you really think you ought to be the best or dead. Loosing is what most people do. Most of us, we always loose, all the time.


Cedric C

2/23/2010 01:20:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

i hate it when some idiot kid writes me. Like I have any answers. If I have one messaage i is that gatekeepers are like dogs at the mouth of hell, be carefull what you wish for and keep your hands inside the carriage at all times. Shit or get off the pot, is another thing but then I don't give a fig. I like reading on the toilet. It forces me to concentrate, and often 10 seconds with Critical Theory is all you need.

What is interesting about feedback is that it keeps you from thinking your shit doesn't smell. The perils of celebrity. Bubbles, estrangement from reality. Solipsism.

But it is nice to get feedback - but so often it's hard to help people who just aren't at your level, or plateau or shelf. How do you explain 10 year single malt to a blind drunk?

2/23/2010 01:45:00 PM  
Blogger mikesorgatz said...

I think the best creative work is done in the gray areas. If your process is too formulaic it shows in the work. Reading someone dissect your life could be pretty traumatic. See the effect on Kitaj, RB.

On the other hand, what the hell do they know? I can't go on, I'll go on.

2/23/2010 01:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. I agree with the OP. Very much.

Except for the Roosevelt quote. Hers represents one side of a psychosocial duality as irreconcilable as wave particle duality.

2/23/2010 01:57:00 PM  
Anonymous oriane Stender said...

I'm having a hard time imagining a fan letter or a request for advice written to zipth.

2/23/2010 03:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

zipth's contributions to this and a few other art blogs are at least half the reason i read them. id be honored to send him a fan letter but id keep it anonymous. purer that way, in motive and taste...

2/23/2010 03:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Anon: would you attempt to copy Zipth's style in your fan letter? ;-)

I love Zipth too! (oh but, I'm probably that idiot kid)

Cedric C

2/23/2010 09:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Ced said...

Hmm, yeah, that Roosevelt quote conflicts with Pavlov's dog.


2/23/2010 09:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody can kill your self esteem worse than a Jewish mother.

Like a bear scraping bark off a tree....

2/24/2010 03:17:00 AM  
Blogger Stefano Pasquini said...

Excellent post, Ed. I do think that receiving feedback is important for writers, even if it's from an idiot kid who didn't grasp the point of a book. I remember writing fan letters to Primo Levi as a kid, and once he told me not to exaggerate with my infatuation, but I could tell he was flattered by my letters. I was devastated when he commited suicide. And, no, I didn't think he did it because of my idiot kid fan mail.

I'll write you a fan letter when I get hold of your book.

2/24/2010 04:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Judith said...

I think being an artist requires a huge amount of open-mindedness...at the same time you can't just be a raw nerve and you have to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff critique-wise.

But the required open-mindedness can leave one very vulnerable. I like E.Roosevelt's quote a lot but sometimes you can't help but feel undermined, so this consent isn't as voluntary and under one's control and as simple as the quote makes it sound.

Most people want input or at least a sense that they are being received. I wouldn't hold back from sending fan letters...as a mid-career artist I have received enough to know that mostly they are work for me. Mostly the artists wants feedback for themselves. There's almost always an agenda but hearing nice things can be nice-ish.
Dunno if its good or bad, but because I find input mostly undermining, I no longer hear the good either. All input is suspect.

My feeling is that one must protect the open-heart so that it stays metaphorical enough not to be invasive surgery. That's not always the easiest skill.

2/24/2010 04:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Dalen said...

It has to be difficult to put something out there, to offer it up and in return receive criticism, misunderstanding, or silence. Receiving adoration can be difficult too, in its own way.

I find failure much more interesting than success. I distrust happy endings. Living in the epilogue is not really living at all. All the action is over.

I have a mental list of lecturers, writers, and others who have made an impression on me that I intend to write, but hesitate.

2/24/2010 07:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i wrote zip a fan letter (brief email congratulating him on a mention in the ny times magazine)

he was rather gracious in his response....

2/24/2010 08:48:00 PM  
Anonymous nemastoma said...

Genet was made an existentialist hero. That’s a great burden to carry as he probably viewed himself an antihero and too much of a moralist to ever feel completely free. Unless one is very secure and not let all the attention get to one’s head, being elevated to near sainthood by the pope of existentialism himself would result in all sorts of distractions that keep one away from the discipline of writing. A writer’s block will not be far behind.

2/24/2010 10:50:00 PM  

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