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Crap is a load of books - click opera — LiveJournal
February 2010
Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 10:17 am
Crap is a load of books

1. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951

2. Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

Philip Larkin, A Study Of Reading Habits, 1955

3. You can read lives and obituaries of Salinger and all that Wikipedia crap elsewhere; I'm interested in the word "crap". It sits like a sprung trap right there in the first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye, the first word that really establishes the tone, the snare that catches our attention. If, in the glib formula, Salinger really did "invent the teenager", it's that surly, dismissive, deliberately anti-literary use of "crap" which starts the process. Like Prometheus making a man out of mud, Salinger creates the teenager from "crap".

4. So the teenager gets born with a jibe at poor old Charles Dickens, and poor young David Copperfield! It's understandable; by 1951 it was as important for a new writer to distance himself from the 19th century novel as it was for a teenager to distance himself from a pre-teen, or for an American writer to distance himself from a British one.

5. No reciprocal need was felt. British writers, post-war, weren't as interested in rejecting American idioms and models as the Americans were in rejecting theirs. In fact, British and American writers were more likely to find common cause in their embrace of a new informality, a new escape from the "fusty" literary past, and a couple of swift kicks at the dead shin of Dickens.

6. And so -- not for the first or last time -- a British artist makes the exact same gesture as an American one, a couple of years later. Larkin -- like Salinger, adopting, as a literary technique, a non-literary voice and a persona -- tells us that "books are a load of crap". Later, also following Salinger (who has Holden report some "fuck you" graffiti in chapter 25 of Catcher), Larkin will unfurl his own f-word, telling us that "they fuck you up, your mum and dad".

7. They seem unlikely rebels, the preppy Jewish recluse from New England and the bald Hull librarian. They bring swearing into literature almost against their will; Larkin tells John Betjeman, in the 1964 BBC Monitor documentary that peppers this page: "I read that I'm a miserable sort of fellow writing a sort of Welfare State sub-poetry, doing it well, perhaps, but it isn't really what poetry is, and it isn't really the sort of poetry we want. But I wonder if it ever occurs to the writer of criticism like that that really one agrees with them. That what one writes is based so much on the kind of person one is, and the kind of environment one's had, and has now, that one doesn't really choose the poetry one writes, one writes the kind of poetry one has to write."

8. In other words, these were not radical writers who loved swearing and could sing the praises of what Ken Tynan (the first man to use it on TV) called "the sweet word fuck". They were rather cautious conservatives with strong misgivings about the modern world, but men who nevertheless believed so strongly in literature's empirical duty to reflect reality that they had no choice but to use in literature the sweary words that people use on the streets.

9. The shock for readers wasn't so much in encountering words like "crap" and "fuck" as seeing them printed on a page published by a reputable and legitimate publishing house. The sword cut both ways: literature got some street cred, but swearing also received a literary blessing of sorts.

10. And with that mutually-beneficial exchange the whole game began to shift, and the values to invert. When I read The Catcher in the Rye in the 1970s it was already a literary antique, its street slang ("crumby", "phoney", "lousy") faintly quaint. The cutting edge quickly became more recent, more radical American authors like Kathy Acker. Far from disparaging Dickens, Kathy Acker sat down and rewrote Great Expectations, appropriating him word-for-word in a section headed "Plagiarism" then quickly branching out into her own tale.

11. In Acker's version of Great Expectations, published in 1982, "literary" and "street" reach a new settlement. You could say that Acker skips the 1950s empirical-street-literary model and goes back to the biggest, baddest European rebel writer of the 1940s, Jean Genet.

12. And this is where I have to chime in and say that I'm with Acker and Genet, rather than Salinger and Larkin. In a world in which informal has become the new formal, jeans and rock are the universal signifiers of normative respectability, couture kowtows to pret and the street is the new salon, the "subversive" thing to do is to resurrect and re-invent the maligned category of "the literary". My Book of Jokes (which has a chapter featuring the characters from Genet's play The Blacks) adopts -- as Genet did -- a deliberately high-flown literary tone all the better to contrast the obscenities and street smut it trades in.

13. As for Dickens and his "David Copperfield crap", I'm interested in getting closer to it. Dickens is actually a key part of the "signature specification" for my next novel, codenamed Super-Empathy.

