/ 24 August 2018

A Reader’s Guide to Laughing

I’m sure that some of you have seen this film in which a critic magnificently dies. ‘Just what does that leadless pencil you call an imagination have in mind to end this scene‘? he said to an author who was pushing his buttons at some rooftop party. What the writer had in mind was to nonchalantly push him off the top of the building and then order himself a shot of tequila. I wasn’t surprised to see that everybody watching in the room with me had a good laugh. Fellow book fairies, especially those who have always wanted to get into a critic’s head – I urge you to watch the Wachowskis’ and Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas. You could also read the novel, however, I’m quite sure that never in the history of film has a critic’s brain been so explicitly smeared on the floor. Flattened beyond belief!

‘Maybe this scene was the reason so many critics hated this film’, wrote a smartass in the YouTube comments. I couldn’t disagree more. The three literary critics in the bunch – we had tears of laughter in our eyes. Because we (as do you, probably) know loads of writers and poets who take themselves all too seriously in real life. Meanwhile, I can luckily guarantee that I have not yet met a critic lacking a sense of humour. And – taking into account the money we make in Slovenia per month – also a wish to live a tormented life.

‘It’s a good thing that nobody reads us and gives a damn about our aspirations nowadays’, a critic would add in a melodramatic tone. Except writers! At least from what I can gather from the passive-aggressive posts on Facebook and messages over social media they tend to send to their reviewers. ‘I am not writing this to comment on your work, that’s just not me. However, I was disturbed by…’, a Slovenian novelist once felt it was okay to start sharing with me, even though we were never introduced. And I even thought I shouldn’t be annoyed by the fact that he was also patronising me, but should be grateful that my review managed to produce at least some sort of reaction.

But then there was this other multiple-literary-awards-nominee who wrote to a female colleague of mine, first discussing her work, then her style and then her appearance – she had to block him on Facebook in order to make him stop. Not to mention a public scandal just two years ago, when a fellow colleague was trying to get engaged in writing a piece for a renowned Slovenian literary magazine but was bluntly informed that ‘he never fell for a woman who wouldn’t get his [dick] up just with a few sentences’ by the editor, himself a successful writer and (now former) president of the Slovenian Pen Centre. It wasn’t funny when he refused to resign, even when the word got out to the media.

Why would he, when we live in a society in which a winner of the highest national cultural award has the nerve to yell, curse and throw books around only because a critic, moderator of the festival event, kindly asks him to conclude his reading, since he has already taken so much more time than the other invitees. And when asked politely by another poet to publicly apologize for his behaviour, he continues to shout that the younger poet could never understand his rage, since he ‘never put as much effort into his own writing’. That was the moment I – the aforementioned moderator – started questioning not only my choice of profession, but also the colour of my passport. Isn’t the art world supposed to be immune to generation gaps and sexism and violence, not prone to it?

It is not a coincidence that, in Slovenia, the reviewers nowadays are mostly young up-and-coming women with an unstable income, while the authors who feel entitled to show off their insecurities by lashing out are elderly, well-situated men. The feminisation of the profession is not the reason criticism is losing its once fine reputation and high social status, so that young and capable male colleagues decide to pass on this career opportunity. The media eclipse as one of the consequences of the political and economic decay of Slovenian society is, however. As are these so-called immature gentlemen writers. Nobody is taking away their well-established position in the Slovenian nation-building history, but it has been centuries and they still haven’t learned how to listen. I understand it must be hard for them, being used to rolling in clover for so long, plus a man can’t really concentrate on other people, if he’s busy making himself look as glorified as ever, throwing his own opus magnum in the air. But once the book hits the floor, you know its author has really fallen.

The works of such authors have achieved wide public recognition mainly because of their critical vigour. They have (or had) the knowledge, the ability and the possibility to point out social injustice, to repair historical mistakes, to promote the human right to a diversity of choices – through writing literature. So why do they refuse to stand with the rest of us in this mirror reflection?

There is a common (mis)conception that criticism is just a perishable secondary activity trying to steal the spotlight from the ever-lasting Work of real Artists. But I hope we can at least all agree that a good critique – in my opinion itself a work of art – always takes the opportunity to open the floor for discussion and show the way to the possibility of changing opinions. And it does not matter if that happens at a cheese rolling race or at a drag party, when crushing nuts to make a strudel or dancing to The Pet Shop Boys, if it’s online or even in such an unexpected place as a library or a bookstore.

Maybe an estranged poet saying hi on Facebook today won’t be a stranger tomorrow. Pencils will break and sometimes hearts, heads will surely roll during word duels and groups of mediators might have to call in the reinforcements. However, nobody actually minds sensitive artists, people only mind insensitive people. Once we start quietly complying with any kind of violence in the field of arts and, doing so, implementing the practice of not listening to each other in the art system, the joke will be on us: Writers, poets, critics, translators, editors, publishers – all of us readers. But none of us staring in this life-like film will feel like laughing in the end.