I have noticed that even very smart, quite thoughtful people who have been around the block can have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality when it comes to assessing art. e.g. it can be surprisingly difficult for people to get their heads around the idea that a song or a novel might well be a fictional narrative in a character’s voice rather than a straightforward expression of the writer’s own literal experience and convictions. (Sometimes novels and songs are that type of simple personal “cri de coeur”, but often they are not. Most of mine are not, and in all cases not uncomplicatedly so.)
It seems to me this problem, if it is a problem, is on the rise, though I may be mistaken about that. No doubt I notice it a lot more than I would if I weren’t a songwriter and a novelist. There are lots of ways you might account for it, perhaps, but mostly I just marvel at it, because it comes up over and over again when I discuss my stuff with people who are so smart and discerning and analytical about other people’s stuff.
These are fictional narrators, I’ll say, they’re there to animate a particular narrative or conceptual conceit… but it rarely sinks in, and in a few minutes it’s back to “why do you hate Catcher in the Rye so much?” or “Why do you hate the Doors?” or “why haven’t you ever been able to find a girlfriend?” or “that wasn’t very nice of you that time you asked that girl to get another job and send you the money” or some such. (Well, okay, I do kind of hate the Doors, not gonna lie.) The question about why I can’t find a girlfriend has in fact been asked of me by girlfriends, which is conceptually interesting in itself.
But I do have one theory, and it has to do with the respective “pop punk” and YA fiction “ghettos” — I’ve observed before how similar these ghettos are. To put it more directly, writers of fiction in the YA marketing category face much the same dismissive attitude from book people that writers of songs performed by “pop punk” bands do from regular punk rock people or music people in general. These folks come to the table (the “kids’ table”, naturally) with such a low opinion of the material to begin with sight unseen, sound unheard, that they’re blind and deaf to anything interesting that could be going on in it. Like the actual song or book doesn’t exist, but has been replaced by an imagined version of it that doesn’t warrant real attention or consideration. Or they will smile conspiratorially and confess to taking “guilty pleasure” in it: “I actually really like teen fiction/pop punk,” they’ll say, because “sometimes it’s nice to be able to turn off your brain for awhile.” Well, I reply, at least it’s good for something.
Another tack is, finding fault with the material for not living down to their low expectations of what should be found in “the genre,” like (as I’ve observed before somewhere) someone watching a Korusawa film and saying, “man, this is the worst Kung Fu movie I’ve ever seen; Bruce Lee is rolling in his grave.”
So they expect to find something dumb, embarrassingly naive, not quite “real” — and even if it’s good, it’s going to be good in an “aw how cute” way only — so that’s what they see and hear. And certainly some bits of this sort of art are indeed like that, and some of those are really really great as well. I’m not knocking ingenuousness or dumbness in rock and roll, nor necessarily in literature either. But there are many songs and novels that are not quite like that. And turning off your brain isn’t the best way to approach them.
Which is a longwinded way of saying that there’s no swifter road to dumbness than being too smart to listen. They don’t even realize they’re doing it, I’m sure, which is the interesting and irritating part. But well, I guess I would say that, wouldn’t I?
(originally posted here, 24 September, 2016)