A few weeks back I marveled in this column at the clarity of John McPhee’s writing in Coming into the Country, which was written in 1971, the year my older sister was born. McPhee operates as a passive observer in his books, but is almost always intimately connected with his main characters and subject matter. Just after my Mcphee bender, I devoured Jim Harrison’s “false memoir,” Wolf (also published in 1971) which is a freight train running in the opposite direction. Harrison writes himself into every page, takes himself apart, hardly notices another person unless they’re physically attached to him.
The contrast between the two nonfiction styles got me thinking about how writers enter into conversation with their readers, and, walking the dog, I made the leap to musing on the way generations of readers formulate their tastes for the truth. It may be fundamentally silly to categorize human communication this way—by age I mean—but in a fleeting realization I decided that, generationally, we kind of undulate back and forth on a continuum between reading more as critics or participants, and, oddly, that Baby Boomers and readers under 30 typically fall into the latter category. In simplest terms, a critic is a lover of beauty and a participant of life. A critic won’t except good intentions as an excuse for poor writing, and a participant won’t tolerate a master of form without a message.
A critic is looking for truth and a participant for meaning. A critic wants to be connected to eternity and a participant to the present. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t have both urges, and I don’t think there’s any way not to get confused about what kind of person you are. Our cover story this week is about the Ash Lawn Opera Festival’s production of The Magic Flute (Mozart’s Enlightenment morality play of light and dark) and how Michelle Krisel, the company’s director, has used her long career in opera to attract top tier talent to the stage at the Paramount Theater. It’s also about opera, generally, and the way it employs costume, voice, musical composition, and archetype to transcend language. Now there’s a cause I can get behind.