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Take Your Art And Shove It

This week’s AVQ&A over at the AV Club is a pretty interesting one. Usually I try and get over there early enough to drop in my nickel’s worth, but I had a freelance project I was sweating over last night and by the time I finally got there this morning there were about 600 comments spread over four pages and the chance of getting in on a dynamic conversation were about nil. Still, it’s a good topic, so I thought I’d open it up over here and see what y’all had to say about it.

The question is, what art/culture have you resisted for whatever reason? And since I’ve got a bit more space here than I’d have in a comments box, I’ll expand on my own answer a bit more than I would have at the AVC site.

In some instances, I’ve resisted art for altogether stupid reasons, the stupidest being that it’s overpraised to the degree that I think it can’t possibly be as good as the hype. Luckily, I started watching The Wire from the very beginning; otherwise, the sky-high praise it evoked from critics everywhere might have risked turning me off. Of course, I was one of those critics, and I stand by my opinion that it’s the best show American television has ever produced; but I can’t help but recall an early ad campaign for The Sopranos in which they quoted some critic as saying it was the greatest cultural achievement of the last quarter-century. That turned me off so badly that I didn’t even bother to watch the show until last year. As it happens, I ended up liking The Sopranos and I’m sorry I denied myself the pleasure of watching it all along, but choosing that quote as the centerpiece of an ad campaign still pisses me off. Seriously – no movie, TV show, record album, painting, play, performance, novel, short story, or anything else since 1975 can equal The Sopranos? I don’t even think it’s the best show HBO has produced since 2000. Or even the second-best.

I also generally feel pretty comfortable avoiding certain mega-huge blockbuster entertainments. While I understand the need for people, especially professional pop-cult scribblers like myself, to be au courant, I also know my own tastes, and I figure it this way: there’s a million great records, movies, TV shows, comics, novels, etc. in the world, so many that I’ll never possibly get to experience all of them. With the limited time allowed to me, why waste my time on a movie I know I’m not going to like when I could be spending it on a movie I’m probably going to enjoy? (Unless someone pays me, of course. I’ll watch any heap of shit for money.) So, while I’ve never seen Forrest Gump or Two and a Half Men, while I’ve never heard a Jessica Simpson album or read a Sophie Kinsella novel, I know I’m not really missing anything, so I don’t feel like this is something that needs to be corrected.

That said, here’s three things I’ve resisted, and feel mildly guilty for having done so:

HARRY POTTER. First off, as I’ve mentioned before in this space, I don’t quite understand the passion so many adults seem to have for juvenile/young adult fiction. (And yes, I read comic books, and am well aware of the hypocrisy of my position, so no need to point that out, thanks.) I read young adult fiction when I was a kid, and I didn’t even like it very much then; I can’t imagine why I would want to return to it now. Even the best of it is, well, written for children. The things I value most in fiction – a sophisticated prose style, a depth of moral understanding, a surprising approach to narrative or character, a degree of irony and ambiguity – are the things I’m least likely to find in a young adult book, because those are qualities that are not especially prized, or even particularly understood, by 12-year-olds. Even when they’re better than they need to be, these books are almost never especially good; and even when they contain genre elements that I normally enjoy (for example, the ambitious world-building and the elaborate mythology of the Harry Potter books), it’s in service to a narrative and prose style that’s functional at best and simple-minded at worst. Simply because of their cultural ubiquity, I read the first two Harry Potter books, and found in them no reason to return for a third sitting. I’ve never read any of the other big YA genre books – not Twilight, not Lemony Snicket, not His Dark Materials, not Cirque du Freak, none of them – and I honestly don’t quite grasp why so many grown-ups seem to go gaga for them.

SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY. This one is especially odd when you consider what a mark I am for other types of genre fiction, especially the abovementioned comic books and noir/pulp/crime drama. And it’s not as if I don’t have any appreciation for sci-fi or fantasy; I number some of my favorite movies and books as sitting comfortably in one or the other of those genres, and it’s not as if I avoid that sort of thing altogether as a matter of course. I even like writing fantasy, though I’ve never had much of a touch with sci-fi. It’s just that, again, my tastes tend to run towards elements that are undervalued in those genres: I’m a big fan of clever use of language, inverted or unusual narrative, and stylistic experimentation. I’m not a big fan of plot, or of story as such, or even of idea, and sci-fi is the most idea-driven of genre fiction. Which isn’t a criticism of it, per se, just an explanation of why I’m not that interested in it: a lot of what draws fans to a particular sci-fi story or author is a clever idea or concept, and that generally doesn’t interest me that much. Fantasy also tends to contain romantic/elitist elements that turn me off. The upshot of all this is that I couldn’t name more than a half-dozen contemporary sci-fi/fantasy authors, which I definitely think of as a big hole in my cultural literacy. People tell me that there are lots of sci-fi writers who value the qualities I do and whose work I would enjoy, and I don’t doubt them. It’s just that so far, I can’t be arsed to investigate.

ELECTRONIC MUSIC. To be fair to myself, this is one that I’m actively working on, and my knowledge of electronica, dance, and beep-boop music of all sorts is dramatically greater than it was, say, five years ago. And it’s at least partly a function of my job as a freelancer: I certainly know a lot more about world music, indie pop, and certain types of metal than I used to because writing about them is part of my job, whereas no one has ever paid me to write about electronic music. But, that said, a lot of the blame lies with me. For a very long time, in fact during some of its most fertile periods, I ignored what was going on with electronic music largely because I associated it with rave/club/disco culture, which I strongly disliked largely for social reasons. And while some of those reasons are still intact, I’ve come to realize I was ignoring a pretty rich variety of sounds – and continued to do so long after I knew better. (That’s why I can write a mini-essay about the million micro-genres of metal or punk or hip-hop, while I still continue to refer to this stuff with the entirely useless blanket term “electronica”.) Like I said, I’m trying to do better, but I haven’t pursued learning more about this kind of music with nearly the determination it deserves given its prominence in modern popular music.

Now, you get to add your own, or yell at me for mine!


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Dec. 5th, 2008 04:40 pm (UTC)
I ignored Flight of the Conchords for the first few episodes because it looked like Williamsburg 'tard hipster twee-ness.
Dec. 5th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
Yes, that.
Dec. 5th, 2008 04:46 pm (UTC)
Ulysses. Gravity's Rainbow. William Gaddis.

The experience of ramming my head into a brick wall over just the final section of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man leads me to avoid what I think is going to be heavily Joyceian stuff. It all seems suspiciously like work to me. I doubt my ability to enjoy any of it, and feel it would be less like reading and more like staring into the jaws of a hoary math equation.
Dec. 5th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
That's fair enough, though of course I'd argue that the reward you receive is worth the effort you put into it. Gaddis in particular makes you work like hell to get through his stuff, but man, is it worth it.
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underlined before, italicized now, noted - shekb - Dec. 6th, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Dec. 5th, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
Great topic, Leonard.

I'm not sure "avoid" is the right term, because that implies effort to stay away from artifacts, when usually effort is required to experience said artifacts.

I can't think of all that much I avoid, though there's a whole world of stuff to which I usually deny my essence.

Dec. 5th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
I would actually add "contemporary performance music" until I met you and another friend of mine in Chicago. Not because I disliked it, but because I knew pretty much nothing about it and didn't have any idea where to start.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)
Wilco is a whole 'nother creature: the cultural artifact that I actually do know a lot about and still don't like. I think they're terribly dull for the most part, and as much as I adore Uncle Tupelo, I'd rather listen to Sun Volt on repeat all day than hear summerteeth again. I honestly don't get why so many people are so gaga for them.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
Are we allowed to make recommendations? I would like to recommend anything Simon Posford-related for electronic music. Such as Younger Brother, or Hallucinogen, or Shpongle. I'm not sure if you would like it, but it's GOOD, and I like it.

And I totally see what you mean in re: scifi. You're right, and though I do enjoy it, I enjoy it for what it's good at, and what it's good at isn't, generally, beautiful and descriptive prose. I have to switch between genres a lot.

And this is sort of related, but -- I know that I won't like Ayn Rand because she's a jerk. And everyone I respect thinks so. But I also feel a bit false saying that without knowing personally, you know? So I borrowed the audiobook of The Fountainhead from the library. I'm dreading it a little, though. And also it's so freaking LONG. That's a big time commitment for something I don't even expect to like.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:14 pm (UTC)
I'm always happy to get electronic-music recommendations. Like I say, I've learned to recognize how much worth there is to the genre; I just have a lot of catching up to do.

