Monday, October 18, 2004

Rebels or Cattle?

Stray thoughts:

American writers are pathologically individualistic. They can't envision a writer operating or even existing outside the glowing bubble of ego. Writing has become a celebration of the narcissistic self.

Before historical change occurs, the vast majority of people can't imagine that change. Afterward it seems obvious. "Why didn't others think of that?" we ask ourselves. They didn't because their thinking patterns had ossified, their intellectual arteries hardened at age 25, no new thoughts circulating within them.

A few System writers of today at least try to think-- Tom Bissell or Daniel Green-- their attacks on the ULA demonstrating that they've been provoked into thinking; their few still-operating brain cells stimulated, prodding them to justify (however feebly) their beliefs.

Other puppets and demi-puppets have lost even this ability. They have the curiosity of cattle. They're merely members of the Herd-- trend followers who'll follow a trend even if it takes literature off a cliff. The most bovinely uncritical of them are Eggers acolytes. They can't credibly articulate why his writing is great; they just have this vague important feeling inside themselves that it is.

The famous killed ATLANTIC profile of Dave Eggers by Keith Gessen-- largely a puff piece-- expresses this. Eggers was important because he spoke to Gessen's class and generation; because he was of his generation:

"His biography, too, was representative. He was in San Francisco when the dot-coms emerged, he tried out for MTV's "The Real World," he wrote lyrically of playing frisbee. To see the picture of Eggers that appeared in VANITY FAIR, in a room cluttered with books and pilfered U.S. Postal Service bins, at an aged computer outfitted (we knew) with desktop publishing software, his hand up in a bemused wave-type gesture to the national audience suddenly focused on him through the camera lens, was to see the historical spirit of the past decade incarnated-- this was what Hegel felt when he saw Napoleon on horseback."


The Eggers fan has the kind of unthinking unblinking adulation you would've found at a 1937 Nuremburg rally.


Jeff Potter said...

You got yer rebels and yer cattle. But you also have your careerists and your craftsmen, one could say.

A careerist puts the job first---not what or why the job is, but simply the job.

A craftsman includes the whole, starts from the beginning and lets other things fall into place, as support, as challenge, as neighborhood, what have you. He doesn't let one part dominate the others. It all works together, for quality.

So maybe you can have a rebel careerist, in a sense. He starts a wacky company, polishes an innovative style. Then he executes, and starts milking the operation. He stops answering the telephone. He's no longer 'people like us.' He's got a job to do. And if you challenge him, one, you're an enemy, two, he has no time for enemies, other than to apply what snuffing moves he can. If you have another vision maybe you're not an enemy, but still he's too busy. Time's too short for engagement, for community. He's got his professional blinders on and he's runnin'.

So sharp people, creative types and leaders can be cattle, too. They might be charismatic. It's all about performance. It works. Hey, it's a low-margin world, so ya gotta hustle. No hard feelings. I have peer review next week, so I can't talk. Not to you.

It reminds me of niche publishing, the current god of the book trade. It works so well! We all get ahead. You got your niche, I got mine, we're all creative here, don't tread on me, no questions asked.

But it's short-sighted. And corrosive in ways that aren't always apparent (especially if you've been swimming in the ever-hotter water for awhile). Look at our cash! Our degrees! But there's no foundation. It's nothing you can teach your kids. It's a racket.

Engagement and inclusion is a threat to careerists. Trying to draw them out only draws their fire. Which then exposes their true nature. We challenged the literati and what did we get? Anonymous invective. Check it out! THAT's how their system really works.

Jeff Potter said...

It's a truism that one cannot question a PhD topic or culture unless one also has a PhD.

If you don't have one in that field, you're unqualified, someone who couldn't hack it, a whiner, a disgruntled ex-employee, culturally-speaking. You're out of the discussion. The PhD is the price of admission. To all talk of PhDs.

But of course, as Jack Saunders found out and writes about so hilariously, the first thing that a PhD tests for is unwillingness to question the PhD. (Yes, someone has developed "Catch 22" further. Thanks, Jack.)

