The Zombie Adulthood Ideal of A.O. Scott

There is certainly a case to be made against the increasing hostility to anything remotely “difficult” in American culture. Rebecca Mead rightly called out Ira Glass after the This American Life host tweeted “Shakespeare sucks” and opined that the Bard was “not relatable, unemotional.” Last month, the Washington Post published an op-ed written by a dullard named Justin Moyer that was indistinguishable from a small child banging out a spastic screed before his daily Ritalin shot. It began with the sentences, “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up.” There is a legitimate sickness in our culture when sitcom experts complain about poptimism and this dreadful neologism is offered as a “cure” for book criticism. Calling someone with highbrow tastes a “snob” is no different from calling some undiscerning underground hip-hop listener a “backpacker” or suggesting that someone should be embarrassed for reading YA. But in shoehorning these problems into some vaguely expressed notion of “adulthood” in The New York Times, A.O. Scott has revealed himself as a flailing prescriptive type who would rather wolf down the few canapés remaining on the plate rather than share what’s left. If you don’t share his vulpine approach, you’re a “child.”

Adulthood, for Scott, means an embittered white male existence where an older woman who wears plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair is an unacceptable cancer to be sneered at and eradicated. He suggests that the adults we now see within culture are “symbolic figure[s] in someone else’s coming-of-age story” and he limits acceptable comic protagonists to people who have “something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt.” (Never mind that Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s Stoneface were essentially hard-on-their-luck guys who acted “morally” or “politically” in their narratives only on occasion and largely by accident.) Scott’s notion of adulthood is a concessional ideal, one that does not wish to learn from the work that gets through to people.

Scott fears that the “perpetual freedom and delight” of reading YA fiction means squeezing out the more “serious” titles and living a relentlessly juvenile life devoted to nothing more than slavish fandom. But this is an especially condescending way of looking at readers. Facebook recently compiled the results of a meme where users tagged each other, listing the “ten books that stayed with you in some way.” Both YA and “serious” titles left memorable impressions on readers. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series took the top position. J.R.R. Tolkien, Suzanne Collins, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis snagged six slots in the top twenty. But readers still care very much about Shakespeare, Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Victor Hugo, Sylvia Plath, Cormac McCarthy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Mark Twain. And they’ll continue to care about great literature as long as we continue to remain passionate about it. It is rather sad and delimiting that Scott cannot fathom a reader who likes both YA and books, much less the possibility of getting readers into YA hooked onto other forms of literature.

To some degree, I sympathize with Scott. When the distinguished indie publisher Coffee House Press spearheaded a Kickstarter campaign for an essay compilation on cat videos, I was skeptical. How could the same house that published J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, or Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing devote itself to such a superficial and ostensibly juvenile exercise? But then I remembered that I had edited and uploaded two cat videos — one that was a Keyboard Cat response to Spock’s melodramatic breakdown in “The Naked Time” and a Nyan Cat video that was in answer to a preposterous Herman Cain commercial. Both exercises were goofy attempts to understand the style of these then popular memes. I wanted to know why something got through to an audience by reverse-engineering it. So who was I to stand in the way of potential cat video scholarship, especially when an essay outlining the rise and popularity of the YouTube genre could lead readers to other thoughtful valleys?

My initial dismay originated from the kind of myopic view that Scott proffers in his essay. I worried that people who wanted to read about cat videos would not have opinions or interest in reading about Syria, ISIS, developments in Gaza, the recent fast food strike, income inequality, drones, journalistic ethics, the history of American imperialism, militarized police and the needless murders of unarmed men, racism, sexism, game theory, #gamergate and the increasing abuse towards women who speak their minds, and any number of important subjects that I can’t stop obsessing over as a thinking adult. On the other hand, if I want other people to care even a soupçon about issues I consider important, then it would be foolish of me not to examine what does get people excited. This is why I have read at least one volume of Harry Potter and Hunger Games. It is why I have played all three Bioshock games. It is why I listened to a One Direction album in full (never again). It is why I tuned into Beyoncé’s performance on the MTV Video Music Awards. Of course, it’s also important for me to read, watch, and listen to the art that people aren’t paying attention to. But if I want to be culturally fluent and communicate with people, then I need to get some baseline on what’s happening. I don’t have to like it. (Indeed, in many cases, I don’t.) But if I despise it, I can always go back to James Joyce, Shakespeare, Maria Bamford’s comedy, Ronna & Beverly, Westlake’s Parker novels, Iris Murdoch, the Marx Brothers, Mark Twain, The Shaggs, Fawlty Towers, The Prisoner, Alison Bechdel, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, the hilariously misunderstood movie Shoot ‘Em Up, or any of the countless pleasures that keep me happy and inspired. I really don’t care what brow the art is supposed to rest on. Culture is omnifarious. It just has to be good.

Now when a scummy anti-intellectual jackanape proclaims that there is only one type of art to appreciate — whether it be Dan Kois employing his ADD and ample idiocy to protest high art he deems “cultural vegetables” or Ruth Graham telling Slate readers that they need to be ashamed of reading YA (a charge adeptly parried by the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg) — it gets in the way of the natural all-encompassing pursuit. It creates a needless lie that something entertaining cannot be found in art or that something artful cannot be found in entertainment. It is precisely the kind of two-tiered, hypocritical approach to cultural engagement that Leslie A. Fiedler, who Scott glowingly quotes from, nailed in his essay, “The Middle Against Both Ends”:

There is no count of sadism and brutality which could not be equally proven against Hemingway or Faulkner or Paul Bowles — or, for that matter, Edgar Allen Poe. There are certain more literate critics who are victims of their own confusion in this regard, and who will condemn a Class B movie for its images of flagellation or bloodshed only to praise in the next breath such an orgy of highminded sadism as Le Salarie de la Peur. The politics of the French picture may be preferable, or its photography; but this cannot redeem the scene in which a mud- and oil-soaked truckdriver crawls from a pit of sludge to reveal the protruding white bones of a multiple fracture of the thigh. This is as much horror-pornography as Scarface or Little Caesear. You cannot condemn Superman for the exploitation of violence, and praise the existentialist-homosexual-sadist shockers of Paul Bowles. It is possible to murmur by way of explanation something vague about art or catharsis; but no one is ready to advocate the suppression of anything merely because it is aesthetically bad. In this age of conflicting standards, we would all soon suppress each other.

Scott can claim import in three notable deaths in Mad Men while avoiding any comparable speculation into the notable deaths in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2. He can bring up the death of television patriarchs, essentially the “adulthood” he covets in culture, but backpedal from articulating it (“this is not really an argument I want to have right now”). He can commend Walter White on Breaking Bad as a seductive monster, but not examine Olivia Pope’s comparable qualities on Scandal. (Scandal‘s last season finale racked up 10.5 million viewers. That’s a tad more than the 10.28 million people who watched “Felina,” the Breaking Bad finale.) Olivia Pope is arguably a “grown-up” character. Is it not fruitful to examine how Shonda Rhimes depicts adulthood in our culture? Or is Scott simply incapable of looking at the world through the eyes of anyone who isn’t a white person? What of the adulthood in Orange is the New Black? Key & Peele? The Bridge? (All of these shows, including Scandal, won the distinguished Peabody Award last year. All of these shows contain adult perspectives that are not presented from the white male side. None of these shows were mentioned by Scott in his essay.)

