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Monday, April 16, 2007

Re: The First-Ever De-Suggests

posted by on April 16 at 17:41 PM

First of all, one reason we bothered to De-Suggest the Clear Cut event was because this nice person was wondering how it went:

It’d be great if all of the Stranger Suggests authors could give a respective recap. Like The Gong Show this week definitely got lots of props for sure, but I’m wondering about last night’s suggestions. I actually went to the Frye but now I’m thinking I should have gone to the Clear Cut Happening. The Frye was a stuffy socialite scene, even though the Leipzig exhibit is hands down off the wall badass creepy marvelous. Still, the Clear Cut thing sounds really intriguing. Anyone go?

Yes, I went, and yes, Matt Briggs, I circulated among the crowd. I talked to Matt McCormick, who’s always the nicest person in the world. I’d like to write more about Future So Bright sometime, but this is not the right post. I talked to Greg Lundgren to place a bid (hey, did I win?) on one of the three good Michael Brophy paintings there. I even aimed some words at Eric F., but I think he’s still mad at me for reporting a certain story a million years ago. However, the crowd was not particularly atmospheric.

At my section of the table: a six-and-a-half-year-old girl who—I swear to god!—flirted with my boyfriend; the sixty-something father of a prominent local gallery curator, who lives in Tuscon but had been visiting long enough to admire the Seattle Weekly’s ridiculous Real Change story and observe that The Stranger contains “no articles” and is filled entirely with sex ads; an employee of One Pot who did, bless her heart, inform me that “these events usually don’t cost that much”; and, way down the table, a fellow English major alumna of the University of Virginia who recently wrote a book.

But who cares about the atmosphere? I do care that I paid $35 for—it must be said—a small portion of food (and I don’t eat that much). I do care that it was freezing cold and there was, as far as I could tell, only a single space heater. I care that the $35 didn’t include wine.

Furthermore, I care deeply about the “announcement” by Clear Cut, which was arrogant, rambling, and downright insulting, most of all to the people who had been invited to provide the aforementioned atmosphere. The heart of it was this: Matthew Stadler, a writer and editor whom we all respect, was passing the Clear Cut baton to Rich Jensen, a former record business exec who claimed not to have read very many books. Stadler lectured us about how subscribing to Clear Cut was like surrendering your taste and discernment to better-informed people. In other words, my tastes, my preferences, my opinions don’t matter. Maybe there were some rich ignoramuses who felt comforted by these words, but I sincerely doubt it. Nobody likes being told their tastes are irrelevant. And surely Stadler noticed that the audience was composed in large part of people who make their livings exercising taste and discernment. The curator kitty-corner to me. Me. Matt McCormick, who runs his own video distribution business and used to curate an experimental film festival. The other Stranger writers. Eric Fredericksen, for gosh sakes. How many of you want to surrender your taste and discernment to Rich Jensen? I subscribed to the last series, but Friday I saw no evidence that Clear Cut was still an interesting, challenging enterprise. I did observe that Clear Cut would accept my money if I held it out.

Lesson learned.

(I do still want that Brophy painting.)

RSS icon Comments


And Annie Wagner you shall have that painting.

Sorry you were chilly and you thought you paid too much for One Pot's dinner. What all this has to with Clear Cut's forth-coming books, I can't imagine.

Posted by Rich Jensen | April 16, 2007 7:09 PM

Hooray! Just tell me where to send the check. I will hereby hold my tongue on Clear Cut's forthcoming books until they come forth.

Posted by annie | April 16, 2007 7:17 PM

I'm not sure where to place my comments, but I'll put them up here, making this Annie's personal tete-a-tete with Clear Cut Press.

I can't say I expected to be convincing or beloved for the comments I made last Friday, but the ones that offended you are not at all new. I have never been interested in the tastes of readers. It is a point I have made at many public Clear Cut events and in interviews, whenever anyone bothers to ask. I'm sorry if my tone or the timing made this old news suddenly more grating or offensive.

