Monday, March 10, 2008

Fame and How It Operates

What I hope to do over the next month or so is build toward a practical criticism, some guidelines about how to evaluate a poem, a book, a poet. There needs to be an antidote to today's anything-goes relativism, if only (as suggested in an earlier post) to address the problem of arbitrariness when decisions are made concerning support for artists. Which impinges on public policy, considering that not only the NEA but private foundations offering funds for the arts ultimately pass on part of the bill to the taxpayer. That’s the “hard” part of the question, and so may interest more people than the “soft” part—aesthetics itself, which is my real interest here.

The way to begin is by saying what is NOT a proof of lasting value. You’d think that every intelligent person would already be aware that fame per se proves nothing. But, judging by the evidence, I’m afraid the arguments have to be reconsidered. I don’t know if any psychologist has done research on the psychology of fandom. But even without it a few observations can be made. People like to herd together, they like to be bound up in a community (if only for a brief period) of participatory admiration. The most extreme current example of this is the rock concert, which borders on collective delirium. Elias Canetti, among others, wrote powerfully about the phenomenon of the crowd, a whole that is scarier than the sum of its parts. Fandom of any kind, at a milder level, can partake of this same community excitement and affirmative group admiration. Hence contemporary celebrity culture, which can seize on any individual, turn her or him into an “icon,” and guarantee a large fan base, irrespective of any outstanding qualities the “icon” may be discovered to possess or not. Apparently collective adoration of any given figure—from Princess Diana, to Tiger Woods, to Anna Nicole Smith—provides a deep sense of pleasure and security, intensely desired in a world where solid ground is hard to find. The single individual has trouble making decisions about which thing or person has real value; and relinquishes private judgment in favor of groupthink as a way of feeling safe. If you adore a star, you partake, in some small degree, of the radiance of that star, even one so insignificant as Paris Hilton.

And guess what: the process operates in the arts as well as media culture. The more famous you become, the more fans you acquire and the more famous you become. The herd instinct takes over. A given individual, encountering a new work by the reigning star might secretly find the work unsatisfactory—but then is afraid to admit to doubts in the face of the surrounding sea of approval. When there are no reliable standards of judgment, people rely on the shortcut of fame to decide which work and which artist to admire. After prominent figures in the arts achieve a certain level of fame, it becomes impermissible to question or even qualify their achievement—impermissible because “mean-spirited,” “ill-mannered,” “part of an agenda.” So much for J.S. Mill and the ideal of free debate.

How reliable a guide is fame? Not reliable at all. The most famous American novel of the 19th century wasn’t Moby-Dick, it was not The Scarlet Letter, not The Awakening, not Portrait of a Lady: It was Augusta Evans’s St. Elmo. Ever read it? Ever even heard of it? Probably not. Contemporary fame is a poor preservative. True, there are instances where great fame in an author’s lifetime continues on in subsequent centuries. But much more typical is the picture of neglect and even derogation. Dickinson’s poems were known to less than a dozen readers in her life, including a devoted fan named Helen Hunt Jackson, who was very famous as a poet in that day. When Melville died, he was out of print, utterly forgotten, or if remembered, remembered as a failure. Billy Budd survived in manuscript only. And so on.

How does individual fame begin and how does it increase? A huge question. To keep it manageable, let’s narrow it down to poetry and poets in the United States in the last several decades. First of all, reviews. No, back up. The editorial assigning of reviews. An editor cannot assign all books that come in and can’t possibly read all of them, either. A review assignment is based on either word of mouth (in short, connections) or publicity materials sent with a given book, including jacket comments (also a product of connections). Usable connections for a poet starting out can range from a professor in an MFA program, a mentor (however acquired), a family member who is already an established writer or editor, or a partner who is that. It was always rare for a poet with no connections of any kind to make her or his way; in the current scene, where there are thousands of contenders for any available niche, it is a practical impossibility.

