by Kim Kelly
This dirty little three-letter word is just about the worst thing anyone could say about another’s creative efforts.
‘My darling, I’ve cooked you a beautiful meal.’ Meh.
‘Do you like the new outfit I made?’ Meh.
‘I think I might, in my wildest imaginings, have just glimpsed the cure for cancer!’ Meh.
‘Yeah, I can hardly believe it either, but I think I’ve written a novel.’ Meh.
It’s the worst word with which to condemn another’s endeavours to make and do as it carries not only dismissal and contempt, it suggests that the effort was so dull and pointless it barely deserves any reaction at all.
I received a ‘meh’ once, a few years ago now, and it was a fairly unforgettable experience, made far more revolting by the fact that it came from a fellow author, who felt the need to express it publicly. We all say half-arsed things from time to time, but among them the meh is somehow indelible. I met that author face to face a few months ago and all I saw was the meh, as if that word were tattooed across their forehead, and, as per the immutable laws of emotional physics, I was instantly so overwhelmed by a desire to spit on the ground at their feet in disgust, I was compelled to turn away. No meh about it.
Boohoo me. But there’s a depth of meh yet more putrid still – meh-ing a classic, a work of great skill – and I stepped into steaming example of such just yesterday.
Backstory: one of my human babies recently worked on the forthcoming Bruce Beresford film adaption of the novel, The Women in Black (most fabulously as an assistant costumier, go baby, mamma woot, punch the air). Written by the late Madeleine St John twenty-five years ago, it’s an impeccably crafted slice of stultifying mid-century Sydney, sans aircon and avec lashings of satire. One of its central characters, a young woman on the cusp of going to university, is so excruciatingly and beautifully caught between her parochialism and her yearning to discover herself and the world through words, she is me – and millions of other Australian women, timelessly. The novel also has more layers of butter and salt than a post-war Hungarian cheese puff: cultural cringe and kitsch, sacred Australiana, our top-class competitive sports of anti-intellectualism, insularity and misogyny on full-colour display, a text that asks, ‘What’s changed?’ with wisps of Voltaire, Tolstoy and Blake dancing round its edges, both mocking our smallness and beckoning larger and more dangerous thoughts.
And then yesterday, in wanting to have a look at the resurgence of interest the book was no doubt enjoying as a result of said film, I decided to consult the usual review hubs to see how it was being received by readers, and there my eyes almost immediately fell upon the word ‘meh’.
You have got to be fucking kidding, I said to myself at first glance, but when I saw the reviewer was yet another fellow author my heart hit the floor.
Really? Madeleine St John is dead and even if she were alive I’m sure she wouldn’t give half a sliver. What upsets me – inconsolably – is that other authors, who know what it means and what it takes to write a book, would even think to treat others of their ilk with such flagrant disregard.
Meh is not clever. As a writer and permanent student of literature and life, your feelings about a text are irrelevant; let them interfere with your critical faculties, and your opinions are even less worthy. As a writer, a thoughtful, curious writer, your primary quest, surely, is to consider the intentions of any author you read, weigh up how well you consider those intentions have been executed in light of your own ever-gaping ignorance, and to pinch what you can of their best bits. Anything else is arrogance.
Use the meh and you prove you warrant no better yourself.