This dishonest notion of unvoiced Cacuasian privilege recalls Scott’s hostility to Spike Lee earlier this year, which resulted in an appropriately blistering response by Lee. It is not so much “the cultivation of franchises…that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world” that Scott condemns. It is his timidity in confronting his myopia. He will wave a scolding finger at those who don’t fulfill his limited ideal of art as he trashes the “glass brownstone” of anyone trying to depict minorities and subcultures while making art. He cannot seem to value any perspective straying outside “the monument valley of the dying patriarchs.”

A.O. Scott is little more than a reactionary bore holding up a zombie ideal of “traditional adulthood” that involves being a Veblenian consumer too self-respecting “to be idiotic, selfish, and immature as well as sexually adventurous and emotionally reckless.” His essay rightly signals “a crisis of authority,” but it’s too bad he doesn’t have the guts to leave his lawn. He’d probably have a much better time, maybe discovering a few new ways to be adult along the way.

Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show #516)

Jesmyn Ward is most recently the author of Men We Reaped. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

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Subjects Discussed: Adorable literary babies, the notion of “home” in Mississippi, the Delta Blues, Big K.R.I.T., having a very large extended family, environments that foster great art, Kiese Laymon, why culture demands engagement, Mississippi being dead last in statistics, statistics vs. stories, W.E.B. du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness,” Ward seeing her mother in another context, emotional associations from phrases in languages, “soda” vs. “pop” vs. “cold drank,” Southern language, how the world is prerigged against the poor and the black, having to settle for “live” instead of “live good,” losing early optimism, Ward losing her brother, embracing fatalism and nihilism, C.J. becoming convinced that he would die young, young men who can’t envision a future, finding hope while living in an impoverished world, coming to an understanding of grief, how family and community are elastic and intertwined, finding hope in future generations through memories, Ward’s mother, paying it forward, people who don’t have food in the house, comparisons between Daddy in Salvage the Bones and how Ward wrote about her father in Men We Reaped, how memoir creates additional need which transcends fiction, the difficulties of fictionalizing complicated people, the advantages of creative nonfiction, human contradictions, Ward’s martial arts skills, training with nunchaku and swords, being bullied by racist kids, finding ways of defending yourself when you’re outnumbered, fight or flight, being attacked by a pit bull, suffering from low self-esteem, turning to alcohol to cope, avoiding writing about writing, how to contend with grief when the public playground has been officially designated as a graveyard, the government shutdown, why people care more about baby pandas at the National Zoo than poor people who need food, David Simon, The Wire, journalism vs. storytelling, mediocre white artists who appropriate the best of black culture, shying away from true engagement, white people in the literary world who get a privileged pass, when the Other has to soften itself for white consumption, timid Goodreads reviewers, Mitchell S. Jackson, response to writers of color, “designated” African-American authors, Ward’s difficulty with the telephone, receiving terrible news, and finding the bravery to take in difficult communication.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to get into this incident late in the book where you describe being bullied by racist kids. There’s one moment after they crack some really terrible quip about lynching you where you say, “You ain’t going to do nothing.” And these kids, they just dissemble. They just disappear. They have nothing to say after that. And it’s this fascinating moment, particularly when we’re looking at this other incident with this kid Topher, who was verbally pulverizing you. And the teacher’s just standing there not willing to acknowledge the racist language. You write about how the kids, some of whom were your friends, “they never took up for me, for Black people, when I was in the room.” And throughout this book, you don’t let yourself off the hook. I mean, you write about how you were scared to walk through certain neighborhoods. You write about how your little brother, two years younger, had more courage in a certain situation. And so when we’re talking of this notion of self-defense, I have to ask you, Jesmyn, what do you think it was that caused you to not only stand up to these kids, but also do something that either the other black kids in the school couldn’t do? That’s something that was extraordianrily rare, especially because you’re not exactly the most extroverted person in the world.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: So what do you think it was that caused you to really get these kids rightfully off of your back?

Ward: I don’t really know. Especially because, before then and even afterwards, I wasn’t very good at taking up for myself. And I think that part of that was informed by the fact that I had really low self-esteem. Because I feel like the world, and also what I saw in my community, had taught me the wrong things about what it meant to be black and poor and a woman in the South. And so I had awful self-esteem. But I don’t know. There was something about that moment — maybe because they were so overt and there were so many of them. It was a pretty large group. Six, seven boys. And they were so much older than I was. You know, I was really young when that happened. I was in seventh or eighth grade and they were upperclassmen.

Correspondent: So they were much taller too.

Ward: Much taller than I was.

Correspondent: Were they pretty muscular?

Ward: Some of them were. So I think that it was a moment where I was so clearly outnumbered and overpowered that maybe it was partly motivated by instinct, right? Fight or flight. And, for once, my response wasn’t just to leave or passively endure it. It was to actually fight. So I think a lot of it was driven by instinct. So I just came out and said it. “You ain’t going to do nothing to me. It’s not going down like that.”

Correspondent: Why do you think these instincts could only come out during certain moments? I mean, you’ve clearly had a fairly remarkable life of getting out of this situation. But what do you think it was that encouraged those instincts to come out at the right moments? Because of course, they came out at the most damaging moments as well.

Ward: Well, I think maybe the situation was so — you know, I said in that moment that the odds were really against me. I was clearly overpowered. Clearly outnumbered. And then my response was to fight in that moment. But then it also makes me think about when I was attacked by that pit bull, right? Clearly the dog is very much stronger than me. Has more weapons than I have. It would have been very easy for me to come out worse in that situation than I did. But in that moment, I chose to fight. That that was my instinctual response, right? That I fought. In both of those instances. And I think maybe in certain situations like that, that they’re the kind of situations that are so severe that the part of me that had the problem with low self-esteem, right? Of course, it’s the part that overthunk everything and that overprocessed everything. So that here in these moments, there’s no opportunity to think. All I could do was react. So my reaction in those moments was to fight. So maybe that’s why. These are these moments where the part of me that has low self-esteem can’t think about it and can’t process that moment in that way. So then I just react without thinking. And that’s what happens.

Correspondent: There is something interesting in that pit bull incident. There’s a sentence you write where you say, “The long scar in my head feels like a thin plastic cocktail straw, and like all war wounds, it itches.” And in light of how you went through this period of drinking, I’m wondering how long it took for you to make this connection between surviving a war and, with the cocktail straw, turning to drink in this effort to cope, in this effort to deal with the pain and to combat this low self-esteem.

Ward: It took me a long time. You know, I don’t think that I began to realize the way that I was turning to alcohol in order to deal with what I’d been through. Probably I began to realize that while I was at Michigan. While I was in New York, and I was doing the drinking when I said I was buying bottles of rum and basically just drinking them with a little bit of sugar. I didn’t realize it then. And I think that was from 2003, so I was in the throes of it. But it wasn’t until around 2006. Because I began to drink alone. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. Like what I was. Because I would drink alone and then I would become very depressed and very moody. And I would act out. And, see, before whenever I’d done that sort of drinking, I had roommates. I lived with other people. We were out in social situations. So I didn’t really think about it. But there was something about beginning to drink alone that made me suddenly begin to draw those conclusions between what I’d gone through and how I was responding to it and how I was basically self-medicating with alcohol.

