snobs vs. intellectuals

Plot Genre and the Pulp Fiction Boondoggle

Apparently yet again the mainstream critics have gotten it wrong, and not surprisingly it came out of Northeastern literary circles, whose stable of critics includes such dim luminaries as the functionally illiterate Michiko Kakutani and the it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren't-so-tragic-how-completely-wrong-she-always-is-about-everything-she's-supposed-to-be-an-expert-on Helen Vendler, and need I mention N+1?

This latest, as Matt Cheney rightly points out, is an attempt to elevation to "serious literary discourse" the old straw man that's been kicked around in genre fiction and fan fic circles for at least a generation now, namely that genre fiction is somehow superior to literary fiction because it has a plot and literary fiction is just a bunch of navel gazing character study nonsense couched in mandarin language.

Why "Racism = Prejudice + Power" Is The Wrong Way to Approach the Problems of Racism

Critical Race Theory is a popular pass-time among my comrades on the radical left who ascribe to various positions within the broad political ideology of identity politics. Since I'm a Marxist, or at least a Marxian, it's largely been something I've ignored. This is because for the most part it has appeared, looking in from outside the social circles where this particular family of ideas have currency, to be little more than a self-serving rhetorical tactic of petit-bourgeois academics seeking, out of narcissism, to claim for themselves and certain of their peers some of the political capital owed to the working class and won by them through hard graft during the civil rights movements of the fifties and sixties. The basic tactic as I see it is that Theorist A looks on the problems of some segment of the proletariat to whom he is peripherally related via an essentialized category established by historical capitalist precedent and Theorist A claims that rather than the disadvantages owing to oppressive economic structures, the actual oppressive structure is something else which is specifically in place to target whatever group Theorist A can make a case for his or her own membership of. This move is then co-opted by non-members of the cohort as a further disenfranchisement of the proper class consciousness, and all turned on its head as a condescending way to tell working class folks that they're really the oppressors in society, rather than the victims of the Capital that has been so kind to the afforementioned theorists in their cozy endowed fellowships and well funded "activist" groups, funded primarily by the tax breaks given to capital so that it can spend more of itself extracting surplus labor from the workforce. No One Is Innocent. But I digress.

Why n+1 is the Worst Literary Magazine on the Market

There's been a recent dust-up in the lit blogs over some criminally stupid things that n+1 printed about literary blogs. This after Keith Gessen's previous inflammatory remarks on the subject. One of the things they're on about lit blogs about is being publicity shills to the publishing industry, which is a bit ironic considering that emails published by the Elegant Variation reveal that Gessen was in fact trying to use the lit blogs for just that same purpose himself. But this hypocrisy is simply one way of underlining the obvious: n+1 is run by a cadre of pretentious, arrogant assholes with strange and insupportable ideas about literature and criticism, with Keith Gessen chief among them.

Let us not forget that n+1 is the organ that thinks normal people go on $130 dinner dates, get paid $40 an hour for copy-editing, and sleep with 10 people on a "busy but not extravagant Spring Break." But then n+1's essays always seem to follow a similar pattern: a mildly valid critical thought is blown up into Iraq proportions, and then addressed with a rapidly escalating series of inane and insupportable conclusions. This is true of the dating article (the notion that dating can be a pain in the ass is valid enough, but n+1 shines that through a perverse and distorted lens, projecting something alien and somewhat nauseating). Likewise with the Elif Batuman's article on the short story, which takes the problem of workshop fiction and somehow deduces that the problem with these stories involves too many proper names and implied familiarity—again, a perplexing, weird conclusion. And, of course, this is true with their criticisms of lit blogs.

Consider:

People might have used their blogs to post the best they could think or say. They could have posted 5,000 word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, online, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn't happen, at least not often enough.

...

The language is supposed to mimic the way people speak on the street or the college quad, the phatic emotive growl and purr of exhibitionistic consumer satifsfaction - "The Divine Comedy is SOOO GOOOD!" - or displeasure - "I shit on Dante!" So man hands on information to man.

...

Why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic][pointed out by The Millions] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie-cred? In addition to free advance copies, the blogger gets some recognition: from the big houses, and from fellow bloggers. Recognition is also measured in the number of hits - by their clicks you shall know them - and by the people who bother to respond to your posts with subposts of their own. The lit-bloggers become a self-sustaining community, minutemen ready to rise up in defense of their niches. So it is when people have only their precarious self-respect. But responses - fillips of contempt, wet kisses - aren't criticism.

