Sunday, March 18, 2012

the perfect piece for our times

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.


individualfrog said...

Sometimes I think there ought to be one of those campaigns: "We're Here, We Like 'Difficult' Art, Get Used To It!" but on the other hand it would be used as PROOF that there are snobs out there oppressing the good honest lovers of pop culture. Just as the very existence of gay people is seen as PROOF of an anti-straight-people elite. In any case, it has sometimes seemed like not a day goes by when I don't read that nobody actually likes all this art that I like, and if I claim to, it's only to sound cool. Might be noise music, might be Virginia Woolf, might be Cubism, might be anything.

It would be great if we'd just take people at their word when they state their opinions on art. (Maybe it would be nice if everyone didn't feel the need to share their opinions so much, but I think it's human nature.) Just trust me. I fucking love that part in Solaris that's 5 minutes of driving on the highway. I'm not saying that to be cool. I really like it. I swear to God.

I could probably rant and rave for as long as you did in the post but let me just say: I'm with you.

paul h. said...

lol, I love you man ... this seriously might be the archetypal L'Hote post

jcapan said...

It's funny--when I was in grad school, immersed in lit/crit, among peers who dug cool films and books, I was the happiest I've ever been. The slow, arduous death to that love only began when I finished and began teaching. Mind you, this was in the mid-nineties before web 2.0 blossomed into a narcissistic shithouse.

I guess "self-hating" is a tell, but might I naively suggest limiting your connectivity, at least to the bilge you seem to consume online. God knows there'll be plenty of time for misery when you finish your studies.

Anonymous said...

You may not realize it yet, but this piece is a vast improvement on The Resentment Machine and I think that if you ever take off in the blogosphere, people will look back on this essay fondly.

Freddie said...

Also, if anybody takes this post too too seriously, don't.

Mysterious man from the Shadows said...

This comment is about the "nerd" section of this piece.

Okay look, I think I'm one of the people you're talking about. Here's the deal: in my experience: it's always been implicitly assumed that "Hamlet" is better than "Spiderman" intrinsically; *even if you like "Spiderman" better*, "Hamlet" is still great art and "Spiderman" is, by its nature, not.

Now, I happen to agree with this particular argument, but I have my own preferences. For instance, I personally find the work of game designer Chris Avellone to be deeper, more meaningful, more thought-provoking and more moving
than any other piece of literature I have encountered.

I once wrote on my blog "I would gladly sacrifice the works of Shakespeare to save the works of Chris Avellone." Was that kind of mean of me to write? Well, yeah, I guess it was. But it's the truth.

The vibe I always get from my fellow gamer nerds is "well, [some game] is not great art, but it speaks to us, anyway." And that annoys me; because the people I know are basically saying "this isn't as good but I'm content with it."

My reaction is "no, dammit, the simple fact is that I think KotOR II is better than Hamlet". Now, am I being an arrogant jerk by saying this? Yes, probably, and I'm sorry. But when you it seems like you're the only one who feels this way, it's kind of frustrating. Am I being a bastard by trying to impose my views on other people, or belittling those who disagree? Yes, I am, and again I'm sorry. but when you perceive something a certain way, and no one else agrees, you sort of automatically think "their perception is off."

Well, that was a nonsensical rant, and frankly I wouldn't blame you for deleting it, but just so you know: I'm one of those people.

Charles said...

Wow. Great post.

I understand that this is a frustrated rant and maybe I'm taking it too seriously; I'll comment anyways.

I see two problems with your "people should feel more guilt/shame" response to the noxious shit you've identified. One: people who aren't already heavily burdened by guilt and shame wouldn't act like this. Ego-bolstering "you're not doing anything wrong and who you are is OK" messages are useless to anyone who isn't constantly terrified that who and what they are isn't OK. That these messages take the form of "other people aren't OK" adds some poison, but maybe isn't the main point.

Two: shame and guilt make people useless. We're only susceptible to this dynamic because we're already burdened by them. Adding more makes things worse. It's better to figure out why we're like this and start to work our way out from underneath it so we can get back to acting well.

Freddie said...

I would never delete such a fine comment, Mysterious Man, and I appreciate your pushback. Thanks, also, Charles, and you're likely right on both counts.

I hope what comes across is that I am expressing legitimate frustration in an intentionally hyperbolic way, both for effect and for kicks.