Correspondent: It’s fascinating to me that you don’t really get into the beginning of your writing in this memoir. It comes from the exact same impulses as this kind of self-medicating, as this drinking, as this effort to combat terror, fear, low self-esteem. And I’m wondering if it’s even possible for you to even write about the beginning of how writing brought you out of this and allowed you to really manage these emotions more effectively.

Ward: I don’t know why I didn’t really speak more about it in the book or write more about that in the book. I don’t really know. I’ve spoken about it before. I sometimes speak to different universities and I have a speech that I usually give where I actually talk about how I came to writing and how committing to writing, for me, was really a response to the grief that I felt when I lost my brother.

Correspondent: Yes. But it’s compartmentalized, I think. Which I find really interesting.

Ward: I don’t really know why I didn’t address it more in the book. Maybe because I was afraid of shifting that focus maybe away from the young men. And maybe I was nervous about whether or not I could write about it and still sustain maybe the pace and the tension in the narrative, in the memoir. So maybe that’s what was going on.

Correspondent: You had your own problem of [W.E.B. du Bois’s] “double consciousness.”

Ward: Yes! Yes!

Correspondent: That’s interesting. I do want to get into the way that you describe the land of the community, which is extremely fascinating. You point out that the parks, the public parks, are designated as the graveyards in the future. This is going to be the burial site for people who will die in the future. And you openly begin to wonder, “Well, is it possible to stave off this transformation from the life of the playground to the death of the grave?” You write, “The grief we bear along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave.” Yet near the end of the book, when you’re talking about your brother, you are very candid about grief having this limitless life span. So how do you deal with grief when you know that you’re also trying to work away at that buffer that’s going to turn the playground into the graves? I mean, you have to champion life. You have to fend off these forces, both societal and beahvioral, that are trying to deaden all this wonder that surrounds you. So how do you think about grief when you’re very well aware of what’s going to happen?

Ward: Well, I guess that the way that I think about that is that the grief, that’s something that I can’t change. That’s something that is here and that I have to live with everyday. But I think that what I’m attempting to do is to use that grief to really fuel this endeavor, right? The writing of the book. And then also the conversations that I have around the book with different people. So that hopefully in having these conversations, and talking about all these pressures that the grief and the sense of fear and failure that permeates life for so many of the people, that talking about these things is the first step to admitting that there is this problem. Yes, we are all living with this grief. And, yes, we are trying to survive these unbearable pressures. But I’m hoping that if we talk about them, and bring them out into the open and admit that there is a problem involved and exists, then we can begin to be more conscious about our lives, about the actions that we take, how we react to these larger pressures. So that maybe we can begin to change things, right? And to think of concrete ways that we can change things. And I haven’t gotten there yet. Whenever someone asks me “So what can we do?” my only answer so far is that, okay, first we just need to talk about it. We need to enter this conversation that’s happening across the country about race and about young black people dying and about poverty and socioeconomic inequality. If we begin to talk about these things, then maybe we can get to a point where we can come up with concrete workable solutions.

Correspondent: I wonder why small biographies, piecemeal chapters of people who have needlessly lost their lives, almost seems to be the only way to discuss this problem these days. I mean, we don’t want to look at the vast tapestry. We don’t want to all the moving parts. And it gets to be a bit of a headache. If you care at all, you know, it’s going to bog you down. I mean, right now, we’re talking right when the government is going to shut down. And what’s really bizarre about all this is that people are concerned not so much about the fact that these food programs that feed the poor are going to go out, not so much with the Library of Congress closing, not so much with military servicemen, who are living day-to-day, not getting their paychecks. They’re more concerned about these baby pandas at the National Zoo. What do you think we can do to get people on the level of baby pandas? You know what I mean?

Ward: You know, I think that when I wrote the book, and especially when I wrote each chapter about the young men — you know, their lives and their deaths. That’s something that I was trying to affect. Because even if given a chapter, and some of those chapters are short. They’re shorter. If given a chapter, I can make these young men as authentically alive and complicated and unique as I can on the page. Like I’m going to really develop their characters and develop them well enough so that the reader, when encountering these young men — instead of these young men being statistics, they’re actually human beings. They’re actually people. And they can sympathize with them. Then I will have accomplished something. Then suddenly the young man becomes the panda, right? Because we care about them. And so I think that maybe that’s part of it. Because we encounter the numbers all the time, right? And I think it was David Simon that said something like that before. I think he was being interviewed about The Wire, right? And I think the interview was asking him about the difference between the work that he’d done in journalism as a writer and then the work that he was doing as a writer. And he was saying that there’s power in the story. He felt that when he was a journalist that he was trying to communicate the same facts, the facts that he’s trying to communicate in The Wire. But as a journalist, they weren’t causing any change. They weren’t getting through. They weren’t making people care in the way that they care about the pandas. Yet when he worked on The Wire, he was able to reach a wider audience to get that audience to care about the same kind of issues that he was concerned about when he was a journalist. So I think it really is in the power of the story — even if you only have a little bit of space, just using that space as effectively as you can to make these stories real.

Correspondent: Sure. But don’t you think there’s a disconnect between, for example, Trayvon Martin. Everybody is sympathetic to that story.

Ward: Right.

Correspondent: And I marched with a bunch of people here in New York. And it was marvelous. At the time. But ultimately this doesn’t effect policy. It doesn’t actually get things to change. And even with the people who cared about The Wire, inevitably we go into the same corrupt governmental institutions. It seems to me that the only option is to either amp up the number of storytellers to get people to care or there needs to be some drastic change in the way the American mind thinks. And I’m wondering. Do you have any ideas on this?

Ward: I mean, that’s a really difficult question to answer. I think that there should be more storytellers and I think that the stories that are out there, they need more volume. I think that these stories, that’s what we need to be discussing instead of discussing the Kardashians. You know what I’m saying?

Correspondent: I agree.

Ward: That’s the discussion that we need to be having. Those are the stories that we need to be invested in. And the people that we need to be invested in need to not be so concerned with vapid celebrity culture. Because that doesn’t get us anywhere. That doesn’t foster the kind of large-scale change that we need in the American government with policymakers.

(Loops for this program provided by vlalys, djmfl, mingote,danke, and blueeskies.)

The Bat Segundo Show #516: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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Alissa Quart (The Bat Segundo Show #514)

Alissa Quart is most recently the author of Republic of Outsiders. This show is the second of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can listen to the first part: Show #513 with Kiese Laymon.)

