Monday, December 17, 2007

Where have all the assholes gone?

In a welcome comment on the previous thread, reader Grant Munroe said something that rather surprised me, and which I think is worth its own thread:

...we wondered what had happened to spectacle in the world of letters. Not the spectacle of angry op-ed pieces, of political outrage. More old fashioned drunken spectacle. Fitzgerald making an ass of himself, or Mailer getting piss drunk on national television. Authors were brilliant people with little self-control. The public respected that.

So what happened? Why have authors tamed? Could it be the influence of academia? Is it that authors as teachers now feel the need to set a moral example? Whatever the reason, I think it’s a shame.

I'm not sure to what extent this was tongue-in-cheek, but wow--I sure don't think it's a shame. Let me address several things here.

First, I hate to dump on Grant, but it's a little bit tiring to hear, over and over, people complain about the civilizing influence of academia upon the world of art and letters. This is, at its heart, a right-wing argument--the implication is that Great Art has been girlified, that we've all been turned into a bunch of prim little homos and pussies by the feminists and queer theorists who have forced us all to march in lockstep lest we offend somebody.

My own experience of academia is that it is rigorous, challenging, and open to new ideas--and that it considers intellectual aggression a virtue, regardless of its gender associations. But maybe I've been hanging around the wrong colleges. More importantly, I think the basic trouble with this argument is not that academia's being blamed for the problem, but that anyone thinks there's a problem to begin with. Hemingway was a dick, and so was every other hard-drinkin', bar-fightin', wife-and-child-leavin' SOB who ever topped the best-seller list. The reason their exploits became so legendary is that they came to prominence in an age when writing by men was the only writing anybody took seriously. The more masculine the better, and if masculine meant drinking yourself to death, cheating on your wife, and (in Hemingway's case) socking Wallace Stevens in the jaw, then so be it. Was it any wonder Woolf and Plath committed suicide?

The fact is, angry op-ed pieces and political outrage take moral courage and rhetorical skill to pull off; while fistfights, infidelity, and drunken rage are the purview of cowards. And if the literary establishment--if such a thing even exists anymore, or if anyone cares whether or not it does--thinks otherwise, I will happily choose lifelong obscurity over treating other people like shit.

26 comments:

rmellis said...

Well, I disagree. Literature would be a much more prominent part of our culture if writers weren't so nice, polite, eager-to-please, good-looking, and tasteful. I'd love to see a public fistfight between Joyce Carol Oates and Dave Eggers. Or at least have one come out and say what they REALLY think.

I'm not any more in love with the whole spouse-beating, alcoholic thing than you are, but I'd like it if writers were less careerist and more sorta fuckitall.

zoe said...

Have you heard of Russell Brand in America? He isn't strictly a writer, he's really a stand up comedian. But he's just released his autobiography entitled "My Booky Wook" amd he's about as fuck-it-all as they come.

jrlennon said...

*has affair*

rmellis said...

It would certainly make things more interesting.

"Midlist Writer Stabbed by Wife," page B4 of the IJ. Right after the story "Earmuffs Stolen from Unlocked Volvo."

Anonymous said...

Is it really the case that writers are behaving badly less often or a combination of (a) it is expected of them to behave badly, so it's no longer news when they do and (b) people outside the literary world generally not caring so much about anything that writers do?

Here's one way that the "institutionalization" of creative writing may be having an effect on changing the behavior—if such a change there be—of new writers coming up: before the MFA program was widespread, "apprentice" writers' contact with their mentors/models was very limited and so the young writers would not have to cope with the day-to-day fallout of and watching the physical deterioration caused by [vice of choice] while interacting constantly with older writers in classrooms, at receptions, etc. There's something sometimes literally sobering about watching middle-aged writers comport themselves like college students on a Jägermeister jag. Nothing is more than a buzzkill than being made to babysit one's elders. Think about it: haven't you been *personally* embarrassed or offended by the public behavior of a writer or writers of the generation above? There's a qualitative difference between standing at the elbow of a fifty-something writer as he or she [picks a fight/falls down/grossly propositions a student] and reading a narratively shaped account of such behavior in the book press.

