Thursday, December 13, 2012

Literature: a horriffic, pointless, bourgeois and narcisistic waste of time .

              The question of  'why read' has bothered me for some time. In school we were mercilessly encouraged to read, it was sold as a mind building activity, an intellectual act, a necessary skill for a successful person.
It is not uncommon to hear certain middle class adults expressing guilt over not having read enough, or explaining how they "just wish I had the time to read more". It's not uncommon for the literate to obliquely brag about the books they have conquered, their hours spent reading, their favorite writers and publishing houses as if this in any ways "matters" or should provide them with some sort of respect from others. Many of these same people will speak derisively about television, sports or other 'wastes of time'. People will drop impressive amounts of money on hardcovers which they proceed to read once then let sit mouldering in overcrowded bookcases.
          And why? Is reading actually any less a waste of time than watching television, movies or sports? Why is such intellectual cred applied to reading when so much "high literature" is, at heart, soap opera (Dostoeyevsky), gore porn (Pahlaniuk), regular porn (Pynchon), navel gazing (Proust), or partying (Hemingway)? How can a grown adult justify spending combined months of their lives sitting in seclusion, staring at a printed page just 'using their imagination'? Not to mention those who spend their time (not to mention accept others' money) to produce these "works"? Simply put: the act of reading provides little toward the betterment of society (cf. building houses, farming, pharmaceutical research) and only primarily as an act of enjoyment, but only among those who are schooled in the 'ways of literature' and who have the leisure time to engage in it.
         I have as of yet come into contact with the discussion on the topic of why literature is "important" (okay...see below). And yet I continue to read quite a bit and maintain a blog about literature. So I have come, over time, to a conclusion, an excuse, a rationalization of why I can spend my time reading and being excited about books and authors without admitting that I am a self absorbed introvert. This has in turn led to the development of a framework for the properties that I believe are necessary in a great piece of literature.
          It really all stems from this dilemma I have: I find myself most fascinated by those things which I do not understand. Among these are radical feminism, suburbia, the brain, and people. Human beings. I have felt like I 'understand' maybe a handful of people in my entire life, the rest are utter mysteries to me. Their action, their thoughts, their motivations. I just don't get why many people do what they do, pursue what they do, find interest in their interests, make the mistakes they do. My misunderstanding could go on endlessly. I have found that it is a natural human impulse to seek to understand others though conversation. Vocal communication is nice but i have found it fairly ineffective in truly understanding most other people. In speech some are wont to put up fronts, make up stories, embellish et c. I've found that it is hard if not impossible for me to really understand another person strictly through conversation. Not only this but my desire to understand others stretches far beyond just those that I can come into contact with or will speak with in my lifetime.
        Here enters literature. I have found reading to be the rawest, quickest way to sort of get inside another person's head. Literature provides literally millions of minds, many of them brilliant or unique from which one may get an undistorted vantage. It allows you to see the world through all these different lenses without conscious variation on the other's part. Of course not all literature does this. Some books allow an 'entrance' while others less so and still others seems to repel entrance into the writer's mind. I'm thinking of escapist fiction here in large part. My favorite books, literature, poems the ones that I hold most dear are the ones where I feel like I understand the writer a bit more. I had heard many times that reading is a conversation, and I used to this this was bull shit. It wasn't until recently that I began to understand this sentiment: in how reading is, in a way, just a long exchange with the writer like sitting down and talking except removed in a few ways. Really great literature I feel should at foremost have this quality: not only are you getting a good story, seeing beautiful images, learning new facts about the world, being entertained but literally your understanding of human beings, of what the mind is capable of is being expanded by this interaction with another person. That the reader in a way growing in their understanding of humankind.
        Chris Dankland published this article as I was composing this post where he addresses a few of the same questions I've been thinking about. His entry is better written, more thought out, wider ranging, more exciting and has better graphics than this post, plus he mentions Tolstoy's view on literature which preempts what I am getting at by 100 years or so. This probably just means I heard Tolstoy's position at some point and appropriated it as my own. Chris' article is largely about alt-lit, and I love D-land's take on the movement. He's so excited, so positive. In fact I think his site was where I first found out about the movement and it was what got me excited about it and all these writers I had never heard of before. That was maybe 8 months ago and Alt-lit at the time seemed incredibly exciting to me. Even though this dynamic entity has/had been around for a few years it seemed incredibly exciting and new. I couldn't wait to buy the books, write reviews and tell friends about the best ones. it seemed to be a concentrated form of what I'm always looking for: a long, constantly updated conversation between people my same age and mental bent.                  