Ayn Rand I'm totally obsessed with. I've read everything she's written largely because I hate her so much, if that makes a lick of sense. Wait until you get to the speech before the jury in The Fountainhead: it will be the longest hundred hours of your life. Then multiply that times five million, and you get Atlas Shrugged.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
It's 1997. My favorite album of the year, the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, is reviewed in local music zine Cake with a dismissive one-line review: "Don't believe the hype". The same critic who wrote that insightful analysis also reviewed Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out in a similarly lazy one-line fashion: "Believe the hype." Somewhere between that and Greil Marcus dubbing them The Greatest Band In America, Dammit, I decided Sleater-Kinney (and indie-rock snobbery in general) could go piss up a rope. It didn't help that every time I tried to give them another chance, I heard the shrill conviction of people who were really fucking sincere, man, which to me sounded a bit like X-Ray Spex with all the snotty fun drained out. There's bands I've hated just as much that I eventually warmed to, whether on the basis of sudden "oh, now I get it" epiphanies (The Fall) or "enh, not a huge fan, but they've got some great songs" (Pavement), but I've mostly given up on S-K.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:56 pm (UTC)
It's really odd how one bit of criticism can so hugely sway you for or against something.

As much as I love the Pave, I'm beginning to suspect they've got a sort of you-had-to-be-there quality to them -- they brought in this highly clever degree of musical smartness at a time when guitar rock was big and dumb, they infused their stuff with historical irony at a time of po-faced sincerity, and they embraced lo-fi at the end of the era of slick overproduction. I still love the hell out of them, but I'm not sure if I'd love them so much if they'd showed up in, say, 1996.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 04:58 pm (UTC)
The list of things I have avoided like the plague because I did not like people (or, more often, my stereotype of the type of person) who enjoys it is seemingly infinite.

I will say, however, that I have successfully avoided watching all of Titanic. Except for the part with Kate Winslet's tits.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
Me, too! NO TITANIC!
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Dec. 5th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
Much like a couple in the original piece, I avoided Buffy and the whole Whedon shtick until it was almost off the air. Safe to say I'm now a convert.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)
I have had quite the opposite experience. I liked him early on, and the more I got to know his stuff, the more it got on my nerves.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC)
For me, it’ almost exclusively a matter of how the idea of it makes me “feel.” So for instance, the idea of “the personal and political intrigues of organized crime families” makes me feel absolutely nothing. Just literally, absolutely completely uninterested, so not only have I never seen an episode of the Sopranos, I’ve never seen any Godfather movie, nor any of the Goodfellas, Wiseguys, what-have-you type movies.

If it doesn’t at some point make me think, hmmm. I’d really be interested to see what they did with — for whatever reason, even if it’s purely for the purpose of spiteful mockery, I will probably never, ever see it, even to the point of resistance to doing so when people suggest I should. And it’s an absolutely gut-level thing. I mean, there’s a veneer of thoughtfulness by the time I get to “it would be interesting to see how or if they make that work,” but it will never even get that far unless the first impression I have is basically “ooh! Sparkly!”
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:42 pm (UTC)
Again, I have almost exactly the opposite reaction. I honestly don't care what anything is 'about' -- only how it's handled, who's behind it, who's in it, how they approach it, etc. I was mildly resistant to the idea of The Wire at first, because, you know, who needs another cop show? But that was finished the minute I saw the first episode. Subjects are almost entirely irrelevant to me; it's approaches that I like.

Also, it should be a felony to not watch the first two Godfather movies.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 05:17 pm (UTC)
Also, I completely agree with your Harry Potter assessment, with the one exception that I was actually started (and frankly a little embarrassed) to learn that the Thursday Next series is apparently considered to be “YA.” I mean, that may be more of a subjective thing than what the author intended, but I have seen it described that way in a couple of places, including Amazon, and I was kind of thrown by it. I mean, I can see it, and in retrospect it kind of makes sense but in my opinion — if only based on the need to save face — I think it’s “for kids” the way the Muppet Show was “for kids.” Like, kids could definitely watch/read and enjoy it, but the best of it was certainly (I hope) intended for adults.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC)
these are 3 I would list for myself! Though Harry Potter... eh, I am not sure I really need to feel bad about that. But I know that a lot of smart people are into 2 and 3, and I couldn't ever get into them. I even own a copy of Neuromancer and it sits staring at me from the shelf...

