Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Response to Mark Athitakis: Part One

Mark Athitakis, who has a well-respected literary blog, wrote a fascinating post about the Advanced Genius Theory. He wrote some very kind words about the book, especially with regard to my sense of humor. I intend to trot out some of his quotes the next time my wife rolls her eyes at one of my jokes. Anyway, Athitakis has had a long history with the theory, going from annoyed to curious to downright respectful. But I haven't won him over yet; he still has issues with the theory and lays them out very tidily on his blog. I thought I would spend a little time answering some of his criticisms, not to prove him wrong, but merely to engage in the type of conversation the book was supposed to inspire. Today, I'm writing to address his observation that my critiques of single works of art (rather than a body of work) is unsatisfying:
The problem with Advancement—and the reason why it’s easy to regard it as a parlor game, if not an outright prank—is that its scope is limited. The theory only applies to artists who have a proven history of unquestioned brilliance (15 years, Hartley suggests), so the theory tends to get caught up in details about whether a musician’s acquisition of sunglasses and “world beat” musicians signifies Advancement or not. (Yanni would be the ultimate Advanced musician, I suspect, were he ever any good.) Another limitation is that Advancement mainly considers careers, not individual works—or at least doesn’t consider individual works in any interesting way. (They’re always better than you think! Because an Advanced artist made them!) Hartley is never more flat-footed as a writer then when he writes about a particular album; when he considers Dylan’s album Shot of Love, he lapses into the kind of fanboy fawning fit for a message board. (“The second song, ‘Heart of Mine,’ is a lovely, piano-heavy tune that shows off Dylan’s ability to sing in a conventional style when called upon to do so….”)
To this I say, well, a few things. First, there was a lot of ground to cover in the book, so I made the decision not to get too deep into particular works. I could write a book about Shot of Love, but I chose instead to address just the idea that he "can't sing" because that is a major hurdle for many listeners. It might be better to say that my  purpose was not so much to explain why you should enjoy certain Advanced music but, rather, to convince you that it is possible to enjoy it. As for fanboy fawning, if truly feeling that "Heart of Mine" is lovely constitutes fanboy fawning (or just bad music criticism), then I'm guilty. But I wanted to write like a fan rather than a critic because I hoped that my sincere enthusiasm would inspire people to give Dylan and other Advanced artists another shot. 

It seems that Athitakis's primary complaint with the book/theory is that I'm not fulfilling the role of critic adequately. He mentions in his post that I am averse to criticism and I'm suggesting that others should be as well. I'm not saying that, or not exactly that. I'm just trying to put criticism into some sort of context. What does it mean if Kurt Loder doesn't like a Bob Dylan song, but I do? Am I wrong? Is he? Is it possible that we're both right (or wrong)? In the process of trying to answer this, it seems valid to me to look at Dylan's body of work and, especially, the contemporary reaction (critical and popular) to his separate works. My position is that Dylan is right more often than he is wrong, so I give him the benefit of the doubt. I would like to say that it is possible to judge a work by itself, but I don't think it is.

I have more to say about all this, but I wanted to get some thoughts down while they are fresh. 

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