Meaningless Responsible Criticism

The composer, author, and critic Ned Rorem wrote a letter to the New York Times book review, protesting a review of Christopher Ricks’s bookDylan’s Visions of Sin, a portentious 500+ page analysis of Dylan’s lyrics. Rorem wrote, in part,

As one who has always found Dylan the singer charmless and rasping, Dylan the poet sophomoric and obvious, and Dylan the composer banal and unmemorable, I did not have my feeling changed by Jonathan Lethem’s review. …

He goes on to criticize the book, and Lethem, for focusing exclusively on Dylan’s lyrics.

Accompanying the review was a sidebar by Lucinda Williams, who wrote,

I have watched you and listened to your lyrics and have been struggling to get as good as you are for about the last 40 years….You let your Minnesota, nonsinging, howling, raspy voice push the lyrics. Your guitar and harmonica and those sweet beautiful melodies hold them and give them a home. The words rest against them. They don’t have to stand alone but they can.

Rorem dismissed her essay as a “giggly postscript … such notions are meaningless in responsible criticism.” I wrote an (unpublished) letter to the editor:

So according to letter writer Ned Rorem (“Positively Fourth Rate,” July 4), Lucinda Williams’ description of Bob Dylan’s “sweet beautiful melodies” is “meaningless in responsible criticism” but his own dismissal of Dylan’s songs as “mundane” is apparently meaningful? I for one know exactly what Lucinda Williams is talking about, while Mr. Rorem’s description of Dylan’s voice as “raspy” is as irrelevant as calling Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar “imprecise.” Both Mr. Rorem, reviewer Jonathan Lethem, and the hopelessly overanalytical Prof. Ricks could all take lessons in brevity and clarity from Lucinda Williams, or for that matter, Bob Dylan.

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