Monday, 3 August 2015

What's Wrong With The First Person?

Of all the events during a "festival of ideas" held recently in KL, the only sour note was a panel that talked about, among other things, how to be a better foodie and food reviewer.

I agree that "reviewers" and "food bloggers" who expect to be comped and resort to blackmail when shown the door are the spawn of Satan, and food reviews should be more than just pictures and flowery descriptions - or "wham-bam"-type commentary with multisyllabic adjectives.

But I felt slighted when the panellists described some reviewing methods that sound similar to mine, e.g., no "I", "me", "mine" in the text. At least I try to be entertaining...

And what's wrong with the sharp-edged jottings of certain British reviewers like Jay Rayner? I enjoy Rayner's stuff. As I do Pete Wells's, especially his interrogative piece on Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square.

William Cheng, a professor at Dartmouth College, has also made the case for more first-person voices in writing - in his case, for his students - in a Slate article:

The goal, of course, isn’t to assure students that it’s all about them—that is, to condone attitudes of entitlement and egotism. The point is for students to recognize that they must listen inward, harnessing a voice from deep down, in order to reach outward and contribute to society at large. Yes, I realize such advice runs the risk of sounding clichéd and sentimental: believe in yourself, the truth lies within, speak from your heart. But I’d rather see students grapple with sentiment than to have them smudge it out altogether.

Because you know what else is a cliché? The notion that good writing stands on its own merits, or that good ideas speak for themselves, or that a good paper can practically write itself. When we empower students to write with I, what we convey is: Stand up for yourself and take responsibility for what you say. Once you’ve found a voice, start thinking of all the people whose voices continue to go unheard. Behind glowing phones and laptop screens, students need to look up and speak out, to collide and connect with one another through exercises in self-expression and self-evaluation.

I posted a short version of this rant on Facebook. One respondent, a journalist with some reputation, says that use of "the first person voice sounds overindulgent but what's for me does not need to be for others. Writers should do whatever makes them happy and bear with whatever the consequence is and whatever viewers and so called experts think."

Yes, we're Asians and yes, we're also Malaysians and maybe, we don't review to criticise. Thing is, we have yet to master the fine art of giving and receiving criticism, from what I've seen on social media. We need to learn how to take it on the chin.

A big part of why we aren't growing up as people of letters is because we're too mindful of what others think, so much so that we can't trust our own opinions and the sum of our knowledge. News of fellow Malaysians being derided or punished for having unpopular opinions don't help.

I don't want to be pressured into being a "better" foodie, food reviewer or writer. Nobody should. And I want to write in a way that's most comfortable for me, for my voice. If one becomes good in the process of writing, it will show.

Ultimately, the audience decides what's good.

Tell you what: I'll do my thing and I-me-mine my way through my own foodie journey. And if I want to, every third word in my future reviews will be drawn from a list that includes gems such as "unctuous", "succulent", "yummy", "aromatic" and "earthy".

Because I can.

Because I want to.

And because, as Professor Cheng said, there's "no voice without I."


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