June 24, 2008

Personal essay: Here's why I'm dropping the "Too Awful To Finish" series.

Die, hipster douchebags, die

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Regular readers I'm sure by now have caught on to how I like to look at the publishing schedule here for the CCLaP blog, which of course is the way I think all good blogs should do it too; that is, I believe the best blogs out there are the ones that combine daily, short, easy-to-write "bloggy" style entries (in CCLaP's case, things like "Photo of the day" and "Yet more interestingness" and "Obsession of the moment") with a regular amount of completely brand-new original content as well, not links to other stuff but stuff the blog owner actually sat down and wrote/created themselves. That way you give other people an excuse to link to your own site, and to fill up their own daily bloggy-type entries; and thus does your audience grow on a regular basis without you having to spend any time or money on traditional advertising or keyword searching or link exchanges or any of that junk*.

Like the Onion AV Club, then (which I'm a huge fan of, if you didn't know by now), CCLaP's daily original content takes the form of a series of essay types, each of them somewhere from 600 to 1,200 words in length: there are the traditional book and movie reviews, for example; the "CCLaP 100" series of all-classics essays; the personal essays like the one you're reading now; the "weekly" (i.e. whenever I get around to it) podcast episodes; the upcoming tech reports I just announced yesterday; even a little-seen "Ten Movies About..." series, which is just very gimmicky and Entertainment-Weeklyesque in nature, which is why I try to fall back on it only when I have absolutely nothing else to write about. And so that's why it might come as a surprise that just this week, I've decided to permanently drop one of the essay series that has been a part of the CCLaP blog since its beginning, and especially surprising because of it being so surface-level popular despite its small size; it is in fact the infamous "Too Awful To Finish" series, which even to this day still only consists of five titles (including Sebastian Faulks' Engleby, Bill Flanagan's New Bedlam, Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, John Twelve Hawks' The Traveler, and Jonathan Letham's You Don't Love Me Yet).

The whole decision, in fact, was inspired by a recent event here at the blog, when I was specifically accused of writing an unfair review by author Akmal Shebl of his self-published supernatural thriller Prisoners in Paradise; and ironically, it wasn't even the actual accusation that prompted all this (Shebl's entitled to his opinion, after all, just like everyone else), but rather the way that CCLaP's readers have responded to Shebl in the last week, and the fact that the review has quickly become the absolutely most talked-about essay now in CCLaP's history, out of the 250 or something book and movie reviews I've now written. Because what I've quickly discovered is that what all of you seemingly like most of all at this site, out of all the things I do here on a daily basis, are specifically the most moderate and thoughtful things that get published here; the times when I give an author a benefit of a doubt as much as I can, the times when I champion an unknown experimental writer you might have never heard of. Turns out that a lot of you appreciate these things more than just about any other element here -- the fact that I almost always try to find as many good things to say about a project as possible, the fact that I will mostly err on the side of optimism when given a borderline-bad book or movie.

Learning this has made me grateful, frankly, because this is exactly what I've been trying to do with CCLaP all along, and is something I've mentioned often: that I do not see and have never seen myself as a traditional book "reviewer," but rather as a critic and advocate, someone who thinks that an arts-critic's job should be much more about going out and finding cool unknown stuff than trashing corporate crap that everyone already knew was going to be crappy. I've always seen CCLaP as a place primarily to support and celebrate artists, and in fact all of the center's future plans are geared towards bigger and more direct ways to do this (by publishing their work, financing their tours, teaching classes, sponsoring workshops, etc); the only reason I do so many reviews here in the first place, frankly, is because I'm self-financing CCLaP, and so far the center is too broke to do anything besides thousand-word essays each day and a podcast episode each week. The money will eventually come, and the bigger programs will too; for now, the most important thing for me has been to simply establish what exactly my vision of the arts is, and to try to find as many people as possible who share that vision.

