In For a Penny: No One is Bulletproof

Charles Lewis III on backlash and sacred cows.

Luke Cage deflecting bullets

“As a matter of fact, we are none of us above criticism; so let us bear with each others’ faults.”
– L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of OZ

After my recent entry about August Wilson, I had a Twitter conversation with another Black theatre artist regarding Amiri Baraka, one of Wilson’s influences. I’ve always been open with my affinity for Baraka’s poetry, but found him lacking as a playwright. As clear as I was about this, the woman on Twitter kept asking “Why are you picking on Amiri?”

With “breaking the rules” being Theater Pub’s theme for September, here was someone implying I’d broken the unwritten rule of marginalized artists: “Never criticise your own! We get that enough from the Straight/White/Cis/Christian men who oppress us!” That was bullshit the first time I heard it and it’s bullshit now.

A common misconception about me is that I hate Joss Whedon. I never have. I’ve liked his comics, I love the first Avengers film, and I consider his episodes of Roseanne amongst the best of the entire series. Having said that, I am not a Whedon fanboy. I wasn’t wowed by Buffy (although I genuinely like the original movie… which Whedon and his fans hate). Having never seen Angel or Firefly, I have no opinions on them one way or the other.

No, I don’t hate Joss Whedon or his work. Rather I hold them to the same artistic scrutiny as I would any other writer. That includes his dialogue, his characters, and his recurring tropes. Naturally such scrutiny would be considered badgering when I’m sitting with people who consider him the greatest writer in pop culture from the last 20 years. To them, Whedon is off-limits.

But that, to me, is the real problem. Nothing in art should be “off-limits,” let alone anything in art criticism. I’ve said before in this very column that it’s okay to hate a classic; that something revered should be under more scrutiny, not less. That’s how it becomes a classic: its relevance grows as each subsequent generation examines it with new eyes. That’s true if the work is by William Shakespeare or Aaron Sorkin.

And if there’s anything I hate about Black art, it’s how there’s a tendency to blindly support work that achieves even a modicum of mainstream success; how holding our work to any sort of standard is simply “giving into that crab mentality”. If that’s true, then it means our work is worthless because it’ll collapse from the slightest chip at its veneer. “Bullshit,” I say. The authors of the Harlem Renaissance did nothing but harshly critique one another’s work. Their egos varied on how they took public criticism, but each knew that putting their work in public inevitably meant criticism. That’s why their work still stands.

I’m a sucker for stories of authors who hung out together: the Algonquin Round Table; Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein; The Inklings, led by JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis; hell, even the stories of various sketch comedy writers’ rooms. I like hearing these stories because of the way each person would react to another’s work. It reminds me that great writing – nay, great art – isn’t formed in a vacuum, it has to be refined and that means letting it be critiqued.

What really gets me about when I critique Baraka or Whedon is how long it takes before someone inevitably tells me my opinion “doesn’t matter”. In the long run, that’s true: Baraka’s work is studied in renowned universities and Whedon is a multimillionaire; both have countless admirers the world over – I doubt either one (were Baraka still alive) would lose sleep over what I’ve said about Dutchman or Cabin in the Woods. Shakespeare doesn’t literally or figuratively roll in his grave whenever some school kid says his plays are lame.

But all of the above mentioned authors are important, so their work deserves important examination. That’s what I tried to convey in the Twitter conversation: I wasn’t “picking on” Amiri Baraka, I was acknowledging the importance of his work by taking a serious look at it; what I found lacking, I identified as much. As someone who would one day like to think himself a great artist, I can only hope I’m held to the same standards.

Charles Lewis says that if you really want to hear him talk shit, buy him a drink and ask him what he thinks of his own writing.