Reviewers may or may not have the training that suggests they have the ability to make sound judgments about new books. Looking at the “credentials” for reviewers often featured in poetry publications now, I’m struck by how thin most of these are. You sense that they are often personal friends of the editor, and there would be nothing necessarily wrong with that if other solid qualifications could be found. Soon, very soon, a reviewer’s qualifications become that she or he has reviewed, and that seems nowadays to be enough, especially if reviews appear in spotlit magazines like The Sunday Times Book Review or Poetry.

No matter. Reviews are taken seriously. A rave in the Times almost unfailingly leads to a nomination for one or more of the three main book prizes, the NBCC, the NBA, or the Pulitzer. Sometimes the nominee wins; and such laurels are avenues to fame at the national and international level. If you look at the list of prizewinners, you will see that many of the names appear several times. Winning one prize increases the chance of winning another. Several authors have won all three. Meanwhile, prize committees are faced with the same problem of faction and disagreement about aesthetics. Forced to compromise, they often take the safe way out and pick someone who has already gone gold in previous competitions. Prizewinning, like fame in general, is a self-reinforcing process. The more you are perceived as a winner, the larger the number of your admirers--some of these reviewers who will reinforce the group evaluation. Each time a book is not awarded prize increases the probability the author will not receive a later one. A first-rate poet (like Robert Pinsky) can move through most of his career and never receive any of the three major prizes, even though there is ample evidence of his value elsewhere, including the Poet Laureateship.

I wish I were able to believe that prize committees made their choices without reference to what that choice would do for the committee itself. But, sadly, over the years, I've seldom discovered much that resembles impartiality (as, for example, the possibility that a prize might be given to someone belonging to a rival faction). Most often a book is selected not for what it actually is, but instead what it suggests. At least we are moving toward full disclosure in the matter of the awarding process. In the old days, Pulitzer composition of the judging committees was kept secret, a feature perhaps lending an extra mystique to the oldest and most lucrative American book prize. The decision could seem like a decision made by American poetry itself, and as such unchallengeable. Now we have disclosure; we know who the judges are and can adjust our sights accordingly, which is as it should be. But there are other holdouts, for example, the MacArthur and the Lambda Book Award.

Another avenue to fame is having a famous critic as your champion. Beginning in the Sixties, this was Harold Bloom, who greatly advanced the fame of poets like Ashbery, Ammons, and Merrill. In the mid-Seventies he began to review less and his own pre-eminence came under fire, so that an endorsement from him (say, in a jacket comment) counted for less. Since around 1976, the critic most listened to has been Helen Vendler, a monopoly based partly on her skills as a close reader of poetry, partly on her clear, easily readable prose, and partly on the fact that she wrote—and not just occasionally—for the Times, The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, and then for a while was the only reviewer of poetry at The New Yorker. When she joined the English faculty at Harvard, her prestige rose a bit further. She is a passionate and tireless advocate (and this speaks well for her) of the poets she admires—Ashbery, Heaney, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Milosz, Charles Wright—and a formidable opponent of those she doesn’t like. She has sometimes championed a poet and then later on changed her mind—two such examples being Dave Smith and Rita Dove. But during the period of her partisanship, any poet she writes about will prosper. Nor are reviews and critical essays the only way she exercises influence. She is famous for writing lengthy, enthusiastic letters of recommendation and for sitting on committees that determine which poets will be funded. She is a careful, sensitive critic when she writes about the classic poets, who do not need to be discovered—Shakespeare, Herbert, Keats, Stevens. And former students of hers tell me that she is a marvelous teacher. I share her liking for some members of her group of favored contemporary poets, but not all; and there are many poets of unmistakable value she has no use for. (Derek Walcott and Adrienne Rich, to name two.) She is only interested in lyric poetry, preferably lyrics of Stevensian difficulty. Any whiff of political content disqualifies a poem for her, including feminist content. She dislikes narrative poetry, dramatic monologues, comic poems. She saves her highest praise for grave, philosophical rumination, especially when abstruse. This might not matter; we’re all entitled to the taste that we can support with cogent, text-based argument. Unfortunately, what it has meant is that the poets she doesn’t like only in rare cases move into the glowing center of public recognition. This allegation has been made before now, and it is always denied. Professor Vendler says that she does not make reputations, that only poets can establish the reputation of other poets. But the evidence suggests a different view. Professor Vendler has earned the right to her opinion where contemporary poetry is concerned. It should not, however, be the only opinion that counts. American poetry is too large and varied to be contained within the Vendlerian aesthetic. And it’s time that less famous critics like Adam Kirsch, Langdon Hammer, Joan Retallack, Reginald Shepherd, and D.H. Tracy should be heard.

