Oh, Barf-o

This is a post about criticism: how to do it well and not so well.  It begins with an illustrative anecdote:

I feel for the poor bloggers among us who click the “publish” button and send out into the world a post so misguided and poorly targeted that it opens them up to a storm of fury in the blogging world. I wish there was a way to spare bloggers like that — well-meaning, innocent blunderers — from the churning stomach-ache they’ll have to endure for about a week while they get yelled at by a bunch of really mad people.

You want to go check out that car accident don’t you? Okay, here’s a summary. Waldo Jaquith over at the Virginia Quarterly Review, which is a literary journal, posted a bunch of the mean comments their editors have made about fiction submissions. They’ve since been removed, so you’ll have to trust me that they’re not the meanest thing I’ve ever read, and some of them aren’t even all that original. (I’m sorry, but “barf-o” is not a critical term I have much respect for, perhaps because I hear it out of the mouth of my three sons — who are 12, 12, and 8 — all the time).

Still, the post touched a nerve. Okay, it ripped the skin off some people. Readers responded, here, and here and here and here.

One of many points made was that airing the negative reactions of the people who are, essentially, judges in a highly competitive game in which the participants suspect there is already a lot of unfairness (elitism and cronyism being the big two) is a no-no. It comes off as disrespectful, arrogant, mean-spirited. In my view, it is also a breach of an implicit promise of confidentiality a journal makes to its submitters. It’s other things, some that aren’t so bad. But you have to read those links to find out.

In his defense, Jaquith isn’t an editor — he’s the web guy. And he’s got a great name. He was just trying to amuse and entertain. In the law, there are some crimes where you do a lot less time if you didn’t intend them to turn out the way they did. Like murder. (If you hide out in someone’s garage, and then shoot them and maybe also steal a bunch of stuff, that’s way worse than if you’re the PG&E guy and you mistakenly turn on the gas in someone’s garage and kill them because, unbeknownst to you, they had chosen that inopportune moment to take a nap in their car).

If Jaquith is guilty of anything, it’s a misdemeanor. Lashes of the wet noodle rather than the solitary confinement at Pelican Bay with people blaring Ted Nugent at you (which is what he got). Not everyone would agree, but it’s my blog, and I’m the Legal Professional, so I’m going to go with me being right about this.

Jaquith then made an effort to be nice about it and apologize (sort of) by posting some of the good things people at the VQR have said about writers. Whew. I’m glad to hear that over at the VQR they know how to be nice. That effort didn’t really get him all that far, though, because people were still mad at him, so pretty soon, an editor at the VQR posted his own response. It’s a deliciously weird non-apology — the kind of thing that starts off apologizing and then goes on into a sort of blame the victim defense (you know, when a defendant says, well, I wouldn’t have killed the victim if the victim hadn’t asked for it by writing such a stupid story.) Anyway, sometime, check it all out (the link above to the VQR will lead you to the first, second and third posts). The whole thing is smoldering and just about out.

Me, though, I have no interest in that smoldering pile. I’m more interested in telling you about somebody who really DOES know how to condemn and praise, a guy who’s a real critic. I started thinking about him partly because of the whole VQR controversy, but also because of a post over at Ward Six about good writing that comes from unexpected places.

Now, if that isn’t the longest damned introduction to a book review about a book that illustrates How To Write Beautifully and Be a Proper Critic in an Unexpected Place, I don’t know what is. I love blogging. Digressions, smoldering controversies, strong words, mad people — I feel like we’re all in a smoky coffee house in London ready to draw swords over the things we feel passionate about, but unable to do so because we’ve had too much (a) coffee (and our hands are too shaky) or (b) wine (ditto) and, anyway, we sort of like each other. Fortunately, we have all the time in the world to wander around the coffee house yelling about this and that, and then maybe getting to the point before everyone falls asleep, but maybe not, which is okay too, because we are not in a hurry here at BlogLily.

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfumes: The Guide is a messy, opinionated, and very smart collection of reviews of more perfumes than I ever knew existed. Turin and Tania Sanchez smelled a lot of stuff, wrote about it, alphabetized it all, added a couple of good essays about perfume (how to wear it, its history, for example) and sent the whole thing out into the world.

It’s a great book. I don’t even care that it’s so badly indexed you have to rely on karmic convergence to find some of the perfumes you want to know about. Or that he dismissed a Guerlain perfume that was described by the New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr (there’s another whole long coffee house discussion of a blog post about what the Times is doing with a perfume critic on their staff) as “a crepuscular, rose-inflected darkness suffused with a luminosity that floats on the skin.”

I asked for that perfume for Christmas, being in the market for a little of that inflected darkness suffused with luminosity. Luca Turin gave it a respectable, but mere, three stars and summed it up as “handsome, striking, but a little tiresome in the long term.” Apparently, crepuscular gets old. It’s just that it’s a HUGE bottle of crepuscular. Still, I do like it, and I’m going to keep wearing it when I want to be luminous and yet plan to depart the party before I grow tiresome.

The thing I love about Turin as a critic (and this applies to Sanchez as well) is that he has a huge amount of respect for the past — he obviously knows and has experienced great perfumes, ones that still form the basis for what he thinks about things people are making today. I like that. I think it’s hard to be a good critic in a vacuum. 

Another thing I like about him is that he’s an enthusiast. If he likes something, he REALLY likes it. There’s no tiptoeing around it.  It helps here to be French.

He’s also unafraid to champion things other people won’t have anything to do with because that thing happens to be sold at Target.  That’s one of the hallmarks of a true critic — he thinks for himself and he finds wonderful things where other people are too good to look. I mean, really, have you tried Tommy Girl?  I have.  It costs $28 or so and it smells lovely. 

Qhen he hates something, he’s very funny, and a little mad. I like this one:

Delices eau de toilette (Cartier) * vile fruity

Probably called Delices the way the Furies were called Kindly Ones, for fear of upsetting them. This is a woody-vanillac fruity so loathesomely potent and crass that I cannot find a bad word to say about it. On second thoughts, I can: it’s not even vulgar.

Now that’s good stuff there.  FIrst, it made me laugh.  The whole thing about the furies was not something I knew.  Second, the idea that there is something even worse than being vulgar surprised me and made me think.  There’s a lot going on in this little tossed off paragraph.  It’s way better than “barf-o,” although that is exactly what he’s saying here. 

He does all this wonderful work in a paragraph, or even a sentence. When he gets up to three paragraphs, you know you’re reading about a perfume he considers a work of genius.

I’d recommend this book for anybody who cares about how we praise and condemn that which we love, which would include short stories.  I’d also recommend it for anybody who wants to smell good. And I think that somebody should send it to Waldo Jaquith, completely for free, because he deserves a little pick me up after the smelly week he just went through.

13 thoughts on “Oh, Barf-o

  1. The Michiko Kakutani of Perfumes! I have absolutely no interest in perfume beyond hoping my customers’ scents are a) lovely, and b) not asphyxiating, but I love a good critique — thanks for the info, sounds like an excellent read.

    Poor Waldo. I read the original posts and thought, oh dear, no good can possibly come of this. I guess some days, the impulse to write an entertaining post can lead one astray. I can see both/all sides, but really, like most brouhaha’s, it’s much ado etc.

    Of course, I’ve never been rejected by VQR, and hence have no suspicion that those snarky remarks were about my submission…

  2. Thanks Bloglily, enjoyed reading some of the nasty comments, and the Ward Six stuff. I like it when people don’t take reviews of perfumes or wines or writing that seriously.

  3. Bluepete, Me too! And I like Ward Six — there’s always interesting stuff over there.

    Marie — I’d say hoping for a little beauty and to not be asphyxiated is what we’re all looking for, not only in our smells but also in our reading. And yes, I’m with you, both on the much ado, and on the difficulty of trying to entertain and having that misfire.

    An additional reason why those snarky comments couldn’t possibly have been about your work or anyone else’s is that each and every one of them was about mine.

  4. I clicked randomly here out of curiosity, and am amused to note that Ward Six is on my blogroll … small cyberworld, eh?

    I’m baffled by the VQR situation. Surely at some time or another, all of us have read something which caused us to shriek in amazed amusement or horrified frustration, and subsequently perhaps we said something unkind and also unhelpful about it. Because of course some snarky criticism is actually helpful, if it has valid content. But to post the abusive cleverisms of editors is tantamount to recording a group of people sitting around making fun of the overweight and fashion-challenged, and then wondering why people are offended.

  5. Well hello David and welcome! I’m thinking these were posted in the loveliest of good faith by a person who thought, with astonishing optimism, that they’d be read with a light heart and thick skin, two attributes possessed by not a single writer I know. (Well, except for me, but only after I’ve had a pitcher of margaritas, and only for about two seconds before I become unconscious.)

  6. Of course, making fun of the overweight and fashion-challenged is a spectator sport in the UK and makes up most of our best television.

    Smugness aside, I’ve never really had much of an interest in perfumes but I could certainly work up some enthusiasm for a book of writing like that.

  7. I hope my cousin, who was the editor of the VQR for many, many years has a great view of all this from above and is getting a good laugh out of the things those of us in this life take way too seriously. And that perfume book, despite the fact I know nothing about perfume and only wear one scent (a lovely thing called “Emily” that my husband hired a perfumer to custom make for me as an Xmas present one year), sounds like a terrific read!

  8. Emily, I hope so too. It’s something to laugh about, I think, particularly one’s own reaction to this kind of thing, more than anything else. And how nice to have a custom perfume. I want to hear more about that!

    U-Dad, I’m thinking this morning that the thing to take away from both the VQR and Perfumes: the Guide is that it is good to try for a light touch in discussing things about which people might be touchy.

  9. A wise and delightful post, as usual.

    Have you read John Lanchester’s reviewof Turin and Sanchez’s book? If you haven’t, it’s worth a look just for the title.

  10. Hello Lokesh — Thanks for the link! I just read the review, and liked it very much. The question of how one describes a sensory experience (particularly in critiquing the experience and comparing it to others) is an interesting one.

  11. The perfumes book sounds wonderful! And I’m intrigued by the blog controversy. I sometimes wonder whether a commenter’s bad reaction can just set the ball rolling in the wrong direction for the blogger. It seems more of a misjudgement – something that’s tickled someone because he is not in the line of fire and he has posted it, unfortunately, for the people who ARE. A bit like telling Vietnam jokes to a bunch of veterans. Ah well, I daresay he’s learnt his lesson the hard way.

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