This morning, I read a post by a good friend of mine, sistermagpie, over at LiveJournal, in which she talked about some conversations she’d seen recently revolving around whether academic analysis could ruin a person’s enjoyment of fiction. The crux of her post was that she couldn’t imagine that analyzing a story could ruin her love of reading, and when I first read her argument, I was in complete agreement. Wouldn’t analysis simply deepen my love for something, by helping me to fully understand and appreciate the depth of the material? Then I remembered my state of mind when I left the commercial theater business, and my brain said, “Oooooooh, that’s right.”
As a young professional in New York, I was enthusiastic and tireless, madly in love with the life I had chosen and the incredible work I was allowed to be a part of. Even the “day job” I turned to in-between contracts (handing out headsets to the hearing impaired at Broadway shows) allowed me to stay immersed in theater pretty much 24/7. Every single person I spoke to on a regular basis was in the business, one way or another, and we talked for hours, at diners in the afternoon or bars after our shows, discussing and dissecting every aspect of whatever show we were in at the time, or whatever show we’d just seen. In my spare time, I composed passionate arguments about how the first twenty of minutes of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel is the most perfect example of the craft of transitioning from dialogue to song in the history of musical theater, or rapturous descriptions of my experiences standing in the wings listening to “My Friends” during a production of Sweeney Todd, or “Bali Ha’i” in South Pacific.
And then it happened. I started to hate it. I started to hate theater. I didn’t really notice it at first. A critical eye becomes natural in the business, being necessary for developing and improving one’s own work, and it took quite a while for me to realize that this way of perceiving everything as a critic had made it nearly impossible to enjoy anything I ever saw onstage. My mind instinctively catalogued and analyzed every imperfection in the script, music, production, and performance. The pure joy I once felt in watching a piece of good theater was no longer possible to attain. Every bit of praise in my mind was reduced to nothing but technical analysis, or immediately tempered by some piece of criticism. Joyous descriptions of the beauty or craft of this piece or that gave way to lengthy, often bitter lists of various pieces’ shortcomings. The argument praising the craft of Carousel became a tirade about how the reason everyone started writing sung-through musicals was that they all lacked the skill to do otherwise. I knew too much, I’d analyzed too long, and love (even *like*) had became impossible.
Reading sistermagpie’s post now, I wonder if maybe this is what happens to some academics with fiction. Recently, while discussing my emotional involvement with NANA, another friend mentioned that she knew a number of English professors who probably hadn’t “genuinely cared about a character or breathlessly turned a page since they were little.” Hearing that made me feel incredibly sad, yet even then it didn’t occur to me that I actually know what that feels like. I wonder if, on some level, this is why I’ve avoided trying to write real reviews of manga, choosing instead to rave about the series I really love, allowing myself to feel that pure joy I lost for theater long ago. I think it would break my heart if I ever lost that joy in manga. Manga has brought so much of it into my life, and at an unprecedented rate. I already lost my first true love. I don’t think I could bear to lose another.
After all this, I’m not sure I’m really addressing sistermagpie’s point, but I think I’m getting at something. Is this why people intentionally keep the things they love as hobbies? Or from a completely different perspective, is this rejection of critical analysis, and the desire to maintain a sense of enjoyment responsible for a decline in quality of different media?
In retrospect, I realize this article could be named, “How I can steer any discussion to manga.” Heh.
email@example.com saysOctober 22, 2008 at 9:49 pm
This is an important essay, I think. Glad you’ve said it. The hobby vs career choices, perhaps most importantly. I want to read it again when I’m more rested.
Melinda Beasi saysOctober 22, 2008 at 9:51 pm
As long as it hasn’t managed to turn me against a career in comics, I’m okay with it. :D
Ed Sizemore saysOctober 23, 2008 at 8:13 am
Being a manga critic hasn’t dull my enthusiasm for manga any. It has made me more selective in the manga I enjoy. Mind you, I don’t live manga twenty-four hours a day. I have a day job that has nothing to do with manga (or anything else remotely creative). Also, I’m able to mentally separate reading manga and reviewing manga. My reviews come from my reading experience. I read the book first and then based on my response as a reader I write my review. Essentially, my reviews are justifications of why I liked or didn’t like a book.
