I think this Tim Parks piece is an absolutely perfect encapsulation of what it means to be a writer of commentary today. Your job is simple: assure people that they are smart, above average, and savvy, that their choices are the right ones, that they are living the correct life, that they are special. And always, always the mechanism is the same: you assure them that they are good by insisting that others are bad. The world is full of sad small ugly people, but you! You are good. You are better than them.
Yes, you see, there is apparently some sort of cultural phenomenon out there that wants you to believe that you are wicked if you start and don't finish a book. I read an awful lot, I study writing and publishing, I frequent literary circles and try to remain plugged in, and until Tim Parks informed me, I was blissfully unaware that you could be judged for such a thing. Personally, I like to finish books I start. Reading is a private, personal thing, and I'm motivated by my own desires, and I keep my own counsel on my reading habits. So should you. So should Tim Parks. If you never finish a single book you crack, and that's fulfilling for you, go for it. Unfortunately, though, Tim Parks lives his life in a slightly different way than I do, so according to the mores of a fraudulent age, he must judge me to reject the implied judgment of my different behavior.
Tim Parks doesn't read books all the way to the end, and he feels guilty about it. That is his pathology and should remain his own. But because he cannot stand the minute possibility of judgment-- because even the existence of alternative behavior suggests judgment-- he has to create this whole bizarre mythology about what reading a book all the way through necessarily means, and how that meaning is somehow enforced by our culture. I mean, you can't turn on network television or read a copy of US Weekly without people shitting on your for not finishing The Tale of Genji, am I right? And since he's so afraid of this attitude being perceived as middlebrow, he's got to deride those who read books all the way through as inherently juvenile. Because, you see, if you do that, you're just doing it for self-confidence, and if you seek self-confidence through reading books, you are not the archetypal man of letters than super-genius Tim Parks is. The possibility that some people might read differently or for different reasons than Tim Parks is, of course, a foolish notion. I know it's odd to call masturbation solipsistic, but holy shit.
What a pathetic, child's vision of confidence, to be such a shaking flower that you need all of your choices in your life affirmed by symmetry in the behavior of those around you. But that status is encountered all across the Internet.
Do you feel guilty about anything in your life? Anything at all? Is there a single part of yourself that you find suboptimal? Never fear: there is some enterprising blogger or essayists who's right now crafting a piece that exculpates any and all guilt you might ever feel. Everything that you do is good. Whole careers have been built on this notion. You're good! Other people are bad! Are you some overeducated Brooklynite "arty but not in a pretentious way" wheel watcher who hates her job and devotes an inordinate amount of time writing "witty" commentary on celebrities and writers in an attempt to divert attention from the slow death of whatever emotional life you once had? Fear not. Gawker will mock anyone who doesn't exist in precisely your proportions. Are you a video game fan who not only thinks that video games are art but that they are the best art and anyone who doesn't think gamification can solve every problem in creation is an asshole and by the way gamers are an oppressed minority? Don't worry, the Internet is rife with writers who want only to assure you that you are the greatest. Are you the kind of yuppie technocrat who hates other yuppie technocrats despite the near-perfect similarity in your habits, consumption, demographics, style, taste in music and television, and endlessly lame jokes? Farhad Manjoo is currently working on yet another piece where he assures you that you are better than the identical asshole on the other side of the cubicle.
You know what the Internet has taught me, more than anything else? It's this: nerds are, like Jesus, perfect and yet perfectly oppressed. Having lived as your typical self-hating Internet obsessive for, oh, 7 years now, I can report with great confidence that the most important message out there on the Web is that nerds are God's most precious creation, but like the chosen people of Judaism they must suffer in a hostile and ignorant world. You see, nerds like thing so much better than you or I, so much more deeply and fully and passionately. You might think you love some piece of media, but if it isn't a comic book or sci-fi or a video game, trust me, you don't really love it. If you suggest that you like a novel by some fruity European writer as deeply as Buffy fans love that show, you are a regressive fandom-hater and probably a pederast. But once upon a time, one guy said that maybe Dr. Who was a little bit childish, and since then not a day has gone by without someone publishing a lecture about how genre fiction is every bit as good as any other kind and how if you don't admit that you like Spiderman more than Hamlet you simply must be a roiling sack of self-deception and anhedonia. I endured a little bullying as a kid, but I never faced anything like the goddamn self-pitying, whining, entitled, childish martyrs who have appointed themselves keepers of the flame of nerd power.
