Saturday, January 28, 2012

Writing Is Too Much Like Stripping

Gaston Bussière (French, 1862-1929): “Exotic Dancers”, c. 1880; oil on canvas, 45” x 35” 
This post has three main themes:  Writing is a lot like stripping.  Writing has become too much like stripping.  Writing on the internet is like stripping at a party full of strangers.

Writing is a lot like stripping.

We all know that part of the pleasure of reading is encountering authors through their words.  And we all know that part of good writing is letting enough of your inner secret self shine through. 

I recently read Sam Lipsyte's novel The Ask -- which is excellent, by the way -- and there's a scene where a father with a toddler is dropping off his kid at a daycare, or trying to anyway, because they daycare is closed, and he encounters a mother trying to drop off her toddler, and they start talking in a way that is sort of jokey and flirty at the same time, and the father gets really caught up in it, and his marriage is sort of in trouble, and he thinks to himself, Hey, Are We Going Back To Her Place for Sex?

It's a great, great, scene.  When I read it, I had the predictable experiences of Oh It Made Me See The World Differently and Oh I Felt Some Feelings! but in addition to that stuff I had a powerful sense of knowing something very intimate about Sam Lipsyte. Not something I could pin down.  Not something crude like he had those particular thoughts or whatever.  But something.  Let's be honest:  that feeling is a big part of the pleasure of reading.

The reason it's like stripping and not like simple undressing is that you have to keep the reader engaged.  Someone who tells you everything right up front:  that's boring.  Someone who tantalizes you with just enough so you need to know more: that's the stuff of literary crushes.

Writing has become too much like stripping.

Much as I'm down with the whole yeah-you-gotta-show-yourself-dude! aspect of things, I think the revealing of the personal is way out of control.  Readers -- and watchers, too, for that matter -- are obsessed less and less with the artwork and more and more with the person behind it.  Memoirs are taking off.  Reality TV is everywhere.  Novels are in decline.  Even novel writers are expected to be on twitter saying stuff about themselves to get readers interested.

I'm not afraid to say it:  excessive interest in the producer of art is a serious moral failing.  It's intellectually lazy, and it's often the product of a mind made soft from too much social networking, too much TMZ, too much Real Housewives, Top Chef, and Project Runway, and not enough -- well, not enough novel reading and sitting quietly thinking about stuff. 

I mean, it's nice that y'all are so curious about one another.  But this shit is out of control.

Writing on the internet is like stripping at a party full of strangers.

It's one thing to reveal stuff about your inner life on a piece of paper, where someone is going to be sitting quietly in a room alone and it's just the two of you having this intimate thing going on.  It's another thing to reveal your inner life on the web, where there are zillions of people sharing a conversation in the comments about whatever personal thing you happened to share. 

The whole internet comments thing is something I really did not see coming.  It's especially weird to me when it's commentary on the news.  I mean, I wasn't so surprised that people would want to share music and use Facebook and watch videos online.  Seems natural to me.  But the idea that people would be clamoring to make comments, dying to express their opinions, in short form, on random stuff in the news -- this just seems to me really surprising and strange.

For instance, this morning I got interested in a Globe and Mail article about open marriage.  At the time I'm writing there are 281 comments on this article.  Some of them say things like "Well, this might work for some people but not for very many" and "I wouldn't be able to do this I'm too jealous" and "An 'open marriage' isn't a marriage at all."

Leaving aside the quality and content of these comments, I just don't even get what motivates people to express ideas like this on the internet.  Do they feel like they're talking with one another?  Are they trying to connect?  Do they just have a need to express something and have no other outlet? I just don't know.

If good writing is always like stripping but the revealing of the personal is out of control, there seems to me to be only one solution.  We'd have to keep the striptease aspect of writing on the internet, but scale back the context and particulars.  Like, you know how the Victorians were so covered up and weird about sex that they saw sexual excitement in everything?  An uncovered ankle, the touch of a hand?  Maybe it could be like that:  everyone reserved enough about their personal lives that the merest detail would seem like a huge deal?