Kind of related but I will add The Matrix too. I like to tell people I am offended by trench coats and mock turtlenecks, but in truth I am more irked by other people's passion for it.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:45 pm (UTC)
Ugggggh, I hated The Matrix. All the good action parts had been done better in Hong Kong movies, and the stuff that the critics raved about -- the sock drawer "philosophy" -- was poorly done and underexplored.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC)
thanks for the fuel
I could answer this question more interestingly about games that I've resisted getting into than about art. And I will, in a future weblog post.

To answer this question: Joss Whedon (who really is a genre unto himself). I thought Firefly was neat and I thought Serenity was very well done.

To yell at you for your answers:

Sci-fi: If you're looking for interesting uses of language, unusual narratives and stylistic experimentation, read Roger Zelazny, Alfred Bester or Gene Wolfe. In the latter case, his recent two novel series The Wizard Knight is almost a ludicrous example: the "idea" is so common it's cliched, but the style is so bizarre it's refreshing.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:49 pm (UTC)
Re: thanks for the fuel
Games like in video, or RPG, or board? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say on that stuff.

Wolfe is one guy I don't need convincing on. He and Samuel Delany are my two favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers, guys whose depth and complexity is so intense that they go way beyond genre. Zelazy I read as a teenager and liked, but for some reason I've never revisited. Bester I've never read.
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Dec. 5th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
- Harry Potter
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Lost
- Dave Eggers
- The Goonies
- Ingmar Bergman (I very well might be simply ignorant, but at least I'll admit it.)
- The Simpsons (Not necessarily avoid, but I didn't watch it too much as a kid, so now, seasons upon seasons later, I feel sort of alienated from the show and its characters. If it's on, sure, I'll watch it and enjoy it (and I saw the movie too), but it's not something I could ever easily get into.)

....I inevitably will think of more.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:50 pm (UTC)
It took me until Persona to really get into Bergman, but once I saw that, it was instantly one of my favorite movies of all time.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:28 pm (UTC)
I can totally understand your aversion to kids lit, but it might be about points of reference - within the context of The DaVinci Code or The Wheel Of Time, Potter and the Gold Compass seem to have an equal or better grasp of language and storytelling. Not saying you have to like it and people who read nothing but are lacking, but one can appreciate it without being closed off to emotional or artistic maturity.

And like all literature, the best of children's work can transcent the original category, either by intent or accident. Some is actually about packing all ages work at the most profitable target - like how Enders Game is now marketed to young adults when it start as a mass market book. Some books - like Lemony Snicket - are clearly designed to reach kids by appealing to the adults around them.

The best YA fiction can transcend the original age bracket can seem like modernist minimalism/realism which happens to have Jr. High friendly subject matter. Again, not claiming children and adult literature is interchangable or that kids work seems good just because some adult stuff sucks - although it does seem like Judy Blumes work has more tough minded endings than some chick lit - just that there's angles of enjoyment. BUT if the taste isn't there you don't have to bust your ass to acquire it, especially not for the Potter stuff.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:53 pm (UTC)
That's fair enough, and I'm willing to be proven wrong; maybe the fact that I got burned with Harry Potter -- that is, it was praised to me by a lot of people as something that transcended its genre, but I found it to be largely unengaging -- is why I haven't pursued other stuff that's been sold the same way. But, like I was saying, there's so many good novels for ADULTS I'm never gonna have time to read, I hate to spend time focused on books for kids in the hopes they'll be smarter than their intended audience...
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Dec. 5th, 2008 05:44 pm (UTC)
My rule is simply that anything which is quoted incessantly by co-workers is a thing I avoid, which is why I missed out on Shaun of the Dead until well after it was on DVD, as a for instance.
Dec. 5th, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC)
Did I ever tell you how I went to interview Pegg and Frost, and they were drunk off their skulls at like 10AM? That immediately endeared them to me.
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