Now, it's one thing to say that a lot of lit bloggers write shallow things, and certainly we see enough of "This book is SO great, you have to read it right now!" from certain quarters I won't name. But to then imply that the lit bloggers are somehow in the pocket of the publishing houses just because those publishing houses send them review copies, and give them recognition simply doesn't follow. In fact, that argument is better applied to profession newspaper and magazine reviewrs, such as n+1 editor Marco Roth. After all, they not only get free books, they get paid to write about them by giant corporations, who themselves get advertising money from the publishing houses. Blogs aren't on the payroll of publishing companies, and there is no more incentive for a lit blogger to print a positive review of The DaVinci Code than there is for printing one of Everyman, Black Swan Green, or the kind of small press books that blogs are known for championing like Stranger Things Happen or Home Land. Indeed n+1's attitude, including and especially the statement "responses aren't criticism," strikes one as a kind of petulant childishness, like a little girl sneering at a more popular girl and saying, "what a bitch!" Not just because there's plenty of good criticism in the blogosphere if you care to look, that's entirely beside the point. Blogs are not always meant to be literary magazines, and bloggers don't have to be critics. Bloggers are bloggers, and one of the things that separates a blog from a literary review is that in the medium of the blog a blogger can chat informally about books if she wants to. Complaining that blog posts aren't long and rigorous enough is kind of like complaining that some motorcycles don't have four wheel drive. It's not just stupid, it's bizarre.

Like The Elegant Variation, I too had an email correspondence with Keith Gessen, though I'm too much of a gentleman to print it. But I will report that among the things he said was that I was somehow "freeloading"* off his content by reading it when he put it up on his own website instead of buying the magazine. Keith Gessen is a weird little man and n+1 is a weird little magazine, and not a very good one at that. Frankly, you shouldn't buy it or read it or otherwise bother with it, and we'll all be better off when it (inevitably) goes under.

* This originally read "stealing." Keith Gessen wrote to correct me, that he had accused me of "freeloading" and not stealing. Looking back through the emails, this is correct.
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The Future of the Fantastic: New Wave Slipstream Fabulism

It isn't so surprising that I didn't know what was going on in Science Fiction, as I'm the type of guy who generally reads "Literary Fiction," and like many readers of a particular type of writing, I didn't stray outside my aisles in the bookstore much. Sure I used to pick up a Philip K. Dick book now and again, maybe a Neil Gaimen novel, but hell, those guys are cool. And reading them made me feel like I was open minded and hip to what's going on, even if I wasn't.

Kelly Link, Pynchon, Moorcock and Genre

In a recent interview with Bat Segundo, Kelly Link offers some interesting comments about genre labels. She says that she feels like the term "Literary Fiction" turns off lots of people, and she prefers to call what she writes "Science Fiction:" "People who are turned off by the term 'Science Fiction' probably aren't the people I want reading my work, anyway." Which struck me as strange, since so much of what Link does is exactly what I think of as "Literary Fiction." Then again, a friend of mine once pointed out that Literary Fiction is a redundant term, and one wonders if it really means anything at all. Longtime Science Fiction and Fantasy author Michael Moorcock recently wrote a fascinating review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, where, in a blistering litany of names and terms, he puts Pynchon in a linage that includes Brian Aldiss, William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut. And perhaps Moorcock is right, and my own analysis that science fiction started growing up in the eighties is off by at least 20 years. If Neal Stephenson can call The Baroque Cycle Science Fiction then maybe there is no reason that we can't call Pynchon that too, and indeed his work may share more in common with Moorcock's own then it does with "Literary Fiction" stalwarts from Hemingway to Updike to Joyce Carol Oates.

However, if Link is right that it's the term "Literary Fiction" that turns people off, then someone like Pynchon would sell more as a Science Fiction writer, and I'm not sure that's the case. A lot of the Science Fiction fans I've met seem put off by anything remotely difficult, and I recall J.F. Quackenbush telling me about the time he went to a Science Fiction convention and a group of authors on a panel all agreed that writers shouldn't use big words. This kind of thing, and the Star Trek-type imprimatur I talked about in my earlier article, are what turns people off Science Fiction, and I can't help but feel like Link's own defensiveness about the value of her chosen genre (and, more importantly, I think, of the community she identifies with) results in a kind of reverse snobbery. Yes, Moorcock and Link are right; there are many works labeled Science Fiction that are really great, and besides, there's nothing wrong with a rip roaring good story (I am, in fact, in favor of those). Further, I really like lots of work that's labeled "Science Fiction." Further still, I respect the decision of people like Link, Stephenson and China Mieville who could declare themselves "Literary Fiction" writers and get out of the perceived "ghetto" of Sci Fi and Fantasy but don't on principle. The fact remains that I get very turned off by so much "genre" writing that reads like rapidly produced hack-work, and am reassured that even the least of the "Literary Fiction" crowd spend a good deal of time refining their craft and style in a way that just can't be said by the run-of-the-mill "genre" author, whose writing is often laughably bad. Which leaves me torn, because on the one hand I want to believe that's it's great to say "Yeah, stick it to those uppity snobs, Science Fiction and proud of it," and on the other hand I have trouble accepting the idea that labeling your work Science Fiction is in any way an improvement over labeling it Literary Fiction.

