Saturday, July 7, 2018

Turning Around

An expired horse I tend to flagellate is questioning the purpose of my blog. Recently, I identified four uses of the blog: the archive, the exercise, the prose, and the growth. This last aspect applies to this post, in which I cogitate on the malleability of my opinions and the usefulness of my blog for charting that same shifting. Opinion drift, we might call it.

I've been itching quite badly to revisit Ross MacDonald (which I mentioned in my last meta-post) even though my earlier reviews of his novels make them seem a lot more average. I've kept working at MacDonald because I'm convinced there's something wrong with me, rather than something wrong with him. As the years have gone by, I've thought a lot about The Underground Man and my reaction to it. I wrote that I found it bland and lifeless. I'm embarrassed to report that I wrote this:
But a lot of the time, the muscular tough guy prose, a hallmark of the genre, is absent, replaced with simple flat descriptions. Like Hammett at his worst.
Oy vey. I can understand where Past Matthew was coming from; the reputation of a Chandler descendant made me believe I was in for, say, a Daniel Woodrell-style mystery (now there's an author I should revisit!) but what I read was something more. MacDonald's style is not one of detachment or aloofness, but a careful control of emotion. The danger in his novels isn't just bodily harm but letting these crimes, these generational crimes and lies and abuse wear Archer down. He has to stay apart, he has to stand away for fear of becoming embroiled or entangled in their sordid small lives. The dirt and decay of criminality is contagious in MacDonald's world and Archer, like Marlowe, must do what he can to stay clean. Hence, Archer's coolness. What I called "simple flat descriptions" are artfully composed and self-collected observances of an awful world.

Am I better reader now than then? Undoubtedly. Every year I grow (I hope) as a reader. My tastes haven't changed remarkably since I began this blog: I still prefer genre fiction over literary; I'm skeptical of realism but understand its practicability; aesthetics and structure interest me just a smidge more than the rudiments of plotting. However, my opinions on certain things have shifted, thanks to, in part, my growth as a reader.

Yet, I can't ascribe the entirety of opinion drift to how I read. I should responsibly attribute some of opinion drift to that fourth dimension, time. A glaring rot in the ecology of criticism is the immediacy of it: paid critics are paid to produce reviews in a timely manner, usually before or around the release date of the product. In film criticism, there's a rush for clicks by publishing one of the earliest reviews. io9 publishes articles aggregating early reactions to critic screenings of movie, an Ourobouros of first takes. Reviewers are encouraged to tweet their opinions while the end credits are still rolling.

But not all objects give up the goods that quickly. Some texts need time to work their magic, to burrow into the mind, to linger there, to take up residence. Some movies, for example, I thought were pretty good when I watched them, but as time marches forward, my opinion rises steadily, until I can't stop thinking about how much I loved that movie. I had a blast with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014). Years later, I saw it a second time in the theatre and I had an almost transcendental experience with it. The film went from "fun monster movie I liked" to "existential environmentalist nightmare I worship." The shift wasn't instantaneous. Going into the theatre a second time was simply the tipping point. Rather, the opinion drift was slow and inexorable. The movie just needed time to work its way into my brain.

Likewise, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which I read in February of 2014. I wrote that it "was pretty damn good." But time helped. I haven't reread it yet, though I will, because now I think about it as one of the best novels I've ever read, painstakingly plotted, ambitiously structured, practically flawless in its thematic exploration of greed, capitalism, colonialism. It's a novel I recommend to people all the time. Some texts strike you as stupendous the first instant (How to be both by Ali Smith, or really, any Ali Smith) and some take only a couple days (Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done). The Luminaries was "pretty damn good" but it just needed a year or two to work around in my head.

A final example: Jack Ketchum's Off Season, which I read in October of 2016. I wrote that it was empty misanthropy but that I was still impressed by its ferocity. Now I think of it a lot when I think of extreme horror. I think of how much it shook me, how much it carved me, lacerated me, wounded me. Visceral, thrilling, chaotic, but still tightly controlled. I found myself checking the results of the recommendation algorithm on Goodreads to scratch that itch of survival horror. That same month, I read Floating Dragon, which stunned me for its grandeur, but I search my memory and it didn't electrify me in the same short shock way Off Season did. I think I sold my paperback of it, which was a critical mistake. Which isn't to say that Straub hasn't improved in my memory. I often recollect the horrors of Koko and Mystery, but they didn't quite stir me the same way Floating Dragon did.

I stuck mostly with positive examples of opinion drift in this post. I could have gone on with just as many, if not more, examples of films and books I've soured on in the intervening years. I thought I might keep proceedings upbeat for this post, because on the whole, I'm grateful for opinion drift. I like that my thoughts and feelings aren't static. I'm not inflexible, this proves. I'm not stuck in the same place, this shows. I look at my blog and though embarrassed by things I've wrote, I've never deleted a post (I have made some posts inaccessible because I feared I was being plagiarized by university students seeking free intellectual labour). I'd rather look back and see how I feel differently and why. It's much more interesting that way. Why bother blogging if it's going to be the same thoughts tilled over and over?

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