02 April 2013

Most Everything Is Terrible

Most images grabbed off the internet are terrible.
A few days ago, I wrote a draft of this post that was a snarky attack on a badly thought-out essay by J. Robert Lennon at Salon. It would be nice if sites like Salon would expend more of their energies in bringing attention to some good writing that doesn't get noticed rather than running yet another quick-and-dirty "contrarian" takedown.

After writing the snarky draft, I realized my problem wasn't with Lennon or the essay per se. My problem was more with the people who seemed so desperately to want to like his essay.

Lennon sets himself up against some comments by Dan Chaon that have been bouncing around the internet for a while (for some unfathomable reason, that website doesn't clearly date its material). These comments by Chaon are intelligent and accurate. He says writers need to read widely and eclectically, and he even suggests some good things to read. Specific, helpful advice.

Lennon decides to contradict Chaon's advice. And that's where he goes off the rails, making vague accusations that something called "literary fiction" is "terrible" and "boring".

Here was my original first paragraph:
J. Robert Lennon proves himself to be the latest person who needs to have Sturgeon's Law tattooed on his arm so he can be reminded of it every day. Yes, Mr. Lennon, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible. Most everything is terrible.
Lennon provides little evidence and little analysis, just yammering for the knee-jerks in the peanut gallery. (For a vastly better discussion of "literary fiction", with evidence and analysis and all that jazz, listen to this podcast with Nick Mamatas. The set-up of "literary vs. genre fiction" is inane, but Nick actually knows what he's talking about, has read widely, is not a "SCI FI RULZ!" kind of guy, and in any case is mostly discussing one of the strongholds of adorable My Literature Is The One Ring cosplay, the AWP Conference.)

After writing on and on about Lennon's vapid essay, I realized I didn't care about what he had written, nor did I care if he'd made an idiot of himself in public. Go for it. We all do it now and then. God invented the internet so we'd all have an easier way to parade our stupidies for the world to see.

What really annoyed me, I realized, was seeing Lennon's piece linked to approvingly by people on Twitter and Facebook, those machines of social infestation. Clearly, it wasn't Lennon's argument that was appealing to people, because his argument is about as strong as homeopathic water. What appealed to people was, it seems, the impulse to clan identification that Michael Chabon described so well in his 2004 Locus interview:
It's quite obvious to me that so much of what goes on in the world of science fiction has analogies with a ghetto mentality, with a sense of clannishness and that ambivalence that you have: on the one hand wanting to keep outsiders out and identify all the insiders with a special language and jargon so you can tell at a glance who does and doesn't belong, and on the other hand hating that sense of confinement, wanting to move beyond the walls of the ghetto and find wider acceptance. It's a deep ambivalence. You want both at the same time: you feel confined, and you feel supported and protected.

People who spread around the most bombastic and attention-seeking sentence from Lennon's essay — "Let’s face it: Literary fiction is fucking boring." — likely did so for reasons of clannishness and ressentiment. In Lennon's construction of the sentence, there's the audience-flattering opening: Let's face it. Like the guy at the bar who says, "Let's face it, we all know the Yankees suck." (The difference here is that "the Yankees" is an identifiable thing.) Anyone passing this sentence around is excluded from its claims. Are you a self-published writer who identifies with genre fiction of some sort or another? Lennon's sentence, then, was built to make you feel good about yourself. Are you somebody who's been rejected by all the major university-sponsored lit mags? You are loving that sentence, because you know your own writing is just too interesting for the tweed-spattered boringheads who edit those publications. Anybody who nurses a grudge about their writing career, anybody who doesn't feel appreciated, anybody who thinks the institutional They is enforcing boredom so as to keep the individual, interesting You outside the gates raises a fist in solidarity with that sentence. Every unpublished, highly-rejected, destitute writer can love that sentence in just the same way that Stephen King can love that sentence. No matter what, it's not about you. You are not boring.

Except you probably are. To somebody, at least. Maybe to J. Robert Lennon. (Full confession: I thought Lennon's Castle was sometimes boring. Not as boring as lots of other books, but sometimes, yes, boring. To me.)

The problem is not that most x is boring. It is. Stories, books, poems, movies, food, appliances, bunny rabbits, sex, drugs, rocknroll. Fill in the x and the equation will always be true for somebody. (A person once even said to me, "Cocaine is boring." I have no experience with the drug myself, but while I'm sure many things could be said about cocaine, this statement surprised me.)

The problem is that saying, "Most x is boring" or "Most x is terrible" lets you off the hook. It's easy. It makes knees jerk and fists rise in the air. It creates a hierarchy in which you stand in the superior position. How's it feel up there at your exalted heights?

While saying, "X bores me," is an incontrovertible statement of personal experience and taste, making a universal ontological statement ("X is boring") is indefensible. You can say, "William Gaddis novels and Andrei Tarkovsky movies bore me," but once you say, "Gaddis novels and Tarkovsky movies are boring," you have entered dangerous territory in which you have set yourself up as superior not only to Gaddis and Tarkovsky, but to anyone interested in their work. You are saying, "If you enjoyed and appreciated x-that-bored-me, you are wrong."

Are you really that much of an egomaniac that your lack of engagement with something must become universal?