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Author: Alissa Quart

Subjects Discussed: George Lucas as “independent filmmaker,” how the presumed amateur mediums of YouTube and Kickstarter have become dominated by established figures, Amanda Palmer’s exploitation of musicians, Marina Abramović’s exploitation of dancers, Tilda Swinton marketing herself as an outsider, problems with the term “maverick,” the problems with Dave Eggers’s “selling out” rant, why resisting “selling out” has declined in the last ten years, Branded, OK Soda, how alternative cartoonists defied corporations, the decline in ad parodies, Yahoo cracking down on Tumblrs with sexual content, the flat self, how the lack of privacy destroys existential possibilities, the online exhibitionist impulse, Marie Calloway and easily deciphered pseudonyms, the relationship between the professional and the amateur, the rise of Etsy, T.J. Jackson Lear’s notion of antimodern dissent, people who strive to be featured sellers, false feminist fantasies, stealth capitalistic wish fulfillment, how physical space of hobbyists is appropriated by digital companies, handmade status, parallels between Etsy and freemium video games, addiction to Candy Crush Saga, Team Fortress 2, Netflix as an elaborate scheme to mine entertainment data, the narcotic state of false entertainment empowerment, vegans and fake meat, sanctimonious parallels between an animal rights activist telling you to watching a stream of slaughterhouse videos and a supermarket chain which claims that it slaughters animals humanely, crying over a field mouse dying, animal rights futurists, how prescriptive dichotomies develop into mainstream tropes, morally ostentatious ideological positions, The Icarus Project, the fine line between being eccentric and in need of help, bipolar writers, Mad Pride, a thought experiment concerning healthcare, whether or not it is the outsider’s to constantly resist, nontraditional settings for psychiatric care, Wikipedia’s transphobia against Chelsea Manning, transfeminists pointing to the assumption that the decision to have children is an assumption for all women, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, blind spots of mainstream feminists, gender distinctions at Barnard, young people and privacy*, Snapchat, how outsider ideas become mainstream, a Comics Alliance review of Heroes of Cosplay, cosplay as the professionalization of fans, the Tron Guy, how body image is becoming more Hollywood with professional cosplay, Vimeo auteurs, viral videos about broken subway steps, corporations that use images of people against their will, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Star Wars Uncut, contemporary collective filmmaking of today vs. truly independent filmmaking of the past (John Cassevetes, et al.), how tastemakers saved Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, the entitled fan critic vs. the designated gatekeeper, the decline of auteurism, mumblecore, documentary collectives in the 1960s, designated advocates vs. fan advocates, Kickstarter and behavioral economics, what a true outsider is, Sublime Frequencies’s Alan Bishop, the discipline of only being influenced by the sensibilities you cultivate, Pitchfork, taste as the last recourse in a world with too much information, how the word “curator” has been inverted, Maria Popova, the obligation to be outsider in some way, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour, Lev Manovich’s idea of data streams, and the limited cultural scope of hyperniche groups on Twitter.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: When George Lucas made Star Wars Episodes I through III, he declared himself an “independent filmmaker.” Even though he was self-financing these movies for many millions of dollars. I also remember in 2011 when Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gorden Levitt were singing “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and they released this to YouTube. They faced a great deal of criticism. YouTube is the amateur medium. Well, now we’re in a totally different ball game these days. Now we have crowdfunding. We have Spike Lee, Zach Braff, Veronica Mars on Kicktarter. And these people say, “Hey, it’s okay.” And what’s even more astonishing is that people are more accepting of this. And maybe, just to start off on what we’re dealing with here in terms of insiders and outsiders, why do you think that independent filmmaking has changed so that we now accept these people moving into the turf previously occupied by outsiders and people who were scrabbling together various resources to make different, eclectic art?

Quart: Well, I think right now we’re seeing coalitions of insiders and outsiders in a single person. So you have someone like Spike Lee, who is doing a Kickstarter campaign. He may have raised it by now. He was trying to raise $1.4 million. And then you have Amanda Palmer raising something similar on Kickstarter. Even more. And then you have actual true outsiders, or people who would have defined themselves as outsiders for many years, also using these same media. And it becomes, as I write in my book, a “republic of outsiders” — some which are arguably relying on their fans too much.

Correspondent: To the point of exploiting them, as Amanda Palmer is. “Hey, we’re going to have professional musicians play for free.” Which she’s received a lot of understandable flack for.

Quart: And I just saw recently Marina Abramović — the performance artist who had a big show at MOMA, quite famous. A dancer was complaining about being exploited for her labor in a crowdsourcing. Now there’s highbrow artists who are getting in on this kind of fan/star collapse and also monetizing the labor of people who are non-stars.

Correspondent: It’s interesting. Because I saw recently that Tilda Swinton went to Russia and is presenting herself as a total outsider. Of course, there’s her famous exhibit where she’s basically sleeping there. We’re now seeing a situation where mainstream people, or people who have dabbled between mainstream and outsider type of art, now feel this overwhelming need to define themselves as a rebel in some way. And yet they’re still reliant in many ways upon corporate cash or mainstream sources.

Quart: Or ordinary people’s cash.

Correspondent: Yes!

Quart: Or a friend’s cash.

Correspondent: And with crowdfunding. Yes.

Quart: Or a friend’s labor. And in a sense, the traditional selling out, where you’re relying on a corporation, can start to seem somewhat more innocent.

Correspondent: Well, why do you think that identifying yourself as an outsider is now a fundamental part of being? We can all sort of see through it. Especially when one tracks the general tenor or some artist’s voice. So why is this such a big thing these days?

Quart: Originally I was going to call this book either The Maverick Principle or Mavericks. And then there was the 2008 election. Sarah Palin and John McCain calling themselves “mavericks.”

Correspondent: “A real maverick.” Yes.

Quart: And then at some point Obama was even called “renegade.” So I think it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of use of language of the rebel/renegade. But part of what I did in this book was that I tried to include as many people who I considered — and I use this word advisedly — authentic outsiders, as well as people who are in this inside/outside thing like Amanda Palmer.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, one piece of writing you don’t actually include in the book, that I feel is actually germane to this argument, is Dave Eggers’s famous “selling out” speech, which he gave to The Harvard Advocate. And I still see it crop up all the time on Tumblr, where people constantly post it. And he basically says, okay, so the Flaming Lips appeared on 90210 and they performed their popular songs. But who cares? And he says, “Hey, I take money. Considerable thousands of dollars from Fortune Magazine. But I’m giving that away.” But what’s interesting about this, and what no one actually seems to think about in considering the Eggers rant, is that he’s not willing to hold himself accountable for how being indoctrinated in that kind of mainstream situation is going to affect his outsider nature or is actually going to compromise it in some way. And I’m wondering why this is such a compelling piece of text even almost fifteen years later, after it was originally disseminated. Why do you think people are still clinging to this notion of being an outsider or wanting to justify the fact that we’re all ensnared in this trap of having to…

Quart: As I said, the term “selling out,” which I considered an honorific when I was growing up. Or the opposite. Not selling out was honorific. Selling out was a terrible thing to do. I think the paradoxes of the term “selling out” have collapsed. And so you see people not even recognizing what that means. Now I’m going to start sounding like an old fuddy-duddy. But it’s not really a term that people really use or judge themselves by. It’s seen as a compliment. “Oh, I got Doritos to use my content that I created. Even though I’m just a fanboy.” Or “I got the latest hip-hop artist to use my remix in an advertisement. I’m so great.” So I think one of the reasons this document may hold appeal is that it’s a smart, well-heeled person kind of explaining what a lot of people are experiencing and addressing, if there is any, their lingering doubt. Is this a problem that I don’t even have this lodestone of selling out/not selling out anymore?