This is how it works across all fields.

This mechanism tends to work, too---it's self-policing. It's convenient.

But we're seeing its end. It always was a short-term fix, a slapdash thing, that failed by degrees. Well, it was a lie, so what did anyone expect. So get ready. Get ahead of the curve. Fail now, beat the rush.

This is also how trades work, careers, niches. They're inclusive only of those who share their brand. They take care of their own---as long as they get ahead. If you want to change something, then run for office, attend the conference, get in line, line up those ducks, machinate.

If you have a bigger interest, you're in trouble. Where do you go when your subject has no conferences? No budgets? When your subject is ABOUT conferences and budgets and what they've done to us?

Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.

Anonymous said...

Tim Hall said...

Hilarious article in this past sunday's ny times, about a brou-ha at the National Book Awards. Seems that of the finalists for this year's fiction award, only one book had sold more than a few hundred copies. The judging board included, among others, (wait for it), sigh, H.F. Moody Trois.

But, the real funny thing is, you get the sense from the article that the reasoning for the uber-hyper-super-duper obscurity of the authors was in some retarded way a response to the sort of issues the ULA has been banging home but which the establishment boys won't acknowledge (ie, time to get some "new blood" into literature). Of course, being so blinded by their own narrow field of vision, they go the wrong way: getting ever more precious, twee, obscure, irrelevant. They're running the opposite way of the ULA, hoping to come up behind them on the other side so they can say "we were here first!"

It's like those web boys who tried to take the ULA down, with the lame argument, "it's not the message that bothers us, it's the MESSENGER"--as if THEY had ever made the arguments the ULA had, as if they ever had the balls to do any such thing. They didn't, but now they've decided THEY want to be the rebels, they've suddenly felt some peach fuzz breaking through on their 'nads, so they decide to attack...the ULA!

It just gets ridiculouser and ridiculouser. Sorry for the ramble.

Adam Hardin said...

This is in the category of the plain dumb. It may be about Hollywood but Hollywood is as self-righteous as Literary New York, so its relevant.

The 12th Annual Diversity Awards were held recently. "The Diversity Awards Celebrates Diverse Achievements in Film and Television."

The Best Actress Award went to Non-Jewish Whiter than Snow: Lindsay Lohan.

The Best Actor Award went to Non-Jewish also White: Mark Ruffalo.

The thing to point out is that so many of these award ceremonies are put-ons. It is sort of this politically correct lets feel good about ourselves festival. But as you can see, they are full of shit.

If you watch Book TV, you will see the same sort of readings and award ceremonies in the Literary World where writers join together(all who think the same) and celebrate their own self-righteousness.

Anonymous said...

Tim Hall said...

Adam: about Book TV: I just watched a show from the "NY is Book Country" nonsense, a symposium at NYU starring Jimmy Breslin, Frank McCourt, and Pete Hamill. Jimmy and Pete, being true reporters, were fine. Yes, Jimmy is old beyond repair, shaky and weak-voiced, but god bless him. Pete, the "young man" on the panel, talked about the importance of Irish immigrants in fashioning the current mythology of NYC. Very Good.

Where it got REALLY ill was when McCourt started to speak. I've never liked the guy, never liked his sappy, treacly memoirs, but this took the pudding. First McCourt comes across as genuinely nasty--not just curmudgeonly, but with an underlying dark nastiness that turned me right off.

Second, he began whining/opining about...are you ready? THE CHILDREN. About how, "why doncha see teeee-chars on Co'n'n O'brien? Arr Leno? Arr Letterman? Why don't the teee-chers make marrr money?"

It was absolute drivel: why don't teachers get respect in this city? Why doesn't anybody ask us what the CHILDREN think?

Absolute poppycock lucky charms shite leprauchan BULLshite.

All followed by applause applause yayayayays by unblinking unthinking WHITE audience....