Permit me to site an example. I had a hard time writing a review of Knights of the Lunch Table. I loved the book, but when I sat down to review it, the book seemed to fall apart at the seams. The plot was simplistic and the characters were slightly clichéd. Where was the dramatic tension? What about character development? I had a moment of panic. Was this really that trite a story? Yes and no. It’s a kid’s book and trying to hold it to the standards of most of the books I read (Xxxholic, Fullmetal Alchemist, Phoenix, etc.) was unfair. I had to throw out my usual critical model and write a review appropriate to the material. I had to remind myself why I read and enjoy kid’s book. It’s precisely because they aren’t that complex. For me, they’re escape fiction, where it’s easy to tell right from wrong and hero from villain. The book wasn’t perfect, but it was a good read. I tried to write a review that reflected my feeling toward the book and the genre. I felt justified in my review when my seven year-old nephew told me he loved the book.
I think the secret to not suffering critical burnout out is to make sure that you’re always keep the love first and the analysis second. Let your adore be the fuel for and source of your criticism. Yes, it sounds corny, but really the best critics are the one’s who love their subject matter passionately and write from that perspective.
Melinda Beasi saysOctober 23, 2008 at 10:14 am
You know, I don’t think that sounds corny at all, and I can tell that you put it into practice, because your reviews always read like they’ve come from the heart. I don’t comment on your reviews often enough, but I enjoy them more than most, because your love for the medium, and especially for the books you enjoy most, really comes through. So I think you’ve succeeded in a way I wasn’t able to back in my theater days.
To be fair to myself (heh), I do think that at least some of my problem was due to the fact that by the time I finally hit the big-time, the shows being produced really weren’t very good, or at least could not live up to the body of work that came before them. I think commercial theater has steadily declined in quality over the past few decades, to the point where now (and I am thankful I’m no longer in the business to have to see this every day), there is almost never a musical on Broadway that isn’t an adaptation of a popular film (Legally Blonde the musical, wtf?) or a glorified musical revue. And look, see, here I’m still doing it. Heh. But I think on some level my bitterness was helped along by unfortunate trends in the business. So maybe I can cut myself some slack on that? I don’t know. I definitely lost the love for the medium, though, and that’s a big part of what ultimately chased me out of the business.
I am taking your words to heart here, though, and will try not to scare myself away from turning an analytical eye towards manga. :)
Ed Sizemore saysOctober 23, 2008 at 12:04 pm
I think you can cut yourself some slack. I couldn’t help think you sound similar to some of us ancient comic book fans. I loved superhero comics in my youth, but the medium went in a direction I couldn’t follow. I simply stopped reading comics. (I wasn’t around anyone into the indie comics, so I didn’t know they existed.) I picked up manga because of my love of anime and all my old enthusiasm came back. Hopefully, theater will overcome its creative slump and you’ll feel the old magic once again.
Thanks for your kind words about my reviews. I’m really trying, so it’s nice to know that I’m getting something right. The best thing about manga is it constantly shows me new horizons for the potential of comics. It wasn’t until I read Planetes that I ever though you could do serious sci-fi in a comic format. Ghost in the Shell is still one of the best meditations of what it means to be a sentient being. I think the best shojo art simply transcends the current vocabulary used to describe comics. Plus, being a reviewer means occasionally finding a treasure I would have never discovered on my own. I would never have touched Tail of the Moon based on the description. But a review copy made me an avid fan. (Alright, enough of the wide-eyed, giggly, fanboy gushing.) Manga rewards her devotees well.
So I hope you can reignite your ardor for theater.
Melinda Beasi saysOctober 23, 2008 at 3:41 pm
You know, I’m okay with not regaining my love of theater, as long as I don’t lose my love for manga. I’m not much of a multi-tasker, really, I can only handle one serious relationship at a time. :) I suppose since I still work in theater (on a much different level, and in a completely different capacity), you could stay we’re at least still friends. Heh. Though I did get excited a couple of years back, working on a summer program to get teenagers into writing for theater. That was really rewarding. I could love doing more of *that*.
The best thing about manga is it constantly shows me new horizons for the potential of comics.
You know, this is why I got into manga in the first place. I never liked comics until manga showed me the potential.
(Alright, enough of the wide-eyed, giggly, fanboy gushing.)
Ahhh, see, but I love hearing someone talk about things with that kind of enthusiasm. That’s the same excitement that comes through in your reviews. So feel free to bring your wide-eyed, giggly, fanboy gushing over here anytime. :)
Ed Sizemore saysOctober 23, 2008 at 12:05 pm
P.S. You’ve already shown you’re a good reviewer. Your posts on Xxxholic and Nana provide that.
