Getting it mostly right and completely wrong

Lots of people seem to either like or hate Chuck Klosterman. As someone who never particularly formed any opinions regarding the guy, I’m happy to continue in my unwavering agnosticism towards his writing. But I am interested in a particular piece he wrote this week for Grantland, reviewing Lulu, the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration based, apparently, on the Wedekind play of the same name.

Let that sink in for a minute. Lou Reed, who is old as dirt, and Metallica, who are only slightly younger and haven’t done anything of significance in a decade, have combined forces to put out an album which takes its theme from a play about the sexual mores of Wilhelmine Germany. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG WITH THIS SCENARIO?!

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “everything.” From Klosterman’s extremely funny review, I gather that the result is about as unpalatable as one could possibly expect. Klosterman spends a lot of time on the awfulness of Lulu, which seems totally appropriate, but it’s towards the end that his article goes off the rails and into some really problematic territory (how you like them mixed metaphors?).

See, the problem for Klosterman is that it seems to be causing him to re-evaluate his stand towards the collapse of the record industry (or if it’s not the catalyst, it at least seems to be a contributing factor). Klosterman’s allegation is that if we still lived in the 1992 where the record labels ran the show, something like Lulu would never exist. Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether this is even true; I would argue that the music industry has made its share of terrible decisions throughout its existence, and the only reason Klosterman thinks this is that he’s suffering from a common sort of cognitive bias where he only remembers the good stuff from the 90s. In the penultimate paragraph, Klosterman praises the concept, writing that “I’m glad Metallica and Reed tried this, if only because I’m always a fan of bad ideas.” He concludes:

The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don’t care if anyone else enjoys it. Now, here again — if viewed in a vacuum — that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

Klosterman doesn’t come out and say it outright, but the implication of his last two paragraphs is that he thinks that this is a problem; that the actual realization of Lulu, while based on an admirable concept, is a mistake. With this, I beg to differ.

It has been my fervent belief for many years now that the most interesting of our cultural debris is the weird stuff. And not just the weird stuff, but the stuff that’s so divorced from any plausible standard of aesthetic quality that one struggles to comprehend how it even came to be. If I asked you to imagine Lulu, you couldn’t do it; you would either wind up with some forced Pynchonesque, or something far more mundane than actually happened. The fact that Lulu exists at all, the fact that we live in an environment which makes it possible, is, to me anyway, extremely important. Not because I would actually listen to Lulu (because I’m lazy enough as it is, and I refuse to expend cognitive effort to merely enjoy something ironically) but because its existence means that even in the stodgiest, most regulated corners of the cultural space, there exists an opportunity to do something mind-bogglingly stupid. And mind-boggling stupidity, especially produced in this way, is hilarious.

Failure is as much of an art as success, although typically success is achieved by consciously creating something of value, whereas artistic failure is something generally lucked into: either by dint of overreaching on the basis of your previous achievements (e.g. Lulu) or by being hilariously awful (e.g. Plan 9 From Outer Space, although honestly I never found it to be nearly as cringe-inducing as its defenders claim). The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were a hardwood masterpiece made flesh, a team that won an astounding 72 games; the 2009-2010 New Jersey Nets were a hilarious embarrasment to the league, winning a mere 12. Sure, you’d rather watch the Jordan Bulls play (assuming you’re a neutral) but as a narrative, isn’t the Nets’ despair infinitely more compelling? After all, you already know a team like the Bulls is destined for a ring, but the Nets, right up until the end of the season, had the potential for badness of historical proportions (that they fell just short of that is disappointing in its own right, although they did set the historical mark for worst start to the season with 19 straight losses). I cared nothing for the Nets, but couldn’t help checking their results every morning just to see if the lows they’d fallen to would go even lower (further bizzaritude: of the three wins that kept New Jersey from tying for the worst-ever season, one was a win on the road against eventual finalists the Boston Celtics, and two more came in double-overtime wins against the Bulls and the Miami Heat, both playoff teams). Were not the historically abominable Detroit Lions far more interesting than if they’d gone 4-12? Of course they were, and you know it.

The same thing holds for artistic endeavors as much as athletic ones (though in truth the lines between the two are blurry). Is not the existence of a film such as Howard the Duck irrefutable proof of the non-existence of God? In what kind of just world would it be possible for the profoundly schizophrenic Hudson Hawk (which seems to begin as a relatively unremarkable action/heist film, and yet goes on to contain a scene in which a little girl in a museum is told “You’re a disgrace to your country!” in a scene which has only the remotest contextual relevance to the plot) to exist? Only in a world in which it was possible for someone to take Bruce Willis seriously as a screenwriter.