The Clear Cut Press series is not a record of personal taste. Unlike other imprints, we aren't in the business of confirming the good taste of our readers, nor displaying our own. We print great writing, and a lot of it is hard to take. I sincerely hope you are troubled and/or put off by some of the books we publish. I certainly am, as much as I am charmed and enthralled by them. I can't imagine wanting books to do anything less to me. If you can, then buy from someone who cares what you think and caters to it. Just don't ask me to be involved.

This would be arrogant if I treasured my own taste while denigrating yours, but I don't. And I didn't say anything to the contrary Friday. I didn't ask you to "surrender" your taste to "better informed people." That's an absurd thing to suggest. I long for books and a book culture that is indifferent to personal taste, and I hope Clear Cut offers you a respite from the tyranny of your own taste. That is the greatest gift great writing can give. I believe we do a good job of it.

Now, to the second misconception. Apparently you were left thinking Rich Jensen doesn't care about great writing or is in no position to support it as a publisher. The history of Clear Cut and any time spent talking with Rich about books and writing are evidence to the contrary. Rich has been an instrumental part of every aspect of the press, from the outset. As he continues, now working with Steve Connell (founder and publisher of Puncture and also Verse Chorus Press) who is running the press's warehouse, distribution, and accounts, he will have more time and autonomy to shape the list, and the details of publishing. If you don't like the vertigo of guessing whether its going to be great, look at his track record with Clear Cut's first series or with his instrumental role at Up Records, which he also co-founded.

I'm more excited about the press now than I was a year ago. It has coherent, clear leadership, good resources, and, at last, a solid business side with Rich and Steve combining their talents there. These are circumstances I can step away from with optimism. And the next book I edit, an anthology derived from The Back Room events that I started with Michael Hebberoy in Portland, will be published by Clear Cut. Because I think it's a great publisher.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | April 16, 2007 10:55 PM

I just happened to log in 1/2 hour ago so this isn't meant as a reaction to the above comment by MS.

First I want to say geez and wow. Annie, being quoted here feels like a strange honour, and you referred to me as nice! Danke schoen!

A couple of years ago a friend gave me a very cleverly formatted book by the Clear Cut crew - 3"x3" about 2" thick? It seemed to be an ideal book for the bus. Unfortunately I never quite got into the stories and always felt I was being seen as slightly pretentious holding the odd thing in morning rush-hour. I opt for the standard newspaper most mornings, but have lately been enjoying a paperback of Capote short stories- i think he's been my favorite contemporary writer over the last year.

Nevertheless, I'm more of an art guy than a writing fan, a few notebooks of experimental prose through the years, but nothing near publishable. I guess that's why I went with the Frye suggestion. Art and nature have an inexplicable quality to them. However, an essay in the pamphlet on Alice Briggs' show down in some gallery one block west off of 1st Ave, Pioneer Sq. is close to perfect for me when it comes to art commenting.

I'll shut up now. But Annie and Brendan, thank you so much for inspiring me to donate $35 (this week! i promise!) to the Frye for the countless times they've nourished me at no cost for the past twenty years. Have a good one. The Arts & Entertainment are the reason I keep coming back to the stranger.

Posted by just a suggestion | April 16, 2007 11:27 PM

Hold that money out a little farther, Annie. We'll convert it to literature and habitat for writers at our big book plant at PO Box 17377, Portland OR 97217.

I think what Matthew was trying to say was simply that when he is writing he doesn't give a damn what anybody else thinks. And, so far as he is concerned, that this is the social orientation from which interesting new work might be produced.

Does it need to be said that such a stance, if it can be sustained, eliminates a dependence on the class 'who make their livings exercising taste and discernment'?

What does it say there seems to be a general agreement that, somehow, a lot of interesting things landed in the same interesting room on Friday, and that, somehow, these things followed from a decades-long trajectory of interesting artifacts, spaces and gestures generated by the small number of people responsible for organizing the occasion. And yet, while acknowledging this, your paper's writers also, simultaneously, found the evening so loathesome, personally insulting and professionally humiliating that they have been compelled to repeatedly, publicly disassociate themselves from the hopeful expectations it sparked within them?

