Do not let bad flowers bloom; Italo Svevo, the GOAT
Hi, all. I wrote a piece about one of my favorite novelists, Italo Svevo, for the New Left Review that’s up now: https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/zenos-return. I can’t stress enough how amazing and hilarious Zeno’s Conscience is. Read it, if not me.
Now for my rant! Most of what I write on here is the product my very base but very burning desire to settle scores. I am pretty much always walking around with a bad case of l’espirit d’escalier (at the moment I also have a sinus infection, which is further demolishing my better judgment, as well as confinining me to my bed). But unlike most of the escalier-bound, I also happen to have the means of indulging my meaner instincts by publishing arguments that occur to me too late: the biggest staircase of all, a platform. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more times: it was a bad idea to give writers the power to publish whatever bullshit they want without any editorial guidance. But now that I have that power, I intend to abuse it!
In this case, the Ur-dispute I want to re-litigate on my “platform” is with my husband, and the sort of secondary excuse I have for taking up this topic is a recent Substack post by Ross Barkan about The Culture’s hostility to criticism:
I liked this post, and for the most part, I agreed with it. It reiterates some of the points that appeared in one of my favorite essays of recent years, Phil Christman’s brilliant dissection of the myth that middlebrow pap is still the cultural underdog: https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/who-do-we-think-we-are/articles/the-strange-undeath-of-middlebrow. We live in a philistine culture that’s hostile to criticism, in which everyone feels not only entitled to watch Marvel Movies but to congratulate themselves on their good taste, and that’s bad. Snobbery, otherwise known as discrimination, is a much needed remedy. The post that Barkan is responding to, from my friend Christian, is also amazing, obviously:
But there’s one line in the Barkan piece—probably more of an aside than anything—that wrankled me. “If I have a snobbish view on books, I believe it’s good also to have teenagers read novels that were intended for adults, not merely children. But I want YA fiction to be a thriving industry. May a thousand flowers bloom.”
Here we return to my husband, who is on a quest to demonstrate to me that there is a category of not-quite-art objects that should be held to lower standards, and that I am capable of enjoying entries in this genre in my weaker moments (like now, when I am too cold-addled to watch anything that isn’t slightly numbing). He’s not thinking of full-fledged trash, stuff like The Room or Surf Nazis Must Die or God’s Not Dead, all of which I am already amply convinced that I love, albeit in a twisted way. Trash movies make me think of that infamous Heidegger line, “das Nichts nichtet” (the nothing nothings): in a true piece of trash, the badness is not just the absence of goodness but an active, even aggressive quality. The badness bads. In other words, true trash is an accomplishment in its own right. (Someday I’ll write out my grand theory of Bad movies, and what makes them so good.) No, my husband is advocating on behalf of films like Knives Out, which I found so unwatchably boring that I drew up a list of German novels I’ve yet to read on my phone while it was playing in the background. My husband was, quite reasonably, irritated, and he claimed, rightly, that I was being rude. He also claimed, this time wrongly, or so I’ll argue now, that movies like Knives Out aren’t “trying to be good.” They are trying to be something else—entertaining, maybe, or fun. Horror movies are trying to be “horrifying”; thrillers are trying to be “thrilling.”
Well, maybe they aren’t trying to be good. But, first of all, I scream from the escalier, “good” and “entertaining” aren’t mutually exclusive, and I think it’s a mistaken to imagine that Good Art must always feel like a chore. (See: Lubitsch, or Some Like It Hot.) Plenty of horror movies are actually just good movies by any standard (Suspiria, lots of Cronenberg movies, etc etc), as are plenty of thrillers (Hitchcock?!!!!). And second of all, Knives Out should be trying to be good, because everything should be trying to be good. Do not let a thousand flowers bloom, if the flowers are not good flowers! In fact, I think that what it is to be a critic of the sort Barkan is calling for is to launch an assault on bad flowers, in a genuine if often ineffectual attempt to kill them off. (Whether or not you think Knives Out is good is another question: you can pick whatever movie or book you think belongs in the relevant category and substitute it in when I talk about Knives Out, so that the argument resonates with you.)