Charles said...


For sure. I meant to mention that I actually LOLed at the last line. Perfect ending.

Josh said...

Yeah, man, this was an entertaining post and true to a point, but I'm glad you added the qualifying comments, because I don't see Parks saying what you say he's saying at all. Anyway...

pogonisby said...

i only like difficult art, and i know that all people who don't are inferior

Freddie said...

To me, the sci-fi/comic book/fandom thing feels almost exactly the way it felt to be an American male kid who didn't care about sports.

Frankel said...

I think that you're wrong about there not being social pressure to dislike movies such as transformers or twilight. Anyone who spends time or works with the "well educated" will get plenty of ridicule for liking these mindless movies. Wen I told som coworkers that I liked transformers 2, they were in disbelief.

Right now on my Facebook page there are several statuses where people mocking the hoi Polloi for getting excited about the hunger games. And I don't run in any kind of super fancy crowd (no ivy league or overly artsy folks or anything, just regular college or grad degrees working as service professionals).

Not to mention all these critics and publications that keep reminding everyone with their "top whatever" lists that grapes of wrath is better than Harry potter even though hardly anyone would believe this if not for professional critics. So yes, in the real world, there is pressure.

Freddie said...

I don't know. The selfsame people who mock Twilight love Harry Potter and Batman. So it's not just about high/middle/lowbrow.

Frankel said...

Yeah you're right that it's more than just a question of high/middle/low brow. Harry potter is kosher but twilight isn't. Same with apatow vs. sandler or bay vs. nolan. But either way, there is definitely social pressure to like or dislike (depending on the crowds you run with) certain movies or books.

It reminds me of that site "stuff white people like", where comedians like Dane cook, while more popular then say louis ck, are still off limits since they are enjoyed by " the wrong kind of white people"

PEG said...

With this awesome, epic rant, you've earned back my esteem. That was most excellent.

Drew said...

See, also: everything written about politics, ever.

Freddie said...

Thanks, PEG! Truce.

Phil K. said...

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.

Can you point me to some? I'm not snarking, I'm genuinely interested in what see as exemplifying the genre.

Charles said...

Currently on an Amtrak train. Just listened to a silver-haired gentleman explain to a giggling, fawning college student that the USAF probably killed Bin Laden in 2002, which is why POTUS couldn't show us the body when he pulled off the stunt that will help him get re-elected. Following this, a discourse regarding the excellent job we did in Iraq despite Obama's overseeing the end of it: we're leaving them in such excellent shape!

My only point being that scrambling for whose esthetic sense is more sophisticated is, unfortunately, hardly the worst of our problems. Christ, now I need to lie down.

P.S.: Posted from my fucking iPad. Heh.

PhantomStranger said...

I think people who want to argue that Spiderman is superior to Hamlet have a very high barrier to surmount, but I don't quite understand the argument that people who trash Twilight also watch Harry Potter--both middle/low brow entertainment, I'm assuming--are making a mistake because, ultimately, they're really quite similar. The narcissism of small differences, I suppose. But why should we regard work by such broad characteristic? I think Harry Potter fans can reasonably argue that Twilight is rubbish compared to other "genre" work, in spite of the fact that both works are fantasy and not "high brow" in the same way Hamlet has claim to.

Bongo baby said...

Try this sentence on: "I'm currently working on an intellectual history of the "hidden dialog" between first-person shooters and reality TV, focusing in particular on the moment of origin of these discourses in the broader social malaise of the 1970s...."

Look, you may or may not be aware and.or beholden to some social/intellectual mafia that mocks people for there shitty aesthetic choices; but there damn well ought to be.

Freddie said...

I don't quite understand the argument that people who trash Twilight also watch Harry Potter--both middle/low brow entertainment, I'm assuming--are making a mistake because, ultimately, they're really quite similar.

Didn't mean to suggest that. Of course, there are quality differences inside of genre fiction, and again, I'm someone who thinks genre fiction is capable of greatness. Totally. I'm just saying that the hatred of Twilight isn't necessarily due to its genre.

Phil K., here's one from Michael Chabon from the last month:

Freddie said...

The comments of that post are particularly classic, too.

Michael said...