Utopian transcendence dashed again for lack of adequate pork and wine and peppy stagecraft!

Where I come from the worst thing you can say about a band is, "They were really tight."

Fuck my discernment and taste. I found myself in or near the beginnings of K, Sub Pop, Up and Clear Cut through ecstatic abandon, intution and hope. If you like where I've been, you might like where I'm going. Simple as that.

And who is this Annie Wagner person?

Posted by Rich Jensen | April 16, 2007 11:42 PM

I'm still kind of unclear on what Clear Cut Press even is, but this confuses me:

"The Clear Cut Press series is not a record of personal taste. Unlike other imprints, we aren't in the business of confirming the good taste of our readers, nor displaying our own. We print great writing . . ."

So, this is objectively great writing, that is somehow out of the realm of personal taste at all? Unless you're reprinting Shakespeare, Joyce, etc., how can you claim to print great writing, and then say that it has nothing to do with treasuring your taste, or your telling people what is good?

I'm not trying to be difficult, I honestly don't understand how this works. As a person who curates compilations of music, all I have to go on in making my selections is my own taste. I would never suggest that all the music there is objectively great; all I have to go on is my own two ears and brain. If there is some method of determining objective greatness, then I would love to be aware of it.

Posted by Levislade | April 17, 2007 8:45 AM

Good question, @6. My experience, thus far in life, is that each of us has various, divergent mental faculties. One, let's call it "taste," is the ability to discern what gives us pleasure or delights or enchants us from whatever does not. Chew on some escarole and you'll know if bitter greens are to your taste.

A lot of art is made to appeal to taste. Adam Sandler chooses projects that he (or his agent, I guess) thinks appeal to the taste of the moment; thus we get the "serious" Adam Sandler, sandwiching the zany, madcap Adam Sandler. Similarly, the editors of most book imprints and nearly every magazine, pay attention to the tastes of their readers. They try to assess what readers might, at that moment, find interesting or enchanting, and then they pursue stories or books that appeal to that taste. Some people think that's the way to have a successful business.

I think it is a perfect way to become a zombie, one of the millions of living dead, locked in a Skinnerian feedback loop that monitors your pleasures and then feeds you candy (if that's to your taste). I love books because they are the hiding place of such bizarre, multi-faceted, nuanced, and ungovernable freaks. Amble into a book, a great book, and you are unlikely to make it out the other side unmolested. Great writing is able to engage mental faculties OTHER than your taste.

What might those be, you ask. A writer might ensnare you in the music or rhythm of their prose while dragging you through the mud of ugly subject matter; or, the dazzling seductions of reason and logic might pull you to positions you never wanted to occupy; maybe the writer is deeply informed and tells you new information that satisfies your curiosity, even though the writing itself is not to your taste. I want to publish and read work that engages these other faculties — my intellect, my soul, my curiosity about things and people I don't know, am not like, or do not "like." I don't want to publish or read work that is meant to appeal to my taste (that is, my predisposition toward a certain, narrow band of experience).

I'm glad you asked. It gives me reason to point out to Annie, and all the other aggrieved professional taste-makers, that taste is the least interesting thing about her or Eric Fredericksen or Rich Jensen or me, for that matter. I read Annie's articles because she knows film. She knows much more than I do, and is able to educate and inform me. I truly don't give a shit whether she enjoyed a film or not. And I don't think anyone should care whether I enjoy what I review.

There is a wonderful, robust tradition of informed, talented writers discussing culture and not "weighing in" with their judgment of thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Apparently, though, that tradition is in scant supply at The Stranger. They're too busy flying into paroxysms because they displayed bad taste when they meant to show off their good taste. Time to "de-suggest." It might have been more interesting (certainly would have been more interesting to me) if you all used the considerable talent and resources you command to tell us a little more about Matthijs Bouw's report from Tblisi or the way Masa worked the whole evening. But then you would have had to stay and listen, and that would have been unpleasant.