Is there anyone out there who hasn't read the same fucking "there should be, like, no such thing as a guilty pleasure, man" essay fifteen fucking times? How many times can people write that essay and still pretend that it's a novel idea? And where is this supposed guilt? Do you detect this guilt? It's funny, all I read are people denying that anyone should feel guilty about any cultural attachment they have, and yet everyone so sure that our culture is just full of people feeling guilty about liking Real Housewives. I mean, thanks, Dan Kois, for informing us all that the problem with movies these days is that they're too mature and subtle. Has that man ever actually been to a movie theater? Has he not seen the lines for Transformers: Totally Aggro Edition? I get it, dude: you really are deeply hurt that there might be people out there who make slightly different consumptive choices than you, and especially that some tiny shred of humanity might think that those choices are somehow better than yours. Find the strength to carry on. Dig deep within yourself, explore the deepest wells of personal fortitude, and remember that you are literally never going to be forced into an argument about a Win Wenders movie, but if you didn't ejaculate violently during The Dark Knight, you will be set upon by the nerd police viciously.
Holy shit, what is wrong with writers who live in New York?
What are the fucking odds that you're going to turn on Facebook today and have someone make you feel guilty for not reading Ulysses? Seriously. Has that ever happened in the history of the world? What planet do people live on where they imagine that there's some such thing as high society, and that these people are into opera and ballet, and they have some sort of cachet or cultural capital, and they sit around and adjust their monocles and sneer down on the rubes who like Halo and the Walking Dead? Guess what: ballet and opera could cease to exist in the next 50 years. PBS is never going to be anything like as successful as whatever new channel Nickelodeon put together to stoke your nostalgic ego. The world is not bursting with young writers of challenging fiction, and if any exist, Jonathan Franzen is probably right now paying to have them assassinated, because he's the goddamn difficulty in writing police. I simply do not exist in the same universe as people who believe that there's too much pressure on them to watch an Eisenstein movie or read Wuthering Heights. That is pure projection, some shred of half-remembered cultural information that is totally powerless, and even that is too much judgment. I promise, Dwight Macdonald is dead, figuratively and literally.
If I admit publicly that I don't watch Jersey Shore, I'll be dragged outside and murdered. Please, find me someone who will sneer at you if you've never read Proust. Search high and low.
You know, maybe the problem with this sick fucked-up culture is precisely that people don't feel guilty, that everyone is so endlessly proud of their pathology and narcissism, that Seinfeld taught everyone that the people on that show were cool and smart, instead of miserable, horrid creatures crawling around and treating each other terribly. Maybe you should feel guilty. You know that neighbor who donates a lot of money to the homeless and volunteers at the shelter? Maybe, instead of waiting for some smartass piece of shit to write the inevitable "but are people helping the homeless really helping," you should say to yourself, that person is doing something I could and perhaps should be doing. Maybe you actually should feel guilty about buying the electronic doodad that required some 11-year old boy getting chemical burns to manufacture. Maybe a little bit of guilt is just what the doctor ordered, guilt about behavior and about culture and yes, guilt about the fact that you're 34 years old and you still put on a fake spacesuit and pay hundreds of dollars for plastic tchotchkes.
Maybe what we all need is some counteracting effect to an advertising machine that has told us our entire lives that we are the single most important thing in the history of the entire universe. Maybe the reason people are slowly driving themselves insane with Twitter and comments on the AV Club and cranking out the Yelp reviews is because they've lost any semblance of the notion that there is such a thing as a moral duty, a duty to more than whatever limp desire crawls across your lizard brain at any particular moment. Maybe the reason books with titles like Everything Bad is Good For You exist is not because what they say are generative, moral, or true, but because people like being told to do whatever makes them feel good, and so they will pay back the writers who say so with money and pageviews and notoriety. Maybe we are so endlessly shitty to each other because we have given up completely on the idea that behaviors have differing values and absent a God, we need to create and enforce standards among ourselves even when that doesn't make us completely happy.
Christ. I need to lie down.