These various failures are like a sort of Ozymandias lining our cultural highways: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. They are, by and large, fascinating examples of people trying out completely preposterous, downright stupid ideas, and winding up with colossal failure that demands appreciation on an aesthetic level. Studied competence is a quality we demand from doctors and civil servants; our artistic products, to be interesting, should be either transcendentally successful, or implausibly horrid. Edgar Bulwer-Lytton (he of the much-and-unjustly-malgined “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, an opening sentence about as unremarkable as they get), towards the end of his life, concocted an absurd proto-science-fiction story about a subterranean race that thrived on a mysterious form of energy. The novel apparently caused a minor mania, becoming an obsession of Theosophists and people who thought Atlantis was real, as it was taken as a veridical description of reality; can anything remotely similarly fascinating be said about one of Hardy’s ponderous chronicles of English peasant life or the interminably dull regional fiction of a Sarah Orne Jewett? Sure, Bulwer-Lytton is considered to have failed aesthetically, but he failed in such a spectacular fashion that you can’t help but admire the audacity.

The best of our aesthetic artifacts share this kind of demented energy with the worst; they contain sparks (or even full-blown fires) of something crazy, something you won’t see if all you shoot for is competence. Metallica producing a competent, or even relatively good (say, on par with the Black Album) record would not arouse the slightest curiosity, but Metallica teaming up with Lou Reed to adapt Wedekind is a fascinating, not even but especially since it’s so disastrous. Klosterman is wrong to be filled with (admittedly limited) nostalgia for the world of record label control; the fact that the destruction of that world allowed something like Lulu to be created is direct evidence that we’re better off without it.

how do i awarded prize

I don’t know when I stopped paying attention to the National Book Awards because I’m not sure I ever paid attention to them in the first place. I suppose “National Book Award Winner” is some additional motivation for acquiring reading material, but it ranks pretty low on the list of criteria that I care to look at when making my decisions. Does anyone outside the publishing industry really care that much about them?

One person who does care about the awards is Laura Miller, Salon‘s book critic. And a few weeks ago, she published in Salon what I think is a really bizarre analysis of this year’s slate of nominees. Before I start in, I just want to say that I haven’t read any of the books up for the award this year nor do I have any opinion whatsoever regarding their quality or lack thereof. My reaction here is solely to Miller’s confusing and poorly-reasoned article. Take it away, Miller:

Over the next day or two, expect to see observers pointing out the absence of two widely praised fall novels — “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach and “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides — and the fact that four of the five shortlisted titles are by women. (Those with longer memories will hearken back to the much-discussed all-female short list of 2004.) However, two prominent new novels by women, Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder” and Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” were passed over, as well.

Again, maybe The Marriage Plot (book titles in italics, damn it!) belongs on the list of nominees. I have been hearing great things about it. But it’s not clear to me why the fact that four of the five novels are by women needs explaining. Miller seems to think it does, but if it does, she doesn’t explain it, and if it doesn’t, why bother mentioning it? It’s a weird “some people might say X” formulation without bothering to check if X is important or relevant in any way. It’s also not clear whether “prominent” is supposed to mean “good” in this paragraph. Are the novels by Patchett and Waldman any good? I have no idea, and it would seem to be at least concomitant with a book critics responsibility to inform her readers regarding their quality.

Although the judges for the NBAs change every year, the sense that the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public is eternal. (One notable recent exception: the selection of Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” as the winner two years ago.) The press, assuming that the amount of media coverage a novel gets is a reliable indicator of its merit, expresses bafflement. The judges, if they respond at all, defend their choices as simply the best books submitted.

There’s a “sense” here of something, but Miller is so thin on evidence that it’s impossible to tell whether that sense is actually supported by anything that transpires in the world. Who is “the press” in this context? Is it book critics like Miller, who, presumably, have the capacity to make independent evaluations of the various books out there? Or is it someone else? I read “the press” every day, and so far as I can tell, no one outside the actual circle of literary reviewers seems to devote any real time or energy to writing about books. The one article per year in the arts section about who won what prize might count as “press,” I suppose, but that’s almost always just straight reporting (see the Times article about the awards from last year). There’s no real “bafflement” on evidence. As one might expect, the judges don’t really feel obligated to justify themselves to “the press” (or in any case they shouldn’t), but with regard to their (supposed, Miller gives no evidence for this) defense of their choisces as “simply the best books submitted,” Miller asserts,

Neither view is entirely persuasive.

Why is Miller unpersuaded of this? It remains a mystery because she doesn’t say. What she does say is,

While it’s certainly true that celebrated novels are not necessarily good, it’s also true that they aren’t necessarily bad, either.

Wait, what? What is the argument here, exactly? Celebrated novels aren’t necessarily bad, therefore… more celebrated novels should be picked? How is that in any way contradictory to the judges’ (imagined by Miller) defense of their choices? If I tell you that Book X is better than Book Y, that doesn’t mean Book Y is trash; it just means that I think Book X is better and should… I don’t know, win a prize or something? The bafflement here is all Miller-generated.

Whatever policy each panel of judges embraces, over the years, the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention. The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of “writer’s writers,” authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside.

“The impression has arisen that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.” I mean, is there some evidence for this impression? Is this all a play being staged within the Cartesian theater of Miller’s mind? Who knows?! But even if this “impression” is accurate, what of it? Given several novels of putatively equal quality, there’s nothing wrong with giving the award to the less successful novel on the grounds that the bestseller doesn’t need the exposure. Why not promote a “writer’s writer” who might also become a reader’s writer? Miller seems to think that this is a problem, but it’s not clear what the problem actually is. Miller seems to think that “the reading public has… proven recalcitrant” to picking up these books, and offers this gem:

If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with. This is especially common when the nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.

