pyotr and the wolves

I’ll bet you think that’s me, lounging around in full makeup and kitten-heeled slippers. But surely you must know that any hour I have will most definitely not be spent in heels or listening to Tchaikovsky.

I have two kinds of workout music which I stream in full stereo glory via Pandora. Both are melodic, neither has words I understand (or any words at all). Classical when I write (writing is, after all, a form of working out). Bollywood when I’m exercising. Both energize me, neither distracts me from the task at hand. I am, you see, quite dreadful at multitasking, too easily sucked into the vortex of what is before me and when I am writing, or reading (which I usually do while on the treadmill) I must focus on the words before me, not those of the song.

The other day I looked up at the screen and saw this:


“No school, no new paths, few innovations.” Ouch. Such harsh words. Seems the person writing the Pandora blurbs was having a really bad day. I felt the same sort of empathetic twinge I had when I read a recent review of a novel, by a critic I respect, which I saved so that any harsh critiques I might receive in the future might pale in comparison. (I’ve left out some of the information so as not to add insult to injury for the poor author.)

“The characters are little more than cardboard cutouts, wandering around uttering a few, often unbelievable, lines of dialogue. There is little or no tension at all. The detective does hardly any actual detecting, the criminals themselves managing to cock up [sic] all by themselves. The supporting cast do ridiculous things for no apparent reason. It is clunky and pointless and daft.

I don’t mind that this wasn’t a whodunnit, I love Columbo and the identity of the murderer is revealed at the beginning of every episode. I don’t mind that we don’t get the detective’s point of view till halfway through the book. I don’t mind that very little happens. All of these things could have made for a refreshingly different crime story.

I do mind that this everything is so bleeding obvious. That there is no depth to character or plot. That it is all so bloody dull. That the ending is rushed and anti-climactic (which is quite a feat when the book hasn’t really bothered to build up to a climax at all). I ended up annoyed and disappointed. My remaining K**** F***** books are going to the charity shop tomorrow.

Ouch redux. Now back to poor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He’s never been one of my favorite composers, which is probably why I came upon that screen, ready to hit the fast-forward button, but (said with that wonderful way people have of drawing it out these days)… really?

Indeed it seems for some his music was not Russian enough, for others it was simply bad. One critic said his Fifth Symphony sounded like “a hoard of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.” A recent critique of his work by Allan Kozinn chalked it up to Tchaikovsky’s attempts to please his audience, even at the mercy of his composition:

“Tchaikovsky was capable of turning out music—entertaining and widely beloved though it is—that seems superficial, manipulative and trivial when regarded in the context of the whole literature. The First Piano Concerto is a case in point. It makes a joyful noise, it swims in pretty tunes and its dramatic rhetoric allows (or even requires) a soloist to make a grand, swashbuckling impression. But it is entirely hollow.”

The popular vote is often quite different from the critic’s definition of what is good and what is bad, and why. We can’t always predict or prove how or why something that may seem inferior to some is indeed the one that sparks interest, even passionate devotion in others. Fifty Shades of This and That is a good example of a work that struck a nerve (or something altogether else) in the vox populi and soared in popularity, despite the fact that it in most critics’ eyes it had little literary merit, deeming its author a Tchaikovsky of soft porn.

While at times I find myself frustrated, even enraged at popular opinion (admittedly I can be judgmental about taste, with a few odd ones of my own), in the end I am convinced it is a crazy and wonderful thing, at least in most cases. Oh of course public opinion can also be manipulated and crafted to create mayhem and disrupt the mantle of power. But that is politics which I won’t get into here (as I whisper in your ear, vote obama, vote obama), and this is literature, or music, or art. The beauty of Goodreads, of Pandora and YouTube and to a certain extent the viewer-voted winners of the music gameshows is that they can yield surprises.

So—and I say this as much for my own benefit as that of others—we all need to calm our inner critics, tone down our quickness to destroy those who with good intent put pen to paper, fingers to keyboards, brush to canvas. In the end it is not buzz which keeps something in our hearts and minds. That may well be what draws our attention to it, but what keeps us reading, or watching, or listening is instead something indefinable and elusive, an alchemy of creation which may not be perfection, at least in our definition of what that is, but reaches us in some important or not-so-important way. Taste is a very curious thing, and it is often in the unpredictable, in the spot where we least imagined it, where the fun lies.

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