Let me clear: I’m not saying that art that is popular is always or often bad. Not at all. There is plenty of very good, very popular art. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I truly believe is a bonafide Great Work of Art. I’m not kidding. I’m also not advocating that we should suppress the production of Marvel Movies, or that the KGB should raid the houses of authors who write glorified YA for adults (though that’s tempting). What I am saying is: what ends up on people’s shelves and screens matters, so those of us who are concerned about the prospects of good art (which comprises more than high art, but also comprises high art) should not be indifferent to what gets made and widely disseminated. I’m not taking any particular stance as to how (or even if) we should intervene to change the sort of art that’s made, mostly because I’m not very practical in the best of times and I feel too sick to be practical now. (There are clearly overriding reasons we shouldn’t endorse, e.g., violent or repressive methods of eliminating Marvel Movies from the earth, though I concede this with reluctance.) But the crucial fact remains: if you care about the overall health of the culture, you should not be comfortable simply letting bad flowers bloom.
There are two reasons, I think, why we should hold even Knives-Out-style larks to high standards. (I think Barkan would probably agree, tbh.)
The first is simple, and it’s money. There is a limited supply of money, and the more of it that goes to Knives Out, the less of it that goes to other, better, more challenging movies. Scorcese makes this point very nicely in his op ed about superhero movies, and I think a similar point applies, mutatis mutandis, in the context of books, and probably to other art forms that I know less about.
The second is that you get an aesthetic education in part by watching films and reading books, in part by existing in a culture in which the books and films that are talked about are worth talking about and the conversations about them are intelligent. If the books and films and aesthetic culture that are available to you are bad, then your aesthetic education will be bad, too, and you will probably work up an appetite for more bad art through no or little fault of your own. Of course, everyone with a WiFi connection has the opportunity, in a vacuous formal sense, to seek a more rigorous aesthetic education. People can hunt down Hungarian literature syllabuses on the internet, then methodically read the books listed on them, by which I mean: no one who proceeds in this fashion will actually get thrown in jail for it. But seeking an aesthetic education by yourself, often in defiance of popular trends, takes time and intellectual energy, and plenty of people have don’t have time and intellectual energy for the very good reason that they have full-time jobs in completely unrelated fields. Many of my close friends from college are in this position. They aren’t, e.g., drone operators, who probably should just quit and devote themselves full-time to the study of Kant or whatever. Instead, my friends have intellectually demanding jobs that they do and should care about. They’re public defenders, or doctors, or middle school math teachers, and they’re doing their best to read books worth reading in their very limited free time—but to find reading material, they have to rely to some extent on recommendations from the Culture. If someone crawling home from a 15 hour shift at the hospital still has the fortitude and inclination to read fiction or watch films at all, I don’t begrudge her in the least for looking to popular conversations when it comes to deciding what to spend her day off reading. And if The Culture is telling her to read A Little Life…well, that is a flower we should do our best to uproot, because it does her an enormous disservice. Scorcese makes a similar point: “if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”
I firmly believe—and this is the reason I don’t think I’m elitist, even though I was rude to my husband about Knives Out and I like a lot of “difficult” literature (although it’s possible that I’m wrong and I am a huge snob, in which case, oh well)—that people rise to the occasion when the art they’re presented with art that demands something of them. So critics and other people with some measure of power in the aesthetic domain have a responsibility to do our best to ensure that people are confronted with art good (not necessarily heavy and experimental art). I’m not sure how to do this, and it probably requires massive economic reforms, but one tactic available to us at present is to write the sort of honest criticism Barkan advocates—and this, I think, is criticism that does not let a thousand flowers bloom, that wishes to expunge, e.g., American Dirt from the world. Now, it may not succeed. American Dirt still sold well, despite all the pans. But honest criticism is probably not totally inconsequential, either, and it can, at a minimum, change the conversation. After all, criticism is not just about giving recommendations, as my friend Dan Walden pointed out in a smart (but private, I think?) Twitter thread. So writing criticism designed to uproot bad flowers isn’t just about telling my friends to read something else instead of A Little Life on their days off. It is also about setting a tone, establishing a climate, that’s hostile to bad flowers.