Correspondent: Why do you think that the notion of “selling out” became — when do you think the stigma was deflated? I mean, is this probably the last ten years, would you say?

Quart: I could feel it. I wrote a book. It came out in 2003.

Correspondent: You did.

Quart: Branded. And that to me was like — I didn’t even know it then, but I was seeing all these adolescents — I called it self-branding — who were defining themselves by the products they were consuming. Like “I am Coke. I am Pepsi. I am Abercrombie.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, this is just a teen thing.” But then the more I looked into it, these kids were growing up. And they were going to similarly retain that kind of identification. So I think a lot of it happened in the ’90s. It happened during the consolidation of corporations. It happened with the faltering economy. So people didn’t feel that they had the courage necessarily, even if they wanted to. To not define themselves by status markers. So I think there’s a multitude of factors that went into it.

Correspondent: You think people wanted to belong? And not really finding an absolute group, they turned to what corporations had to offer?

Quart: Yeah. I think it was just a surround sound culture. I mean, it is right now. We live in a screen culture where there’s endless pop-up ads, where our data is being mined. Where if I check out a jacket on a site, I’ll be seeing that jacket reappearing endlessly on my browser with every site I visit. In the early 2000s, when I wrote Branded, the line between advertorial and editorial in teen publications was collapsing. And that itself was a cause for dismay in media critic circles. And I wrote about it. “Oh no. They’re getting these advertising giveaways that are masquerading as magazines for teenagers.” Now everything they read carries promotional content. Magazines themselves are promotional entities. Again, the paradoxes of what selling out means have collapsed. And given the difficulties of the magazine and newspaper businesses right now, people don’t even focus on this that much. What content carries a commercial valence and which doesn’t.

Correspondent: But there was a time — like I think, for example, of OK Soda, where Coca-Cola hired Dan Clowes and Charles Burns to make this hip kind of design. I love this story. And they basically took the money and ran. I mean, there used to be a more honorable way of taking corporate money and pissing in their face.

Quart: Well, I think what you’re talking about is subversion, or subvertising. Remember all those terms that people used to use, and I loved? They don’t seem to be around so much anymore. Remember there was that moment. Well, it starts with MAD Magazine. Ad parodies? I mean, I don’t even see ad parodies anymore. It’s kind of weird.

Correspondent: Yeah! There used to be a rich culture in the ’90s and even in the early noughts. They were still, I think, flourishing even after September 11th. But I think something happened. And I guess I’m trying to ask you, Alissa…

Quart: What happened?

Correspondent: What was it? It probably, as you say, was post-2008 economic problems.

Quart: Some of them. 9/11 is a pertinent moment. Because you saw our President telling us to go shopping. It wasn’t “Have courage! Batten down the hatches!” It was “Go to the mall!” This is the way to be American. That was just one of many data points on that journey towards becoming an American shopper, not an American citizen.

Correspondent: One thing you didn’t really write about in this book that I think is possibly germane to this conversation is Tumblr. I mean, here is a situation where people think they’re being alternative on Tumblr. And very often, I see that they’re actually tailoring their posts so they can be liked or favorited and reposted elsewhere. And then on top of that, we had Yahoo recently purchase Tumblr. And they’ve started to quash down on certain blogs that actually have sexual content. And — I call them the Tumblrettes — the people who work at Tumblr, they scurry away when anybody has a more outsider or traditionally pugnacious reply in response to a cultural ill. Do you think that sometimes mediums such as Tumblr enable our worst impulses?

Quart: I mean, if we’re talking about companies buying other companies, we see that all the time. We see Goodreads being bought by Amazon. I guess in the ’90s, they would have called it mini-majors. Remember when independent studios were being bought? Miramax or Sony would purchase an independent company. Well, you see that happening a lot with companies that would be offering alternative platforms, that would be bought by companies that don’t offer those platforms. What happens, I guess, is that eventually there’s a neutralization of content. That’s another way in which outsiderdom is controlled.

Correspondent: But I think people have a choice to limit themselves or put themselves into some position where some moderating force is going to discourage them from truly expressing what’s on their mind. Clearly, there is something to be said about people’s choice of expression. I mean, they’re consenting to this. It’s not just evil corporate forces. And I’m wondering why that is.

Quart: I think, in the past, you used to see science fiction movies where people’s souls would be sucked out of their bodies by alien beings. And now we give away our information for the price of a five dollar badge online. For a sale item. There’s just such a level in a certain way. I call it the flat self. I mean, this isn’t in my book. But it’s something that I see a lot. And I guess it’s one of the incentives for writing a book like this, for people who are less flat. But for people who are willing to give away their information, their data — even the reaction to the fact that our information is being obtained against our will by all these companies and by our government. People are like, “Eh? Sure! I’ll give that away for 10% off!”

Correspondent: Well, what would be the typical flat self? Or I suppose a pernicious flat self? Since we’re on this particular metaphor. It seems to me it’s kind of an evolution of the dyed hair craze of people. As I grew up in San Francisco and Berkeley, you’d see people with dyed hair and punk T-shirts and they’d all look alike. Possibly more alike than a sea of corporate navy blue suits.

Quart: Well, there’s lots of ways to be a flat self. I guess what we’re talking about here is people who have, in some ways, are afraid and have succumbed to just a commercialized self that doesn’t have an interior life. So if you don’t think you have much of an interior life, the only thing you’re afraid of is if you’ve done anything wrong that people will see. You don’t really care about protecting the nature of your subjectivity. That’s not something that you’re concerned about.

Correspondent: A lack of an interior life is possibly part of this problem?

Quart: Perhaps. Or a lack of an interior life that you care about preserving.

* — Our Correspondent misstated the exact statistic. We regret the error and hope that the above link will set the matter straight.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, ferryterry, and Boogieman0307.)

The Bat Segundo Show #514: Alissa Quart (Download MP3)

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Kiese Laymon (The Bat Segundo Show #513)

Kiese Laymon is most recently the author of the novel Long Division and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This show is the first of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can also listen to the second part: Show #514 with Alissa Quart.)