Readers interested in learning more about Tblisi can read Matthijs Bouw's How To Be An Architect in North Pacific America (or anywhere else in the world) when it is published by Cllear Cut Press. It might not be to your taste, but I guarantee it will be a great book.

(Charles Mudede can fill you in on Kant later in this thread.)

Posted by Matthew Stadler | April 17, 2007 9:33 AM

Rich, seriously, I congratulate you on the taste you exercised at K and Sub Pop and Up. I own a number of excellent records from all of the above labels. And, indeed, it was a fantastic idea to transfer the single club concept to the small press world. Congratulations. But what does this have to do with editing a book series (even one that mysteriously operates outside the realm of taste)? And how have you demonstrated that you're up to it? That's what I would have liked to hear at the Clear Cut event.

Matthew, I've read Bourdieu too, but taste, like ideology, cannot be gotten outside of. You can't just say you won't play the game.

Posted by annie | April 17, 2007 9:41 AM

Interesting. Reminds me of a piece I read in last month's Harper's, regarding the lack of good criticism, as opposed to just reviews, which of course abound left and right. I read quite a bit, but I tend to transpose discussions like this to music, which I live and breathe and think about way too much - and maybe this particular dichotomy of taste vs. greatness just doesn't make that transition as well (although when I write reviews of music I attempt to be as descriptive as possible, rather than imposing my taste on the subject).

I'm not sure I agree that there could be enough undeniably great works out there to support your claim, and perhaps I am a bit skeptical that, as editor, you can suspend your own taste, but I am intrigued - maybe I'll actually read some of your books now.

Posted by Levislade | April 17, 2007 9:48 AM


You are walking the thinest of semantic lines when trying to disassociate readers' "taste" from Clear Cut's values in materials published. Appreciation for literary form, just like appreciation for the underlying method or structure of music and/or art, still appeals to one's "taste". There is no getting around that your taste is guiding what you chose to publish--no matter how much you wrap your explanations in counter culture language.

Posted by seattle98104 | April 17, 2007 9:56 AM

I have not read Bourdieu. Could you recommend some titles? Taste can be deliberately ignored, as I have recently demonstrated, with evident success.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | April 17, 2007 9:57 AM

I'm referring to Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. You seem conversant. Maybe it's in the Portland water.

I cannot accept your contention that you're ignoring taste. What were you doing, throwing darts at a list of submissions? But even that's dada and taste-ridden.

Posted by annie | April 17, 2007 10:01 AM

> If there is some method of determining
> objective greatness
> then I would love to be aware of it.

Levislade (#6), I am also curious about why this process seems so mysterious. And agree that it does seem mysterious based on what passes for “criticism” in most places.

I’m also not exactly sure what Matthew Stadler is talking about in terms of Clear Cut Press -- although I’ve been fortunate to work with him with the press but also in other contexts and understand how he is able to defend and embrace things outside his taste. His argument here makes “tasteless” seem like something less than a pejorative.

Judging from what is printed as “criticism” in the vast majority of cultural magazines it appears that matters of taste, opinion, and prejudice generally PASS AS criticism. From Entertainment Weekly to the Village Voice, book reviews (for example) print opinions for which “book reviewers” are paid money. From the readers end trying to make sense of how a work makes its way into the world, it appears that the selection of work has everything to do with taste and nothing to do with any “objective” criteria.

Personally, I don’t think that just because a writer or curator is paid for their taste, opinion, or prejudice that their opinion is worth anything more than anyone else’s. In fact, I often find the opinions of free critics just as valuable in this context -- for books you can find them on Amazon or Book Thing or Book Crossing or MySpace. Same for music worth listening to. Opinion is everywhere.

I wish I could find more criticism.

I think criticism is the when an observer skillfully applies an objective criteria to a work. A contemporary critic might also have the ability to actually analyze the structure of a work and make a call on the structural or aesthetic integrity of the work itself on its own terms instead of applying an external structure. I’m more familiar with book criticism, but external systems tend to go by academic schools of New Criticism, Deconstruction, Formalism, New Historicism, etc. Visual Art has a similar catalog of “objective” criteria for determining greatness.

