Friday, January 6, 2012

Friday Filler! Strong Opinions!

I had an idea this morning about writing essays, or blog posts, or other nonfiction pieces. I read a lot, and I've noticed that while a lot of the nonfiction reading I do is simply to pick up facts to use in fiction, I still do a lot of reading about fiction. Nonfiction essays (including literary criticism and plain old book reviews) about fiction.

In a purely factual piece, like an encylopedia article for example, I don't so much want the opinion of the writer to come through (though of course it's still there in the organization of the article and the weight given to subjects and supporting arguments and all of that). Mostly, I'm just looking for neutral information I can use for my own evil purposes.

In a piece where someone is talking about art, however, I think that what should be driving the writing is a strong opinion about the art or the artist. I think that, for example, most book reviews should be persuasive writing, not enclyopedia entries. And a lot of writing on the interwebs that's about fiction really lacks this sort of driving opinion.

For example, I think that if I were to write about Samuel Beckett's play Waiting For Godot, I could say that it's a comedy about the futility of searching for a higher meaning in life. Or I could say that it's basically two vagabonds in a wood who encounter various curious characters and speak in colorful nonsense. I could stretch those ideas out to 1000 words and it would all be true and informative, but it might not be interesting to anyone who's actually seen/read the play. It doesn't really spark a discussion. [Oh! More on that in a bit!]

What might be more interesting, at least to me, is if someone expressed an opinion about Waiting For Godot and said why they have that opinion. For example, when I read the play I laughed out loud, but every time I've actually seen it performed, it's struck me as pretty annoying for long stretches in the middle and I've been tempted to stand up and tell Vladimir and Estragon to stop their damned whining because, in general, this play is over acted by folks who want to chew up all the scenery. It's one of the best worst-acted plays of all time.* If anyone wanted to talk about why that is, or why I am mistaken, that would be cool.

Which is the thing, I think. A lot of writing, especially on the web, doesn't lend itself to discussions, and I think that's a shame. I would much rather have a conversation about a book or an author than just read a description of a book or a few facts about an author. What I enjoy most here on the Literary Lab, for example, are those days when people have differences of opinion and everyone's minds get expanded by exposure to opposing points of view.

So that's it, then: in my opinion, we should all be more opinionated, and should all be more upfront with our opinions. It would be interesting, I think. Also, it allows me an excuse to write the footnote that comes at the end of this blog post. Happy Friday, everyone!

* Though immediately Keanu Reeves' performance in Ken Branagh's film "Much Ado About Nothing" leaps to mind; Reeves seemed to have learned all his lines phonetically, having no idea what the words actually meant. That was some awful acting.


  1. I agree with you on this. I enjoy conversations that expose different perspectives. I was recently asked to write the review of a book every month for an online magazine and so I appreciate this post. I do pour my subjectivity onto my reviews because the reading of a story is tied to my own views and interpretation. And it's good when somebody who has read the same book is willing to challenge my views or bring new perspectives. So even when I try to be objective, I am subjective, because have my own opinions and my personal experience.

  2. Julia: Objective reviews are never as fun as subjective ones. The problem with opinion pieces is that most people will spout their opinion but without first pausing to wonder why they have that opinion. So there is a lot of thoughtless, opinionated writing going on already. What I'd like to see more of is thoughtful, opinionated writing. Informed opinions. I see that what I'm really asking is for teh internets to be smart and to keep me entertained. It's all about me and my needs, you know.

  3. What is this? Content on a Friday? Can I still announce that Peanut got his cone off yesterday and is incredibly happy about it?

    But I do agree with this post. When I read a review, I want to either agree or disagree with the reviewer. Either way is okay because I feel like I've been allowed to see the book in a different way and to think more about the book on my own. And I like to disagree, especially when I love a book that someone else doesn't!

  4. You're such a disagreeable man, Mr Malasarn.

    What, no photo of Peanut sans cone? For shame!

    I was originally going to post some nonsense about the dozen crows roosting in front of my office, but then I had an actual idea. My bad.

  5. Ha! Keanu Reeve in anything is horrible. The only thing even remotely good was Matrix. And I've only seen that on TV.

    Of course that's just my opinion...

  6. I agree again, sorry. I prefer thought-provoking thoughtful comments as opposed to empty talk. So I am glad to know I'm not the only one with this expectation. I suppose that's the reason why I bother answering these posts you write.

  7. Yes, thought-provoking. Sometimes when the comment thread is boring, I'll try to push the discussion into new territory. Sometimes people will take me up on it. Usually not, though. Sometimes I'll say something just plain provoking to see if anyone will tell me why I'm wrong. I'm often wrong, but I don't often know why. It's nice to find out what I don't know, or which of my opinions are merely unexamined assumptions.

