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Critics in Fort Wayne
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I received my first bit of honest, literary criticism in college, and it happened like this: I had been working on a short story for weeks, constantly revising it, and no matter how much effort I put into it, the story never caught fire. I showed it to a few friends, and they praised it to the skies, but I couldnít tell if they were just being nice or if they truly thought it was worth a damn. I decided, finally, to be done with it, so I wrote a final draft and put the pages in a yellow legal pad.
That night I took my now-completed story over to my girlfriendís apartment, and since she didnít have any furniture I set the legal pad on the floor before we went to sleep. In the middle of the night, her younger brother, bombed out of his gourd, burst into the bedroom, and, thinking he was in the bathroom, staggered over to the very corner of the room where my story lay and promptly relieved himself upon it. Horrified beyond words, I watched him stumble out of the room, and, after a few shocked, silent moments (my girlfriend slept through it), I tiptoed over to survey the damage. My impassioned, faux-Faulkner story was now thoroughly desecrated, the legal pad soaked beyond repair. Being a serious, fervent young writer, I was also, of course, completely humorless, and I saw this event as nothing more than a calamity of monumental proportions. But even in my outrage, I couldnít ignore the tiny, niggling voice in the back of my head, the one that made me instantly accept two irrefutable facts: one, the guy had pissed on my story, and two. . . he was right. Without words he was able to express what my well-intentioned friends should have told me, but didnít. I threw the legal pad away that night, gingerly holding it with a pair of work gloves, and the next day I started writing a story that was a thousand times better. It was at that point that I vowed never to underestimate the importance of valid criticism, no matter how curiously it is expressed.
There is virtually no criticism of the arts in Fort Wayne right now, and that is a shame, because a smart and fearless critic can be of immense service to an artistic community. The two newspapers quit reviewing local plays, bands, and CDs years ago, and now focuses exclusively on feature articles about area artists. The major alternative newspaper regularly reviews plays and CDs but thereís no way you can equate that with criticismĖevery CD by every local band is great, every play gets a rave. Itís as if Fort Wayne has become a little too damned nice about its artists, and only wants to clap everybody on the back for trying. There is a subtle pressure to be "supportive" of the local scene, to not drop a discouraging word. Is everybody really that fragile?
I love seeing bands play live in Fort Wayne, and Iíve caught dozens of shows this year, but Iíve never spoken out loud what Iíve always thought--namely, that most of them are terrible. In my collection I have 20 local CDs, and of that number Iíve played exactly three in the last year. How about you? I gave the merest of courtesy listens to 10 others, and the other seven I havenít opened. Like most cowards I went to the release parties, bought the merchandise, told the band they were great, listened to the music, hated it, and never played the CD again. How exactly is this being supportive? I should have been honest and told them the truth, and I should have learned to do it so I didnít seem like a prick with an axe to grind. Maybe they would have listened, maybe they would have punched me, either way itís better than pretending that Fort Wayne is Seattle, Austin, and Minneapolis rolled into one.
And the killer is, there are great bands here, great actors, great artists, great film makers, and they can only get better with a little healthy criticism. A good critic can put things in perspective, add context, make inferences and associations that the artist is incapable of. And the artist, if heís got any integrity at all, ought to be able to take the occasional punch from a contrarian. How can you be serious about your art and not expect criticism? Developing a thick skin should be the first step in developing as an artist. Maybe weíre a little too civilized in Fort Wayne, maybe our innate good manners have clouded our ability to think with prejudice. But if I see one more standing ovation for a mediocre play, I swear, Iíll be on the roof with a rifle.