Can we please stop smelling our own farts and write about something besides ourselves?

He who smelt it dealt it.

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.

Examples?  Sure.

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?


19 Replies to “Can we please stop smelling our own farts and write about something besides ourselves?”

  1. Funny, I just read a line in Freedom about people enjoying the smell of their own…passed gas.

  2. It’s hard to go wrong with Glenn Gould’s performance of the Goldberg Variations. I recommend the 1981 version over his earlier take. (In Gould, you’ll also get an artist frustrated with the draining stupidity of classical music conventions and practices, impatient with endlessly gesturing at the thing rather than seizing it.)

  3. I like this a lot. I like when you get a little cranky. A reason I write around here some is because when I get cranky I quietly stew. In other words I am afraid to say what I think a lot. Imagine how good, a scared writer? I am one of those dumbasses that cares what people think (sometimes and some people, just trust me, it’s all very complicated). So one part of this for me is a practice to toughen up the skin. But the main reason is, of course, the lulz.

  4. You’ve got to love Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations — I mean, it’s as famous as it is for good reason. I’d say a good way to listen to it is in conjunction with Murray Perahia’s version, which is less hard-edged and spiky, and more lyrical, even kind of Romantic, which goes against the grain of the music itself.

    You want a topic of conversation? How about “the relevance of Joseph Addison’s notions of true, false, and mixed wit to contemporary poetry?” Hell, I like that so much I might blog about it myself when the current monsoon of academic chickenshit I’m being hit with recedes in a day or two.

    Yours in not giving a flying fuck about such intramurals as literary feuds and MFAs,


  5. i think what you say is true (not to mention haha) but i also think some people, for whatever reason, are not necessarily in the headspace to be writing at the moment. discussions on process or theory or whatever can inform decisions you’ll make later on when you’re doing the werk, they can also fuck you up and, as you say, render you incapable of doing anything but eating and drinking and farting a lot and liking it – but sometimes that might be a good thing. i don’t know. this is getting off the subject a bit but it seems to me a lot of people write entirely too much, or at least don’t delete enough, and they send out a ton of crap that really doesn’t have any thought behind it at all, and really what is the point of that.

    1. I love writing on process or theory. That’s not really what I am talking about. I’m talking about writing about, for lack of a better term, the business of writing: the Tin House money-for-submissions meme, the MFA rankings wankathons, let alone made-up poetic movements and terms (Flarf, Gurlesque, New Sincerity) that exclude readers rather than help them. I don’t mind people making up poetic movements; what I do mind is making it an ever-shifting definition that only helps the people who made it up. To write about, say, form or voice or aesthetics or social context, even literary inspiration, all that is super and fine. It’s the biz writing I have grown very tired of.

  6. I disagree about the Gould. The way he tears into the first variation after the aria is thrilling. It’s 55 years old and smells so fresh you want to eat it. The 1981 version is a little dusty. When I hear it I smell long-unwashed clothes and slightly turned scrambled eggs.

    As for other classical choices, Martha (or Marta, as some prefer) Argerich doing Rachmanioff and Tchaikovsky Concertos on Phillips. In the Rach it sounds as if her hands are dancing over rather than playing the keys of the piano. The piano entrance to the Tchaikovsky feels like falling off a cliff into a true blue lake.

    If you want to dive right in, there are Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of Mahler’s gigantic symphonies. Mahl-nuts and Bern-atics will talk all day about whether the Sony or DG versions are better, but don’t worry, both sets are good (though I have a special place in my heart and everywhere else for the 9th recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic). But you seem like a man who appreciates sonic depth and the DG recordings certainly can cause some rumbles.

    And what about chamber music! Oh, my. A good starter kit would probably be the Beethoven middle period string quartets. I like the Emerson String Quartet versions, though it may not be available any longer separate from the complete quartets. For an ear-challenge you could also try the late Beethoven quartets. There are lots of good recordings, though I get sentimental over the Quartetto Italiano’s versions.

    Solo, piano, hmmm. Obviously, there are trillions of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. You’re not really going to go to wrong with any of the popular recordings.

    1. I think I have a lot of Gould in my iTunes. Will burn a disc for my ride to work.

  7. HTML Giant talked about “The False Modesty While Expressing Enthusiasm Trope” — in an open letter, no less! — in late Sept. It’s like you were consciously pooh-poohing the Giant while subconsciously plagiarizing it. To which I raise my glass.

    1. Right, but actually, that post was expressing an opinion while undercutting the whole thing. It’s a classic example, as I think of it, of an ‘Open Letter That Wasn’t Ever Meant To Be Private.’ Total fart-smell.

      1. The other funny thing is that HTMLG is one of the main perpetrators of that particular crime (false modesty + celebration)

      2. They’re definitely not the only ones. We do it here, other places. What gets me is the faux naif, Columbo approach to literary criticism: Now, I don’t know much about the current state of the novel, but [definitive, reductionist statement here].

      3. You’re about seven steps ahead of the game, knowing it’s a tack and copping to it in the first place.

      4. My tack is always to pretend I know what the hell I’m talking about. People usually assume you do.

  8. I’ve always been a lone wolf. So I just ignore all the stupid chatter and do my own thing, think my own thing.

    For the most part, online writing communities, blogs, conferences, etc. are for those writers who feel like they need to be part of something bigger, some greater social structure. One would think that, as writers, we like to be alone, to think in solitude, but we’re human-freaking-beings who need interaction and community.

    You know how people will talk about the weather, just to talk? Well, sometimes writers need to talk about these inane things, just to feel like they’re reaching out to each other. So let them talk and do your own work. Write the change you wish to see in the world.

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