If opera, ballet, or symphony orchestras ceased to be functioning cultural utilities as long as our culture persists, however artistically backward they are (and have been such already for fifty years), it would be a tremendous loss. I don't look down on anyone who doesn't appreciate these art forms, but I do feel bad for them that they don't know what they are missing but still are missing it (orchestral music and much opera more than ballet).

But boradly, I agree with the thrust of this piece.

bcg said...

Freddie, this was A++-would-read-again material.

Brendan said...

Chabon is talking about a particular experience in writing seminars though. He's making a valid point. You can't hold him responsible for a bunch of other people's insecurities.

I was a big sci-fi reader in my early teens and I have no problem admitting that most of the genre is garbage. But that doesn't mean that the genre doesn't have some unique advantages to offer really good writers.

Ethan Gach said...

Maybe it's just me, but Tim's piece seemed more about exploring what makes a story complete, and how a reader goes about getting that completeness, than about any personal justifications.

Perhaps I just have a way of filtering that out (read: skim over) but the main point of the post dealt with what endings mean, what they accomplish, and why we take them so seriously and how maybe we shouldn't.

Sure, it was probably padded with a bunch of personal baggage (isn't that what make it blogging?) but I didn't associate it with the Gawker/A.V. Club/Pitchfork mentality of classificationary and exclusionist commentary, which I acknowledge and abhore as much as the next person (even if I have a penchant for slipping into it).

I didn't really take him to be saying that those who finish books are juvenile, but only that it arise from early education and that we often go ahead in life unreflective of why we finish books, and are thus often without good reasons for doing so (in the cases where we might, on second though, decide against it).

He just didn't seem to be pulling a sneeches with stars thing, and trying to rebrand his own rationalizations as superior.

Freddie said...

Heads up: a commenter asked me to delete his comments, so I did.

ABtMS said...

Absolutely love this post. It makes my own misanthropic tendencies seem so much less abnormal. :)
Seriously though, people suck. All of us.

AK said...

I love this piece, and I agree with it completely.

I also realized, upon finishing it, that it does actually have the effect of assuring me that I am smart, above average, and savvy, in part through a mechanism that has assured me of my goodness by pointing out the sad small ugly people that I am better than.

If I were a [genre-fiction] robot I might be screaming "DOES NOT COMPUTE" and exploding.

Anonymous said...

Love this post. The constant reference to "guilty pleasures" I hear around me is odd – it is today a truly empty phrase in a culture in which no aesthetic pleasure is guilty and no one looks down on anything.

Speaking for myself, I've about had it. As a card carrying Proust and Schumann fan, I say let’s start being more overly judgemental. This culture needs more classism and less equality.

The downside of classism is unproductive and unperceptive prejudice. The downside of equality-above-all is widespread dumbing down, crassness and the elimination of all aspirations outside of the material.


AK said...

There is a great distinction between elevating aesthetic and intellectual virtues and "classism," which is by definition tethered to position rather than worth. We have more than enough classism in this society, thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

'There is a great distinction between elevating aesthetic and intellectual virtues and "classism," '

AK - I'd say that elevation of certain aesthetic & intellectual virtues is a subtype of classism. I disagree with you about whether we have too much classism in the US today. Nonjudgementalism is particularly apparent in the area of aesthetics.

By 'worth', I assume you mean moral worth.


Sergio Repka said...

I wonder if part of what is happening is not due to the breakdown and relativisation of cultural hierarchies being quite helpful to the cultural industry where it comes to churning out ever-increasing quantities of product. (Mind you, I'm not suggesting this is by design, more that the breakdown and relativisation, quite easy to understand from a historical perspective, did come in handy.) And, of course, infantilised, solipsistic people are much better consumers (again, no sinister conspiracies, just that businesses clocked a trend - maybe even unconsciously at first - and realised it was profitable).

Po-faced "analysis" above done with, thanks for the hilarious, refreshing post - lucky I wasn't sipping my tea when I got to the Jonathan Frantzen line.

Caravelle said...

You know, I had this long critical comment about the various disagreements I had with this article, the last paragraph of which contained the words "and if it's self-referential on purpose then I tip my hat to you, but (...)".

Then I read the comments and realized you and others had already brought up all my criticisms so I decided not to comment.

Then I finally noticed the article's title, and I decided I really should tip my hat to you...

Consider my nonexistent hat internet-tipped ;)

amabel87654 said...

I wonder, how ya all do??

2 Girls Teach