Melinda Beasi saysOctober 23, 2008 at 3:42 pm
See, I would never consider that reviewing. That’s more like elaborately-presented wide-eyed, giggly, fangirl gushing. ;)
Ed Sizemore saysOctober 23, 2008 at 4:15 pm
Now, we’re getting into the eternal debate about what is a review. My opinion is that a review is simply telling the reader whether they should or should not buy a book and why. That’s one end point on a line. The other end point is a critical essay where you do detail analysis of themes, plot, character, contention to other works, etc. It’s a continum from a simple paragraph review to a book length academic treaty. So you may have not written an academic essay on Nana and Xxxholic, but you wrote more than a simple review. An euthasistic review is still a review. So keep up the good work. You’re writitngs are great additions to the ongoing discussion about manga.
Melinda Beasi saysOctober 24, 2008 at 2:06 am
So keep up the good work. You’re writitngs are great additions to the ongoing discussion about manga.
Thank you very much for saying that. I really appreciate it. And honestly, I’m honored to be able to be part of the discussion.
Cat saysOctober 24, 2008 at 7:45 am
I loved your post, and I just wanted to put my two cents in as an English professor. ;-) You describe these opposing strains so well—analysis deepening or enriching an artwork and even the experience of approaching the artwork OR analysis making it impossible to get captured, taken away, enraptured.
I really love analyzing and discussing literature, both in my own scholarly work and in my teaching, and it has made me love much of my favorite literature more. On the other hand, during graduate school, I stopped reading for fun at one point because I convinced myself that I needed to prep constantly for my graduate exams, reading things that I had to read instead of things that I wanted to read. My moratorium on fun reading made me distinctly associate reading with work and at that point as a graduate student rather than a professor, I was not very happy when it came to work.
One Christmas, I decided this was a sad state of affairs, and I poured through a stack of YA fantasy books. I stayed up with a flashlight all night some nights reading them under covers. (I was on vacation in a shared hotel room, hence the reenactment of my childhood tendencies to defy bedtime with books and a flashlight.) It was glorious and magical. I discovered Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which I not only enjoyed, I also found it deeply significant in articulating some of my philosophies about the world. That experience helped me remember that reading was not just about the job; it was about pleasure, my identity, and my respite. I needed to keep some of that safe in a Not For Work territory. I still do that. (though much less leisure reading during the school year!)
I really identified with that story in your post about losing that love of theatre because I think I came close to tarnishing literature in a similar way for myself. Now, as a prof, I love writing my critical work because having worked on it for so long, I finally feel like I’m onto something. That analysis enriches my feeling of intimacy with books that really matter to me and cultural history that really interests and sometimes troubles me (so I want to understand it better).
The best part is that teaching keeps the analysis of literature magical, so that even if I start to feel jaded about the business of scholarship or the methods that critics use to write about literature (or impress one another!), I can come back to the classroom and try to show students how to look at language and see how it creates some of these emotional effects in you and how the ideas behind it are threaded even in the smallest images. I taught Mrs. Dalloway this week, and as I was explaining some of the elements that contributed to the novel, I felt that excitement of falling in love with the novel for the first time because I wanted to help them love it and see what it is trying to do.
Sounds like teaching or at least reaching out to young people (young playwrights) is also something that keeps you in touch with theatre and inspiration (instead of theatre and drudgery).
Maybe one of the challenges of professional life is an attempt to do something meaningful and important personally but also important is not to sell all of your personhood to your job. I feel like this tension between private-magic-unanalyzed and professional-technical-analyzed also can have something to do with the split between job and self. (as Jan said with “hobby versus career”)
Melinda Beasi saysOctober 24, 2008 at 5:46 pm
One Christmas, I decided this was a sad state of affairs, and I poured through a stack of YA fantasy books.
That sounds like bliss. :)
Thank you so much for commenting on this, Catherine! I’m pretty appreciating your view. Hearing how you’ve found a way to balance both analytical reading and reading for pleasure is inspirational.
I finally feel like I’m onto something. That analysis enriches my feeling of intimacy with books that really matter to me and cultural history that really interests and sometimes troubles me (so I want to understand it better).
This makes so much sense to me, and it is how I would *assume* I’d feel as well. I only screwed myself up by remembering what happened with theater. Heh.
Maybe one of the challenges of professional life is an attempt to do something meaningful and important personally but also important is not to sell all of your personhood to your job.
Yes, I think this really is the challenge. And I’d like to think that one can do this without having to keep the most-loved bits as simply hobbies. Not that hobbies aren’t rewarding. I don’t mean to sound like I think they aren’t. Obviously I am incredibly rewarded by my hobbies now. But my instinct is always to try to find a way to make that my living as well, so that I am not spending the majority of my waking life doing something I care about much, much less.