Once fame has been established by reviews and prizes, the famous poet becomes a new source of fame for others--through recommendations, jacket comments, the judging of prizes, and participation in hiring committees. And if you have patronage of any kind to dispense, your fame index is likely to rise, for obvious reasons. Finally, institutions like the Academy of Arts and Letters will step in to add the final endorsement. They remind me of the velvet rope put up outside smart restaurants and cool clubs: they stimulate the desire of those outside to get inside. And admission is never free. We know that membership in the Académie Française is secured by courtship; aspirants call on each existing member and try to establish a sense of solidarity. It’s like canvassing for votes. Nothing so blatant is required in the American equivalent, but, as said, membership isn't donated.

There is another way to become famous: Start an aesthetic movement. When you do that, you move literature out of the fiction-world and into the fact-world. Movements can be written about in non-fiction articles, which will interest readers probably even more than the fictive works themselves. (See the earlier post on autobiographical writing.) Experimental poetry has been around for a long time but it really got going once all the diverse experimental approaches could be lumped together under the heading of LANGUAGE poetry. Meter and rhyme was never not being used in English-language poetry, but no one made anything of that fact until the so-called “New Formalism” got started in the early Eighties. We now seem to be living in a period like the teens of the early 20th century, when almost every season heralded a new poetic movement—Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Imagism, Ultraism, Dada, Surrealism—and the hoax movement Spectrism. And why not? Movements can be written up in the media, they launch careers. Eventually any given movement dissolves, either because it no longer is news or because the diverse artists lumped together under the heading decide they have nothing much in common, now that they are famous. Aesthetic movements can be said to belong more to the history of publicity than of poetry itself; but never mind.

The question, “Is fame (or the lack of it) a reliable gauge for the value of a poet?” can be answered simply by listing. On one hand, Southey, Felicia Hemans, Edgar Guest; on the other, Blake, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins. We need a more reliable way of deciding what has lasting value.


R S Gwynn said...

This assumes that Vendler is the sole maker of reputations. Well, this may be so as far as the big-money awards are concerned. And maybe with those academics who will gladly fall into line. And, as you say, it has a "bandwagon" effect as far as the rest of the earthly benefits are concerned.

Still, it doesn't amount to very much other than present enrichment and temporary "fame." Unfortunately, none of us will be around to see if Dr. Vendler's favorites have legs.

A good point could be made about, say, the tastes of "ordinary people": whom would they prefer--Frost or Stein (or H. D. vs. Pound)? The best poetry, I think, would be that which speaks to them and others--across various socio-economic lines--in some way. This is not saying that the vox populi should be any indication--we know where that goes--but that what intelligent, non-expert readers can appreciate should be taken into account. Those who in an earlier era railed against the Philistines might be happy with them now.

I wish someone would poll The New Yorker's readers about the poetry contained therein. What do they make of it?

Still, now that I think of it, the vox populi would have wholeheartedly endorsed Edgar Guest against Robert Frost. This may kill my argument.

I wish there were some kind of middle ground in the U. S. between, on the one side, Pollock and, on the other, those big-eyed Keane kids. But I despair of it.

I admire Vendler for her good close readings, but I have long feared that she is unsually susceptible to a "glamour factor" that has influenced her evaluations of poets. The poets she has "dropped" may be more instructive than those she has chosen to hang with.

On the one hand, we need more than a William Logan (bless him) as a pricker of balloons; on the other, we need better than H. V. as an advocate.

Alfred Corn said...

