Marc Woodoworth and Ally-Jane Grossan, eds.
How to Write About Music
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)
When I moved to New York after college, hoping to find a job, one of the first concepts I learned was that of the “informational interview.” If the standard job interview can be understood as a social interaction of an uneven, transactional variety—the applicant wants a job, the interviewer is offering a job and judging the applicant’s suitability—and as such, an interaction where frank and sincere exchange between the parties is limited, then the informational interview is its milder variant. The would-be interviewer has no job to offer, and is thus withholding judgment; the would-be applicant isn’t seeking anything other than information. Because the stakes are more vague, the informational interview allows for more candid and honest discussion. The human element lacking in the job interview is recaptured.
Well, almost. Because deep down, the would-be applicant is still hoping to gain something tangible from the would-be interviewer: maybe he or she does have some job opening after all, or has heard of an opening somewhere else and can make an introduction. By the same token, the would-be interviewer is not speaking as a human being, but rather in his or her professional capacity. Though the exchange appears to take on a candid, human tone, the context is still transactional; more precisely, the candid tone actually disguises the fact that the interaction is still, at root, transactional. If you’re focused only on tangible benefits, this is fine—but if you consider sincere, candid exchange as something valuable in its own right, then the concept can strike you as unsettling. Personally, I always came away from these interactions grateful for the advice I’d been given, but also just kind of depressed.
How to Write About Music is the literary equivalent of the informational interview: it addresses the reader in candid, sincere terms, but its premise is transactional, based on a vague promise of barely tangible benefits. Part textbook, part anthology, the book compiles an intelligent selection of mostly-contemporary music writing and arranges it into chapters broken up by category—“The Album Review,” “The Artist Profile.” Primary sources form the bulk of the material here; an introduction from the editors and topic-specific writing prompts round out each chapter. Finally, there is advice from established music writers like Michael Azerrad (Our Band Could Be Your Life) and Carl Wilson (Let’s Talk About Love)—this takes the form of clusters of blurbs included within each chapter and in special sections between chapters as well.
The book is published by Bloomsbury Academic, which also publishes the 33 1/3 series. As the introduction explains, the idea for How to Write About Music began with a workshop called “Writing Rock” taught by co-editor Marc Woodworth. Co-editor Ally-Jane Grossan—who took Woodworth’s class as a college sophomore—is the editor of the 33 1/3 series, and many of the primary sources are excerpts from 33 1/3 books. (It bears mentioning that Rail music editor George Grella is an upcoming 33 1/3 author.)
It’s not surprising then that the series looms large here. The way the editors have structured the book, as a hybrid how-to/anthology, amplifies this effect. The anthology aspect provides a sensible snapshot of the contemporary landscape of music writing—with a few historical (i.e., pre-2000) examples—in which the 33 1/3 series occupies a prominent, if not central, position; the how-to aspect then instructs readers on how they might enter that landscape themselves, a course of instruction directed towards the ultimate goal of writing their own 33 1/3 book and culminating, naturally, in the final chapter, “How to Pitch a 33 1/3.”
I don’t mean to be unfair here: clearly this book serves to promote the 33 1/3 series, but though this promotional component shouldn’t be ignored, neither should it be seen as the chief consideration behind the editors’ decisions. The articles and excerpts here aren’t meant to form a canon, 33 1/3-based or otherwise; the book is more mixtape than greatest hits. Grossan and Woodworth have done a capable job identifying various kinds of music writing and including a broad array of different writers’ approaches to the subject, from the more workaday variety, like Ann Powers’s review of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, to the more personal and experimental, like Tavi Gevinson’s sprightly apologia of Taylor Swift, and John Darnielle’s inventive exegetical novella on Black Sabbath.
The most overtly pedagogical aspect of the book, the writing prompts at the end of each chapter, is smart and relevant; I imagine a minimum of student eye-rolling. The advice component is more hit or miss. The best advice concerns topics tangential to the actual act of writing. Making contacts and learning how to pitch are acquired skills, and just how to go about acquiring them isn’t necessarily self-evident. When Casey Jarman, managing editor at the Believer, suggests asking an editor to meet for coffee or beer, he’s suggesting something that many undergraduates might not have thought up on their own. (And when Jarmon says of editors, “These are not rock stars. These are generally lonely people who would love to meet you and shoot the shit,” he’s uncomfortably accurate, speaking for myself at least.)
