Posted by: dougery | April 13, 2011

Of Trash and Fascists

To the best of my recollection I’ve only been called a fascist twice.

The first time I was young and idealistic. * sighs *. It was a few days before the term began at Syracuse and I was setting up my drafting board (how quaint!) in design studio when a fellow student asked me if the desk station next to mine had been claimed yet. I said,

“I think I saw someone poking around that desk but none of their stuff is there so like, dive in.”

The student, whose grasp on English wasn’t excellent, proceeded to imply that such ruthless colonization was unnecessary and that I should stop being such a fascist. I should probably add that this was our first interaction of any kind. Thankfully, he chose a desk far far away from mine.

The next time I was called a fascist occurred at the bookstore I used to work at. Keep in mind I was less than a year removed from a program of study chock full of Hegel, Habermas, Horkheimer & Adorno; the list is long and German. We were closing down and a co-worker’s husband dropped by. I was in the middle of a discussion of literary genres and the so-called divide between so-called ‘High’ and ‘Low’ art. The fellow wandered by just as I quoted something controversial and he interrupted me and said, “This isn’t, like, 1940s Berlin, dude.” To which he meant stop being an art Nazi. There wasn’t enough time to explain that what I was talking about wasn’t necessarily my opinion but an argument-starter and so forth.

Recently I have been giving more thought to the ole “high art / low art” division, however imaginary it may be. Of course I think it is BS to imply that one genre (let’s say trashy swords ‘n sorcery fantasy a la Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold) is less important than another (say, rigorously researched historical fiction in the vein of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Yet I think the question is worth asking why the latter is the novel winning the Booker Prize while the former is merely praised in the same way a summer blockbuster that does ‘splosions “the right way” is. Why one is ‘honest’ in its intelligence while the other is ‘honest’ in its dumbness.

Of course the previous paragraph is riddled with inexact words. What do I mean by ‘trashy’, ‘important’ ‘dumbness’ or even The Booker Prize? What does that award even stand for?

I suppose trashy means something along the lines of actively striving towards the crude or the common. Lots of sex, but you know, not the kind where the camera pans gently away when the clothes start coming off. No, this is the kind where the word ‘squelching’ is thrown around, you know, to class things down a bit. Trashy is intentionally vulgar and gory and unafraid to just let it all hang out. It is also consciously avoiding the immaculate turn of phrase. We are reading for what is happening and don’t want to be thinking of the actual writerly craft behind the product as we do so. A beautiful metaphor in such a work might actually be a bad thing.

Important is much harder to define. I guess what it means to me more than anything else is something that others will build from. Influential. But also, perhaps, original? It is definitely doing work and will often cause the reader to work at figuring out why it is how it is. I hope that last sentence didn’t just make things even more vague. An important work may be a piece of text that makes you want to read other texts to give you a better grasp on the situation. It may also be of cultural or political ‘importance.’ Did people who became agents of change read this novel? Did it fire them up? Did it piss off ‘the man?’ Did it change minds or force folks to think about things they wouldn’t normally?

I suppose the bigger question would be, can a book be both trashy and important? Usually, when the two converge you end up with the kind of works that polarize folks. Ulysses is either the greatest novel ever written or completely unreadable and a waste of time. I have yet to read the review which claims both.

I think the danger involved in any kind of high/low, trashy/important divide is less the actual distinction and more when you sequester yourself away from either side on principal. I have no problem with folks being snooty or, to quote my long lost colleagues, ‘fascist.’ Really, I don’t. Books (or movies or paintings or tv shows or whatever) can be challenging and good. But other things that might be easier to ‘get’ aren’t inherently worthless.

Another way to put things, and this may be a kind of ‘duh’ statement but a point I want to end with nonetheless: Both high and low, trashy and important can be bad. And by bad I mean with little value. Its easier to admit this with trashy books. After all they usually don’t have the weight of a thousand master’s theses and the satle tongue-baths of dead white guys propping them up. But some of those ‘hard ‘ books, the difficult ones that must have been a pain in the ass to write and ended up in the canon? Sometimes they are just dull and full of hot air.

In the end I think it just comes to an even more nebulous ‘feel.’ The “Hell yeah!,” we feel when the troll gets an ax buried in the back of its head or the “Hell yeah!” we feel when some french dude describes a cookie and not a single word is out of place.

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Responses

  1. I’ve called you a fascist many times, but never to your face. Not anymore, though. Now you’re hill people.

  2. it might be my favorite insult to give or receive. especially when least called for and most unexpected.

    I imagine myself ordering a burger at the pub and declining the waiter’s offer of adding cheese to which he would viciously reply “Coming right up, fascist!”

  3. who was the fellow student? inquiring minds. fascist.


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