Thomas Wolf decried the situation of artist co-opting criticism (in Modern/Post Mod Art) in The Painted Word. In a sense, he figures out the obvious -- that by confronting this critical conversation directly visual artists were able to extend and manipulate their work into “new” directions. His book essentially is an attempt to say, “the jig is up.” So after his book came out, everyone stopped painting…

Music criticism is thankfully (at this point) less academic -- but there is still this sense of a good music critic escaping her own taste in order to meet a new album or song on its own terms.

In music compilations for instance, I find myself drawn to compilations that expose a particular development of a style or happen in a particular time/place that shares an aesthetic bent. The 1991 Kill Rock Stars compilation for instance, or American Primitive: Pre-War Gospel by Revenant Records.

Now I’m not sure what Matthew Stadler means in his post, but from my own perspective it is liberating to escape from my own sense of taste. I know what I like. And I give myself what I like day after day. (Take that as you will.) One of the reason I know what I like is that it tells me the kind of stories I want to hear about myself.

A great book or album or what have you also tells me things. But not about me.

Can’t you recall a time when you someone you knew said; hey here is something. And then, they gave it you and you were like I don’t know. They told you where it came from and what it was for. And then, you still only took a bite of it and weren’t sure and then suddenly as if someone had electrocuted your tongue and rewired your taste buds you liked this new thing because it showed you different things about yourself that you didn’t know and you could see new things about where you lived and what had happened to you.

I’m not saying I have ever been capable of writing something that does this -- but this seems to be part of the function of a critic or curator or someone who puts together complications is to make these transactions possible.

It is much harder I think to figure out how a piece of art works and then to explain it then to dispense opinion. It is also kind of difficult to figure out if you as a reader are going to get anything out of it. I also know because there are not a lot of great critics or curators around, when I find one who can talk in a way that I can understand, I listen.

In contrast, Entertainment Weekly is primarily interested in judging the grade of the stuff you already you know you like. They can quickly assign grades week after week. And because they are paid to dispense opinion, their opinions are worth more than yours. It’s good value, you don’t even have to read the review, you can just check out the grade.

Anyway this is my own thought about what all of this might mean.

Posted by Matt Briggs | April 17, 2007 10:30 AM

The night was heavy on improvisation, I'll give The Stranger taste team that. Such improvisation extended to my part in The Announcements part of the program, and, as both receiver and producer of extemporaneous speech, I do enjoy rhetorical patterns of dart and meander, so, I can appreciate that the things I thought I was saying were not necessarily the things the audience thought they were hearing, but, I thought I made clear that though I won't claim to read many, many books in my daily life I had, through an extended practice of listening to, and trying to hear, music, come to believe that the music I had worked with in the Independent Music Tradition followed directly from social conditions that came to be organized around specifc fields of literary practice, ie the work of James Laughlin at New Directions press, the "Berkeley Renaissance", the way Hogarth was operated, how Tender Buttons was published, etc.

Furthermore, your team seemed to misunderstand my allusion to the inherent risk and absurdity of asking people for money months before you will send them any product(s). My point was that it was laughable to pose as "one who knows". But we, I, like to laugh and play at things, like naming an, ahem - grungy old barn, a "chateuax". But I know this can be confusing.

Finally, while it been fun to dish with you all over the night, you guys got at least a few other facts wrong in your reportage. One of these, regarding Matt McCormick's status with the PDX film fest, was that he was no longer involved. In fact the sixth season opens in Portland on the 25th. See more here

The other error that seems worth mentioning here is that I never have said I'll be taking over as editor for the press. Fortunately, Matthew is leaving the current manucripts in pretty good shape. I'm also in contact with various talented editors eager to extend Clear Cut's reign of no taste long into the future.

Posted by Rich Jensen | April 17, 2007 10:33 AM

This is all starting to become reminiscent of the Andrew WK fallout over on Lineout. My head is starting to hurt . . .

Posted by Levislade | April 17, 2007 10:40 AM

RE: #12. Thanks for the title: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Via Amazon:

No judgement of taste is innocent. In a word, we are all snobs.

