Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Praise Cycle

Modern criticism and political journalism have created a toxic new manifestation of Jung’s collective unconscious. Masses of critics and pundits, without any apparent connection (there is no evidence of a yearly town meeting where they decide this stuff), arrive at a universal consensus. It might concern a political party (The Democrats are ineffectual wimps) or an artist (Bob Dylan is a genius!). But it never has much to do with reality, except by coincidence. It’s satisfying when someone whose work you detest finally comes full circle and their best work in years is universally vilified. But more often it’s infuriating. You can almost smell it before it happens. I had a sense that no matter what kind of book Tom Wolfe wrote next, he was going to get slammed. And I Am Charlotte Simmons got exactly the irrational pasting I thought it would. Maybe by the time he publishes his next book the cycle will have turned 180 degrees and they’ll all praise it … even if it sucks.

One of the worst things that happens (at least in print) to an artist on the dark side of the rotation is the back-handed dismissal: a sort of marginal slap that requires no evidence or justification, since it’s stuck somewhere in the corner of a dependent clause in a sentence that’s discussing someone else. “Mr.A’s brilliantly evocative descriptions of the Amazonian jungle – so unlike Mr. B’s sterile urban street scenes -- seem to anchor the characters’ passions in the dense dripping heat of another world.” You read that and you say, “Wait a second! How did Mr. B get in there? Which street scenes are you talking about? Give me an example! Sterile in what way? Define your terms!” But he doesn’t have to, because he’s already back to the jungle and on to the next point. Start look for this kind of parenthetical side swiping and you’ll see it everywhere.

I always know a writer is on the dark side of the rotation when the review starts off on a chilling note of praise … usually for some previous work published in a sunnier phase of the cycle. In general, any review that starts off positive is bound to take a drastic turn downward into horrific, insulting contempt by paragraph three. Look at the reviews of Thirteen Moons for instance. They all start by lavishing praise on Frazier’s previous book, Cold Mountain (an equally turgid and pretentious pile of print) before circling in for the kill. I can guarantee – if Frazier times the cycle correctly – his next book’s reviews will start with something like “After the portentious and lackluster tedium of Thirteen Moons, I was expecting very little from a new book by Charles Frazier: another over-stuffed, brocade-upholstered -- and yet strikingly uncomfortable -- couch from a furniture maker aping the designs of an earlier age, while capturing none of their grace or beauty.”

Charles: if you read a first sentence like that, pop the champagne corks.
You’re in.

I went to a Bob Dylan/Paul Simon concert a few years ago. Simon, who was then in the darkest quadrant of the Praise Cycle, blew everyone away: the band was hot, the songs were fresh and re-imagined, the whole audience was up and dancing. Dylan by contrast, could barely sing. He couldn’t stay on key when he tried a duet with Simon. There were no recognizable melodies and few comprehensible lyrics. The occasional muttered word (“Tambourine”, “Johanna”) were the only hints to indicate which song he was growling and snarling at that moment. His band was good; he can still play harmonica. But everything else was embarrassingly, catastrophically bad.

Time magazine reviewed the concert in its next issue. This is quotation is typical: “Now Paul Simon knows what it must have felt like to be Art Garfunkel.”

I had to read that one twice. What the hell were they talking about? What concert did they go to? It makes you wonder … is there anything Dylan could have done that would have been bad enough for them to notice? If he had projectile vomited for an encore would they say, “He was singing from the gut”? Probably.
It makes you long for some future review which will begin “After a string of late career masterpieces, it seemed that Bob Dylan could do no wrong…”
When that axe falls, its going to fall hard.
And I for one will be cheering.

The problem is, these cycles don’t just operate in the realm of the arts. They’ve taken over politics, also. The press decides that Gore was a pompous blow-hard or that Kerry was an effete rich boy; they decide that Bush was a down-home brush-clearing ‘war time president’ … and just follow those absurd irrational narratives over the cliff. So often since 2000, I’ve wondered, what would Bush have to do to turn these people against him? Brag about being owned by big business? Nah. Turn his energy policy over to the energy companies? Whatever. Sanction torture? Nope. Lie us into war? Forget about it. Illegal wiretaps? Feh. How about, the worst attack on home soil in American history happening on his watch? Hey, that was all Clinton’s fault. It must be true: I saw it on TV.

Opinions on Bush are slowly cycling around now. The mid-term elections helped. But it’s too little and too late. He can still do a lot of damage. If he manages to sneak in another Supreme Court appointment, or cripple Social Security, or get another few thousand soldiers killed in Iraq, the press who gave him a free ride for six years are going to have to take their share of the blame. But somehow I doubt they will. Like a bully who can never apologize except by being unusually nice for a few days after an ugly incident, they'll probably just wind up over-praising a Democrat. It's already happening, actually.

These are good days to be Barack Obama.

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