Criticising the Critics Criticising the Critics: An Exercise in Infinite Reflexivity and Getting Hip

So I recently stumbled upon a piece that was ostensibly a review of a gig I’d attended and reviewed, but with the secondary purpose of dismantling my review.

The writer, one Patrick Lee attacked my write-up from a number of well-considered angles, but it seems that the primarily provocation, to which he took particular exception, was my observation regarding the number of trendy hipster bozos in attendance (in fairness, relatively small) and the fact they talked incessantly (thus more than compensating for their number in terms of volume and level of irritation caused).

What I actually said, in the middle of a glowing review of all 4 acts performing that night, was, “Granted, a band as hot as White Firs are going to attract more than their fare share of hipster hangers-on, and the duffel-coat wearing popped-collar brigade are out in full force tonight, standing right at the front talking loudly and posturing hard. Forget ‘em. it’s all about the music…”

His response – suggesting he didn’t read the entire piece – was to get uppity about the duffel coat diss (I’d add that I was wearing a fleece under a jacket under a leather coat, because it was cold and I need the pockets to carry my pad / camera / beer / ego, but of course, I like to be inconspicuous at gigs and so not only to I keep out of the way but I keep my trap shut) and to defend talking throughout Bull’s set (I wouldn’t know if he jabbered on through the headliners’ set because I moved to get away from the hipster bozos who’d been standing directly in front of me).

He begins by saying ‘I think I might have been (depending on the time of the paragraph taking place) one of the “hipster hangers-on”, and whereas I am, I think, borderline complimented by this, I do take exception to the duffel-coat criticism, wanting to take the chance here to express admiration both for the duffel coat itself, and for those daring enough to wear it inside at a gig as “hot” as the one The White Firs produced.’

I’d also note here that neither of the places which have published Patrick’s piece (in Vibe as ‘Notice the form, or, Looking up at music culture from the underground’ and One&Other under the more descriptive and succinct title ‘Review: White Firs at Nichely Does It’) include links or even proper credits to my own original review which appeared at Whisperin’ and Hollerin’ and this, it has to be said, is poor form. But what’s considered good etiquette clearly isn’t a part of his agenda and may not even feature in his cognisance.

More pertinently, only a narcissist of the highest order would find any way of converting my criticism into a commentary, and then to admit to a) being one of the ‘characters’ so depicted b) being complimented (borderline or otherwise) transcends narcissistic egotism and borders on sociopathy. But then, such is the arrogance of the hipster. Pretentious, moi? I’m so cool, of course he’s writing about me… At this point, Patrick turns my criticism around a full 180 degrees to reveal that in fact, it is I who is in the wrong for being so misguided as to complain about their incessant chatter, writing,

‘to criticise those voicing an opinion during bands like Bull and The White Firs would be an error. Daring to pursue, tackle, render lifeless and then begin a post-mortem on this error is, as noted, daring, as splitting open an ugly error of such bizarre and complex proportions is likely to result in being covered in surgical smelling entrails; but, dragged here as we have been, we might as well cover ourselves in the grizzly innards of the thing, and hopefully be left cathartically and metaphorically cleansed by the end. A crucial question has been left unasked by the typical, cliché-ridden reviewer of music: What do The White Firs do?’

What do White Firs do? I think I covered that, actually, because I make a point of providing objective reviews that actually say what bands sound like and what they ‘do’ on whatever level people who’ve not heard the band may be interested in knowing about. Again, this furthers my theory that Patrick’s protracted exposition was a knee-jerk reaction to the second paragraph, and he was so incensed and overwhelmed he was compelled to spill his effusive verbiage instantaneously without taking the time to read on.

I feel a degree of empathy here. I too sometimes struggle to contain the urge to splurge when it comes to committing words to the (virtual) page, although I do think it’s poor form to dismantle a piece of writing without having read all of it. There’s a grave danger of appearing reactionary and ill-informed, after all. More importantly, my piece doesn’t have any pretence of being anything other than a review. It’s a short article, not a feature. I produce over 400 reviews a year. There isn’t the time to pick apart every fibre of every band’s being, and nor would I wish to even if there were. I don’t care what White Firs ‘do’ in terms of their being some kind of mega-influential cultural phenomenon. Not yet, anyway.

So when I wrote that ‘During their blistering set that ratcheted up both the volume and intensity of the night, they proved themselves to be in a different class altogether. With a rock-solid rhythm section (drummer Jack Holdstock occupied the stool for now-defunct but hotly-tipped garage noisemongers The Federals) providing the pulsating heart of the sound and the essential foundations for the fuzzed-out guitar attacks, they’ve got the swaggering Stooges sound absolutely nailed,’ I think I gave a few hints about what they ‘do’.

In fairness, hipster wordsmith Patrick Lee is writing with a different purpose. His angle, while writing on music and culture, in this piece, is to consider the nature of music reviewing, and there are many who believe that reviewing is a frankly pointless exercise. Fair enough, but in my experience both as a reader and writer of reviews, I’ve found that people come to respect the opinions of certain reviewers, and discover a lot of new bands they otherwise wouldn’t have because of the acts those reviewers provide exposure to.

It’s notable that a number of people have complained that they’ve never heard of any of the bands I review. As far as I’m concerned, that’s precisely the purpose of my reviews. Everyone already has an opinion on U2, Radiohead, Madonna, Coldplay, the household names and acts they have heard of, and there’ll be no short of coverage of their latest album in everything from The Guardian to the NME via The Sun and Q, not to mention every last website you might care to look. I find it much more gratifying – and culturally useful – to put word out about unknown and lesser known bands. And it’s for this reason I place such emphasis on description. Again, by way of example, another excerpt from my review of White Firs.

Danny Barton’s vocals have a nonchalant drawl about them, but still carry a melody and delivery some tidy pop hooks. Meanwhile, brother James churns out thumping basslines as cool as you like, while occasionally throwing in some shouty backing vocals. For all the overdriven noise blasting from the amps and the PA, it’s clear they’ve got a keen ear for a tune, their appreciation of Big Star shining through the squall of feedback.’

I’d also add that I tend to keep my style simple and direct, not because I’m incapable of flourish-filled purple prose, but because, well, who needs it? I love seven-line sentences and paragraphs that extend beyond three pages more than most of my work reveals, but by the same token, I do make every effort not to produce slabs of text so sense with descriptors as to lose even the most articulate of readers – an my own meaning – before the first semicolon. Postmodern society’s alienating enough without needlessly alienating the bulk of any potential readership before you’ve even said anything. Moreover, a good reviewer knows that their job is to convey what’s exciting about the band – and it’s all about the bands, not pushing my own agenda of convincing a publisher that they should indulge my literary aspirations by signing me up for a five-book deal which will see me rubbing shoulders with Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie and other heavyweight purveyors of literary fiction. Again, Lee’s reference points – Hemingway and Brett Easton Ellis – are telling in that they’re suitably literary (by which I mean they’re worthy namedrops for anyone with a casual interest in 20th Century literature) but reveal the author to be lacking in real knowledge of the field (Stewart Home makes for a much more pertinent and credible alternative to Ellis, and Lee could do far worse than acquaint himself with the exploratory prose of my own recent anti-novel, This Book is Fucking Stupid, if only to demonstrate just how firmly he’s got his finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist).

I’m practically bawling into my beer when I read his incisive summation of Bull, which pisses all over my my ‘tepid, cliche-ridden’ descriptions (being a typical music reviewer, I’m completely incapable of moving beyond such abysmal prose, while yearning to achieve flourishes comparable to his Paul Morley-esque circumlocution, brimming with esoteric verbosity dressed in endless frills. So when Mr Lee writes of ‘splitting open an ugly error of such bizarre and complex proportions’, it’s worth remembering the context. He’s writing about talking at a gig. And what’s more, he’s trying to defend it by pointing out that he was only saying good things about the bands. Good, clever things, too, unlike my simplistic, witless cliché things – which I at least had the decency to keep to myself until I’d left the venue. Put simply, Lee is making a pathetic and utterly misguided attempt to excuse the inexcusable and defend the indefensible by means of absurdly overinflated and exhausting prolix.

Of course, it all amounts to no more than pleonastic posturing. Fair enough. But please, next time you’re watching bands play, just shut the fuck up.

 

hipster1

A hipster at a gig, minus duffel coat. He’s so cool he’s hot and doesn’t need any tepid descriptions, dude.

 

 

 

Patrick Lee is a graduate from Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has written for Mint Magazine, International Relations, The Vibe and continues to write and edit fiction for Shabby Doll House. He enjoys music and film, and reading contemporary fiction, non-fiction and philosophy.

His profile pic features him, with a chick – thus illustrating his popularity and appeal to the opposite sex – with a paper or polystyrene beaker held in his mouth. What a bozo.

 

 

Christopher Nosnibor is a writing machine. He doesn’t feel the need to justify his existence by including his superior educational background in his biography and has written for more publications than her can be bothered to list.

He doesn’t have a profile picture, so no-one can identify him and beat the crap out of him when he’s dished out one of his more critical music reviews.

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk

Who Are You Calling Stupid?

It’s probably fair to say I’m better known as a music reviewer than anything else. That isn’t to say I’m at all ‘well known’, but everything’s relative. The fact is that my ‘bread and butter’ writing emerges in the form of music reviews. This is primarily on account of the fact that I always wanted to be a music journalist and my first published pieces were reviews which appeared in local and regional inkies in the early 90s when I was in my late teens and early twenties and now I’m living the dream of getting more free music than I can listen to. I might not actually be getting paid, but that’s rather beside the point. I’m doing something I enjoy, which is something very few people can say with absolute sincerity, and consequently it seems daft to stop. Nevertheless, I’m also a writer of fiction, and have had stories published here, there and, well, perhaps not everywhere, but I’ve also written a handful of books, to varying degrees of success. Again, success is a most subjective word, and again, everything’s relative.

My current project, which should emerge into the public sphere in the Summer, is entitled This Book is Fucking Stupid. It’s a surefire hit: of that I’m convinced. Of course, I’ve been equally convinced with previous works, but am at the same time aware that none of my work has even the remotest mainstream appeal.

My most successful book to date – by which I mean the one that’s sold the most copies – is THE PLAGIARIST, a book inspired by William S. Burroughs and Kenji Siratori. Sitting somewhere between Nova Express and Blood Electric, the book was billed as ‘a riot of experimentation’ and reflected my preoccupations with time, space, the limitations of conventional linear narrative and issues of ownership, copyright and ‘originality’. These same preoccupations provided the foundations for From Destinations Set, which explored the possibilities of presenting simultaneously occurring events and pushed the formal style of some of John Giorno’s poems to an extreme within a more overtly narrative context.

This left me with the question ‘what next?’ It isn’t that I won’t or don’t ‘do’ linear narrative, because I do, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that I need to be pushing in new directions and to challenge myself and the conventions of ‘the novel’.

Inspiration hit around Christmas. Stewart Home had just posted a blog on the reader reviews of his books on the Goodreads website. One of the reviews of his novel 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess proclaimed ‘this book is fucking stupid’. Now, sidestepping the samples of the atrocious fiction this ‘reviewer’ had available, I found myself further considering the difficult space that exists between author and reviewer that not only this review, penned by an ‘author’ highlighted, but which provides a core element of the novel in question. However, before these thoughts had begun to evolve in any tangible sense, I posted a comment that ‘this book is fucking stupid’ would make a great title for a book. Stewart posted a reply in agreement, saying ‘let’s see who can write it first!’

It doesn’t take much to get me going when the planets are correctly aligned, and while this may not have been a genuine challenge, I elected to set the writing of this very book as a challenge to myself, and the idea very soon fell together. I’d already written a novella that was languishing on my hard-drive. Destroying the Balance had been kicked out during an intensive spell immediately after I’d completed THE PLAGIARIST. Having completed it, I had felt it lacked something, being all too conventional, and so shortly after began chopping it up and rewriting the text to produce From Destinations Set, which rendered the positions of the two characters more explicitly separate and distinct. Although I was pleased with the result, if not the reception, which was the review equivalent of tumbleweeds blowing through the last one-horse town before the eternal Nowheresville desert, I felt that there was still something to be done with Destroying the Balance.

Like a number of works written around 2008-2009 – including ‘Corrupted from Memory’ which began life as a novella before being trimmed down to 17,000 words for publication in the Paraphilia Books Dream of Stone anthology late on in 2011 – Destroying the Balance took its title from a Joy Division song, namely ‘Passover’ from the second album Closer. It seemed fitting for a story that was centred around the uptight and carefully managed life of a suburban thirty something on the brink of a premature midlife crisis, given that the full lyric is ‘This is the crisis I knew had to come /Destroying the balance I’d kept’.

So, despite having used the text as the basis of From Destinations Set, I could still see scope for another radical overhaul within the context of what I had in mind, namely a book that was the absolute extreme of postmodern information overload and experimental, but in a different way from the books I had produced previously. After all, it’s very easy to write oneself into a cul-de-sac, and also to become stuck in a rut – not to mention becoming typecast as an author of inaccessible or difficult works of limited appeal. I was therefore conscious of a strong need to reign in the wild experimentalism of THE PLAGIARIST in order to repackage the dilemmas of the Postmodern Condition in a more broadly accessible format.

As with all of my works to date, the result is, in many respects, an abject failure. Yet this failure is equally a measure of success. While segments continue to circulate amongst reviewers and to be touted to periodicals to largely negative responses, the final version of the book continues to expand, and the project’s incorporation of all of the pre-release responses – the more negative the better – means that the book is creating its own anti-cult. This is precisely the inversion of all things – from literary tropes to the commodification of literature – that I had aspired to. Put simply, the whole purpose of This Book was (and I intentionally speak of it in the past tense despite the fact it remains to be completed) one of self-negation.

The premise of the avant-garde was to destroy all that preceded in order to create anew, and subsequently, postmodernism has devoted considerable time and energy proclaiming the death of practically everything. My objective was to create a work that killed postmodernism by beating it at its own game and producing a text that was entirely self-collapsing, and, more importantly, self-contained. Postmodern criticism has (arguably, contentiously) written itself into a self-negating web of endlessly cyclical (self-)analysis, while postmodern novels have taken self-reflexivity to a point that seemingly cannot be exceeded. And that was precisely my plan: This Book needed to not only contain everything that had and could be said about it, but to preemptively comment on it.

This book will eat itself. There really is no success like failure.

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk