You’ve confused having an opinion with the act of creation. —Steven Soderbergh
“CREEDENCE DOESN’T ROCK,” one of them was saying.
You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. Of course Creedence rocks. Have you never heard “Fortunate Son”? But I didn’t join in, because I would’ve rather chewed on a piece of tinfoil at that moment.
We were standing in a magazine office, my friend and I, and some of the younger staffers were discussing classic rock. I was a few years older than they were, my friend was a bit older than I. After a few minutes of listening in on the conversation, he leaned over to me, and in the most withering tone, said, “They still think their opinions matter.”
You could say it was a cynical comment. I thought so at the time, anyway. But now I see it as a sparkly, hopeful sort of comment. It was liberating. My opinion doesn’t matter!
At least it doesn’t matter if I’m going to put things in those terms, in that little box of black and white, when it comes to something so profoundly gray. It’s what I’ve come to think of as an opinion bomb: lob a really simplistic statement, often something meant to provoke, and watch how it blows up the conversation.
Still, I want you to be willing to die for what you love. I want you to vote in national, state, and local elections. I want you to care how children and the elderly are treated. I hate the NRA and I’m not afraid to give my opinion on that. But whether Creedence rocks or not? I have ceased to care what anyone thinks about that.
I’m all for feeling deeply, stupidly about art. I’d like to feel this way up until the end. But the language has to remain interesting. If you think Walter White is the greatest antihero in television history, tell me why, for example, you liked that one scene where he did that thing with his eyes, where they flicked away just for a second because he had a moment of guilt, and then the guilt evaporated into the cold reality of his predicament. I’d rather that than have you tell me where the character ranks in the roster of great American television characters.
Life happens when art is being made, and there’s another sort of life when it’s being perceived, after the fact. And you could say that having an opinion about art is part of that life, although I think that’s the part that often gets in the way of a full experience. A lot of the time it’s used to convey something about the art consumer rather than the art itself. If I make a certain statement, I’ll appear a certain way. Lennon versus McCartney? If I give you my opinion on that, you’ll have a better chance of having me pegged. If I say Lennon and you say McCartney, it’s just become about you and me.
Give me context, connect a few dots for me, and I will be much happier than if you just said something was crap. Drop some pure paint pigment in water and it will make billowy forms like an atom bomb. I like to think of art opinions this way: a few well-placed drops lead to a safe explosion without blowing everyone else out of the water. Then there’s room for everyone in the conversation.
Now more about me.
When I was eleven or so, my mother decided I should take tap dance lessons. She signed me up at a doleful little dance school in a neighborhood called Point Breeze. The lessons were in a storefront building that looked like it had once been a place to buy off-brand kitchen appliances. I couldn’t imagine anything I wanted less than to go there every weekend and learn tap. The teacher was a scrawny older man who seemed like he wanted to be there even less than I did. He was sour and resigned—a broken man. He made sarcastic comments about the students’ lack of talent. He took extra-long cigarette breaks and came back coughing. After a month or so we got a call that the lessons were cancelled. The teacher had died. He’d hanged himself.
I don’t know what else was going on in his life, but clearly teaching tap to a bunch of kids at a rinky-dink dance school was not enough to keep him going. To this day, tap dancing seems a very dark and unhappy thing to me. But that’s just me, and I’d venture to say it was tainted a bit in my mind by that whole experience. All of which is to say I can’t be clear-headed about tap dancing. You will not see me at a Savion Glover performance, ever. Not after all that. But if you love tap dancing and it makes you happy, then I’m not going to argue with you. It’s largely a matter of taste, and of how your eye and ear were trained, and of every moment of your life leading up to that point when you open your mouth to say what you think.
Although they change with the times, there are certain standards for every art form that we might agree upon—criteria for what is good and what isn’t. And it definitely helps to contain our ideas and steer the discussion. Let’s say someone is completely tone deaf. If that person wrote a song and performed it, most people probably wouldn’t swoon. But on a certain day in a certain slant of light to a certain listener, it might be the greatest thing since Chopin.
Leonard Cohen said, “I find my own opinions very tiresome and predictable. I’ve always tried to keep opinions out of my work. That’s why I take so long to write the stuff—so that it goes beneath the opinion, the slogan, the stance. You know, in a conversation in a bar over a drink, I can dredge up an opinion. I can even dredge up a belief. But I don’t have much conviction in these matters.”
It used to be just a few of us discussing a movie or a book or a record over some beers and a bowl of pretzels, or maybe standing on a corner outside of a club after seeing a band. But now, with so much connectivity, so much digital hobnobbing, everyone knows what everyone thinks, and everyone has chimed in and argued the point, and then some have liked the points and others have not liked the points, feelings get hurt, someone gets really obnoxious, and finally, I end up wishing I had just holed up with a book or a movie or some music that I love for no particular reason at all.
One day, while futzing away some time on the Internet, I happen to read a list of short-story recommendations on Flavorwire by James Lasdun, a writer I admire. In the list he mentions The Collected Stories of Breece D’J Pancake and singles out a story of his that is “in my view… far and away the most powerful single short story in the English language written in the last fifty years.”
How can I not order the book immediately? I wait impatiently for it to arrive, because the story he spoke about, “Hollow,” is going to hit me sideways and backwards and upside down, I just know it, and this is what I want, what I almost always want.
I’m especially hopeful because somehow, even though he’s been written about in The New Yorker and Oxford American and many other places, I have never read his work and never had a conversation about him with anyone. He comes as a rare blank slate. Although quickly, a mystique forms, since I do know that Pancake killed himself at the age of 27 and I’m susceptible to information like that. And he’s been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway. But mostly it’s that Lasdun quote that has me excited.
The book arrives on a cold winter day and that night I read “Hollow” in a nice hot bath, and, as people like to say these days, I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot. It’s a good solid story, about a poor young miner in West Virginia, told with impressive restraint. It’s well crafted but at this point in my life I’m looking for more of a mess. I do love some of the sentences, like: “It was a doe with a pink lip of wound near her shoulder, but no blood.” I wish I’d come up with “lip of wound.” But other things get in my way. For one thing, I don’t buy the dialogue. It feels a little cartoonish. But that’s just me. Also, I have trouble entering the story—there’s too much going on at first and I can’t zero in on any particular character. But that’s just me too. If you happen to read the story, it’ll be just you, as it should be. Read it in a quiet place, and forget everything I’ve said.
Intention and sincerity enter into this somewhere, I feel sure, but I don’t think you’re going to find any way to measure it in a work of art. There’s no scientific formula, no lie detector test. I think Lucinda Williams is generally overrated. She’s a little affected for my taste. But if I were asked to prove somehow that there’s a lack of sincerity in the way her voice drags world-wearily through so many of her songs, I’m certain I wouldn’t succeed at that.
So I realize now I have shot myself in the foot. My foot has been hurting this whole time. Because here I am, saying what I think, about Lucinda and tap dancing and that story called “Hollow.” And Creedence? On another day I might have just written a letter and sent it to myself, so that when it arrives on a quiet, sunny afternoon I can open it up and read the words, “Creedence rocks.”