The one "funny" moment? When Breslin said he thought the panel was supposed to be chaired by Bellow, Roth, and Mailer (! yes!!) and he said something like, "it's like the irish knocked out the jews!" oh, ha ha ha.

irish, jew...screw 'em both, or anybody who, in Ginsberg's words, use the "ethnic lottery" to get ahead. screw 'em all.

bottom line: youngest man on EITHER panel would have been 60+ Hamill. Where's me Depends, laddie? ZZZZzzzzz.....

Jeff Potter said...

Yeah, the cattle are in the driver's seat and are driving American Lit into the ground. Time for a change!

I have some litmus tests, some things I look for in a writer, in a literary person, in a reader. They aren't the whole test, but it's a gauge I keep tabs on. It's not about their writing or even their reading. Sure, good writing helps. But there's more to it. I think it relates to what makes good writing great. It's a little something on the side. It's called life. The life counts.

I've noticed a few times now that when I run into writers whose work I admire the most they end up showing themselves to be generous, helpful sorts who don't put on airs.

The opposite are the clever cattle: who stand with drinks and smirk. And do nothing. And whose work, not coincidentally, never rises.

First vibe test: there's a physical gravitation: I end up meeting them, or they find me. There's serendipity at play. It's not planned or forced, but our orbits coincide. A road trip happens, there's mutual cooking, couch-surfing.

(Oh, and the cooking is good!)

Then, when we get a project going something sweaty, manual-labor-like, will rear up beyond the call of duty. This is another test. They pass it.

They may seem to be slackers or out of it in some way...but when a need for help appears, their shirtsleeves fly up and they start hauling boxes, or helping get a car jumpstarted.

Then, too, they're game.

The flipside is how startled I get when I meet someone who declares literary interest who is NOT game.

In my youth, I had a friend who declared that he wanted to be an English Major, an English Professor. So I asked if he'd been reading the latest writing...if he had a sense of what people were up to. He hadn't. He was also someone who hadn't done anything gung-ho, had never got out there and explored the lay of the land. I couldn't imagine such a response to literature. I was trying to rise to the occasion of literature or literary interest myself. So I figured I had to read it all and see how it changed thru the years and where it was at and where the world was. So obviously I had to get out there and find all this out. Before I could dare to have anything to say.

I'd had good teachers myself and was aghast at the old saying that those who can't do teach. Teachers first certainly needed to have a feel for what was out there, the whole gamut, and to have done a wide range, too, before they could add the teaching skills on top of that. Teaching to me was sacred, like lifterature, and so needed to be informed by all of life.

Anyway, the more I read, the more I had to bust out and see for myself, and so I did. No money, just a thumb---in the 80's when everyone said hitching was dead---or my bike: America, Europe, I got there. I'd do construction then bust out. Drank water, ate PBJ and explored. Each time I would invite my erstwhile literary pals to come along. They never did.

One did become a prof. And the other one: well, we did do good stuff together. I'd have to work on him, but he'd go. He was pretty game for awhile there. When we were 12 we'd hire highschoolers to drive us up north for trout fishing. But the hesitating got worse and we grew apart.

Other literary friends promised other things---and flaked out. I can't believe I went out to LA Harbor and got a derelict old sailboat to live on (every boat eventually has "just take me" as its price) and I did it on the word of a smart stoner pal who said he would come out a month later. Ha! But I was there. I thank him for that. Other pals showed up instead. We pooled what money we could make, barely getting enough to eat. (We promised ourselves 2 eggs and a newspaper every day.) We bought ex-wino suits to go stepping out in. But even those guys chickened out in the end. Who pulled thru in the end? --A savvy drunk. We did some good voyaging adventures as long as he had a case a day. Dang, but I shoulda done that oil-rig job with him. So in the end, I was outreached by the wino. Well, I was pacing myself. Still it shows that ya gotta go low. And ya gotta keep pushing. "Of the making of literature there is no end." (Who said that?)

What's cool about the King is that he goes for what matters and he does what he says. Those are two huge things. It's how you pass the test.