I was rummaging through my electronic files last night, looking for inspiring crumbs—a chance thought hammered out during a spare minute, already crystalline in form and fully realized yet scribbled in some nebulous personal code I was sure at the time I would be able to decrypt upon later viewing—when I found a file called "Bullshit Criticisms.doc." In it, I had written this:
Always fear the reader who accuses smugness or arrogance simply upon coming across a quiver of big words or inaccessible references.
Is being cerebral a bad thing in writing? Presumably this is a Master's course and we should be aspiring to the intelligent. If your primary criticism is that the author of whatever you're reading is smarter than you, go pick up a fucking book, or a dictionary, and get cracking.
Are the points these people want our writers to make simply arguments to reinforce the points as we already imagine them to be? The very act of an author's teasing a hidden meaning—or even an observation that is not immediately apparent—out of a scene is scoffed at by this ilk. That Joan Didion might have an objection to a culture immediately calls upon her the charge of elitism. It is as if people are offended by the simple act of being challenged; even where criticisms of Didion might exist, those that are substantive are never mentioned, but stem rather from this lack of confidence, or perhaps a simple ruefulness at the mere suggestion that things may not be as they seem.
I remember the precipitating incident only vaguely, though the experience as such is not uncommon in writing and literature courses. A student will, after having read a piece of writing, judge it based on their own personal, ideological, and emotional reactions. Now, of course our biases inform our interpretations and opinions of literature constantly as we read; that's the way literature works: we react (or don't) according to the impressions we've come to accept through the culmination of our experience and, using only this hard-won but uneven palette of information, like or dislike a work based on whether we think it feels true. By true, I mean that we laugh at a joke because it feels genuinely funny, grimace at a dramatic turn because it genuinely hurts, or shrink in horror at a science fiction story because the paths to dystopia and slavery become frighteningly hard to ignore (Logan's Run, anyone?).
But the situation becomes a bit discouraging, especially during a group discussion, when a student decides a work is either good or bad because what they as a reader wanted to happen either did or didn't. Sometimes readers want revenge and get angry when the villain escapes; sometimes they get red in the face when an author fails to subject a character to some sort of poetic or ironic comeuppance that either reinforces or disintegrates that character's primary flaw. We want carnivores to be devoured by plants, rapists to lose their sexual organs, bigots to renounce their petty hatred. We seem to be programmed to want these sorts of neat, little endings; we seem to want things to be easy, to watch whomever we're rooting for win out.
But, of course, life isn't easy. The good folks don't always win. Sometimes the bad guys win because there is a point to be made—which doesn't mean, of course, that we have to side with the rapist or the bigot (I hope none of us do), just that we shouldn't shut off our brains at the first sign of discord.
Granted, we have many lenses through which we can examine a piece of literature, and many different reasons to read as well (enjoyment, "enlightenment," perspective, etc.). If your critique, however, can be restated to approximate in form a statement like "I didn't like it because I wanted him to die," it may be best to consider reassessing your critical methods or else finding another line of work.
To address my little found ramble again, Didion upsets some readers because she is almost unfailingly indecisive. It's sort of her thing. Furthermore, back in the 1970s she rubbed elbows with some pretty famous people, and, every now and then, her accounts of ritzy parties and political functions read as if written partially for the purpose of name-dropping. Personally, I think Didion is a fantastic writer, and yes, part of my estimation stems from the fact that I can appreciate her radical uncertainty in all things—a bias-informed position on my part, to be sure. At times she writes presuming a level of education from her readership; if I remember correctly, it was this sort of writing, in a 1970-something piece criticizing zeitgeisty anti-womanhood feminists, that rankled a few of my classmates. Surely some of the more specific cultural and political references, namely those local to California, are lost upon my generation, and the reading required some extratextual engagement, which is to say you had to look a few things up if you wanted to understand the article. Plus, Didion (uncharacteristically, for her) used some big, scary words.
It is well known in some circles (maybe) that, when presented with big, scary words, writing and literature students who don't already know those big, scary words tend to feel, well, inadequate. Often this gnawing sense of inferiority leads to a lashing out, a heated, uncontrollable hatred for the writer, and comments like "I just think the writing is unclear, you know, like, she could have, like, used shorter words to get her point across," have been known to pass the lips of some otherwise reasonable people. On these occasions, most of the other students nod knowingly, and those who would love to publicly pillory the statement either buck up and look like assholes or swallow the temptation and sit there seething, perhaps scribbling down a few choice words in silent protest.
I really don't mean to be caustic. I'm just a bit shocked at the resistance to being challenged. Morally or politically, ideologically or intellectually, the instinct, when a person is presented with a potentially problematic viewpoint, seems to be to circle the wagons at all costs.
Do we really want everyone to write in short, pithy sentences? Do we want the reductive "truth" or the complex amorphism? Should we spurn literature that doesn't agree with the simplistic mottoes we've all no doubt pinned inside our jackets? Obviously all such considerations can and should be made case by case, work by work. And, yes, sometimes we will decide we are not willing to make certain concessions.
But consider, next time, that maybe, just maybe, if you don't like something, you weren't meant to like it. Perhaps we'd be a bit better off if we didn't feel so comfortable all the time, if we sought what upset us rather than avoiding anything that threatens to break our little bubbles. Furthermore, and regardless of the previous points, don't dismiss the notion that personal and intellectual growth are probably watered more by chaos than harmony.