I don’t know if Miller (unlike me) actually intends to insult the reading public, but this has got to be the most backhanded compliment ever. Hey reading public: Laura Miller thinks you’re too stupid for a poetic prose style!

And what the fuck is a “professional reader?” I mean, I know what the answer is: it’s a book critic. But that’s a really dumb and insulting way of phrasing things. Because here’s the thing: either the “reading public” actually consists of literate people capable of forming their own opinions about books and working their way through challenging literature (in which case they aren’t likely to complain about it in the first place, so why is Miller doing it for them?) or the reading public is a bunch of children who get put off by such oh-so-complicated literary innovations as… a poetic prose style! or elliptical and fragmented storytelling! in which case, fuck the reading public. I don’t ask a buch of 15-year olds about their literary opinions, because their literary opinions are shit; they probably think Ender’s Game is the apogee of the literary canon. If that’s the level of the American reading public’s opinions, then to hell with their opinions.

What’s really, really awful about this is that in the next paragraph Miller basically undermines her entire thesis:

If outsiders fail to sympathize with the judges’ perspective, the judges often have a distorted sense of the role literature plays in the lives of ordinary readers. People who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that) want to make sure that they’re reading something significant. Chances are they barely notice media coverage of books — certainly not enough to see some titles as “overexposed” — and instead rely on personal recommendations, bookstore browsing and Amazon rankings.

So let’s look back on the path of this argument: there’s a “sense” or possibly an “impression” that the awards are somehow hostile to ordinary readers, who actually don’t follow press coverage (so where does this “sense” come from?) and want to read “something significant” in their limited spare time. Ok, ordinary readers, well, we’ve convened this panel of critics to hand out an “award” to the best “book” published “nationally” this year. What’s that? You’d rather make your selection from Amazon rankings? Uh, go fuck yourselves.

Jesus Christ, I know that critics don’t always get it right and all that, but if you really care about reading the one or two most important books of the year, you could do a lot worse than consult a group of people who read books for a living. Which in fact Miller acknowledges, if somewhat obliquely and reluctantly:

Prizes are one part of this mix, if an influential one, and the public mostly wants the major awards to help them sort out the most important books of the year, not to point them toward overlooked gems with a specialized appeal.

Simple logic, people: an “overlooked gem” can in fact be one of the most important books of the year. The word “important” is doing a lot of work in this sentence; it’s being used as a sort of code for “popular.” The prize panel is telling you, “read this book, because we think it’s great,” not “read this book because it will flatter your own limited capacity for aesthetic appreciation.”

All this reminds me of a joke that was popular among Russian Jews. So two Jews meet and are talking about their lives and one of them says, “Hey, are you going to see the new production of Aida?” and the other one says, “Nah, my friend sang it to me over the phone, and it sounded terrible!”

It wouldn’t be any fun if Miller’s incoherent article didn’t conclude with a “Fuck you, Dad! I won’t do what you tell me!”

For these reasons, the National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach. Like the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, awarded by librarians, the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.

Ok, number-fucking-one: the next asshole who insults vegetables should have their fingers broken so they can never type this bullshit again. Seriously, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are:

1. Delicious
2. Good for you

This is entirely analogous to when conservative man-children throw fits about the promotion of nutrition in schools; if it ain’t meat and potatoes, it’s socialism. That’s some good company you’re keeping there, Laura Miller. I’m gonna go out on a limb here: if the most creative food you can imagine consuming can be obtained at Steak ‘n Shake, you probably have horrible taste in food. Analogously, if the most sophisticated literature you’re capable of consuming involves nothing more complex than droning monosyllables, you probably have horrible taste in literature and shouldn’t be listened to in discussions concerning the same.

Yes, the NBA (hehe) indicates a book that “somebody else thinks you ought to read.” That is the whole point of the fucking award! That’s how literary awards work! Someone reads a bunch of books, then picks the one that they think is best, and then says, “We think this book is the bees’ knees! You should read it!” Apparently in Miller-world, awards are supposed to just reinforce the pre-existing prejudices of the reader; their job would seem to be to say, “Hey, you’re doing good!” even if what you’re really doing is drooling all over yourself.

The coup de grace is the “proof by childhood reminiscence”:

As a kid, after several such medicinal reading experiences (“… And Now Miguel” by Joseph Krumgold was a particular chore to get through), I took to avoiding books with that gold Newbery badge stamped on their covers. If it weren’t for a desperate lack of alternatives one afternoon, I’d never have resorted to E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” which became one of my favorites. Today’s adult readers, with millions of titles a mere click away, are unlikely to find themselves in such straits.

That’s fucking right: Laura Miller got so tired of reading all that shit that librarians want you to read so much that they give it a Newberry Award that she went out and read… 1968 Newberry Award-winning book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. You can’t make this shit up.