What Sturgeon's Law really gets at is not that most everything is terrible, but that most of us experience most everything as terrible. And that's as it should be. A person who likes everything is a person who likes nothing (and other banal and obvious statements). Our experiences in life condition us to appreciate some things and not appreciate others. Somebody who finds everything interesting is somebody who probably has trouble getting out of bed in the morning because the potential for absolute awesomeness is too overwhelming.

Even that, though, is not really what most bothered me about Lennon's essay and people's support for it. We all say stuff is boring all the time, it's a rhetorical claim rather than a statement of fact, whatever dude.

What really, truly, deeply bothered me is that Lennon's claims are so broadly dismissive when in reality there's all sorts of varied work being published that could be tagged "literary fiction".

If Lennon had said, "Most of the anthologies used in Introduction to Literature classes for undergraduates are created with a pretty conventional and quite narrow definition of 'literature'," he'd be on solid ground. If he said, "In my experience, lots of writing workshops define what is 'acceptable' for students to write in narrow, conventional ways," he'd also be on perfectly solid ground, just as he's on relatively solid ground in implying that the Best American Short Stories volumes are ruled by quite conventional and conservative standards, ones enforced by the publisher and series editor even, it seems, occasionally against the will of individual guest editors (the brand must be protected).

Anyone who uses the term "literary fiction" as anything other than an admittedly unsatisfactory placeholder for an undefinable something-or-other ought to feel some obligation to get specific. Do you mean Tin House and Conjunctions and Ninth Letter and Denver Quarterly? Do you mean books from Dalkey Archive and Dzanc and Coffee House and Melville House and Open Letter and...? Do you mean Pulitzer winners or Sukenick Award winners or Booker winners or PEN Faulkner winners or Nobel winners or Whiting Award winners or...?

What are you talking about when you talk about "literary fiction"?

Are you sure that your view of fiction isn't narrow, provincial, and more based on your own limited assumptions rather than any actual evidence? Are you primarily annoyed that you didn't get a good review in the New York Times and nobody has nominated you for a major award and your books are not taught in college classes and you got dropped by your publisher and Dan Brown sells more books than you ever will? Are you still angry about your 9th grade English teacher making you read The Scarlet Letter?

Instead of blathering on about how terrible literary fiction is, instead of sharing links to vapid essays about the evil conspiracy of boredom committed against you, instead of ra-ra-ing for your clan and salving the wounds of your ego with the balm of drivel — why don't you try 1.) reading more broadly, and 2.) pointing to interesting work that isn't getting noticed?

Most literary fiction is terrible.

Most fiction is terrible. Most nonfiction is terrible. Most blog posts are terrible.

Most everything is terrible.

Big deal. Get over it. Go read something that interests you, and if nothing interests you, then the problem is not with other people and other writers, but with you.

5 comments:

  1. While I think everything you're saying here makes sense, I would be inclined to view it from a slightly different angle: I suspect that a lot of people who say literary fiction is boring are readers of sf rather than (or in addition to) writers, and I suspect that what a lot of them mean is "I read a couple of Great Works Of Western Literature and/or a couple of New Yorker stories, and they didn't have any sense of wonder, so I found them boring, and since those were the Great Works, all of literary fiction must be like that."

    (To quote Kip Manley: "Read enough SF and you come to expect those _unheimlich_ touches, the _ostranenie_ of another world. [...] It’s what you opened the book for in the first place; that door damn well better be dilating by page three or you’re taking your custom elsewhere." (http://longstoryshortpier.com/2005/02/22/the_fulness_of_time))

    But this isn't really a disagreement with you; what you're saying in this entry serves as a response to that stance, too. Reading a couple of stories or books and then judging an entire field of literature based on your reaction to those works is doing pretty much the same thing that some of us complain that non-genre readers are always doing: casting aspersions on our beloved genre based on an ill-informed vague idea of whatever parts of it filter out into the popular consciousness.

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  2. Now that I re-read my comment, I need to add a clarification: Kip wasn't saying literary fiction is boring; I was just quoting him as a side note because I thought he nicely conveyed my own desire for fantastical stuff to happen in fiction. Sorry for the juxtaposition that seemed to suggest I was giving him as an example of an anti-literary reader.

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    1. And I pretty much agree with everything you said, Jed! And you said concisely what I've never been able to say concisely: "Reading a couple of stories or books and then judging an entire field of literature based on your reaction to those works is doing pretty much the same thing that some of us complain that non-genre readers are always doing: casting aspersions on our beloved genre based on an ill-informed vague idea of whatever parts of it filter out into the popular consciousness." I kept thinking of that Kingsley Amis (and maybe Robert Conquest?) ditty:

      "SF's NO GOOD!"
      They bellow till we're deaf.
      "But this is good."
      "Well, then, it's not SF!”

      which is valid and which can just as easily be flipped around. Always good advice for us all to remember as we go about painting with a broad brush.

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  3. Yes, I'm always suspicious of people who focus on the terrible side of anything. Personally, I don't experience most work to be boring, because when something is boring, I stop reading it. I'm sure I'd be bored by most modern literary fiction, but I really, really enjoy all the stuff that I actually read.

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  4. I couldn't agree more. Throwing all literary fiction into a bucket marked "crappy contemporary realism" is a stupid move, especially if your stated aim is finding good things to read.

    Most books really are terrible. Bad sf novel: a bad book in which something happens. Bad realist novel: a bad book in which nothing happens. YAWN. Let's go read Rikki Ducornet or something.

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