Coming at it from this standpoint, perhaps now you can see why the "Too Awful To Finish" essays here have never sat that well with me, something that seemed like a cute idea when I first started the blog but that has made me wince more and more each time I've done it; and that's because every time I'm done with one of them, I sit down and read it, then think to myself, "You know, Pettus, this sounds an awful lot like what one of those hipster f-cking douchebags you hate so much would say." Ah yes, the hipster f-cking douchebags! Oh, you know who I'm talking about -- lounging around their crappily fantastic apartment in Pilsen or Brooklyn or the Mission, with their f-cking cardigans and their f-cking lunchboxes and their f-cking emo music, being all f-cking smug and sanctimonious and holier-than-thou, worshipping pop-culture and "outsider" art and "found objects" and being needlessly cruel whenever possible to some poor earnest schmuck just trying to sell a xeroxed chapbook of semi-bad poetry. When I was an artist myself, and would get dragged to such hipster-douchebag parties, I would always end up wanting to punch all these hipster douchebags right in the middle of their smug little horn-rimmed f-cking faces by the end of the night; now that I'm simply a fan and patron of the arts like everyone else, I'm determined not to become one of the very douchebags I loathe so much.

The simple facts are these, based on the year I've now been a full-time critic, and the approximately quarter of a million words of criticism I've now written...

--Writing a good review is infinitely more fun than writing a bad one.

--Championing a brilliant unknown artist is a lot more satisfying than simply bitching about high-profile crap we all knew was going to be bad in the first place.

--By deliberately avoiding the high-profile crap, by deliberately only reviewing projects that I believe ahead of time I'm going to like, I've kept my burnout level very low; and as we all know, this is almost always when a full-time book reviewer starts going south, when they've been force-fed so much hacky crap that they turn permanently sour towards all creative projects.

--And the "Too Awful To Finish" series simply clashes too much against all three of the things just mentioned, which is why I feel it's time for it to go. Which is why it's no longer going to be a part of this site, and why later today I'll be incorporating those five titles back into the book review archive page's main general list.

In fact, I only receive one type of regular criticism regarding this mindset, ironically enough usually from my fellow critics, that such an attitude can easily result in too many falsely positive (or "pollyannish") reviews. And this is true, I think -- after all, one of the most important ways to actually distinguish great projects precisely is to compare them against bad ones -- which is why I'll still continue publishing critical reviews of books that deserve them, and why I am ultimately not sorry at all for the review I ended up giving Shebl's Prisoners in Paradise, the review that started this whole process to begin with. And that's because, despite Shebl's belief to the contrary, in that case I really did try to take as absolutely fair and balanced and optimistic a look at that novel as possible, sat down and deliberately tried to make my resulting essay as thoughtful and even-handed as I could, when I was basically handed a project that I could've so easily used as the basis for the snarkiest, funniest public trashing of a book the internet has ever seen. And that's ultimately the most important thing to point out, I think, that from a standpoint of purely getting attention, CCLaP's "Too Awful To Finish" essays are extremely successful; to cite just one good example, out of the 150 book reviews I now have listed at Goodreads.com, over half of the "Too Awful To Finish" ones appear in the top-20 of what other people have marked as their favorites.

It would be easy, so incredibly easy, to see a statistic like that and start lazily gearing CCLaP's entire essay series in that direction; to take every single book I find the least bit disagreeable and give it the ol' hipster-douchebag treatment, to talk of its "pedestrianism" and "Bubba-like qualities," to be all smug and snotty and inspire readers to click the "thumbs-up to this review!" button in instant-gratification schadenfreude glee. But as I've been reminded this week, that's not what I want to do with my life, and not the kind of message I want CCLaP to send; and like I said, I'm eternally grateful that this reminder specifically came from all of you, all of CCLaP's readers, who thankfully tend to respond the most to the same things in the arts I respond to the most too. Maybe all of us as smart fans can finally start changing the way our society thinks of the subject of artistic criticism, re-straighten it from the gross twists the corporate world has given it over the last 30 years; maybe we can start insisting more that critics not try to cover everything badly, but instead only what matters in a smarter way. I'm certainly going to try to do my part; that's what dropping the "Too Awful To Finish" series is all about, a decision I hope that you will respect and support. As always, I encourage you to leave whatever thoughts of your own you have concerning this subject, as part of the moderated comments found below.

*Oh yeah, and it never hurts to say "f-ck" a lot either -- yet another valuable lesson from the geniuses at the Onion AV Club. I'm telling you, of all the arts critics on the planet right now, that little group of nerds over there might just be my favorite of all of them.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:09 PM, June 24, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |