May 1, 2007

Misblurbing: What Does “Great” Mean Anymore?

There was a fascinating, lighthearted essay on the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday in which a writer laments “misblurbing,” the practice of taking a reputable reviewer’s comments out of context to produce a fervent promotional statement for some book. The amusing piece has some bearing on the thought of Yvor Winters, I believe. For Winters tossed out lots of pithy raves for certain works, poems, novels, even works of history -- honors which sound, to our ears, not a little ridiculous. We have become jaded, and all too reasonably so, about panting praise and lofty paeans to books and authors and movies and art and just about everything else in the “entertainment” business.

Breathless blurbs, along with those sneaky misblurbs, have cheapened the concepts crtiics use in all kinds of artistic evaluation. If the words “great” or the phrase "best ever" can be applied to a banal horror movie or to a comic book or to a cheap wine or to a bland hotel or to a list of soups as quickly and easily as to Donne’s Holy Sonnets, what can the words “great” or "best" mean any longer? And if we have been shown time and again that advertising copy-editors have lifted words out of context to turn disapproval into puffed-up praise, how can we trust what anyone of any reputation might say about the excellence of any work of art? The short essay, “Literary Misblurbing” by NYT regular Henry Alford (April 29, 2007), can be found at:

I bring the whole matter up because it is clear that Yvor Winters took his handling of praise much more seriously than most critics and media business managers. But he praised certain works using words and phrases that are now regularly deployed in commercial blurbing, and misblurbing as well. Yet he meant it when he said some work of art was “great” -- that is, that it was one of the best EVER of its kind, and the best are always few. For Winters, the word “great” was far from a smarmy commercial ploy.

And yet… you don’t even need to uncover obvious pandering and outright lying to feel uneasy about whom to trust, do you? For even the most highly regarded Mid-Cult critics regularly plant all sorts of flags of greatness on different works. Should you trust Edmund Wilson or T.S. Eliot on what’s great? Or perhaps F.R. Leavis, or Lionel Trilling, or John Crowe Ransom deserves your trust. Or perhaps a more recent critic. Terry Eagleton maybe. Or maybe you should rather go back to Samuel Johnson and trust him (who is no longer trusted by anyone). Each of these standard-bearers has declared different works to be great. Whose blurbs are you going to trust? Should you trust any of them?

So, standing under this heavy cloud of suspicion and disagreement, reading Winters’s “blurbs” can feel a little silly at times. You run across his pithy evaluations for works and authors you have never even heard of (which is not unlike many a renowned critic of the 20th century, I remind you). For example, in a footnote in Primitivism and Decadence, his first critical book published in 1937 (republished in In Defense of Reason in 1947), Winters called Elizabeth Daryush “the finest British poet since T. Sturge Moore.” Quite naturally, in light of the lurid practices of blurbing in our time, you will wonder first whether there is any chance the work of a woman whom you’ve never heard of can possibly be so good as that, but then you’ll wonder about Winters’s whole body of work as a critic when you realize that you don’t even know who this fellow Sturge Moore is or how any critic worth trusting could regard such an unknown as one of the greats. Later in this same book, while discussing syllabic meters, Winters comes to a poem (one, by the way, which he would talk about his entire career as one of the great poems of the Winters Canon), Daryush’s “Still-Life,” and says, “One imagines that the medium could not be used with greater beauty than in this poem; there is certainly nothing in the work of the American masters of free verse to surpass it, and there is little to equal it.” Talk about panting praise and breathless blurbs! Can you trust such a blurb? Should you even bother trying?

I believe you can and you should.

But the challenges of trusting Winters will keep coming as you read him. In the same book that he dropped his comments about Elizabeth Daryush, he loftily rhapsodized the obscure 18th-century English poet Charles Churchill:

…Churchill, like Gascoigne [yet another obscure poet Winters praised as great] at an earlier period and like Johnson in his own, was a great master obscured by history, that is, by the mummification, for purposes of immortal exhibition, of a current fashion…

There’s a blurb to make you wonder whether to continue. Still, I caution those new to Winters not to disdain his use of words of praise because advertisers have so often used blurbs to hoodwink us. We are just in being jaded and in always having strong suspicions about blurbs. But we must try to quiet the feeling of disdain and ridicule when reading Winters’s brisk evaluations. He should be taken seriously, despite how little meaning the common terms of critical praise have been left with in our sensibly cynical age.

A publication called Gelf magazine follows the inanity of blurbing, I have discovered. Here’s a recent example of the editors’ amusing work in this area:

Winters has been the subject of plenty of misblurbing himself, though of the opposite kind. Many an ill-informed or hostile critic or professor has claimed that Winters hated the work of certain poets and poems far more than he did. It’s quite common in essays that scorn Winters as a critic to grossly overstate how much he disapproved of the poetry of Pound or Eliot or Stevens or many another. Maybe I should start listing these misreadings and errors. There are hundreds of them from the past 50 years. If Winters’s ideas are ever to receive a just hearing in our literary culture, someone must address the most serious misconceptions of his work.


philosophos said...

I have been for several days working my way through the archive of this blog and receiving edification and pleasure from the host's comments. It is dismaying to me, that so few of these posts have elicited responses. Mr. Editor, congratulations on excellent work. Perhaps more hear you than you suspect.

M. Arnott
4 June 2011

Ben Kilpela said...

Thanks, my friend. I will start blogging on Winters again soon. I needed a break. But I will be back. I wrote a couple books in the meantime, books arising from other interests. -- Ben Kilpela