    S.P.: Keanu was perfect in The Matrix. The main requirement for the part was being tall. Hugo Weaving totally carried that film.

  8. It is my very strong opinion that this is way too brainy a post for Friday Filler. Pffffffft!

    Also, yay for Peanut!


  9. In my opinion, you're totally correct Scott.

    Of course, by agreeing with you, I leave no room for discussion.



  10. Alex: Last night I had a dream that was like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. I was riding in a van with three other people plus Spike. It was daytime, but he was still a vampire. We were driving through a deserted city somewhere, looking for something not specified. Spike was guiding us to it. He insisted we let him out at a certain corner and immediately he runs off. "Told you he'd do that," I say. We get out and go looking for him on foot, finding him some time later, involved in sordid vampiry activities. I drag him away from his fun and then we're in a fenced-in area where a building has been torn down. There are chunks of cement and pipes and other debris everywere. Suddenly from down an alley come a host of zombies! Spike, of course, flees. I make for the chain-link fence to escape. I wake up before I am eaten by zombies.

    Is that less brainy enough?

    Donna: Let's hear a little more about how correct I am. No, go on.

  11. Great post, Scott. The most important thing I got out of what you said is that people need to justify their opinion (intelligently of course). I don't see there being a lack of opinions but rather a lack of intelligently-supported opinions. It is this type of discourse that is more likely to persuade than just stating an opinion. Like you, I also enjoy reading things like that as well (assuming everyone acts like adults and doesn't make it personal, get offended, etc).

  12. I don't think you can limit Keanu Reeves' acting "style" to that one film. He does that every time. Except when he tries to feign an English accent, like in "Dracula" and then it's taken to a new level of bad, just like Kevin Costner did with "Robin Hood".

    Although, to be fair, Costner did provide an opening for the single best line in Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" when Carey Elwes said, "Unlike some Robin Hooods, I can talk with an English accent."

    And while we're on the subject, how about the use of the British accent to denote anyone foreign? I'm talking about you, Drew Barrymore and "Ever After" where everyone in France speaks like a Londoner for no particular reason.

    There. Finished. Have a good wekend.

  13. My thoughts:
    I loathe Waiting For Godot and find it tedious. However, I do feel that it is a well-named play. ;)
    I completely and totally agree that Keanu Reeves' Don John is awful. Even my 7th graders can pick that out when we study the play and watch a few scenes of that movie version.

  14. This is a nice post. I must say, I've no shortage of opinions in my head, and I've a habit of sharing them. I enjoy a nice conversation.
    On an unrelated, and yet somehow related note, I almost want to come to the defense of Keanu Reeve's performance. He might have looked like the world's most obvious villain -- why would you let a guy who looks that shady in your house? -- but that's more the beard's fault than his.

  15. The beard is blameless. The beard is always blameless. BTW I have a beard.

  16. I'm all for opinions as long as they're based on some level of thoughtfulness and they make room for the possibility that other people have other opinions as well.

    And sometimes those other people may not quite agree with my opinion or they might offer a another perspective that might help me to broaden my opinion or to see things at a deeper level. On a different level at least.

    I'm pleased to meet you here and to join the discussion. If you want to broaden your perspective, say on Beckett, you might like to visit Jim Murdoch's post on Beckett (if you've not yet been there) where he also has an opinion or two on Waiting for Godot, at:

    Jim's opinions are worth considering, because they are thoughtful, personal and well -founded. They also leave room for other people's views.

  17. I think one of the problems with some critics (we all know which ones) is that they either delude themselves into thinking that they’re being objective or start believing what they commit to paper is something different, something superior to mere opinion which is why, in Waiting for Godot, when Didi and Gogo are playing at slinging insults at each other Estragon says (with finality): Crritic! Beckett may well be lauded now but in his early days he suffered at the hands of many critics: who can forget Vivian Mercier’s assessment of Godot as “a play in which nothing happens, twice”? And he was a fan! But those few words are all many people know of the play.

    It is impossible to be completely objective—even the good ol’ BBC struggles—but why would we want to? As a potential consumer of whatever the product is under consideration I want to know how someone like me has been affected. People who have been reading the reviews on my blog for a while and find themselves in tune with my tastes will only need me to say, “This is a must read,” and need read no further. That was how I felt about the film critic Barry Norman; if he said a film was good then it was good. Most reviews I read are by people I know nothing about. That doesn’t mean I necessarily disregard them out of hand but I think all of us prefer to hear what someone says who we know and whose opinion we trust. But, as Lis implies, at the end of the day an opinion is just that—it’s not right or wrong—and I would never get on my high horse if someone sniffed at what I write. That said it used to frustrate me no end when I’d go into work and reference Waiting for Godot and they’d look blankly at me; that, I have to say, really brings out the proselyte in me.

    I agree totally that it’s very easy to overact when performing Beckett. During rehearsals for Not I with Billie Whitelaw he would say to her, ‘Too much colour, too much colour’, which she correctly interpreted as ‘For God’s sake, don’t act.’ It was why she was the perfect interpreter of his works because she didn’t let her ego get in the way and just did as he bade her. I saw a short clip of Robin Williams and Steve Martin doing Waiting for Godot and it was good—how could you have those two guys on a stage and it not be good?—but it wasn’t Beckett. That said I’m not a purist. I have seen most of the definitive performances of his plays and so when people take liberties—as Pinter did when he performed Krapp’s Last Tape—I can enjoy the performance for what it is, great in its own way. But that’s just my opinion.

  18. I imagine the acting will be better in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing film. Sean Maher as Don John instead of Keanu, plus Nathan Fillion as Dogberry!

  19. I'm looking forward to Nathan as Dogberry, but I don't have high hopes for the film. I'm not sure Joss understands Shakespeare.

    Also, and perhaps more importantly, I realize that when I say "you" in this post, I really mean "I." That is to say, I don't want to write essays that are essentially school reports; you can get anything I'd say elsewhere, in more depth, if you poke around the interweb or in a library(!). I've decided that unless there is something I actually care about, I might just keep my virtual mouth shut. And stuff.

  20. Eric: I guess what I find missing in too much writing is the author. I like it when people write about art and make conjectures, even if they're pretty wild and off-base. "Shakespeare's comedies are so mysogyinist because he was afraid of his wife, Anne!" is a good one. "Tolkein women aren't women; they're just sexless boys" is another good one. I want to hear about what the art means to the essayist/reviewer. People should write fewer book reviews and write more about how the book relates to their own lives. That would be worthwhile.

    Rick: I grew up thinking that the ancient Romans all had English accents. And if you've seen the Michael York "Musketeer" films, you know that the French had English accents, too.

    Lisa: I love Godot, but you have to let the comedy sneak up on you. It's subtle and cumulative.

    Dominique: What's needed on blogs is more digression, more "that reminds me of this..." stuff. More tangentially-related opinions.

    Chuck: I agree. The beard was blameless. The actor could not act.

    Elisabeth: Welcome! The most valuable part of putting my own vile opinions in public is that people often challenge them and I get a free lesson in humility. Almost all of my most strongly-held beliefs don't stand up to scrutiny. I think most people are in the same boat.

    Jim: The Martin/Williams version is one I had in mind when I wrote about over-acting. Maybe it's that I don't find Martin and Williams particularly funny. Mostly they're just loud. But what they were doing in their production had, I think, little to do with what Beckett was doing. "Too much color" is good. Beckett's writing works (for me, anyway) best when it's underplayed, not shouted. He was a writer of subtle humor. The funniest bits in the "Malloy" trilogy are those which sneak up on you. The pratfalls are few.

    I'm going to admit that it was your Beckett post that inspired this one. What you wrote was well researched and presented, but I kept asking myself when you were going to say what Beckett meant to you personally. "Why does Jim Murdoch give a fuck about Beckett?" I asked. "Who is he to Beckett, or Beckett to him?"

  21. Jim: I realized that I'd only given half my thought about your Beckett Godot post. Usually you wind your way around to "this is why I'm telling you all this" in your posts, and in the Godot post you didn't. Yes, I know, it's part 1 of at least 2, and you promise to talk about the play in the next installment. And usually, as I say, I don't feel the lack of anything in your posts. So when I did, I had to ask myself what it was I was missing, and the answer was "Jim Murdoch's opinion about Beckett." Which got me thinking, that's all. So I hope you don't take my last comment as a complaint about your blog. It was not meant to be. I'm still trying to figure out how and why I write on the Literary Lab, and on my own blog.

  22. My first experience of Samuel Beckett, Scott, was at about five in the morning some thirty-four years ago. I had set the alarm so that I could watch an OU programme, a performance of one act of Godot. The next morning I made my wife and my best friend’s girlfriend (who was staying with us at the time) get to watch the repeat as we had no video recorder; they were available but expensive. I don’t believe in love at first sight but I have met people where we have connected on every level and it’s simply a matter of working our way through those levels to see just how deep that connection goes; there’s a lady sitting about eight feet away from me with whom I shared that experience. I have also had a similar experience getting to know—albeit only through his work—the writer Samuel Beckett but, as far as metaphors go, ‘love at first sight’ works as well as any. I didn’t understand the play the way I do now but in many respects my ignorance was a boon because the only baggage I had was my own. I had never seen anything like it in my life. The only other time I have connected with a work was a couple of years later when a work friend let me hear the Velvet Underground for the first time; three bars into it I was hooked.

    The first thing I did after seeing Godot for the first time was rush out and buy the Faber edition of his Collected Shorter Plays which I have recently had to replace because my copy had fallen to pieces (but I still refuse to part with it). I didn’t get 95% of what I was reading but I knew that what I was reading was worth putting forth some effort to understand and so over the following years I took every opportunity to learn about him but it wasn’t until I was in my early forties that I had grown up enough to start to appreciate him, to get him. I’m a bigger fan of his plays than his prose—he did right to move onto the stage—because words are simply not enough: words are never enough. (I was in my mid-thirties before that truth hit home.)

    But what is it about Beckett that enthrals me? It always surprises me how many of us writers struggle to articulate our thoughts and feelings. I’ve never tried to analyse why I’m drawn to his work. It simply resonates with me. There are some pieces of music that give me shivers and I have the same problem there. What is it? Why doesn’t every concerto for the violin make me feel this way? Trying, for a moment, to be objective I think what it is with Beckett is, firstly, his brevity—his early work is hard to digest and I really struggled with Dream of Fair to Middling Women—but his later plays do what I’ve always tried to do in my poetry: distil, say just what you need to say as much and as often as it needs to be said. There is always repetition in his works, as there is in life, and so often the second set of actions is almost identical to the first—in Play it is identical—from the nothing that happens in two acts on.

    I find that I can relate to all his characters, almost all of them anyway. They take my frustration at life and act it out for me. All Beckett’s characters are frustrated as I have been all my life which is why, when I wrote my novel Milligan and Murphy, I did the very opposite to my protagonists: I took away all the obstacles. Beckett had Mercier and Camier wander round and round in circles and end up where they started but my novel is a straight line.

    The other constant theme in Beckett’s work is dualism: mind/body, life/death especially and that’s another thing I feel strongly, this constant pulling on the inside. His plays, although they can be funny, they make me ache—no, they remind me that I ache but that I don’t have to ache alone and somehow that helps.

    Not sure if that helps but maybe that gives you some idea. I’m really not desperately keen to explain to be honest. Despite the fact that I have spent weeks on end studying his work—I have a Beckett shelf plus hundreds of articles I’ve downloaded—I’ve still never lost that first love and that is rare with one’s heroes.

  23. Yay! The only problem with that is I don't want to read the opinionated reviews of my work, but that's a personal issue of mine and has nothing to do with what you're saying here. Although, what you're really saying is you want GOOD STRONG OPINIONS, not STUPID ones, and there's a huge difference because someone can have strong opinions and present them in a way that is really pointless and ill-informed.

    I love reviews that give me good information from the reader's POV. I really do want to see what they thought about it without them acting like the book should have been written differently - more specifically, written for them. A good review will always present opinions in a way that clearly shows they are opinions, and not a criticism on how the book should be rewritten, or the play re-acted, or whatever.

    I guess what I'm really saying is opinions need to be opinions, not presented as facts that leave out any possibility of other opinions entering into the picture.

    Is this comment opinionated enough?

  24. Oh, and I don't mean to imply, Scott, that your opinions are presented as fact. You always leave room for other opinions when you talk passionately about something, and that's part of why I like you so much. Good balance. :)

  25. Jim: When I was in my early 20s I was living in a big rental house with 5 other college students. There was a resident cat named Gogo. "You know who Gogo is," an astrophysics grad student named Stephen asked me. "The character from Godot?" I had to admit I'd never read the play though I'd heard of it. He put a copy in my hand and I spent the afternoon on the porch, smoking Camels and reading Beckett. It was, as you say, love at first sight. I had the same "where have you been all my life?" experience with the music of Bartok, with the solo violin sonatas and partitas of Bach, with the drawings of Durer, with the prose of Woolf and Byatt and Turgenev and the stories of Chekhov and on and on. So I get that.

    I like how you put it, that Beckett reminds us that we ache, but I also like how Beckett reminds us that we shouldn't take the ache all that seriously, because what is pain but just more stuff? Anyway, I wasn't really chivying you for an opinion so much as I was trying to work out how and why I blog. But I'm glad you wrote a nice long comment here and I feel like I understand you a wee bit more. Which is really the thing for me: communication with real people. Too much of the internet, despite how often we're told that it's a great leveling factor making unheard of networks of communication possible, is still just one-way talk.

    Some day you and I may talk about language and Beckett, how Beckett was trying to escape language, to use it as little as possible, and how ironic it is that I prefer his prose which circles its own tail endlessly over his plays, which strip down but still point to every direction on the compass. That might be interesting.

    Michelle: Yes, but I reserve the right to spout my own STUPID opinions, because I never know when they're stupid. Everything I say seems like brilliance. Until I've actually said it. Anymore I assume someone will come along and point out where I've got my toes turned in. I sort of hope for it.


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