To start writing this, I went and Googled that famous W.H. Auden quote about how people love the smell of their own farts. And at least one search result turned up the full version of the quote, even better for my purposes here.
“Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting,” Auden writes, “as they enjoy the smell of their own farts.”
Both of these ideas apply to what I have read in the past couple years, especially online: the insider writer-literary culture trend post-rant, a manifesto lite think-piece that’s meant to get more of a rise out of readers than it is to get them to think.
The Literary Feud News Peg Editorial. Just about every piece about the Virginia Quarterly Review Kevin Morrissey-Ted Genoways Episode falls into this category. Offer insidery information about VQR to establish authority on the matter (I was published there, or not) or some anticipating the opposition business (Ted was kind of a prick/nice to me once). From there it’s all the rhetoric of the fart-smelling, we’re-all-in-this-together-business. Offer re-tweeatable sentiment; use rhetoric that is at once profound and empty.
The False Modesty While Expressing Enthusiasm Trope. The whole style of headline writing at lit websites and blogs (“I Like ____ Very Much Indeed,” “Every Reader Might Like X’s Book. Or Not,” “Five Books That Contain Lots of Great Adjectives,” or “Let’s All Love _____ Together”) use sentence construction-headlines that express authority while undercutting authority of same (they need to be descriptive to make sense on the Twitters and The Facebook, I know, but still). The overall effect in one’s feed reader is akin to reading Kimya Dawson lyrics.
Open Letters That Weren’t Ever Meant To Be Private. Gives writer opportunity to use inside-baseball rhetoric (“I started to think about what you wrote after we met at X’s reading, but I think it’s better to respond in this blog post”). The thrust of this variety of fart-smelling gives readers the voyeur role in semi-famous people’s exchange while adopting the same faux naif illusion that a lit blogger who may or may not mean what he-she says. It’s hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, readers feel like they’re listening in on a conversation at the Brooklyn Inn after the hangers-on have left, except not.
MFA Hand-Wringing. Takes form of It’s All About The Work or The Great Ponzi Scheme Conspiracy, both of which are intentionally naive. Of course a writer should send work out and get to know people; of course 99.9% creative writing teachers are not shaping the future of American Letters and are instead helping young people read and write to be better citizens. The truth is more nuanced and requires a cut above even the best attempts. So why do we continue to write about it? Because it’s one of those writing-about-writing fart-smelling piñatas that just keeps on pumping out link round-up candy, that’s why.
Before you start getting your leg warmers in a twist, dear reader, I am not innocent in this trend. I am a bit player maybe, but I contribute to the smelling of farts.
This is a piece complaining about writer’s writing about themselves by a writer who likes to write about writers and himself. I get that.
In this piece alone, I backtrack at least twice, three times. I use a cutesy, full-sentence headline that is at once precious and bitchy. It’s frustrating. I don’t want to backtrack. But these posts and essays live forever and people watch what they say, including yours truly.
What I am talking about is not considering literary criticism or literary theory or theory. Far from it. I love literary criticism, reviews. The stuff I outline above is shop talk posing as belles-lettres.
John Updike said something like there is no one happier than writers who get together, not writing and drinking. To that I would add: aggregating. Harriet, the Huffington Post “Books Section,” lit blogs, all of them, I am afraid, are wasting our time playing literary culture whac-a-mole, talking about whether or not to get an MFA, offer open-thread debate posts or lite manifestos-as-deep thoughts, and for what purpose? Rhetorical calisthenics? Talking semi-loud at each other and saying nothing? We’re then compelled to aggregate and round up what we didn’t read the first time around. It’s an echo chamber, a closed circuit that doesn’t keep in mind actual readers. Or people who read books but don’t write them.
And you know what it reminds me of? The world of poetry. All of the sudden, the world of literary fiction, literary nonfiction, and a good chunk of smart people’s blog posts, are all about the same thing poets have been doing: worrying over the business of writing, hand-wringing about that state of reviewing (but not actual reviewing), faux writer feuds (it’s the 90s again!), and to-MFA-or-not-MFA comment box discussions. Boring things to write about, or the most boring?
Which is not to say we who contribute to this are dumbasses. Hardly that. To paraphrase a recent email-turned-meme, a lot of the people I am talking about are the cream of the cream. I expect more. To me, this state of affairs represents a missed opportunity for a Genuine Exchange of Ideas by Public Intellectuals.
I suppose one could say all of this fart-smelling adds up to merely gossip, or that this stuff I am talking about isn’t the “real” writing we’re all doing when we’re away from our content management systems. But we are in the public square, are we not? Can we mean what we say and say what we mean and stop pussyfooting around? Or can we all assign ourselves a topic to write about besides smelling our own farts and start faux-arguing and manifesto-ing about that?
Here’s one final kicker and I promise I’ll stop: I read all this shit. All of it.
I had writer’s block last summer, immobilized by post-book review insecurity and memoir dread. The bulk of my online reading was–you guessed it–writing-about-writing. Just smelling farts. Thank god I had Cynthia Ozick to keep me sane.
There comes a point at a writerly get-together–post-reading party, last day at a AWP, a summer conference, or hell, a single conversation–when I get the urge to blurt out, “Can we please, for heaven’s sake, talk about something else? You’re all smart people, and I want to put together a decent classical music section–can you offer some recommendations?”
Part of this literary culture echo chamber must come from all of us having an outlet. None of us are silent now. We can all have our say. The barriers to entry, as the geeks say, are low. That is a superb state of affairs. We have all tested the microphones and they work. Now–what are we going to say?