Posted by Matt Briggs | April 17, 2007 10:44 AM

Rich! You are getting verrrrry annoying. In fact, Matt used to curate the PDX festival, but this year he stepped down as the director. Gretchen Hogue is now the festival director. I got this information from the Peripheral Produce website and Matt's urbanhonking website, not Clear Cut.

Thanks for clearing up the misunderstanding w/r/t the editor of Clear Cut. I'll be looking forward to that future announcement.

@16: And we are all snobs because we all make judgments of taste.

Posted by annie | April 17, 2007 10:55 AM

Annie: Point taken. This is a simplification, though, if I'm taking you right. Just because taste is a constant, does not mean a reviewer or critic cannot jam it, mute it, shove a towel under the door.

Posted by Matt Briggs | April 17, 2007 11:16 AM

@12, allow me one last chew on this bone...There are kinds of discernment other than taste. In fact, one clue that I’ve got great writing in my hands is my continued engagement with it despite its offenses against my taste. You propose a definition of taste that “cannot be gotten outside of.” But that is a useless definition. It is the opposite of a definition. There are predilections I call “taste” that can be deliberately ignored, and the result is a much richer, more complex, beguiling, autonomous creation than that produced by conscientious taste-makers.

Great books are like that: unruly, impolite, multi-faceted. I’ve recognized and published great writing in part by noticing when it frustrates or aggravates me. It doesn’t mean I like it. It means I know it will be great. I read to enter a space that is indifferent to me, so the world can become much more than I am capable of imagining or desiring. Clear Cut Press books offer us a chance to read that way.

You might notice that these are also the qualities (I would call them “literary qualities”) that Clear Cut tries to program into its events. Potlatching our authors into evenings of live music, films, painters, food, alcohol, and our trade-mark time-deaf pacing, wasn’t common when we started doing it, forever ago, but it was like books. We thought so, anyhow. And like books, it can create a space that’s overfull with great work, but kind of indifferent to tastes. I know it’s not always pleasant, but the model seems to be catching on.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | April 17, 2007 11:17 AM

Somehow, I had a sense that the insults would soon return to the Slog.

Hey, what if our project is fresh description of the world? Is such a project served by the limits of taste? Say you want a dictionary. Would you prefer the unabridged or the tasteful one? And if you insist that choosing the unabridged is just 'a matter of taste', then I wonder, where in your scheme do you place knowledge and information? You really don't suppose there are patterns of 'natural' structure at work ordering social phenomena other than taste? And there couldn't be a literary or research practice that might thrive by generating venues for the fresh description of such phenomena? What do we do with writers who don't know where there language comes from? What do we do with language that we cannot arrtibute to Descartian ego-identities?

Sorry, about be so very annoying with the Matt McCormick remark. He told me he was working on the fest and so I ass-u-me-d he meant in the same old capacity. I didn't see the press release.

Posted by Rich Jensen | April 17, 2007 11:22 AM

Somehow, I had a sense that the insults would soon return to the Slog.

Hey, what if our project is fresh description of the world? Is such a project served by the limits of taste? Say you want a dictionary. Would you prefer the unabridged or the tasteful one? And if you insist that choosing the unabridged is just 'a matter of taste', then I wonder, where in your scheme do you place knowledge and information? You really don't suppose there are patterns of 'natural' structure at work ordering social phenomena other than taste? And there couldn't be a literary or research practice that might thrive by generating venues for the fresh description of such phenomena? What do we do with writers who don't know where there language comes from? What do we do with language that we cannot arrtibute to Descartian ego-identities?

Sorry, about being so very annoying with the Matt McCormick remark. He told me he was working on the fest and so I ass-u-me-d he meant in the same old capacity. I didn't see the press release.

Posted by Rich Jensen | April 17, 2007 11:22 AM

I have one question: Will the sexism be sustained? Or intermittent?

Posted by Dan Savage | April 17, 2007 11:42 AM

You mean the sexist taste that requires us to release books from men and women and, even, homosexuals? Yes, that sexism will remain firm.

