The Stupidity of Writers…

Jeff VanderMeer • April 3rd, 2009 @ 8:54 pm • Evil Monkey

…as evidenced by this exchange, precipitated by the post set out below. And the companion piece. Posting now just to archive it on Ecstatic Days.

Evil Monkey:
Wake up! Wake up!

Jeff:
What is it?!

Evil Monkey:
Look at this! Look at it. You ran out of questions, you dumb motherfucker!

Jeff:
I what? I what? Where? What the hell are you talking about? It’s only 7am, you sick bastard.

Evil Monkey:
You. Ran. Out. Of. Questions. Ha! He nailed you.

Jeff:
Gimmee that!

Evil Monkey:
Read it and weep! He’s got you dead to rights. You’re a horse pulling up lame in the final stretch. He tore up his ticket in disgust. He was betting on you.

Jeff:
I’m a what? You’re a jerk, that much I know…Oh—the Bakker thing in EC. Finally. I’ve been hearing about this for a month? Where’s my breakfast in bed, stupid monkey?

Evil Monkey:
This IS your breakfast in bed. It’s called humble pie. Finally, somebody nails ya!

Jeff:
Do you agree with him?

Evil Monkey:
No, but that’s not the point. Somebody had to take ya down a peg. In resounding fashion!

Jeff:
You’re…strange…

Evil Monkey:
You’re ugly.

Jeff:
You’re evil.

Evil Monkey:
Just had my sixth cup of coffee this morning…

Jeff:
No kidding. Okay, let me sit down and read this thing and wrap my brain around it.

Evil Monkey:
I don’t know if I have that much time…

Jeff:
What else do you have to do today?

Evil Monkey:
I gotta sword fight at ten, a lunch with Dame Krutchen at noon, and my afternoon is all tai chi, fang sway, and doin’ some laundry.

Jeff:
You don’t wear clothes. So just park your carcass for a sec…

[Ten minutes later.]

Jeff:
Man, it’s still too early in the morning for this. Way too early.

Evil Monkey:
Hurry it up—I got a sword fight in an hour and I need to stretch first.

Jeff:
Okay, okay. So…he’s unhappy with this paragraph from my original article:

Now, after stating all of this, you may realize I haven’t yet answered the question I posed before: Is it important for fantasy, or fiction generally, to be relevant in this way? The answer is a resounding No, it isn’t. The instinctual idea I had as a teen and young adult about Art for Art’s sake, the idea that character and situation are paramount, that some truths transcend politics — that’s all valid.

Even though I follow it up with this one:

But, for me, not because of 9-11 but because of everything since then — the hypocrisy, greed, and evil of government leaders, institutions, and private individuals — I cannot not react in a different way than before. These issues permeate our world, and if you do not internalize that, if it doesn’t affect your writing, then it lies like an unhealing wound in your heart, and you go a little bit crazy.

Evil Monkey:
Basically. Yeah. Man, if I’d known I’d be having a conversation with you this morning, I would have sharpened the sword last night.

Jeff:
What’s he defining as politics, then?

Evil Monkey:
Everything!

Jeff:
But…then the word is meaningless. You might as well just substitute “the human world” for “politics”. I broadened the term enough as it was in my article.

Evil Monkey:
But you contradicted yourself! You spent all this time on politics in fantasy and then you stepped back and said art for art’s sake ruled!

Jeff:
Not true. Maybe I should have revised the article to just say “Not necessarily” instead of “No, it isn’t.” But basically, the intent was to say politics is more important than people think and that “politics” is a broader thing than people tend to think. But that the whole art-for-art’s-sake approach is valid, too.

Evil Monkey:
Paramount! And Bakker says this:

The choice is yours: either your writing is unconsciously political through and through, or your writing is consciously political as well. Pick your poison. But if every aspect of our lives is political in some way, and “truths” are one of those aspects, doesn’t that mean, contrary to VanderMeer’s resounding assertion, that no truths transcend politics? Isn’t VanderMeer trying to eat his cake and have it too? Sure he is. The important question to ask is why.

Jeff:
Hell, yeah. You know what? Writers get to do that—eat cake and have it too. And explode down the stretch. And disappoint ticket holders. Especially we get to be the object of clichéd metaphors.

Evil Monkey:
You’re avoiding the subject. Why are you trying to take this delicious cake and also eat it?

Jeff:
I hate you. Well, what it boils down to is, I have this odd way of being able to hold two seemingly opposing views in my head at the same time without my brain exploding. How about you?

Evil Monkey:
I can hold up to five mutually opposing ideas in my head for about twenty minutes before my head explodes. But I have many heads!

Jeff:
No, but seriously. What I’m saying is: A writer doesn’t have an obligation to hold to a particular philosophy on this level. I mean, each writer has themes or issues they deal with in their writing, but a writer can believe in the political and art for art’s sake and it’s no biggee.

Evil Monkey:
You gotta choose.

Jeff:
No.

Evil Monkey:
You should have been more radical in your article. Mieville would have pounded it down everybody’s throats. And sounded hot doing it.