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Author: Kiese Laymon

Subjects Discussed: Meeting people under bridges, Percival Everett’s Erasure, Mississippi teens who run away from narratives, throwaway culture, the importance of stories carrying you through the day, critiquing storytelling skills as a way of understanding the truth, alternative narrative identities as methods of accounting for unspoken national problems, how New York rappers spoke to Mississippi black boys, black Southerners as the generators and architects of American culture, active listening vs. culture as background noise, lyrics and storytelling, native Mississippians who aren’t familiar with the blues, the acceptable level of American cultural engagement, sorrow songs vs. the Ku Klux Klan, standing up for Mississippian culture, people who don’t care about the origin to the soundtracks of their lives, national cultural awareness through regional cultural awareness, tourist notions of regions through culture, New Jersey’s history of serial killers and crime, blind engagement with the South, the refusal to hear what people are literally saying to us, dying as a backbone for Mississippi music, interrogating death, Bessie Smith and the 1927 flood, Big K.R.I.T., running away from the gospel tradition, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, whether time travel stories require a moral equilibrium, America as a crazy-making narration that doesn’t want to accept how crazy it really is, grandmother roles, “How to Kill Yourself and Others in America,” being kicked out of college for not checking out Stephen Crane, how the act of committing everything to memory guides you through life, the desire to hold on to innocence, how Laymon’s early writing was denied and disapproved and disparaged, why all 19-year-olds are lunatics to some degree, satire and observation, the important of implicating yourself, Teju Cole, frat culture, sexism and classism, living with druggie roommates, when certain college kids aren’t incriminated and imprisoned (while others are), how bravery helps you make better decisions, individual guilt and societal guilt, the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, sanitizing the truth about racial inequality, the capitalist-commercial nexus and its impact upon airbrushing culture and narrative, why Obama cannot tell the truth, getting the President we deserve, “The Lost Presidential Debate of 2012,” “The Worst of White Folks,” how the state is trying to convince that we are good people (while the community tells the truth), Black Power and nostalgia, Stokely Carmichael, egomaniacal misogynists and ideological commitment, Martin Luther King and token Google Doodles, white folks who don’t share power, why we aren’t able to look at the sentences, interrogating mythology, superficial dissections of pop culture from white people (e.g., Slate Culture Gabfest), Miley Cyrus and the politics of twerking, white appropriation at the MTV Video Music Awards, Brooklyn gentrification, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake taking the Michael Jackson Award, society’s failure to implicate itself, how Bernie Mac, Michael Jackson, and Tupac were eaten alive by American culture, recklessness as spectacle, how Michael Jackson projected what we didn’t want to talk about, Tupac’s hologram at Coachella, living in a world surrounded by digital ghosts of sanitized cultural figures, Tupac’s music before Death Row and the downside of selling tickets, the label “Black Twitter,” white people on Twitter, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, important work that goes on without white people, the slipshod involvement of mainstream feminists, how race changes the moral focus, slavery and the Holocaust, and making deals with evil terms.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s start with Long Division, which is truly a tale of two Cities. You have this kid named City. He’s in 1985. He’s in 2013. There’s a book called Long Division within Long Division. And this reminded me very much of Stagg R. Leigh’s My Pafology in Percival Everett’s Erasure. I’m wondering — just because we have to ask you how this book got started — to what degree were you responding, like Percival Everett, to limited literary representation of the African American experience? And how was this a way for you to explore versions of City in 1985 that you couldn’t pursue in the present day?

Laymon: That’s a great question. I think I had to make it a metafictive book, particularly because I wanted the characters to consciously and unconsciously be exploring not just the lit that came before them, but the literature that they read that came before them. So there’s a literary mechanism in place that I’m critiquing as an author. But I wanted to create two different Cities who are also dudes who are 14 and very aware of the lit that they read. And they’re really aware of canonical lit. So there are important scenes. There’s a scene in a principal’s office. There’s a scene in the library where I think that, with these two Cities, we can see them actually trying to become runaway characters. But if they’re going to be runaway characters, I had to position them as characters in some way fully aware of the lit that they’ve read, but not fully aware of the narratives that they’re running away from. So the narratives that they’re running away from are different from the books that they’ve read. And part of the book is that they’re trying to figure out what constitutes this narrative that they’re running away from. And as a writer, obviously, I’m thinking about a lot of African American/black Southern lit. Black Boy particularly. But I wanted them to be running away from literature that they read. Which is really important for me.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. Because at one point, City has to stay with his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi. His reading library there is largely this kind of throwaway culture.

Laymon: Right.

Correspondent: Centered around classical books with a capital C and the Bible. And as you write, “I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined that they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler…” — his frenemy — “…my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met.” So this leads me to ask. I mean, why do you think that in the South, for these characters especially, that their notion of what it is to be alive is so rooted around books? To what extent were you limited in these areas? You and City? Why is that such an important definition?

Laymon: Well, you know, a lot of people have called Mississippi and particularly the South generally the home of American storytelling going way back to Twain and what not. And so story telling and story listening are part and parcel of our culture. Particularly if you grew up in a really religious gospel kind of household. I grew up in stories, but they were stories that were carried through music or language or stories you had to read in the Bible, and stories that my grandmother told me when she came home from work. Stories just carried the day. So I wanted to create two characters that were hyperaware of stories, of storytelling, and really critical of storytelling. The book starts with City critiquing LaVander’s storytelling ability. And LaVander is critiquing City’s storytelling ability. But by the time City gets to that library, what he’s trying to say is “I’m not being completely reactionary. I get that there’s some great cynicism in these books. But I don’t know what to do with the fact that these people never imagined anybody like me reading these texts.” And so for him, at this point, he really believes that audiences are the bedrock of sentence creation. Like to whom are you writing a sentence to? And so when he gets in that library — and it is throwaway culture in a way. So much happens in there. He sees himself for the first time on the Internet, right? He sees the way that he’s presented to other people. And I just wanted to create characters who were not too precocious, too smart, too witty, but in some way wholly aware that stories carry everything.

Correspondent: So what they read is almost an alternative identity that the United States as a whole can’t actually accommodate because of the many interesting questions of race that are in this book.

Laymon: Absolutely. And this is where literature is particularly important. Because with the references to hip-hop early on, hip-hop has been critiqued. I’ve critiqued it. Will continue to critique it. One of the things that hip-hop did, I think, early on for young black boys is that it was an art form that was made popular, that was talking directly to you as a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year old. At least you thought that. When you get geographically specific, you start to see that a lot of these rappers from New York weren’t talking to Mississippi black boys. But you felt that you were being talked to anyway. So one of the things that these characters are really trying to deal with is what happens to the characterization of a real person and a character who is so often not written to people who look just like them. And as we see early on in the book, we get this narrative imposed on them. And they’re trying to break out. And LaVander sort of does break out. But there’s a price to pay for that breakage. But it’s all about narrative creation.

Correspondent: Yes. I’m glad you brought up hip-hop. Because I wanted to talk about “Hip Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy” — one of the essays. You point to how black Southerners are “the generators and architects of American music, narrative, language, capital, and morality.” You point out that the South not only has something to say to New York, but it has something to say to the world. And I’m wondering why you think the world is so unwilling to listen. How much of this resistance to Southern innovation has to do with people who remain too caught up in some of these B-boy routines?

Laymon: I think the world is listening. But I don’t think the world knows what it’s listening to. You know what I mean? There’s no doubt the world is listening to really rock, R&B, and I would even argue funk that has its root in the Deep South. The world is listening to gospel music. The world is listening to blues right now that has its roots not just in Mississippi, but that Deep Southern, South Central culture. They’re listening. They’re dancing to it. They’re making love to it. They’re talking to it. It’s the music that scores our movies. But I don’t really think we know or, I should say, I don’t know if I fully know. I don’t think we’ve taken enough time to think about where that music actually comes. Like what people created, originated, innovated that music and why. Do you know what I mean? So I think to me that they’re listening. They have to listen. Because it’s everywhere. There’s no question.

Correspondent: But are they actively listening? I think that what you’re suggesting is that it’s music that plays in the background without people actually comprehending that there’s a lot of years and blood and tears that’s put into that music.

Laymon: No question.

Correspondent: And people are just not really curious enough to investigate that. I mean, I’m wondering if that’s a larger societal problem.

Laymon: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, this is what I’m saying. I don’t think we take the time to question the ingredients in art generally.

Correspondent: Sure.

Laymon: I haven’t been in many parts of the world. But as an American, I know that we don’t really take the time to consider what we’re consuming. And we definitely don’t take the time to consider the lives of the people who created the music. So even if we think about hip-hop, people who think they love hip-hop have no idea who Kool Herc is. People who think they love hip-hop have no idea who the people who helped create the culture actually were, what they did, and why they did it. So in some ways, it’s not specific to black American/Mississippi culture. But I do think that these particular stories that come out of Mississippi culture — it’s just ironic that the blues, rock, and gospel all come out of this really small part of our country.

Correspondent: I agree. But I’m wondering who to impugn here. (laughs)

Laymon: Well, I think we impugn everyone.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Laymon: And that’s a loose answer. But I was just in Mississippi for nine or ten days giving readings and stuff. There are people in Greenwood, Mississippi and Greenville, Mississippi — black people — who have no clue what the blues is. You know what I’m saying? And what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know what it is. But it is expiration that, because of my parents and because of my grandparents, we’ve had to go on. I’m saying that we don’t even want to go that road. Because when you go down that road, you don’t just find sound. But as you said, you find the experience. And you find complicity.

Correspondent: And if you listen very closely to the lyrics, you have all these amazing stories. Listen multiple times. There’s some cadence that you didn’t get.

Laymon: And also what’s important about the lyrics is that I think it’s really important to transcribe, to see the lyrics on the page. But what’s important about those lyrics are being spat or sung or, in some instances even before hip-hop, rapped. This kind of rhythmic hip-hopesque way of approaching music, I think, predates what we call hip-hop. I know New York people hate for me to say it. But what I’m saying is that it’s not just the lyrics. It’s how the lyrics are said and what irony has to do with the way those lyrics are being spat And I think it has so much to do with community. And these books, particularly Long Division, are, among other things, about community storytelling. And so what I’m trying to say is that I really think we need to think about the communities. The people, the stories, and the communities that are at the heart of all the music we listen to.

Correspondent: Well, I agree with you Kiese. But I’m wondering what is the acceptable level of cultural engagement that would actually allow the South to be understood and to be properly respected versus the reality of people wanting to have something in the background. I mean, is it reasonable to expect people to have that level of engagement? Much as I would also love to see that!

Laymon: I mean, it’s not reasonable to expect. It’s reasonable to encourage. And it’s reasonable to ask people to think more about from whence the music they listen to comes.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, kristijann, Reed1415, and ShortBusMusic.)

The Bat Segundo Show #513: Kiese Laymon (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Steve Erickson II

Steve Erickson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #447. He is most recently the author of These Dreams of You. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #180.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contriving plans to join a community of one half.

Author: Steve Erickson)

Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel around short bursts, plagiarizing the future, The Sea Came In at Midnight, the novel as kaleidoscope, rationale that emerges midway through writing a novel, losing 50 pages in These Dreams of You, not writing from notes, Zan’s tendency to hear profane words from telephone conversations, the considerable downside and formality of being dunned, fake politeness and underlying tones of contempt, not naming Obama, Kennedy, or David Bowie, Molly Bloom in Ulysses and Molly in These Dreams of You, Erickson’s commitment to the ineffable, letting a reader find her own meaning, defining a character in terms of story instead of public and historical terms, listening to David Bowie to get a sense of Berlin, Erickson’s cherrypicked version of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, not capitalizing American and European throughout Dreams, using autobiographical details for fiction, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, “part fact part fiction is what life is,” dating a Stalinist, why fiction is more informed by real life, how invented details encourage a conspiracy, the dissipating honor of being true to what is true, the last refuge of a bad writer, what a four-year-old can and cannot say, bending the truth when it sounds too fictional, Kony and Mike Daisey, combating the needs for believability and readers who feel defrauded, authenticity within lies, kids and photos who disappear in Dreams, striking a balance between the believable and the phantasmagorical, fiction which confounds public marketeers from the outset, postmodernism’s shift to something not cool, limitations and literary possibilities, the burdens of taxonomy, living in a culture that wishes to pigeonhole, why Zeroville and These Dreams of You gravitate more toward traditional narrative, reviewers who are hostile to anything remotely unconventional, writing a novel from the collective national moment, the relationship between history and fiction, being a man “out of time,” thoughts on how a private and antisocial reading culture is increasingly socialized, having an antisocial temperament, writers who cannot remember the passages that they write, the pros and cons of book conventions, and being “a community of one.”

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Erickson: We do live in a culture that wants to pigeonhole things. I don’t know whether that’s a function of late 20th century/early 21st century culture or is a function of American culture, or some combination of the two. In Japan, for instance, they don’t seem to worry about that when it comes to my novels.

Correspondent: But with Zeroville and with Dreams, we have moved a little bit more toward traditional narrative. I mean, maybe the impulse was always there. But do you think this has just been symptomatic of what you’ve been more occupied with of late? Fusing that traditional narrative with, say, some of these additional ideas of disappearance, of inserting words into sentences, and so forth?

Erickson: Right. Well, it’s hard for me to know. There are still a lot of people out there who would read this novel, These Dreams of You, and think it’s a pretty damn unconventional novel. They may not have read Our Ecstatic Days and thereby see this novel as whatever you want to call it: more accessible. But I can tell from the reviews I’ve gotten on this novel, which have largely been somewhere between good and better than good, nonetheless there are reviewers out there who really don’t quite know what to make of even this particular novel, which I think you’ve rightly said steers a little bit toward the conventional than earlier novels. And in the case of Zeroville, again, I had a strategy from the beginning, having thought about this novel for a while. I had started the novel at one point and I was writing it differently. And I was writing it — I don’t mean differently in terms of my earlier books. It was written more like my earlier books. And I stopped. I threw it out. Because I felt that this novel is about loving the movies, being obsessed with movies. It should have some of the energy of a movie. It should follow some of the narrative laws of a movie. So you had a lot of dialogue and a lot of the story being told in external terms. Being told in dialogue. Being told in action. Not a lot of motivational stuff. The main character in that novel, we never quite know where he’s coming from. We never know if he’s some kind of savant, or socially and mentally challenged. We never know.