Posted by Rich Jensen | April 17, 2007 11:48 AM

Sorry, Rich. That was an inside joke meant for Matt. Not a critique of Clear Cut at all.

Oh, and for the record: My commitment to sexism also prompts me to hire women and publish their work here at The Stranger. Homos, eh, not so much.

And I'm sorry I missed the event and can't weigh in myself. Sort of.

Posted by Dan Savage | April 17, 2007 12:00 PM

I have read two masterpieces at Clear Cut Press, Frances Johnson and Shoot the Buffalo. In addition, Matthew Stadler's writing is masterful. Also, I think he's really funny.

What is your problem? Maybe you didn't like the event. I'm sorry you felt you overpaid, but considering what clear cut press had done for me, the reader, as well as countless other readers and writers in the world, why would anybody for the stranger be so hard on them for this one event?

I don't want to take this thread too far. I'm just saying that these people, Matthew Stadler, Richard Jensen, and the authors who have published with clear cut press are truelly at the forefront of world literature, but this is not generally aknowledged by The Stranger, because The Stranger does not have the patience to stay through an event or book before taking a bunch of notes about it.

Maybe this is what Matthew Stadler is talking about with the discomfort of great literature. You want to control it before it controls you, before it sucks you into its mud.

Posted by Justin Dobbs | April 17, 2007 2:11 PM

The Stranger sucks. So I'm sure it won't matter to Clear Cut if the Stranger ignores all future Clear Cut events, authors, and new releases. The Stranger sucks and doesn't matter and all of its writers and editors are ignorant babies. Go away, Stranger, and leave Clear Cut alone.

Okay, Stranger? Would you please do that for Clear Cut?

Posted by EXTC | April 17, 2007 3:02 PM

"In fact, one clue that I’ve got great writing in my hands is my continued engagement with it despite its offenses against my taste. You propose a definition of taste that 'cannot be gotten outside of.' But that is a useless definition. It is the opposite of a definition. There are predilections I call 'taste' that can be deliberately ignored ..."

Two things:
1) Merely because you find a definition useless doesn't mean that it's not an accurate definition.
2) You're making a razor-thin, purely semantic distinction between one form of "taste" (which is being mistakenly conflated with the ideas of being "tasteful" or "tasteless") and your "predilections" -- I submit that to an objective observer, your predilections are your "taste." And I further submit (concurring with Annie) that setting aside your predilections completely is impossible (see below).

"Great books are like that: unruly, impolite, multi-faceted. I’ve recognized and published great writing in part by noticing when it frustrates or aggravates me. It doesn’t mean I like it. It means I know it will be great."

This not only contradicts your other statements and itself, it's also circular reasoning. First off, applying the term "great" to a piece of writing reflects subjective judgment, your predilections, taste, call it what you will. (Though I am taking your use of "great" to be a positive, which is admittedly an assumption.) Calling a piece of writing great, whether or not you enjoyed every part of the experience of it reflects your tastes, because there are no objective criteria for greatness. Does this even need to be said?

Secondly, the idea that writing you find frustrating or irrating or unpleasant is somehow by definition great is disturbingly simplistic -- it's the old "oh my god how horrible this is, it must be genius" approach to art, which is uber-tiresome. Shocking and tasteless /= greatness. Sometimes, even usually, shocking and tasteless = crap. To address Matt Briggs' comments re criticism, this is an example of bad criticism. Good critics assess what the artist is trying to do (whether that artist is Justin Timberlake or Philip Roth) and determine how well, in their educated judgment, the artist succeeds. You don't just read Annie because she can teach you something about movies. You read Annie because she can teach you something about the movie she's writing about, and that teaching is informed by her opinion and knowledge.

And finally, you're basically saying "it's great because it's great," which is a truism, but utterly unsubstantiated by the rest of what you say.

