I disagree with so much in Suat’s recent post it’s difficult to know where to begin. But perhaps I’ll start here.
The plot [of Potential in summary is simple: Ariel goes to high school, “discovers” that she is a lesbian, meets other girls and has occasional sex and alcohol.”
Um…no, i’ts not. The plot of Potential does begin with Ariel discovering she’s a lesbian. But it focuses on her developing, and increasingly disastrous, relationship with one particular girl, Sally. That development is not “simple” either — Sally and Ariel’s characters and interactions are both complex and nuanced. As an example (and to help Suat with a scene that seems to have left him non-plussed) — Ariel’s decision to have sex with a boy before she turns 16 is clearly linked to her general obsession with ritual rights-of-passage. That obsession (which isn’t spelled out — you have to be reading carefully enough to actually follow what the characters are doing) becomes a major bone of contention with Sally, and is tied, too, into Ariel’s general possessiveness and control issues.
I could go on; those themes are also linked, for example, to Ariel’s increasingly fraught interactions with her parents. But the point is: the relationship between Sally and Ariel is absolutely central to both Potential and Likewise. Yet, in his 2000 plus word review, Suat mentions Sally exactly once (when he, again somewhat bemusedly, discusses a scene where Ariel imagines her girlfriend turning into an alien.)
Suat’s a very intelligent and perceptive critic. So how exactly did he go about missing the main narrative and thematic feature of not one, but two books? Well, I think he did it this way:
I found little here which was emotionally moving or disturbing… I literally had difficulty concentrating on the comic from panel to panel.
Suat missed the plots of Potential and Likewise because he found the books so boring he couldn’t pay attention to them.
I don’t actually have a problem with that. Different people are interested in different things. Some people don’t like metal. Some people don’t like horror films. Some people don’t want to read yaoi. And some people don’t want to read journals (which Suat refers to disparagingly throughout his essay), or read about the trials of queer youth, or look at visual art which isn’t polished or accomplished in a particular way. That’s the way it goes.
Ideally, a critic would realize when his or her disinterest in generic and formal elements is so overwhelming as to be essentially insurmountable. Suat doesn’t do that here, unfortunately — instead he doubles down.
Noah would say in Schrag’s defense that this betrays a lack of interest on my (or other like- minded reader’s) part in the life and thoughts of teenage girls. I would suggest rather that it betrays a lack of interest in the life of just any teenage girl. In the same way that not all autobiographies are worth reading, not every teenage journal is worthy of our attention or approbation.
The point I think is that Suat is only interested in teenaged girls if they make art “worthy of our attention.” But…what if, just as a possibility, the disinterest in the everyday life of teenaged girls actually prevents you from noticing art that might be worthy of your attention if it were about something that you found more absorbing?
As an example of how such a blind spot might work…here’s Suat giving my review of Potential what for:
Where Berlatsky sees sublime confusion, I see only a poorly edited journal. I much prefer the artist who prunes and refines a piece to one who rattles on however authentically. Quite simply put, these are comics which contain little in the way of beauty of form or language.
So, reading that little bit, you’d think that I admired Schrag’s work for its “sublime confusion,” and authenticity — because she was punk rock, and just let her feelings flow.
But here’s my actual last paragraph from that review:
Schrag herself never comes out and says any of this; indeed, her touch with the material is so deft that it’s easy to feel that she’s not shaping it at all. She could have written with a heavier hand, spelling out every moral ambiguity and explicating each psychological nuance. Instead, Potential is messy and confusing, filled with shifting perspectives, odd random details, and sudden moments of despair and love. If it were easier to classify, it would have a larger audience, but it wouldn’t be nearly as great.
I do talk about the book’s messiness, but I explicitly say that this messiness is a result, not of authentic spewing, but of her deft touch. I note that it’s “easy to feel that she’s not shaping” the material — by which I quite clearly mean that she is shaping it, and very carefully too. In fact, one of the reasons I have trouble writing about Schrag (which I do) is that I think her writing, plotting, and characterization is extremely subtle. You really have to pay attention to figure out what she’s doing and how she’s doing it. I often have the uncomfortable sense that she’s smarter than I am, which, for a critic, is somewhat intimidating.
Anyway, the point here is that Suat spends his entire review soundly trouncing me for an opinion (“authentic unmediated autobiography is superior!”) that I don’t hold. I like Likewise better than Fun Home not because I think Fun Home is too artificial, but for almost the opposite reason. I think Fun Home is too clumsy.
Again, Suat’s usually a good bit more perceptive than that. I think it’s just hard for him to believe that anyone would find Schrag’s comics subtle — and no wonder, since, as we’ve established, he finds them so off-putting for various reasons that he has difficulty even figuring out the plot.
For the most part, Suat’s review is hard to get too upset about…his prose is, as always, enjoyable, and, since his eyes are closed throughout, he isn’t able to land too many punches. The end, though, crosses over from merely exasperating into something more problematic. Suat starts this final section by defending Kristian Williams, who I had accused of condescension. Suat’s riposte is more effective than perhaps he intended — certainly, Williams doesn’t look very condescending at all compared to Suat.
Even highly individual works have the capacity to appeal to certain sections of society. Potential speaks distinctly and eloquently to the milieu being depicted within its pages as well as those who feel that almost inexplicable “connection”. Works like these make little effort to draw in readers beyond their narrow confines. This is both one of their deepest strengths and greatest weaknesses.
For those left unmoved by Schrag’s narrative, the text remains of passing interest as personal history, social anthropology and as evidence of the growth of a young writer on her way to better things. Time will tell but I have my doubts if this will be a work which most will look back with reverence and affection in the coming decades.
I think Suat is actually trying to throw me (and Schrag enthusiasts generally) a bone here…and I wish he’d just stuck to castigating her and us. Because it’s in trying to explain the appeal of Schrag’s work to others that he most explicitly naturalizes his own alienation. Folks like Suat who find nothing in Schrag are, he suggests, the normal baseline, on the right side of posterity. Schrag’s work as it stands can only appeal to a small in-group (of young people, queers, and fellow travelers, presumably). Schrag is for for the few, whereas something like Maus is, I guess, for the ages, since everyone wants to see poorly drawn middle-class male mice whining about their relationships with their fathers at interminable length. (Plus…the Holocaust!)
This particular argument — that Schrag somehow has innately limited appeal — resonates in really unfortunate ways with mainstream discussions of queerness, of women, and of kids. Again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Suat disliking the book, nor in his attempting to explain why in terms of craft, theme, writing, or what have you. But in the last couple of paragraphs, he seems to be trying to cast the book onto the dustbin of history because it appeals to groups of people whose stories Suat isn’t especially interested in. Since those groups of people also happen to have suffered from various kinds of political marginalization, the implications of Suat’s argument here are not happy ones.
Update: The full Likewise Roundtable is here.