craft

Unlearning bad writing

Aaron Sachs in The American Scholar — "Lopate thinks of himself primarily as a storyteller rather than as a teacher or interpreter or critic or advocate; the literary essay, he insists, “is not a logical proof or a legal brief.” It thrives on internal contradiction and a sense of exploration: “If you know already what all your points are going to be when you sit down to write, the piece is likely to seem dry, dead on arrival.” So much for the disciplined outline. At the same time, though, Lopate acknowledges that “my own essays do always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade.” To see the potential compatibility of narrative and analysis, of exploration and argumentation—say, in classic nonfiction writers like James Baldwin, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, or Susan Sontag—is perhaps to see new possibilities for combining deep research with gripping, memorable prose."

Kitsch and the holy: the origins of poor taste

"What I am calling “kitsch” is just that clutching at the viewer’s heartstrings, the sense of what Keats called a “palpable design” on the beholder. A fundamental uncertainty as to whether the artist and the viewer still form part of a community of faith creates a need to extort conviction when none might be forthcoming. But whatever is cringe-inducing in Rosso’s pictures is more or less inextricable from what sometimes makes them so breathtaking. Unfortunately, his great 1521 Deposition has not come to Florence from Volterra; as with any exhibition of Renaissance art, this one inevitably suffers from the fact that so many of what might have been the most important exhibits are immovable. In that work, the geometry of a massive cross becomes the armature for clusters of weirdly distorted bodies—geometricized yet weightless, as if they had been sculpted in Styrofoam—that arouse about as much credibility as Dalí’s soft watches, yet convey an anguish adequate to the painting’s subject precisely through this sense of dreamlike unreality."