14. The informal, empirical "street" tradition isn't dead, though. Writers can still shock us by putting clumsy everyday things into published books. Since the new street is the internet, the author currently doing this most shockingly -- and best -- is Tao Lin, who filled Shoplifting from American Apparel with apparently-inconsequential Google Chats. If you want today's J.D. Salinger, look no further.

15. Have a listen to Chris Harrald's radio play Mr Larkin's Awkward Day on BBC iPlayer. It isn't crap.


Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 09:53 am (UTC)

Consciously trying to be "subversive" is a load of crap. Did the postmodernists die in vain?

I don't think the Book Of Jokes is in any way subversive, anyway. It was published by a university publisher, respectfully reviewed in the broadsheets. The "shock" value of it is an integral part of its artistic respectability, even. "Shock", in this post-YBA age, is surely a key signifier of "artistic" intent.

Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 10:02 am (UTC)
Conformity is the new subversion! And vice versa!

"Still," said the Murderer, "it's nice to be safe. The way to live long and live well is to stay safe."

"I can't agree, my dear fellow," said the Molester. "Danger is what keeps us on our toes. Danger keeps us safe. The way to live a long time is to live dangerously."

"The Molester is right," I said, slightly pompously. "Negotiating danger is much safer than trying to eradicate it. No matter how hard we try, there will never be a world without danger. Better, then, to face it, and, by constant exposure, to come to know danger like a friend."

The Molester nodded. "It's safety that's truly dangerous," he said. "I hate safety. It's for sheep," he said, nodding at a passing flock.

"Are you telling me those sheep out there are in danger?" asked the Murderer. "Is there danger in numbers?"

"If there were," replied the Molester, "those sheep would be safe. No, there's safety in numbers, and that's what's so dangerous."

The Murderer looked perplexed.

"So if I introduced danger to those sheep in the form of a fox or a wolf, I would be helping keep them safe?"

"You would be doing them a great service," said the Molester.

I nodded. "You would be introducing the very essence of safety into their midst," I said.

"But if living dangerously helps you live a long time because it keeps you safe," said the Murderer, "we're back to my original proposition: that the way to live a long time is to stay safe."

"Yes," said the Molester.

"Exactly," I confirmed.

"But that's just what I started by saying," spluttered the Murderer. "And you both disagreed!"

"We only disagreed because there wasn't enough danger in your definition of safety," said the Molester.

"But I didn't offer any definition of safety at all!" the Murderer protested. "How can you disagree with a non-stated definition?"

"On the contrary," said the Molester, "how can you agree with a non-stated definition?"

The Murderer sighed.

"You clearly implied," I said, "that safety is good because it's safe. And we disagreed because we believe that safety is good because it's dangerous."

"Precisely," said the Molester. "We disagreed because we believe that danger is good because it's safe."

"But that means you're saying that safety must be good because it's safe!" said the Murderer.

"That doesn't follow at all," said the Molester.

"Quite," I agreed. "That kind of thinking is, in fact, highly dangerous."

"So it must be safe!" shouted the Murderer.

"Tickets, please!" said the ticket inspector, a pale young girl.

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Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 01:24 pm (UTC)

I kind of agree with this (other) anon that shock and subversion, post-YBA and post-Quentin Tarantino, could get past sex and violence. Everything you've said about punk could be aimed at the glorified naughtiness that tends to make up "subversion". We need less de Sades and more altermodern daydreams inside the dead soul of an exploited sandwich packer. More mercenary soldiers torturing Afghans to try to get onto the property ladder. Envisaging Kirstie Allsopp as they attach electrodes to a pair of heavy, hairy testicles.


Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)

You've talked at length before about your song "Coming In A Girl's Mouth" and how subversive and out-there it was because Bobby Gillespie never would have dared do something like that. And then I finally got to hear it the other day. I have to say it didn't sound subversive in the slightest. It sounded like something a slightly naughty comedy show might have come up with - say, roughly analogous with Not The Nine O'Clock News's Cunnilingus Song. Slightly amusing, slightly risqué in a polite sort of way.