There's also in your post an insufficient recognition of assholish behavior by women writers (Patricia Highsmith?) and self-pitying/suicidal behavior by male writers.

jrlennon said...

I've been lucky enough not to have ever witnessed any of my mentors/teachers getting stupid at a reception, but you have a point there--it's quite possible there's a strong aversion among my generation's writers created by witnessing that kind of spectacle.

Also, I think (b) is a very likely possibility--nobody gives a crap how writers behave.

As for writers misbehaving outside their gender roles--if you have amusing anecdotes that we can all learn from, by all means share!

Anonymous said...

First off "more *of* a buzzkill" in previous comment—sorry about that.

As for anecdotes, well, one might perhaps want to move around in society one day. . . and it's difficult to talk about historical examples without seeming insensitive toward people who were/are demonstrably mentally ill or otherwise demon-tormented. I was perhaps, more reacting to how acutely annoying it can be to young female writers to be told that really *serious* women writers are just *too good for this world* and often eventually pitch themselves right off it. Their dreary biographies simply caused me to permanently strike certain names from my individual syllabus. "Unsympathetic" is my middle name.

jrlennon said...

Fair enough--I didn't intend to perpetuate the cliche of women writers' despair and suicide...indeed, I'm certain we can count far more male writers who threw in the towel than female ones...though perhaps only because there have historically been more of them. In any event, it seems more common for male writers to take out a few other people on their way down, and I suppose that's really what raises my ire. I really dislike the "romance" of writerly misbehavior, and think that people's personal standards of behavior ought to be as rigorous as their artistic standards. (I am not talking about mental illness here, by the way, which no one can be blamed for, and the effects of which I don't presume to pass judgement on.)

As for Rhian's comment earlier...I don't think common decency is de facto careerist. Write like a prick, act like a prince, that's my philosophy.

Not that I always, um, follow it.

Anonymous said...

I think it has to do with the causality of celebrity and behavior. Lindsay Lohan acts like that in part because the spotlight is on her. And the spotlight remains on her because she acts like that. But the spotlights just aren't on authors -- they really aren't celebrities the way they once were. So that kind of attention-grabbing behavior is almost pointless because far fewer people would pay attention. On the other hand, if writers did reclaim those Hemingway / Mailer kinds of celebrity look-at-me personas, then maybe people would start paying attention. Not paying attention for the right reasons, of course, but paying attention nonetheless. No such thing as bad publicity, as they say. There's a certain kind of ambition in that pose that I think literature lacks now, for better or worse.

Pete said...

I'm with you, J - I'll opt for obscurity rather than be the kind of old-school writer who craps all over his family and friends, all for the sake of his cherished "art".

grumpy said...

I agree with Monroe.

And the next time I run into Doris Lessing I am SO going to kick her ass!

Grant Munroe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jrlennon said...

Sorry to make you nose your lunch, Grant!

What I long for is artistic and intellectual loose cannons. And the fact is, they exist. But it's hard to get people tp pay attention. I suppose what I long for is for the book press to care about what they do--and of course that's not going to happen.

When I said "people are cowards" I did NOT mean READERS--I mean the mainstream publishing industry and book reviewers. There are certainly a few very fine publishers, and some very astute writers writing about contemporary literature, but for the most part everyone is more or less in agreement that artistic risks are not worth taking. And I'm not talking avant-garde, I'm talking small variations from the literary orthodoxy.

A lot of people blame MFA programs for this, and I am just not buying it. I think it all comes from the business mentality of the late nineties, the series of mergers and buyouts in publishing, and the consequent need for publishers to make a profit doing something that used to be done for prestige and personal satisfaction. Literary careers are no longer nurtured--you write your blockbuster or you're out on your ass. People end up writing the stuff that will keep them on the front tables at Barnes and Noble, and who can blame them really--it's nice to be able to give a book to your editor and hear how much they like it without also having to hear that horrifying edge of despair that means there is no way they'll be able to get it past marketing. I've been there more than once, and I write pretty mainstream fiction.

