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June 6, 2003

You think you know, but you have no idea

When I was editing Voices, I had to present the section at the first newspaper meeting of the year. A large group of students showed up-most of them wanting to write for Viewpoints-but a few people made their way over to my part of the room, where I stood backed up against the water cooler. I had to sell Voices to a new staff of writers, most of whom already wanted to write something for me, and my only task was to explain what the section was and what I was looking for in articles. I fear that my presentation was just not up to the task.

At the time I still labored under the assumption that Voices would be a "writer-driven" section, meaning that it should reflect virtually no editorial judgment, that there would be no pre-determined assignments, and that my task as editor would simply be to coordinate the various articles that the staff wanted to write. People unfamiliar-familiar with the now thoroughly discredited McKinsey model of loose-tight management would not have been able to make sense of my presentation. It would appear to outsiders-and I am confident that it did-that I was throwing up my hands in resignation and instructing the new writers to simply write about whatever the hell they felt like.

I have promised to write something for the Senior Issue. I pondered submitting my reviews of Tsui Hark's Time and Tide and James Toback's Harvard Man, which for different reasons were submitted but did not appear in the section, as "The Lost Reviews." Those reviews are a little dated, however. I thought about writing a weepy recollection of my time with the newspaper, but in all honesty my time here was not that long. I began my time with the Maroon as an apolitical and uninspired Viewpoints writer, began writing for Voices in the spring quarter of my second year, and so only have about two years of tenure. In the world of journalism that's the difference between an editorial assistant and an associate editor. It is nothing to get weepy about. So I think, in the spirit of recollection, in the spirit of helping others, and in an effort to cut to the quick of Voices, that I will offer the guidance I failed to offer nine months ago.

The only prerequisite for writing for Voices is a bottomless well of misdirected anger. Do you really like the Swell Maps? Have you ever played "Let's Build a Car" for friends who weren't interested in the Swell Maps? Did you then tell those friends to go fuck themselves? Perhaps Voices is for you. We're writing on topics on which most people agree to disagree; some people study movies, music, and literature seriously, and some people decide to like what they like. Then there are people like us, who claim to offer carefully considered, thoroughly defensible opinions to an audience of people who simply want to like what they like. The result, of course, is that we do not have the impact that we want to have, even upon one another, and this is endlessly frustrating. Hence the ether of intense hatred sitting over the newspaper office; hence the angry response to anyone's efforts to put Travis files on the Maroon computer; hence the drunken confrontations at Maroon parties. You think Mr. Lif is better than Atmosphere? Explain yourself, asshole. If your faith in the veracity of your own tastes has given you the confidence to denounce incompatible tastes, you are ready for Voices.

Once you have decided to write for Voices, the next step is to turn your habit of digressing into a certifiable writing style. Attentive readers of this section may have noticed that often much of its content is not even tangentially related to the ostensible subject of the review. Politics, sports, and office gossip can all receive the lion's share of attention; if you can tie these subjects into a metaphorical evaluation of a book, play, movie, album, or visual art exhibition, then you have done your job, but this is by no means required. Often you may find it helpful to bring in a second author, thus doubling (or tripling, depending upon your ability to play ideas off of one another) the number of metaphors in play.

Finally, look over your own work. Try to tease out a series of consistent critical principles. If you loved What Time is it There? consider comparing all subsequent films to the work of Tsai Ming-Liang; even if you do this privately, without an explicit comparison in the review, you are still writing an argument, yes indeed. Use the Dogma 95 rules as axioms, even if they are merely a reaction to other trends in film, and even if other Voices writers will make fun of you. Write off genres wholesale; none of us like emo, and many of us are wary of post-rock. Decide whether concept matters more to you than execution. If you can make it all the way through Gus Van Sant's Gerry, or both albums of Sandinista!, then you know on which side of the divide you fall.

Presenting Voices is not easy; determining shared characteristics is much harder still. Nevertheless, if you can look deep down inside yourself and find a desire to judge other people based upon rather superficial characteristics of taste, if you believe that disposable income is the most important kind of income, and if you can write 750-1000 words on short notice, you can join the Voices family.

Now, I feel the urge to let myself off the hook. Entertainment is fun; writing about entertainment is fun; Voices is fun. I probably learned as much writing for Voices as I did in some of my classes. I like to think that it even made me a better writer. I wouldn't be reminiscing about it if I didn't think it was worthwhile.

Thank you and good night!