Sunday, August 28, 2005

What do you say, dear?

Today's title is from this book that delighted me no end when I was a child. I adored the combination of preposterous situations and etiquettal precision (and I know that's not a word. Look, people, the reason I got myself a blog was so I could make words up as necessary, instead of being subject to the tyranny of the existing lexicon. Think of me as Shakespeare, minus the actual talent, of course).

Due to the diabolical powers of Google, I have been "found" (in my real-life persona, not as my blogger self...at least, not yet) by an acquaintance from my darkest past. This is not someone whom I had thought of much in the intervening years, because while I suspect there was some torch-carrying going on way back when, I wasn't the one carrying it. This was awkward enough. I don't hide myself, in real life. I have publications under my own name, a utilitarian web listing for my academic work, etc. I'm not averse to being "looked up" by people from my past, although I confess I'm not very interested in the vast majority of people whose paths crossed mine somewhere along the way. Like Emily Dickinson, my soul "selects her own society," and she tends to be a persnickety and capricious sort, who finds most acquaintances beneath her notice. So I was startled when I received an email out of the blue, and a bit dismayed when it was followed by several more contacts from other voices from the past, with whom the intrepid googler was still in contact.

Is it me, or isn't the Googling of people from one's past the kind of thing that, like masturbation, everyone does and so no one actually talks about or admits to? I figured that my late night attempts to find those lost loves, bitter enemies, and remote figures from my past were things never to be spoken of in daylight--not because they were wrong, or particularly peculiar, or shameful, but because they were intensely private and pretty much universal. In other words, I don't have to tell you about my autoerotic life because I expect you to have one too, and we would both find the discussing of it to be awkward, at best. And futile. Because what we then go home to do by ourselves probably wouldn't change much from the reporting of it. Unless, of course, one has something particularly outrageous to report: a new vibrator attachment, position vis a vis the shower head, or the fact that the guy who swore he couldn't live without me did, in fact, perish of love?

But now, I fear, the plot thickens. Even coagulates. The uninvited visitor from my past has now sent me a gift of original work, requesting my magnificently doctoral opinion thereof. This is beyond awkward. For one, the work is of a form I am ill-equipped (and by nature completely disinclined) to enjoy or review favorably. A brief scan has already created the impression that it conforms to all the excesses and inadequacies of its medium. And yet such a "gift" demands a response. Presumably something kind and encouraging. This is precisely the kind of sticky web I seek industriously to avoid. A "genuine" response would probably not be what my correspondent wants to hear. I've found that the notion of "constructive criticism" is an oxymoron to all but a very few of us, and in general, I reserve my critical and analytical powers for those with whom I have deep and reciprocal relationships. I have to care deeply about you and your work to offer suggestions, because at that point, it becomes, in some tiny way, "mine," as do you. This is why I only ask my very dearest friends to read my own work--not because others couldn't offer appropriate advice or perceptions, but because the process of criticism is (or ought to be) so intimate. It requires knowledge about the work and its author that a casual acquaintance simply can't have.

I'm not, of course, making the case that all criticism should be based on intentionality. There are multiple places for "outside" criticism and reviews, as well as impersonal editing. But it still seems to me that the best editor has to give a great deal of attention to the artist and what she is trying to accomplish as well as to the effect of that work on those with whom the artist will never come into contact. Even if the artist and critic never meet, criticism is an intimate affair. This is why teaching can be such a fraught affair. Working with students demands intellectual intimacy from both parties, and falters when one party is resistant or careless with that connection.

So to me, this unrequested "gift" offers a burden of intimacy I simply don't care to return.

8 Comments:

At 7:48 PM , Blogger academic coach said...

These are fascinating thoughts about feedback and criticism.
I do better, myself, with people that I'm less intimate. Then I don't seem to care as much about what they think of my work.

 
At 8:55 AM , Anonymous Mme. X. said...

Oh dear, Dorcasina. I googled-- for the very first time-- my very first love just last night. Found him, too. Have been composing a note, even though I've not seen him in over half a lifetime. I guess I shouldn't send. What do I imagine I'll achieve? Oh dear oh dear.

 
At 9:49 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Madame X: Oh dear. Me and my bad timing. Perhaps his soul is less prickly than mine? And of course, you actually had a relationship with him, which is not the case for me and my correspondent.

 
At 4:20 PM , Blogger dr four eyes said...

I google stalk grad school people on a quarterly basis, just to keep tabs, though they rarely have anything new to contribute to my stalker files. I google undergrad people only periodically, when I'm particularly bored or in need of procrastination. I google high school people only when I can remember their names, which is very, very rarely.

I have only once contacted a google target, a friend from undergrad who now lives in the area. We have now resumed our close friendship, which I'm very happy about.

 
At 7:49 PM , Blogger feminine expressions said...

to mme.x...thirty years after graduation i was googled and contacted by a high school friend (who carried a small torch) and it has been lovely for me to hear from an old friend miles away. but he did approach me carefully and thoughtfully and i appreciate his being so conscious.

to dr. d...oh, how i love your writing. while i am an excellent hired editor, i cringe every time i get unsolicited requests to read, evaluate or edit the work of hopeful acquaintances. most of it is dreadful and i find myself fumbling for words. i so enjoyed reading this post...

 
At 11:20 PM , Blogger Mel said...

The real issue isn't so much the googling as the inappropriate mailing of work. You could, of course, just ignore it. And if this person follows up, just say "it's a really bad time for me to be taking on any extra projects. But I wish you well in your creative endeavors." And then stop replying to any more emails.
I've learned to be kind of harsh about these things...

 
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