Personally I think you're guilty of a certain amount of bad faith with this subversive issue. As someone upthread said, your novel has been published by a respectable university press, and reviewed in respectable broadsheets. It's hardly like Joyce having to publish Ulysses out of the country by a purveyor of high class porn. Sexual transgression as a literary or artistic theme is no longer edgy in itself. Instead, it's a signifier which says: "Look, I'm edgy, but the kind of edginess that the Tate or White Cube or some trendy Hoxton gallery might like", ie it's actually a play for a certain segment of the establishment without trying to seem like one.

Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 02:08 pm (UTC)

Two points. One, I think people have a tendency to define subversion too narrowly as being just a question of sex and violence and the line (and it's a legal line, positioned at the point where the average citizen would consider something "liable to corrupt and deprave" the consumer) which demarcates what can be said from what can't. When I'd rather define it as the making visible (via challenge) of the doxa, the absolute nub of contemporaneity. That is, the place we're currently at in all debates -- the consensus we've reached at any given time in any given society, on questions from what we think marriage is for to how high up the neck a collar goes. These are all things you can "transgress" against -- in other words, they all have an "Overton Window" with unacceptable positions. And a good artist ought to take a non-consensual view, or at least remind us constantly of parallel worlds where things are done differently. It is creatively valuable to defy the consensus, if only to locate more visibly where it is.

Secondly, those who focus on "shocking" content in art (and we know these are usually conservative critics on the defensive) often get blocked at level one. "This isn't shocking" becomes their sole response. Good, it isn't shocking. The artist usually agrees. So move on to the next level. So what is it? And at that point, usually, the critic slips back to the "not shocking" line, adding the argument that the artist's intention was just to shock, but that this has failed, and so the work fails. The non-shocking shockingness is something this kind of critic typically can't get past. It's like saying that something -- which we both agree is nothing -- is everything.

Edited at 2010-01-29 02:21 pm (UTC)

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Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
Mess is lore

Dear Sir,

Fascism and cleanliness are more than bedfellows. They are long term partners. What is the fascist but an obsessive housewife, a social Lady Macbeth, scrubbing the world of the subhuman, the degenerate and the alien?

I propose that crap is our friend, and that crap is the cure. I dirty myself extensively before breakfast, roll around in the previous evening's detritus and then I feel fit, emanating the good vibes, for a non-fascist day!

And I recommend it to any man.

Mr Keith K Logg

Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Mess is lore

Mr Logg, I really recommend (if you can find a copy) Christian Enzensberger's little book Smut: An Anatomy of Dirt (1968).

"Clean is well and good, Clean is cheerful proper nice, Clean is above and here, Dirty is ugly and elsewhere, Clean is obviously the answer, dirty is underneath and evil, dirty is pointless, Clean is right. Against this dirty is, clean after all is... dirty is, how can one describe it... dirty is somehow unclear, dirty is by and large, clean at least is, but dirty now that is real."

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ad reinhardt
Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 04:49 pm (UTC)

Louis Auchincloss died this week as well, ya know. in this interview with David Carrier he says "Maybe when I’m dead, I’ll be forgiven, but I’m afraid I’ll also be forgotten."

Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 05:06 pm (UTC)
Re: footnote

Well, Auchincloss, by being more extreme, in a sense, than any of the writers we're talking about today, reveals the position of our Overton Window, the limits of acceptable rebellion. We were looking at gleeful transgressors and the more reluctant kind who do it because they're realists and want to convey the language of the street. But Auchincloss simply stuck with a 19th century polished, poised, aristocratic articulacy:

LA: That my characters talk artificially? Well yes, because I don’t particularly care about having them talk realistically, that doesn’t mean very much to me. Actually, a lot of people speak more articulately than some critics think, but before the 20th century it really didn’t occur to many writers that their language had to be the language of everyday speech. When Wordsworth first considered that in poetry, it was considered very much of a shocker. And although I’m delighted to have things in ordinary speech, it’s not what I’m trying to perform myself at all: I want my characters to get their ideas across, and I want them to be articulate.

ReplyThread Parent
Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
All hail Dickens

and his fellow fusty Victorians, for they were in the vanguard of the Darwinian march towards moral excellence:

"The despicable acts of Count Dracula, the unending selflessness of Dorothea in Middlemarch and Mr Darcy's personal transformation in Pride and Prejudice helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society, according to an analysis by evolutionary psychologists."



Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 08:30 pm (UTC)
seen through a different eye

the shock of the slipstream.......boredom of the mainstream

ReplyThread Parent
J.D. Casten
Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 08:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Subversive art… I think Extrapolation of past strategies has run its course; and to be abstractly unhelpful, we should be “thinking outside the box” rather than taking things to further extremes.

Being an authentically weird human, and documenting that (and one’s weird friends) may be one avenue… my own approach (reviving clichés… esp. re: my schizophrenia) has gotten me little, in the way of progress… and “paranoia art” usually takes some one-on-one time that is hard to establish in public venues.

It seems to me that someone like Nick, who’s immersed in the contemporary Zeitgeist could do little but something contemporary. Taking it to the NXTLVL might be possible by going back a way, finding avenues that were abandoned, and picking them up… maybe extrapolating things other than “violence and sexuality” – but we’ve already had extrapolations of “refinement” (maybe with hyper-realists)… I don’t think there’s ever been a program for “what’s next” but feeling your way in and out of our times.

I think I managed to say “nothing” new here.

Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 09:00 pm (UTC)


Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 09:15 pm (UTC)
imagination of death

underground over ground wombling if we had some work wed be free

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Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 09:14 pm (UTC)
Feed those anon like an adder on your teat

You should publish the comment history of Click Opera as a book.
Mine those anons for what their worth (hint: absolutely nothing) and get the regulars to sign off on a few choice bon mots and then publish it like a digital Socratic dialogue, except instead of having a semi-translucent but mythical echoing wall like Socrates being used by signed authors to test out ideas, you'd get Momus in all his naked narcissistic glory and an anonymous horde bouncing venom and praise off his digital husk.

I don't think we could have had a work of literature like that until 10-15 years ago, so stick that in your n'est pas un pipe and smoke it, those of you lamenting the passing of controversy and revolution.


Fri, Jan. 29th, 2010 09:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Feed those anon like an adder on your teat

Fuck (in the spirit of Salinger) that should of course be "they're worth" not that bloody amateurish "their worth". English is not my first language, still feel free to drag me out behind the digital gym and wee on me.

ReplyThread Parent

Sat, Jan. 30th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
Sturgeon's Law

Seems to me that Theodore Sturgeon's remarks are relevant: "ninety percent of everything is crud", now usually known as Sturgeon's Law. The context below reminds one how to apply this: “it's the ten percent that isn't crud that is important".

Henry Wessells

Sturgeon's Law by James Gunn (published in The New York Review of Science Fiction #85, September 1995)

‘Of course what became known as Sturgeon's Law was then only a sentence in a talk that Ted [Theodore Sturgeon] gave to the entire convention; total membership was only 750, and there was no need for separate programming. The general thrust of Ted's remarks was that science fiction was the only genre that was evaluated by its worst examples rather than its best. "When people talk about the mystery novel," Ted said, as I remember, "they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. When they talk about the western, they say there's The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it 'that Buck Rogers stuff,' and they say 'ninety percent of science fiction is crud.' Well, they're right. Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it's the ten percent that isn't crud that is important. and the ten percent of science fiction that isn't crud is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere."’
©James Gunn 1995



Sat, Jan. 30th, 2010 06:14 pm (UTC)

the preppy Jewish recluse from New England...

Salinger was from New York City, he moved to New England later in life. Also, his mother wasn't Jewish, which according to Jewish law, makes him a Gentile.


Sat, Jan. 30th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)

"...the officially gentile preppy whose mother was Jewish (which didn't make him Jewish according to Jewish law) who was a recluse in New England but originally from New York City..."

That work for you better? Pedants make rotten writers.

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Sun, Jan. 31st, 2010 06:40 am (UTC)

so, did we, or did we not decide, once and for all if Momus is subversive...

(it seems like these anons are loosing their punch now that they know C.O. is closing down....)


Sun, Jan. 31st, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
Re: ?

Can't speak for anyone else, but I decided that it didn't really matter whether one was subversive in the sex'n'violence sense, but it did matter whether one was interesting. Momus is interesting and, incidentally, subversive in a not sex'n'violence sense. And that that sense was even more interesting. I also decided that most Anons are tedious (myself included) because Anons can never anchor their bile to a personality. A bunch of identical nuts, and not a spanner amongst us.

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