Elsewhere, the writers’ advice is less helpful. In the chapter “The Live Review,” for example, the critical debate seems to boil down to questions like whether or not to take notes, and if so, whether to use a notepad or an iPhone—questions that writers-to-be can surely figure out for themselves. More than being simply ineffective though, at times the writers’ advice strikes me as potentially discouraging. This reaction comes less from any specific example than from the overall effect of being subjected to so much “expert advice.”
To explain this further, I need to return to the informational interview analogy. Again, this book is premised on a transactional interaction between reader and text—in exchange for (buying and) reading the book, the reader is supposed to learn how to write about music—but in the case of the writers’ advice, any supposed tangible benefit is so vague as to be meaningless. At times, the writers’ direct address can’t help but come off as disingenuous—they seem to speak to “you” directly, but have no actual stake in your success; they might as well be talking to themselves.
I really want to stress that when it comes to one’s own writing, taking others’ advice isn’t some abstract, obscure matter; rather it’s a key part of the process; and I raise this point in protest against the whole swath of “How to Write” books by authors like Verlyn Klinkenborg and Anne Lamott. Let’s say you’ve written a short story for a creative writing class. On a whim, you’ve also submitted this short story for publication in a journal. On the day when your story is being workshopped in class, one student is particularly vocal about changes he thinks you should make. Then, after class, you come home to find an email saying that the journal has accepted your story, with the journal’s editor writing to suggest a different set of changes. Now, whose changes are you more likely to consider? Those of the student with nothing but his own subjective view of what your story should be—and as important, no real interest either way in whether it fails or succeeds—or of the editor, who by including the story in the journal must also vouch for its quality? The writers quoted in How to Write About Music do better when they seek to help direct their would-be protégés to good editors, rather than try and edit them before the fact.
The inherently subjective nature of other writers’ advice is touched on nicely by Chuck Klosterman, who is given a section of his own called, appropriately enough, “Chuck Klosterman’s Tips for Writers”:
Listen to other writers’ advice, but don’t unconditionally accept what they tell you ... People tend to retrospectively view their own personal experience as normative, particularly if they’ve had any degree of success. So whenever someone says, “You must do _______ , you always need to _______ ,” they’re merely telling you what happened to them.
Klosterman’s other tips are similarly insightful, and if I have any objection to them it’s only that they are so poorly placed: They follow directly after an essay about—typically for Klosterman—a TV interview between Eminem and sportscaster Brent Musburger, which he watched in the context of a visit with his ailing father. The essay is meditative and poignant, and it should inspire any reader to take a moment to pause and reflect—something we’re not able to do properly, since immediately following is the list of tips of the trade.
I’m harping on this one bad editorial decision in an otherwise well-edited book because I think it’s illustrative: if I could pick only one aspect of this book to argue for its efficacy as a pedagogical tool, I would choose the high quality of the individual pieces of writing included herein. Not because reading good music writing will somehow make you better at writing about music, but because for the whole enterprise to make sense—for anyone to even want to write about music in the first place, for this to be a worthy thing to aspire to—then so-called music writing has to matter. Giving “Chuck Klosterman’s Tips for Writers” near-equal billing with an actual piece of writing by Chuck Klosterman reduces that piece of writing to a mere example to be emulated. It takes an attempt at candid, sincere communication and forces it into the realm of the transactional.
The best moments of this book come when individual pieces break out of the transactional context by sheer virtue of their brilliance. It could be that making such moments possible is at odds with the book’s more pragmatic goal. There’s certainly enough ambivalence about that goal throughout the book, beginning with Rick Moody’s several caveats in the foreword and appearing again and again in the writers’ advice blurbs. I can’t imagine the editors weren’t aware of the perils inherent in placing good writing in the limiting confines of a textbook. Perhaps they simply chose to make an imperfect textbook, rather than an anthology less open to criticism, trusting that its merits as a teaching tool would justify its flaws.
For all my perhaps less than mature flailing about the transactional erosion of discourse this book represents, I don’t honestly expect it will do that much harm to the students who might encounter it (general readers are another story). These students will finish the book having read witty, insightful essays like James Wood’s homage to Keith Moon—not to mention John Jeremiah Sullivan’s otherworldly profile of Axl Rose, one of the best pieces of writing of the past decade in any genre, which I re-read here with all the unselfconscious glee of a 13-year-old listening to Hendrix. Pragmatically speaking, these sincere, industrious students may well come away confident that they can write album reviews and artist profiles, and what’s more, they’ll be equipped to start their own blogs or contact editors and lobby for the chance to do so. In other words, they’ll have gained a lot from the experience. I just wonder if they won’t also be a little bit depressed.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.