Thursday, January 26, 2006

Wait--am I defending Andy Greenwald?

Intrepid readers of this blog will remember that a few weeks ago, I posted about Jess Crispin’s disdain for chick lit. In retrospect, I suppose I should have figured that Ms. Crispin’s literary sensibilities would engender equal disdain for other segments of popular literature, too. Indeed, as of yesterday, it is also official that Jessa Crispin Hates the Emo Boy Writers.

Wow, what a shock.

I am not, perhaps, an unbiased opinion in this matter because I happen to have a soft spot for emo boys. I know, I know—they can be annoying as hell, but I’m a sucker for bands like the Strokes and JET and now I seem to have a thing for skinny, over-emoting James Blunt. But Crispin’s objection to this type of literature seems just as arbitrary. She doesn’t like that they “name drop” a la Nick Hornby (to which my Nick Hornby love responds with a resounding, “BITE ME”). She hates that they use pop culture references to iPods and movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Her most vicious wrath is reserved for the referencing of websites such as LiveJournal, which she believes is full of self-hating fourteen-year-olds and therefore not worthy of her time—on the Internet or in the pages of these books whose existence she chooses to ignore.

Obviously, I can’t fault Crispin for her personal taste simply because it differs from mine and I can, in some ways, see why she doesn’t like this particular type of book. The few that I’ve read (with the exception of Hornby—again, BITE ME) have little chance of being enduring literature. I tried desperately to get into Andy Greenwald's Miss Misery (a special nemesis of Crispin) after a male friend raved about it, only to hand it back with a smile and vaguely positive review. That title, like many of the rest, is too littered with pop culture references that were only ever significant to a select few, and they are far too “of the moment” to capture the public's attention for very long. But the point that Crispin misses is that the datedness of “emo boy lit” is the point. Not to sound all philosophically cliched about it, but we live in a far different world than we did ten years ago—and a far different one than we will inhabit ten years hence—and popular literature is one way of immortalizing this particular moment in history. And regardless of the fact that Crispin doesn’t want to recognize it, popular literature does change society.

In college, I wrote a paper about the role of underground literature ("samizdat") in bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union. My two main examples were Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat trilogy. Though both of these works are enjoyable reads and were extremely popular in their day, they are unlikely to be on anyone’s reading list now. In fact, the Rybakov trilogy was out of print the last time I checked. Both authors were writing for a certain audience at a certain time, and they both hit their marks with the accuracy of champion sharpshooters. These books were published on underground presses and passed around in serial form for decades. Thousands upon thousands saw life under Stalin and his immediate successors mirrored in fiction and sided with the characters against totalitarianism and for individual freedom. But now? Few modern readers can understand, much less identify with Ivan Denisovitch, who doesn’t much question his fate as a prisoner in a labor camp so far north that there is no reason to attempt escape. And who can quite see themselves as Rybakov’s Sasha, betrayed by the Party he once loved simply for writing some not-so-funny jokes about shock workers? For that matter, how many non-Russians know what a shock worker is?

I know that some books are timeless—some are destined to be classics as soon as they leave the author’s pen—and some of those timeless books do indeed bring about change from within a society. But if every author sets about to write books set in some nameless, faceless place devoid of references that may one day date it, who will speak for this time, this moment? As a sometime historian, I am passionate in my belief that popular literature is a vital tool in recording our culture—we as writers have some responsibility to set down the world that we live in so that it won’t be utterly forgotten. These “emo boys” for whom Crispin has such disdain are doing just that. They are writing of an America obsessed with iPods and blogging, of bands that may never be remembered as the Beatles of a generation, but will still provide the soundtrack to our memories of today. If they are pretentious, if they can’t seem to find their own words in which to talk about modern relationships, then perhaps it is because we as a society have grown pretty damn impressed with our own intellectual prowess but are still figuring out this “dating” thing that our grandparents made seem so simple.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats unashamedly wrote to capture the days in which he lived. In his poem, “To Ireland in the Coming Times” he set down this purpose with all the passion and fervor of a big tent revival preacher:

“While still I may, I write for you
The love I lived, the dream I knew [. . .]
I cast my heart into my rhymes
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them
After the rose-bordered hem.

I can’t say it any better than that. Write on, emo boys. One day you’ll be the record of our name-dropping, emotionally stunted, technology obsessed existence.


Anonymous Tas Jordan said...

But if every author sets about to write books set in some nameless, faceless place devoid of references that may one day date it, who will speak for this time, this moment?

*applause* Pop culture exists for a reason, and because "emo boy lit" will never produce enduring classics doesn't lessen its relevance one iota. I'm put in mind of one of my favourite of Mark Twain's many wonderful quotes:

“My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water.”

Cheers to water.

2:42 AM  
Anonymous Barbi Kremen said...

Preach on Sister!

1:07 PM  
Blogger Poetic_Bandit said...

I was blog searching and fell upon your "miss misery" blog. After enjoying your entry, I must tag on my own disgust for the novel. Having semi high hopes for andy greenwald progressing as a writer, i felt that miss misery failed greatly at becoming a success. As a wanna be writer i attempt to have the philsophy of everything having a purpose. This novel does not fit that value at all.... The name dropping and writing in of subplots that did not run together did not adhere to my hopes. Greenwald ruined any enjoyment of the novel by disposing the other david gould by simply having him fizz out like a Television screen.

On a lighter note, I recently read The Death Of Ivan Ilych and i have to contest that it should be on a reguler persons reading list. Without a doubt the underlying message is important especially to a culture caught up in 9-5 routines. To many people ignore their own lives and in fact concentrate, or get worked up about work. The Death... provides exactly what many people in this nation, and world need to understand.

I apologize for ranting but i have wished to expound on both those novels since my recent readings. Feel free to check out my site and i hope that you continue writing.


1:53 AM  

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