Posted by Superfurry Animal | April 17, 2007 3:10 PM

You make some excellent points. Your description of "good criticism," for example, suggests a kind of discernment that I value and try to practice. "Educated judgment," you call it. Yes, and my conviction that a piece of writing is great relies on educated judgment. I distinguish that faculty from "taste." Educated judgment is one thing the mind is capable of, other than reporting "good" or "bad," "like" or "don't like," "suggest" or "de-suggest."

Now, to be fair, I said I rely on my discomfort only "in part." As I think you're pointing out, my discomfort is itself an expression of my taste, just a negative one. But I write a lot and read a lot, and much of the clarity of my conviction that a piece of writing is great comes from this long involvement with the form.

Last, the slipperiness of "great" is granted. That's probably why I like the word so much. It's the best word for what I perceive when I'm sure that something has lasting value, despite my displeasure in it. I believe in great writing, and with the most respectful of motives, I sometimes promise to help liberate other readers from the tyranny of their personal tastes, as I did the other night in the storied Chateaux Duwamps.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | April 18, 2007 5:48 AM

So can we assume, Mr. Stadler, that you communicated your displeasure to the Stranger's editors when they initially suggested your event not just when they de-suggested it?

Posted by Quoting Oscar Wilde | April 18, 2007 7:11 AM

Oh no, no. I actually love to get a pick. It's very exciting. I actually didn't know about this one, but whenever I see a pick for something I'm doing I imagine everyone is all eager and psyched about it and that makes me excited too. No, I am a bundle of contradictions. I've been thinking about starting a sort of movement, a school I guess, called awesome-ism. We'd just think everything is awesome, always, all the time, forever. I'd sure prefer it to the exhausting gymnastics of staying on top of things, like critics have to do. I think that's what's in the Portland water right now. Jona, over at TeamYACHT and Urban Honking has mastered it. I am his student.

Posted by Matthew Stadler | April 18, 2007 10:27 AM

I don't think this kind of positivism has a place on the Slog... go play elsewhere. Oh right, you already have. Figures.

Posted by come again? | April 18, 2007 1:44 PM

This is late and I didn't attend the event, but a couple of things in this thread grabbed my attention. For the record, I have been to Clear Cut events and read several books, and have found both lovely and astonishing. Being astonished isn't always equable emotion--the word is related to stunned--so, yes, not everything has been too my taste. But even if I don't go, I want to go.

What grabbed me, and why I am writing here, is Matt Briggs' allusion to "Thomas Wolf," the substance of which--reactionary critic tells artists to stop being self-referential--is on point, but the name has implicated Thomas Wolfe, the novelist of Whitmanian aims, who inspired Kerouac, Roth, Mailer, etc., in this project. It is not he, but Tom Wolf, author of The Kandy-Kolored Acid Test who is a self-appointed art critic, and a Virginian to boot, a quality no North Carolinian lets stand. More to the point, Wolf has become a shutter-downer, more a clever name caller than the attentive and vivid journalist he once was. (He's also the only novelist I know of to include mention of his doctorate in his bio.) Wolfe, while not terribly esteemed in academic or experimental circles, was open-upper, a novelist who wanted to record all experience, whether it was ungainly or distasteful, and now whether it was that of small-town boy from the mountains of NC. This confusion is mine, but I wanted to make the distinction, since Wolf himself goes by "Tom Wolf".

I wanted to say a word about Bourdieu, too, but its clear that this reference is a throwaway. But casual as it is, I agree with Matt's point that by saying there is no getting out of taste, you are saying that taste is nothing--it can't be distingished from what it is not. This, I think, is what Hegel meant when he talked about Schilling's philosophy and the night of black cows.* It is one substance and there is nothing to see. In any case, indifference (which is not impartiality, which does aim for objectivity) is a perfectly legitimate stance, whether or not there is an outside to taste. It may be, in the larger sense, impossible, but like Bataille and the Red Queen, I believe in doing impossible things.

*Gratuitous mention of a German philosopher, though not Kant, who makes me cringe (in a goood way, I promise!)

Posted by Rob Crowe | April 25, 2007 6:52 PM

and up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong while watching how his penis patches got wet at

Posted by penis patches | April 30, 2007 11:27 AM

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