Jeff:
I’m not that writer. I’m not certain about anything.

Evil Monkey:
You’re a waffler.

Jeff:
Am not. Maybe I just sound like one when you try to pin me down on an opinion, because I can’t really hold true to one way for very long.

Evil Monkey:
Wanna sword fight?

Jeff:
No! I want to sleep, actually.

Evil Monkey:
You wanna know another thing?

Jeff:
What?

Evil Monkey:
That Bakker dude…He said this, too:

When you teach something like Popular Culture, as I did not so very long ago, the first thing you need to overcome is the common intuition that most commercial cultural products are examples of a magical thing called “Entertainment Pure and Simple” — what is essentially the mass market version of “Art for Art’s Sake.”

Jeff:
Interesting way to look at it. I don’t see how it’s relevant to the rebuttal. I didn’t say entertainment pure and simple was the opposite of art for art’s sake. A writer may operate from the art for art’s sake point of view and produce perfect entertainment. And entertainment and “literature” are irrevocably intertwined and occur in both high and low culture. Evil, did I once invoke “literary” versus “commercial” or “entertainment” versus “literature” in my essay?

Evil Monkey:
I don’t believe you did, actually. Sword fight soon!

Jeff:
So he’s making me out to be a literary snob?

Evil Monkey:
Oh, this conversation is boring me now, but—no, not necessarily. I think it’s more benign than that and I think he shot his wad in the first part of the essay. Everything else is just kinda “okay—sure, whatever.”

Jeff:
Sometimes I feel like we’re all mired in terminology we don’t really mean or that always means something different to each one of us.

Evil Monkey:
It’s the Mad Hatter’s Sword Fighting Party!

Jeff:
Hmm. This part intrigues me:

Well, if you think anything is simple, you’re the victim of an out and out illusion. If you disagree with me, a good way to test your intuition is to go to a local university and enroll in as many courses as you can. Or simply go the library, or do a web search. Everything is more complicated than it seems, trust me. The only thing that makes anything seem “simple” is the limitations of our particular perspective. We literally can’t see what lies outside our point of view, and we all share the bad habit of assuming that what we can’t see either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.

Evil Monkey:
Doesn’t intrigue me. What’s your point? I’ve only got another five minutes for this shit.

Jeff:
Well, this bit in particular: “We literally can’t see what lies outside our point of view, and we all share the bad habit of assuming that what we can’t see either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.” In terms of fiction, what we can’t see because it’s not in there isn’t the reader’s fault. Like, I don’t give a shit if the writer did all the research in the world if what’s on the page doesn’t work. But it also sounds as if he’s just making the case for a lack of a consensus reality, which would render the whole discussion moot since there’re then a million parallel universes in which his article and mine are interpreted in a million minutely different ways.

Evil Monkey:
That’s way too deep for me.

Jeff:
I kinda feel like he just appended some crap on to what was initially a rebuttal of my original article. Cause he’s ending up in a space that I neither agree nor disagree with, really. It just kinda exists. Like, “Yeah, that’s kinda true. I could buy that.”

Evil Monkey:
But you wouldn’t walk a mile through a shit storm to buy it?

Jeff:
…Er, there’s very little I would walk a mile through a shit storm to buy, frankly.

Evil Monkey:
A first edition Nabokov?

Jeff:
Maybe you should go sword fight now.

Evil Monkey:
Oh, but I have questions, like Bakker has questions:

The point, of course, is that meaning is powerfully conditioned by context. Ask yourself, what will your so-called “obvious truths” mean to your descendants in 1,000 years? How about 10,000? Like it or not, everything we say or write is pitched against a potentially infinite horizon of contexts, the vast majority of which don’t seem to exist. This is why the greatest geniuses of 10,000 years ago couldn’t even imagine the bulk of what we now take for granted. And this is why questions are so much more powerful than answers, why they can muddy things that otherwise seem “pure and simple” in the span of a few short seconds. Questions force us to take a step sideways, to reconsider our perspective. Questions make our ignorance visible, which is to say, they reference contexts — perspectives — that didn’t seem to exist simply because we couldn’t see them.

Jeff:
Yes, I began to see the massive hammer he was planning on using to squash my head when I reached that paragraph. But then why does he want to reduce it to a simple either/or earlier? I don’t get it.

Evil Monkey:
Maybe he ran out of questions?

Jeff:
No! I ran out of questions! Read his damn article.

Evil Monkey:
So why did you pull your horse up short of the finish line?

Jeff:
I wanted Mr. Bakker to have something to write about.

Evil Monkey:
No, seriously.

Jeff:
I’ll tell you why. Because, as Mr. Bakker says:

If this strikes you as outlandish or impossible, you’re literally stuck in your perspective — you’re just not asking the right questions. And if asking such questions seems to make an uncertain mess of things, it’s because that’s how things are, an uncertain mess, no matter how much our innate tendencies to over-commit and to over-simplify dupe us into thinking otherwise. Culture is soupy, and the delicious bits of fantasy floating around in it soak up the political broth just like everything else. It’s when people think their views, their truths, magically rise above the soup — that things are racially, politically, economically, or theologically simple — that the problems typically begin.

