Criticism lessons, an unpublished review, local Nigerian writing

I kept hearing the words of another writer and critic in my head. They must be the words of wisdom passed down generations of critics: Don’t sell your soul. But what do they really mean? Compromise? What instructs the critic’s position for taste? William Giraldi’s “Letter to a Young Critic” is what a young critic turns to, who knows he has to defend art and contemplates the arrows and darts sent his way because of his occupation as critic. Hear Giraldi:

If you’re going to be honest with yourself, you must acknowledge that as a critic you have an intellectual and ethical obligation to be outraged by inferior art, to defend your ars poetica with fire or else risk self-immolation by cowardice. If you let by without dispute a failure of language you acquiesce in an affront against literary integrity. The author might be guilty of failure, but when the critic doesn’t call it out he is guilty of something much more odious. Relax your standards in literature and the relaxation of other standards will soon follow.

To be outraged by inferior art? Yes.

There is a lot of bad writing published in Nigeria right now. Bad with all the baggage: poor editing, clichéd writing, kitsch, and flatness (singsong writing that read as if written by cousins). They appear in blogs by your favourite writer or poet with long, windy bios. In local Nigerian literature, the case worsens.

Somewhere in that essay Giraldi quotes Ezra Pound—that a critic of understanding cannot sit quiet and resigned while his country let’s its literature decay. (One begins to get the sense of Oris Aigbokhaevbolo’s worry over young Nigerian writers and trauma writing.) But by all means, we must write. And if we write, by all means, we must talk about what we write. It’s an engagement any literary society needs, to stay healthy, but which ours seems to always give a Medusa stare to.

Nihinlola recalls (in this piece) the backlash he once received for being honest to himself, commenting on art. I understand this. If you’re a critic—or dare to be—you’ll draw ire, especially from self-acclaimed Nigerian writers. Or you’d be nodded at by a few. Or trusted enough by a poet who asks you to do criticism of his collection: how I was commissioned to write a review. Since the carrot was swung, I had to watch the stick: I kept hearing the words in my head, “Don’t sell your soul.” But I didn’t have to contemplate the words when I read the collection—I knew that I couldn’t “risk self-immolation by cowardice,” being a poet myself.

Perceptiveness has always been my stronghold when I assess art. And being more pigheaded than temperate in my juvenile years I considered myself an “abrasive critic,” thinking I had to go for the jugular at anything I considered inferior. But hindsight exposes folly. A. O. Scott of the NYTimes was a little in this league, too, in his younger days. When asked in an interview about his amiability today, he answers:

When you’re younger, there’s more aggression and there’s more of a sense that there’s no middle ground. I used to feel when I started reviewing movies, and when I reviewed books, that I was tougher, I was more uncompromising. When I started reviewing movies, every time I saw a bad movie I would get personally affronted. You want to sort of take revenge and there’s a certain kind of sadistic or self-righteous pleasure in doing that. I’m just going to tear this shit down.

Affront is the word. Inferior art affronts the senses of a critic to want to unsheathe the sword of righteousness. Ehen. Artists fight back, often in gang-up, ad hominem style. First, the critic is accused of being a know-all. Secondly, his evaluations only enforce the thinking that he is elitist. But nobody tasks the critic with the errand to do what he enjoys doing naturally—poring over and dissecting art. The fault is often the accuser; the critic never claims to know all. In reviewing the same book—A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism—two critics agree. Daniel Mendelsohn writes, “as independent as we like to think our taste is, we are all the products of specific cultural moments.” Nathan Heller: “Reviewers are supposed to give bird’s eye guidance, but they, too, live within the maze.” So what is the critic doing when he critiques? He is hopeful that when we appraises art, himself, artists and enthusiasts gain a healthy bearing of their ways of seeing, which betters art generally.

To write the review of this poet’s collection I had to navigate on balance itself: how do I say the work is not bad but still point out the good when it is overwhelmingly bad? (This was a commissioned job.) I struggled not to put the word “bad” in the preceding sentence and replace it with “not of arrival,” but I’d be coating my intention, as I tried to do with that review. No matter how I tried to sound “balanced,” the poet saw through my words, which he answered me after reading it: “… when you speak of the supposedly high points, it doesn’t come out as such. It is veiled, like you’re not sure if they are really merits.”

A lot of things spoilt his book. Hastiness, one. The rest, subsumed under the quagmire of local publishing in Nigeria. A nonchalance of Nigerian breed that insists and okays mediocrity in writing, which I could not accept about the book. I couldn’t give back to Caesar. The poet is not a bad poet; his poems were in need of editing by the forge.

But what often happens is that some local publishing houses pushing works out to us do so sans considering standard. But how can writing, published, be immune to standard? Note: indie publishers elsewhere do not necessarily publish below standard material. But there is a twist here (at home): Often, writers pay for their works to be published; publishers’ hands get tied; standard suffers. And when the book finally gets to a reviewer, it is affronting.

Truth is, our local literature deserves no serious reader’s time, nor critic’s. It is why they do not get acclaim. Another truth: publishing by this group is by all means. So you get the ritual and patience it takes to get a book through the press compromised. What results is bad writing. Unfortunately, the same material the critic will decry will be glorified by the niche.

The trial to review such works increases the critic’s curiosity for sense, instead of what to say in exposing theme or style. So an issue I commented on in my unpublished review of the poet’s collection—as a distraction from the main content of the book—are the two paragraphs below:

Writing is a labour of love, but there should be love in the labour: Can the average Nigerian writer aspire to love? To write what will contest with history? So I always come across the dilemma: Where do I start to review inchoate works that need to be taken back to the publisher(s) without the outright debunking of them? How do I constructively carefully sift through to make sense to the reader, in writing about them as I will works of arrival? Or should the critic’s work remain, as suggested by Maria Popova, a “celebration of the good by systematic omission of the bad. To put in front of the reader only works that are worthy, and to celebrate those with a consistent editorial standard,” so that “..when readers are presented with a steady stream of ‘good’ works, over time these help develop an understanding of goodness itself, or at least of the subjective criteria for merit..”?

Laurence Perrine in Story and Structure writes that good reading necessitates judgement. So the reader, who is constantly exposed to the celebrated good, as Popova would have it, is able to read the good from the bad. But it is a conspiracy; if criticism cannot shape and redefine ways of seeing (and reading, writing) for those who need it most but only for the select, how will a healthy culture of art be sustained?

My insider instincts tell me there are more Popovas, so nobody is going to write about your badly written book.

Recently, I put a chapbook together and sent out copies to other poets and editors—I am not getting praise, but criticism improving the poems, helping me see better. So here is my own: when you write, edit your work. Hire an editor or start making friends with one. Even if you don’t get Helon Habila’s prose or Theresa Lola’s poetry, you’ll get decency in your writing.

In the end, what is the point of this essay? A group of writers meet as usual in Makurdi. One says, “So-and-so just published a collection and his poems are just beautiful.” I say “Wow.” It’s reflex. But add, “are you sure?” She says, “Yes. The poems are so good.” I can’t blame this person if she’s all over the poet, so I say I’ll download it and read. Turns out that through his new work, I can say, “This is not the same poet I read eight moons ago.” I reflect: Did my review have anything to do with this?

If there’s a little chance that something happened to his writing, I am happy. Whether or not something sank in for him after he read that review, it wasn’t published and someone else missed becoming better at writing—whether or not—as he did■

Editor’s note: This essay was revised on 1st August, 2019 since its publication to rectify editing oversight.

scroll to top