Literary Criticism: Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe astounds me whenever I read him, and I am reading him again, now.  He is, perhaps, one of the most gifted writers of this generation.  Wolfe writes about the depth and surface of human experience.  People too often, and mistakenly, talk about Wolfe’s interest in status.  That’s there, of course, but Tom Wolfe can write with insight and sensitivity about the soul, about spirituality, and the conflict of spirituality with the contemporary world and its vapid secularity–giving all their own voice.

Sometimes it is difficult to recognize the shining stars in the age in which they live.  For instance, Norman Mailer was a sensation in his day, but I don’t think anyone will be reading him for much longer, if anyone still is.  Tom Wolfe will continue to be read for generations because his novels are engaging, profound, artistic, and bespeak truths about the human condition that are timeless.

Tom Wolfe’s work has received mixed critical response.  Some prominent authors of the generation preceding him panned him.  I don’t know what gets into critics’ heads, sometimes.  You often see hubris and arrogance in them that makes them think that they have an Olympian voice about everything beneath them from their lofty height.  Hemingway once said he thought he should break the jaw of one critic every year.  Wolfe’s works surpass the accepted authors preceding him who panned him.  Wolfe will live on while they are forgotten.

Wolfe delights, engages, paints realistic characters, realistic situations, and comments on the vital issues of human existence.  I am casting this criticism out into the cyber-world as enthusiasm which must find voice, and as a recommendation to anyone who hasn’t yet been touched by this abiding artist.

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Contrasting Dynamics between Old and New Literature

I’ve recently been reading the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and the 19th century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev.  I’m finding a marked contrast in the development of the stories that each tell.  I am sad to say that I fail to understand the artistry of the contemporary novelist Murakami, while I am stimulated and captivated by the 19th century novelist Turgenev.

In the first chapter of Turgenev, there are four developing story tensions: 1) youth and age, 2) aristocracy and peasantry, 3) social grace and casual social insouciance, 4) science and art.  All this is evolving through four characters.  I can’t wait to see how these tensions play out.  By contrast, I am half-way through Murakami and there are no plot tensions; there have been a long succession of characters who appear then fall out of the narrative; and the story is a succession of episodes with nothing driving them other than the main character’s fascination with a woman who has something wrong with her.

The New York Times likes Murakami, and that makes me think that I’m missing something.  But I’ve read no critical commentary on Turgenev and I’m hooked.  Am I witnessing a clash of aesthetics between contemporary art and 19th century art?  Have my sensibilities failed to keep up with contemporary culture?

In my own aesthetics, a work of art commands attention by its own presentation.  I don’t need to read a book of art criticism to admire a Rembrandt painting–or a Monet landscape.  But I do, in order to appreciate Miro.  I don’t need to read criticism to enjoy Hemingway or Turgenev or Shakespeare or Tom Wolfe.  But someone needs to tell me why I should keep reading Murakami, because the author himself isn’t compelling my attention.

With so much art, I seem to leave off with early modernism.  Perhaps I am living witness to the plot tension in Turgenev between youth and age.  But then, that would commend Turgenev’s 19th century aesthetic.

Criticism, Personal Preference, and Enjoying Art

I think we all want to generalize our personal preferences into critical judgments.  When we mean, “I don’t like that,” we say, “That’s bad.”  For instance,mMy own personal feeling is that I don’t like heavy metal music.  So, naturally, I say that heavy metal music is bad music.  But the truth is, I don’t know enough about heavy metal music to make sound critical judgments about it.  I don’t know how to differentiate between good heavy metal music and bad heavy metal music.  Likewise, when we like something, we want to generalize our feelings into critical judgments.  When we really like something, we say, “That’s great!”  When I was young, I loved the music of Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and I still do.  So I claimed that those bands were great.  And I had the supporting argument that the music was technically sophisticated–in fact, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer played classical music in a rock idiom.  But to other people, their music was too analytical and intellectual.

I am a big fan of Andrew Wyeth’s art.  But during Wyeth’s life, critics didn’t know whether he was “great.”  When the elite in the art world were painting abstractions and pouring paint across canvasses–to great critical acclaim–Wyeth was painting amazingly realistic works of art.  I see abstraction contained in Wyeth’s realism, and Wyeth stated that he was uniting abstraction with realism.  But critics were suspicious of paintings that looked real in a world of abstraction.

The question comes down to what criteria a person uses in their critical judgments.  If a person begins with the assumption that all great art must be abstract, then they will not value realism.  But why would abstraction be the only measure of greatness?  Such critics would be able to distinguish between abstract works, and make judgments among greater or lesser abstractions.  But by their own criteria, they would not be in a place to make sound judgments between realistic artworks and abstract artworks.

I am a fan of jazz and blues music.  And I believe myself capable of making reasonably sound judgments regarding solos.  That is, I believe myself capable of identifying a good solo from a bad solo.  There is a current ideology that if one doesn’t like a work of art one doesn’t understand it.  One often hears art and literature students say, “I don’t understand it,” when they are confronted with a work of art that they don’t like.  This ideology promotes “appreciation” and considers judgment about art quality antiquated.  But there are qualitative differences among artworks.  And one can make judgments about better or lesser creations–provided one understands one’s own personal likes and dislikes.

But all this talk about critical judgment overlooks one important approach to art: do we enjoy it?  There are times when we let go of our critical minds, and decide to enjoy art rather than judge it.  These are times when we get authentic and say, “I like this;” or “I don’t like this.”  And we don’t generalize our feelings.  We simply enter into relationship with art and leave our experience as enjoyable or unpleasant.

I am not commending one or the other way to approach art.  We grow and learn when we stretch our likes and dislikes into new material.  We grow when we try to understand material we don’t like.  We may well decide that we still don’t like it despite our best efforts to understand.  But we will know more from the effort.  And we live a fulfilling life when enjoy and withhold judgment.  However we encounter art, art is an invaluable contribution to the human experience, and something I treasure, pursue, work at, and enjoy, and commend to others.

Criticism: Only Sophisticated Opinion

Of course the things that I like are better than the things that other people like.  I can bring intelligence and learning to support my likes and show why they are better than what other people like.  That is the way of the critic.  But for all the presumption of criticism, the reasons critics adduce for the arts they approve of are dressed up opinion.

Lately nihilism is en vogue.  “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” are examples.  This is because intelligent people today fancy themselves quasi existentialists and emulate Kierkegaard but without God.  Everything is meaningless and human effort is doomed to failure.  So they will come up with sophisticated reasons why art that favours this world view (their world view) is good.  I’ve been to Manchester, Mass.  I went there because Singing Beach is there and it is a beautiful beach and a solace from the frenetic pace of Boston.  Manchester is a place of peace, not a symbol for quasi existentialism.  My Manchester by the Sea and everything it means to me is as sophisticated as the Academy Award winning movie and everything it stands for.

We all have our likes and dislikes.  In school, they taught me “appreciation” for things I didn’t understand.  And to a large extent, they succeeded.  I now can appreciate things I didn’t like that much, before.  This has made my world expand and I am richer for it.  And the habit I acquired of appreciation continues.  There are certain arts I don’t like and I don’t bother with trying to appreciate.  And I think that this is a character defect in me.  But I can appreciate the fact that others appreciate those arts.  When I was younger, I would try to convince others that the arts they like, but I don’t, are inferior arts.  Now I affirm the likes of others.  That I may not like those arts is to my detriment.  But to assault the likes of others is mean spirited.

This isn’t relativism.  I remain true to my personal likes and dislikes.  Affirming that others have personal likes isn’t me liking those arts.  I still have reasons why I like the things I like, and reasons for the things I don’t like.  I will express my reasons, if asked.  But it all really comes down to, “I like this or that,–you like this or that.”  Live and let live.  I think that’s what an honest, and humble (remember that word?) critic would admit.