Because if you begin to believe too much in one thing as a writer, instead of a truth. If you believe in an absolute—in politics or anything else—then you’re dead. You have to keep moving. You have to keep testing and questioning. Why was I reluctant to say politics, as I defined it—much more narrowly than Bakker, although not by much—trumped everything else at the end of my article? Because just using the word “politics,” just by using words, we already begin to make judgments and assign values to things. Yes, that’s what words are for, but writers need to be as fluid as possible. At the same time, I was expressing my deep need to write about the overtly political in a non-didactic way.

Evil Monkey:
Stop making nonsense!

Jeff:
Okay, I’m babbling. But this whole thing is ridiculous. It’s pointless. Bakker and I are not in disagreement, except you’ll note that he says politics is all encompassing and then he will say something like “racially, politically, economically, or theologically,” which means the word “politics” can’t take as much weight as he thinks it can, or he just got sloppy.

Evil Monkey:
I’m going to relish the sword fight after this discussion.

Jeff:
I know. It’s exhausting me, too. And somehow I think Nick Mamatas is going to come along and say something cogent that makes both Bakker and me look like idiots.

Evil Monkey:
Okay, one last thing. So he nails you to the wall at the end:

So why did VanderMeer pull his horse up short so close to the finish line? Why does a part of him remain stuck in his teenage perspective believing that some truths do transcend politics, that something, anything, can be for its own sake?
He ran out of questions.

Jeff:
Yeah, well, that makes me think that my original terminology is possibly flawed. Can’t you write about politics and still be making art for art’s sake? I’m beginning to think all writing about writing is bullshit at heart.

Evil Monkey:
Monkey shit.

Jeff:
Yeah, that too. So—who are you sword fighting?

Evil Monkey:
Michael Crichton and Anne Rice. To the death. And then after that, if I survive, I will have a chocolate milk shake with Ape Gone Wild.

Jeff:
Sounds like fun.

Evil Monkey:
What’re you going to do?

Jeff:
Go back to bed and then go out and pick up some Bakker. I think he’s as fucked up as me when it comes to writing these political articles, so we should have a lot in common.

11 Responses to “The Stupidity of Writers…”

  1. Dan Read says:

    Nice one, Jeff. Keep that monkey in line.

    If I’m certain about anything, it’s that certainty is (was?) one of the great indulgences of our current age, one that has done us real harm. Somehow I think the rampant certainty is connected to the other rampant fascination of our current culture, the fetishization of humiliation–but I’m not sure how yet. Maybe enjoying the humiliation of others allows those of us clinging to our certainties to continue clinging a little while longer.

  2. Nick Mamatas says:

    “Art for art’s sake” is generally just a not-very-artful recitation of freedom from didactic or moral art.

    “All art is political” is a truism that has little to do with didactic or moral art, but simply notes that art takes place in a political (or political economic) context, as does war and marriage and breakfast.

    What did you have for breakfast today? What did the VanderMeers of the 1690s have for breakfast?

  3. Marty Stephenson says:

    ‘I’m beginning to think all writing about writing is bullshit at heart.’ – Nope. But writing about what someone’s writing means might be.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel and said “Boy, I sure like that guy’s politics.” But I’ve read a lot of writers just for pleasure, for art’s sake, and not liked their worldview at all. But I still liked their art.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    4 eggs and a piece toast.

    a bowl of porridge, a cockroach, and a knuckle sandwich

  5. Steve Tem says:

    Embrace the contradictions, I say. I find that when I’m targeting current politics more or less directly (which isn’t often), my fiction takes on its most absurd flavors. I do believe serious writing is a kind of testimony as to how the author felt about his or her time on the planet–that certainly includes politics, but it includes a lot of other things as well. When I’m writing art for art’s sake I easily veer in and out of the sentimental, because I find that what I’m really writing about is what I believe to be beautiful, what I would like to see preserved. And any time you’re talking about preservation I think you’ve taken at least a small step into politics.

  6. Nick Mamatas says:

    4 eggs and a piece toast.

    a bowl of porridge, a cockroach, and a knuckle sandwich

    See?!?!?!

  7. Seth Merlo says:

    The political question is a toughie, alright. I agree with both perspectives – I agree with you, Jeff, that some truths transcend politics, art for art’s sake etc. But I agree with Bakker in the sense that simply stating that some truths transcend doesn’t simplify anything. That the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ is problematic since any concept of beauty or artistry that we might bring to the piece in question is entirely ‘conditioned by context’ (a brilliant portion of his essay, by the way).

    Completely agree with your thought that “if we don’t, at some point during our writing, think about this consciously — if we simply trust our instincts as writers — we may unintentionally preserve cliché, stereotype, and prejudice.” Which, of course, is relevant to everyone, not just writers.

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