David Vann, Wes Anderson, Philip Glass: In defense of artists who always return to the same themes. - Slate Magazine
There has been something suspect and cheap shot about critics who dismiss a new work by an established novelist/poet/film maker/playwright as merely a product of an imagination of someone who was "starting to repeat themselves." The gripe, understand, wasn't that the artist's work wasn't , to some degree, repetitive--any artist worth paying attention , I think, will repeat themselves in theme, technique, flourishes, psychological texture--but rather that the naysayers assumed the charge alone sufficed as criticism.
Well, it doesn't suffice at all, not hardly. It seemed the reasonable and obvious thing for the would be critic to discuss how a particular work falls short of the best art the supposed artist can make--usually a reviewer, in this regard, would begin a review with praise for earlier novels, poems, plays, films, et al--and proceed through a discussion of what the artist has done with the standards he or she has established for themselves: has the fictional universe expanded or contracted to effective or defective degrees, has any trope been reworked or modified or needlessly included in such a way that it adds only noise and clutter to the work, is the work under consideration not varied enough from previous novels, poems, plays, films et al to not seem like anything more than an exercise?
All these are matters of discussion and all these require a bit of digging through the text and investigating the metaphors , similes and associated language constructions for what's coming undone structurally and what contained therein is putting the consumer to sleep. Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster, two writers who are maddeningly repetitive in their themes as they are prolific in their issuing of new novels , have both established respective clusters of author habits, narrative schematics and verbal habits--Oates loose limned, italicized and frantic in a series of meditations on how violence becomes an ingrained element in complex emotional dynamics , Auster terse, enigmatic, sparing with qualifiers, calm in tone amid an ongoing dissolution of a main character's metaphysical surety--and each has produced more than a few books that ought to have been remained in the drawer of their writing desks, in my view. Yet each also publish, with some frequency, books of particular brilliance, expressions of a peculiar genius that comes only through an obsessive working and reworking of a set of narrative devices, tones and voices .
One could say, of course, that worthy publishers and good editors of days gone by could have spared us the mediocre work and provided with us only with the masterpieces, such as they are, that we needn't have had to withstand those novels that seemed more like warm up exercises.Perhaps. But the responsibility of criticism, at least the criticism that appears in newspapers, magazines and on popular internet books and arts sites, is to interrogate the style, substance and argument of a particular book and to judge it against other work, both by the author and his contemporaries. Review the book, in other words, and be thankful that we have writers who have things interesting enough to read and debate.