              At this point thought I'm already starting to feel jaded. As if Alt-lit, wonderful as it is in its DIYcore and radical experimentalism, is flawed by what seems to me to be a pretty deep inbreeding and hype machine. Let me be clear: a number of writers in and around the Alt-lit cloud are producing some amazing stuff and I count them among my favorite contemporary writers but too many times I've seen a name or work referenced in multiple places only to check it/them out and have the work be meager, derivative or at worst boring. Then they keep getting mentioned and praised. Too many writers are getting boosted just for their names and not for the merit of their work. Yes, this happens everywhere in the publishing and art world but shouldn't Alt-lit strive to place content over cachet? Alt-lit has worked up a strong community and aesthetic which is notable and laudable in itself, but to a point as these factors are only important when the work that is being produced is of high quality or innovation. It seems difficult to find people who were communicating deeply with their works, as if the primary motive to a lot of the production was fitting the Alt-Lit mode rather than conveying something deep and lasting to be shared between people. That is: the aspect that I found most fulfilling in literature seemed to be lacking in writers and works that were being discussed the most.
      I like to consider where Alt-lit could go in the future; compare it to other early alternative movements like the punks or the beats which I think share a number of global properties with Alt-lit. All of these were fairly DIY, self-consciously outside of the mainstream, and were ignored for sometime until varying degrees of mainstream media picked them up. The Beats went hard for a few years, had their core writers and associates, revolved around a number of tropes, ideals and ideas then died out almost overnight and became something of a scoffed at stereotype (bongos and black turtlenecks and berets right?). One may find writers today that say they were influenced by the beats but i would be surprised if one is able to find anyone writing past maybe 1965 who refer to themselves unironically as a beat writer. A few associated with the scene went on afterwards and continued to write (Mailer and Ginsburg immediately come to mind) but they detached themselves from it, left it to its time and grew past it. With the punks you had larger spatial and temporal aspects to the scene so it was more varied in its art and producers. Regardless revolt against the mainstream was front and center to the movement which I think makes it a relevant benchmark. The original movement grew and deflated almost as quickly as the beats, though the sentiment carried over into a number of different scenes as the years progressed. Of course after a time the watered down core of the movement became lodged in the mainstream and resulted in the corporate punk acts that were around in the late 90's etc.
   Okay so where might alt-lit fit into this? I'm not positioning this as an either/or type situation but perhaps aspects of each of my wildly simplified progressions may apply to the progression of alt-lit. Considering the growth in readership of certain writers I would not be surprised if Alt-lit is on the lips of the industry or academics at least a few years from now (if not already, i haven't stepped foot in an English department since my sophmore year of college so I have no idea, though I know Tao Lin and Steve Roggenbuck have visited universities) but will there be, say, 10x12 coffee table books filled with macros at B&N? Very few alt-lit writers seem to vocalize any desire toward success but one has to wonder, if an alt-lit identified writer were to achieve mainstream notoriety would their alt-lit cred become nullified? Would their underground audience consider them to be sell-outs or traitors? There is considerable agreement that alt-lit is not a genre or even movement so much as a community but there are most certainly ideas and tropes (not to mention media) that are considered alt. If these solidify more and certain ideas or ways of phrasing or whatever become "quintessentially alt-lit" is this a good thing or a bad thing?
    I think my interest in the community has shifted solely from being interested in the writing being produced to a more detached interest in the dynamics of a contemporary, vibrant, young underground literary movement. I sort of have this hope that the insularity and tropes of the movement will decrease in importance (these being a lot of things people hold dear) so that the creativity, energy and ambition shine through. There is so much life in the movement but i honestly think there is something holding it back from being something greater than a bunch of internet homies talking about how great they all are.


  1. reading sucks because i can never tell if the girls are hot or not

  2. Once I read your dismissal of entire authors as being "at heart" this or that I stopped reading. Waste of time.