Well said. I didn't go into the question of anthologies and their power to confirm and expand fame, but since, Sam, you have experience in that area (as I don't), it would be great if you'd share it.

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys said...

Your post certainly taught me a great deal about the workings of the poetry world. For someone still looking in somewhat longingly from the outside it was both instructive and a bit discouraging. Though I suppose in another way rather encouraging, for after all, the lesson of history (a phrase of which most historians are rather wary!) seems to be that present connections, and even present fame, are not a sufficient criterion of genuine aesthetic worth. But then if one wants to be famous in the first place one had really better find something else to do than write poetry. I can say that in my experience, short as it is, the world of academic philosophy contains many of the same folkways of fame-creation (and de-creation). For instance, rather few philosophers read Sartre anymore, or at any rate any of the texts for which he became 'famous'.

Joseph Duemer said...

A quibble, but perhaps an interesting one: You mention Princess Di, Anna Nicole Smith and Tiger Woods above as exemplars of celebrity. Initially, I thought you were going to make a distinction later between Woods and the others. What distinction? That Woods, in his area of expertise, possesses the kind of technical skills and intellectual focus that poets might try to develop in their area of expertise, i.e., writing poetry. No one wants to be the Anna Nicole Smith, or even the Princess Di, of American poetry, but I wish I could bring the skill and focus to poetry that Woods brings to golf. Yep, I'd be real damn happy to be known as the Tiger Woods of poetry.

Alfred Corn said...

A point worth making. Keeping blog entries short isn't easy. The main argument was about the seductiveness of celebrity, which can of course be based on excellence, as with Tiger Woods. Still, some of us feel that America's athletes are too much rewarded, considering how little they do of lasting value for the common good. And let's concede that Diana did an enormous amount of charity work (for example, the problem of military mines)and that even Smith, according to friends, was not an airhead, but in fact a sensitive person interested in the arts. But my reason for mentioning them (I could just as well have mentioned Britney Spears or Roger Clemens or Mike Tyson) was simply because of their worshipful fan base. The really negative example of blind adoration is Ms. Hilton, who seems not to have any talent at all except for publicity.

Joseph Duemer said...

Agreed about celebrity & American athletes. It's just that I regularly try to hit a golf ball so I know from personal experience how hard it is! As for charity, Woods gives millions to his educational foundation, not that Di or Anna Nicole didn't do good deeds too. But I was thinking about technical skill, especially since you seem to be developing an argument about useful evaluative criteria for poetry. Technical skill may be a more accurate measure, however partial, of poetic value than fame, which you have rightly set about to debunk in your post.

Ms Baroque said...

Hi Alfred, very interesting piece.

I'm reminded of, I think it was the novelist Mariw Corelli - once again, a hugely successful favourite novelist in her day - who, when being quizzed over whether she wanted her work to "endure," said the finest epitaph she could think of having was, "She gave pleasure to her contemporaries."

Then again - as to the readers and what they like - most artists now recognised have not been popular in their own day precisely because they were doing something new, and people don;t tend to like so much what's new - it's too much hard work. They like what they already recognise. As my mother said to me when I was a disaffected teenager: "On the whole, most people would rather go bowling."

I can;t think of any one person here in the UK who has the kind of star-making power Vendler has in the States, at least not in the same way; can you?

But, and seriously, because the Arts Council debate is raging here too, with regards to who gets funding and who doesn't, and all the PC tickboxing that goes on: aside from those pragmatisms of funding etc, do we really, at all, need to find a way to tell what's lastingly good? Indeed, we could say the duty of the funders is to those of us who are alive now to consume this art: the future can take care of itself.

Alfred Corn said...

Thoughtful, Ms. Baroque, and let's think some more. Marie Corelli gave pleasure to some of her contemporaries, not the discerning sector of the readership. And when we read the popular writers of our day, some of us don't get any pleasure at all from them, they quite let us down. Arts Council funding is meant to compensate for the imbalance. Would that Christina Rosetti and Charlotte Mew had been supported, while Corelli and Ouidah were enjoying their royalties.

Ms Baroque said...

Right you are - of course!