That Inferior Scale
November 18, 1998
A certain proficiency in a skill relegates you to a social caste in some ways, as your particular skill level places you automatically on a scale, relative to your peers.
The comparison is instant and unavoidable. It is applied either by a central focal point of ‘those who came before’ and are now revered as being the ones that should be judge and jury of those to come after them. This is the basic self-validating critiques you get in the art and designer worlds.
Then you have the outside critics that explain to you exactly how something should be done, what should be done, when, and why to do it. They sit in their little cozy barco-loungers, sipping dry martinis, and calling for their man-servant to fluff up their pillows, belonging to a social caste of their own that for some reason has put them in charge of demarcating what is right and wrong for other people, because only their opinion should matter. See: Movie Critics.
Whichever the method, the stigma once applied of being sub-par is difficult to overcome. The upper caste, not wanting to admit any wrong on their side will consistently deny and improvement, or give it a backhanded compliment, a pat on the head, and send you on your way. Even when the upper caste has not build the opinion, they can be wrapped up in the arbitrary ratings, the resulting peer pressure and eventually buy into something they really didn’t believe in the first place, but now seems as normal as ham and cheese on rye.
And then, of course, there is the personal issue of overcoming the stigma if you do not have any way of knowing if you really belong in the lower caste you have been assigned.
So where does that leave those of us who are on the outside looking in? These invisible walls are thrown up, and to be invited to the party, you already have to be at the party.
I’m being very general. It’s frustrating to read, I know.
I was on the subway the other day, and a group of older citizens (ok, 50 to 60 is older in my perspective, sue me) were talking about the new Tom Wolfe book, A Man In Full. The first comment to come out of their mouths were "Oh yes, the critics said it wasn’t very good work.. not up to his potential." Heads nodded in knowing agreement.
Somehow, critics, who just read a lot, know best about the talents and failings of the world’s writers. And why the bad critiques? Because it isn’t Bonfire of the Vanities. In this social casting of skill and talent, a first great work is elevated high above where the work actually stands and more and more people jump on the bandwagon of praising something because the top caste has proclaimed it to be true, further pushing the piece up the mountain. (case in point: Quentin Tarrentino)
It’s why writers, after achieving critical acclaim, no longer publish. Because they know they will be held up again to the original work, that critics are looking for a reproduction of the original work, not another original work. No, the critics don’t want to see something as unique and refreshing as what first brought the author critical acclaim.
So to protect themselves against such snafus, some form their own self-validating posse. The central figures that came before and now sit as judge and jury. Commonly recognized as ‘the scene.’ The punk scene, the poetry scene, the dance scene, the Webster Hall scene.
I myself sat in an undergraduate class many years ago. It was a Survey of Forms class, on Short Fiction. The first thing that was done was we went around the class, announced our names and majors. As you could guess, the majority of people were creative writing majors, with professional writers a close second. There was a spattering of technical writers.
Me? I was an Industrial Management major. When I announced that, I was looked at like I had two heads. Immediately I saw the opinions forming.. "What is he doing is this class?", or "He must need an elective." It was more than halfway through the semester before people began to even take my writing half-seriously, and I have a feeling the professor coddled me somewhat, as ‘that poor boy who wants to pretend to write.’
So I never took another creative writing class. I never submitted to the school creative arts magazine. I have only submitted poetry to two places, Literal Latte and Pauper.com. Pauper published me and I was thrilled. Literal Latte gave me a nice pat on the head and a subscription.
I am sitting in the lower social castes of the arts, watching through the looking glass as ‘in the know’ poets and writers quote Ginsberg, Keats, Plath and cummings, dress in black and smoke long cigarettes, silently humoring me in my business suit, clutching my journals of hundreds of poems, and completely believing that it’s all laughable.
And I fall deeper into an inferiority complex.
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