In the case of this novel, I was aware at some point that, first of all, I was writing a story about a family, which I had never done. And, secondly, I was writing a story that it became clear to me, really from the first scene, that addressed the national moment and a moment that any reader could recognize in a way that none of my other novels quite had. Los Angeles was not submerged in a lake or covered by a sandstorm. It was out of that opening scene of the novel, which was the real-life scene that led to writing the novel. I merged a story that I thought would be recognizable to most readers. And I didn’t want to completely lose that. There are a lot of times in the novel that I think that is challenged. That recognizability. Or that recognition rather of the contemporary moment. Halfway through the book, the story suddenly changes track. But even as I was taking the reader, even as three quarters of the way through the book I knew the reader was going to be saying “Where is this thing going?” I didn’t want to lose that connection between the book and a moment of national history. It’s a history that’s still going on. It’s not a history of the past, but of the present. I didn’t want to lose that connection.

Correspondent: But why did you feel at this point, with this novel, that you needed to respond to the national moment? I mean, history is something, especially as it is unfolding, that one doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to respond to. So now you’re getting into questions of, well, is it possible that you are giving into the reader somewhat? In light of the conditions that we were describing earlier. Where did this need to respond to the 2008 climate come from?

Erickson: Well, I think it was completely personal. I was sitting on the sofa watching the election in November 2008 — Election Night — with my black daughter. And I knew this was a singular moment for me. And I knew this was a singular moment for her. And it was a singular moment for the country. And it was one of those cases where the story made itself manifest to the point of screaming at me. Here’s a story that not many other people are in a position to tell, given the circumstances of their lives as those circumstances were coinciding with the circumstances of the country.

Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to actually go back into the intertextuality within the novel. You have this character — J. Willkie Brown, the Brit who invites Zan over to give the lecture on “The Novel as a Literary Form Facing Obsolescence in the Twenty-First Century, Or the Evolution of Pure History to Fiction.” Now if we call journalism the first draft of history, it’s interesting that you also describe that “Zan’s single triumph over Brown is that, in time-honored journalistic tradition, the world-famous journalist always longed to write a novel.” It’s also interesting that Zan must return to his American roots: the original British origin point, right? To collect his thoughts on how he has dealt with words. And I’m wondering how much this relationship between history and pure fiction is predicated on Anglo-American relations. Can any novel or any life entirely deflect “the crusade against gray” that you mention?

Erickson: The crusade against what?

Correspondent: The crusade against gray. It’s when you’re describing Ronnie Jack Flowers and the specific content of his views. I wanted to talk about him, if it’s possible too.

Erickson: Yeah. That’s a big question. Early on, Zan wonders — or actually an omniscient narrator wonders by way of Zan — if this is the sort of history that puts novelists out of business. And I’m not sure I’ve got a sweeping cultural answer for all this. At some point early on in my life, well before the 21st century, I knew that I was a man out of time. I knew that the great art form of the 20th century was film. And I still believe that. And at the same time, popular music was rendering other media obsolete or, in terms of relevance, was usurping all of these other forms. But my talent and my temperament is to write novels. You know, and I should probably have been born fifty years earlier. And so as much as I would love to convince myself that I am operating in the central cultural arena of the time, I know I’m not. I know that fiction becomes not a fringe form, because too many people still read. And not even a secondary form. But a form that becomes more private. That is not shared with the culture at large. I mean, people read novels in private. Whereas they still tend to watch movies in public. Even as we watch more and more movies by ourselves at home. Even as they tend to respond still to music in public, whether they’re in the car with their sound system. So it’s just…it’s what I do. And it’s what I’m stuck doing. And the relevance or significance of fiction in relationship to history or journalism is almost beside the point for someone like me.

Correspondent: So working in a cultural medium that is below the mass culture omnipresence is the best way for you to negotiate these issues of history and fact?

Erickson: Well, I think…

Correspondent: A more dignified way?

Erickson: No, I think, Ed, it’s the only way I know. That’s all. I don’t know that it’s the best way or the more dignified way. I mean, I can’t rationalize it in those terms. In a way, I would like to be able to. You know, at some point early on, I thought a lot about filmmaking. When I was in college, I was actually a film student.

Correspondent: Yes.

Erickson: But I recognized at some point that, for better or worse, whatever talent I had — I felt I had some talent writing fiction. I had no idea whether I’d have any talent making movies. But perhaps even more importantly, temperamentally fiction is the province of a loner. Fiction is about locking yourself up in a room and having as little social interaction with other people as possible, and living in this world that you’ve created. There is nothing collaborative about it in the way that film is, or even making music is. So the answer to your question is entirely personal. It’s entirely personal. It’s what I was just meant to do.

Correspondent: You just have an anti-collaborative temperament.

Erickson: Absolutely I do. I mean, it’s more than that. I have an antisocial temperament. I teach in a writing program back in California and I have a lot of problems, actually, with writing programs and writing workshops. And I tell my students this. I say, the thing is, the paradox is that a writing program socializes what is really an antisocial endeavor. There’s something very strange about shutting yourself off from the rest of society to create this world or reality that’s completely yours and that you don’t share with anybody until it’s done, and even then you share it on a very private basis. If someone’s sitting across the room, and they’re reading one of my novels, I’m going to leave. You know, I don’t want to be there. Because even though I know that the public has complete access, what I did still remains so private to me, I don’t want to be around when somebody’s reading my work. Except for cases like this, I don’t especially want to have casual conversations about it. Perhaps strangest of all, and I’ve heard a number of other writers say this — I heard Jonathan Lethem say it a few weeks ago — people will come up to me, for instance, and ask me about a section of a book and I have no recollection of what they’re talking about. I have no recollection of writing it. I have no recollection of what I was thinking when I wrote it. I often have to ask them to show me what it is. Because I was utterly immersed in that, and then it’s done, and I need to leave it behind.

Correspondent: Running away from people who are reading your books. I mean, does this create any problems for you to go about your life? If you’re interested in the types of things that Steve Erickson readers are likely to be interested in, this could create some intriguing social problems.

Erickson: Well, as uncomfortable as it may make me to be in the same room, I would love to tell you that my life is littered with scenes of people reading my books everywhere I go. But that’s not the case. So it doesn’t happen that often. But I don’t have a lot of conversations with people who are casual friends about my work. And I don’t want to. So in that sense, the antisociability — is that the right word for it? The antisociability of the writing and the work, it does go on. It bleeds outside the lines of the life of that work, and it bleeds into areas of my other life, where I don’t, even though I’m always a writer, I don’t want to be interacting with people as a writer.

Correspondent: So is there any place for community? An increasing term used, I find, in writing. We have a “literary community” and so forth. Is this a logical extension of what some people find in, say, AWP or MFA workshops? Is there any possible place for community for you? Or that you find of value?

Erickson: For me, not especially. For other writers, perhaps. And I’ve been to AWP. And I’ve been to book conventions. The LA Times Festival of Books. And I can even drive a certain amount of pleasure for 24 hours to meet other writers. But the only community that gets any writing done is a community of one. And at the point that it becomes too much a salon, then I check out of it.

Correspondent: So for you, being antisocial is the truest temperament for an artistic writer.

Erickson: Well, I don’t know how you can be anything else. Certainly at the moment that when you’re doing the work. For me, that’s true, yeah. I can’t speak for other writers.

(Photo: Stefano Paltera)

The Bat Segundo Show #447: Steve Erickson (Download MP3)

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