Ultimately though, it's a bad situation all around. I've certainly met people from the Literary crowd with an irrational dislike of Science Fiction, and vice versa with people from the Science Fiction crowd (as well as those of various other genres). There are, in fact, lots and lots of readers who will only voluntarily read one genre, voluntarily pigeon-holing themselves. So the whole thing becomes silly, a situation which I suspect is the product of the way bookstores started shelving things in the last hundred years or so that's taken on an unfortunate life of its own. Thus turning one's nose up at Literary Fiction makes as little sense as turning it up at Science Fiction, and I can't help but wish that Link's attitude towards Literary Fiction was a little more forgiving.

Criticism in Our Digital Age

Rachel Cooke asks recently in an op-ed piece in The Guardian if we "amateur word spewers" would really do without Nick Hornby who Cooke feels has set the Gold Standard for criticism to which no lit blog can aspire.

I feel confident in answering that yes, I would be quite content to live in a world without Nick Hornby and his brand of insipid, uninspired prose.

Don't Worry Keith, We Don't Like You Either

Keith Gessen doesn't like Lit Blogs. He also doesn't like McSweeney's or the Believer. He thinks lit bloggers are self-promoting whores who, unlike Keith Gessen, are selling our collective birthrights for a mess of review copy pottage. We're "freelance publicists" who are only doing what we're doing because we want attention. Of course, we'd all be starting literary magazines like N+1 if we were making 40 dollars an hour copy editing in the fantasy trustafarian world that Keith Gessen lives in. But most of us don't live in that world. Which is fine. As any reasonably intelligent person can determine from reading Keith Gessen's magazine, N+1 and co. generally don't know what the hell they're talking about, and their greatest claim to fame to date is the embarrassing literary "career" of Ben Kunkel who—going on three years later—has yet to live up to his own Madison Ave. "The Next Michael Chabon/Jonathan Lethem/Dave Eggers" hype. Now, I'm not saying the literary world of New York is composed entirely of elitist insider snobs who wouldn't know a good book if it smacked them in the face, but I'm pretty confident saying that of the editorial staff of N+1. Even when they get it right, as they do with Michel Houellebecq in the recent issue, it's for entirely the wrong reasons, Marco Roth praising him for being different from a whole canon of books that Roth qualifies in his first paragraph as not really representing the best of French Literature anyway. Reading N+1, I often have the impression that I'm reading the lit-critical output of that Monty Python sketch where all the inbred upper class twits blow themselves away with shotguns at the end. Here are people with nothing to say and all the room they want to say it, bought and paid for by god knows who, trading on minor celebrity in the hopes of improving that celebrity. That they have money and distribution and that there are a lot of other people who think like they do is unfortunate and incontrovertible, but it is not a good reason to listen to what they have to say. I, for one, am finally done staring at the train wreck and I'm going to move along and stop blocking traffic. I suggest that everyone else do the same.

Kenneth Goldsmith and the Cult of Pretense & Boredom

The twentieth century began with a question about what art is. Artists like Duchamp, Tzara, Artaud, Beckett and Breton challenged conventional notions and forced audiences to examine a lot of pre-conceived notions about beauty and the value of the aesthetic. That's done now. It's time to move on. That now, in the early 21st century, people like Kenneth Goldsmith have come to the point where they have completely inverted prior valuations, to the point where boredom is what is aspired to, well, I find the tautological truth that what they're doing is completely uninteresting rather revealing.

I think Derrida called it Hymen, so it's time to pop your cherries boys.

I recently had an opportunity to re-read Dana Gioia's infamous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" after a blogger challenged my take on Gioia's involvement in the New Formalism posted here recently. It got me thinking about what it is to be a writer in our culture, and what it is that puts those sorts of thoughts in our heads. By those sorts of thoughts, I mean the ones that gives a relatively successful writer like Gioia the idea that poetry should be doing something different, or that the status of literature in our culture is something other than it should be. I want to uncover and identify that impulse that drives various writers and critics to do the things they do and talk about contemporary literature in the way that they do.

100 Best Poems to Memorize

Roughly ten years ago, Poet John Hollander put out a book of verse entitled Committed to Memory : 100 Best Poems to Memorize.