And maybe this is good for writing, ultimately. Rhian's right--careerism is no good. Is it so that MFA programs are careerist? In my experience, no. But it all depends on how students choose to regard them. If you want to get connected, meet the right people, find out "how things are done," you can get that in grad school. But you can also use those couple of years to take risks, to lob a few grenades out into the world. That's what I hope my students end up doing.

jrlennon said...

Oh and thanks for checking out the Paris Review stories! Lou, my collaborator, and I are working on a whole book of them...slowly...

Max said...

Rachel Donadio had an essay in the NY Times Book Review called "The Art of the Feud." Very good study of fear in the literary world (a subject which most in that world would rather ignore). Anyway, in Donadio’s essay she described a scene at a NY party where Richard Ford spat in Colson Whitehead’s face (because of the negative review Whitehead had written about Ford’s story collection).
But there's more to it than that. In an interview Ford gave to Kenyon Review, when asked about his relationship with his characters, Ford replied: “Master to slave. Sometimes I hear them at night singing over in their cabins.”
In his review Whitehead cites this quote. Maybe, being an African-American, he took exception to Ford’s choice of images.
Whitehead didn't retaliate to the salivary missive. Which doesn't make him look so good. Sometimes a punch is the only proper response.

jrlennon said...

I dunno, I'm with Whitehead. Now Ford looks like an ass, and Whitehead looks like a cool customer. If you spit on someone because they didn't like your book, you are a wimp. Christ, who has enough saliva for that?

It's hard to imagine Whitehead taking offense at the master/slave comment though--it seems like a fairly innocuous metaphor. Most likely Whitehead panned the collection because it was bad. I love a couple of Ford's novels, but his recent short fiction has been dreadful.

Whitehead's good, by the way. I thought "Apex" was just OK but overall he's a crack scribbler.

grumpy said...

Grant, I understand your points, and I recognize your comments as being at least partly facetious. Still, I find it a little disturbing that passionate dedication to one's work or art is equated with boorish behavior. It is true not only in writing, but in many walks of life. Volatile personalities are regrettably, and incorrectly, exalted in occapational categories as disparate as football coach and heart surgeon. At the end of the day, being a dick doesn't make you any better at your craft.

And while I was being facetious about Doris Lessing, if Richard Ford spits in my face it will be his final expectoration. Hey, good book title, huh?

Mr. Saflo said...

Where have all the Ward Six posts gone?

rmellis said...

Are they gone???

Did they vanish down the rabbit hole with Ed Champion?

ed said...

Ahem,

it was Wallace Stevens who punched Ernest Hemingway down the stairs. Let's make note of that.

Ed

Writer, Rejected said...

Entertainment TV and Extra killed America's romance with the writer. Now we are a celebrity obsessed culture. We care more about Brittney Spear's neglecting her children than Joyce Carol Oates punching Dave Eggers between the eyes. (I think that probably did or will happen soon, don't you? Just because we've put it in print here.)

AliciaABeale said...

Without a doubt the literary scene is full of people passion about literature but the passion for life seems to have wane since the Modernist masters. I was never a fan of the whole Hemingway persona or Kerouac. For me, Grace Paley is a better example. Her writing reflected not just her mind but her passion. She wasn't afraid to step away from her desk and onto the front lines.

Today's writers just don't seem comfortable stepping away from their desks and out their offices. It's like protocol at readings for writers to appear shy & uneasy like they would rather be anywhere else even if it's the New Yorker Festival. I would love to see writers throwing a huge fundraiser for Barack or Hilary like the rock concerts for Kerry in '04. We could really use a few literary rock stars too.

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