And now you're thinking "Seriously?  Are you living on planet earth?"

I know, I know,  But a girl can dream, can't she?

The Kramer Is Now, Book Links, and Google+

A new thing on The Kramer Is Now.  You know how on the right hand side I have a list of what I've been reading?  Well starting with Paul Murray's book Skippy Dies, clicking the image of the book will take you to a post on my Google+ page about the book.  You can comment; we can discuss.  

Also, I always post a link to new TKIN posts on my Google+ page.  So if you want a convenient way of finding out when something is new here at the blog, just circle me there at G+. 

I post on other stuff on G+ too.  Check out my profile and recent posts here

Friday, January 6, 2012

I For One Welcome Our WTF Overlords: Marc Maron And Modern Life

Marc Maron
I recently became obsessed with the podcast "WTF with Marc Maron."  I knew as soon as I heard Maron as the celebrity guest on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me (another of my obsessions) that I would have to check out his podcast, and I knew as soon as I'd finished listening to my first episode that I would be obsessed with it and would have to listen to every episdode, in chronological order.

In the WTF podcast, Maron interviews comedians.  But saying that the WTF podcast is a comedian interviewing comedians is like saying that The Wizard of Oz is about a spot of bad weather.  Because these are not so much interviews as mini-plunges into the darker and scarier parts of human nature.

These plunges are made more bearable by the fact that it's a "comedy podcast" -- so you never really know to what degree the performers are joking, embellishing, exaggerating on purpose.  In fact one of the most squirmy moments I had listening was when one interviewee said something sad or mean or something and then said "I'm just kidding."  Thus immersing me into the possibility that the rest of what she'd been saying was just true.

Maron says being a comic is about being "autonomous, angry, truthful, and funny."  He prods, pokes, bribes, nudges, and aggresses his guests 'til they, too, are being autonomous, angry, truthful and funny -- often about subjects like love, lust, envy, neediness, and despair that people just don't discuss in public, and maybe don't discuss at all.  I've always thought the great thing about comedians is that they will say things other people will not say, and here it is true.

The "I'm just kidding" moment comes during a frank discussion of the horrors of marriage:  married couple Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn come in together to talk about the day to day misery, anger, envy and moments of petty revenge that come from living with and parenting with another person.  Maron opens episode one by talking about stealing from Whole Foods in an act of rage against everything they stand for.  In episode seven, a comedian confesses to using made up stories of the deaths of loved-ones to get girls to have sex with him, and there's an in-depth discussion of the way marital counseling is set up to fail.

That whole "truthful" thing -- it shows how close this kind of comedy is to philosophy.  Long time readers will recall that I've commented on the parallels before, writing about Tina Fey.  Actually, I think we professional philosophers would do better if we talked more about things like stealing from Whole Foods.

And indeed, Maron says he's "tackling the most complex philosophical question of our day - WTF?"

Note that WTF? isn't the most important philosophical question of all time, it's the most important philosophical question of our day.  Doing a little inspired cultural and intellectual history, Maron says in episode one that the great philosophical question once was, "What is the meaning of life?"  Then for a long time it was, instead, "How am I being used and am I okay with that?"

"How am I being used and am I OK with that" --that's brilliant.  It's Kantian respect for autonomy, Lockean individualism, and the dismal science, all rolled into one.

Maron says the question for the coming era is going to be WTF?  Actually, he says, WTF is two questions.  It's the WTF of shock and indignation, like, what do you mean you're proposing that people with no health insurance be allowed to just die? WTF?!!  But it's also the WTF of "Whatever" or "Yeah, Why The Hell Not?" As in, should I eat this whole carton of ice cream right now? Yeah, sure, WTF.

Can I just say that this sounds like a huge fucking improvement?  I mean, the how-am-I-being-used-and-am-I-OK-with-that era has been really grim.  The possibility that it's going to be replaced by WTF -- I don't know what that'll be like exactly, but it sounds like it could be OK.  In fact, it's a possibility that makes me feel more hopeful about the future than I have in a long time.

If that's what's coming, bring it on please.