Most of the reading I do on a daily basis is what I think of as “light reading.” Sometimes it’s the morning news. Sometimes it’s stories of the sort now called “Long Form” because everything needs a label and this particular label serves to differentiate the sort of light reading one may do over a quick breakfast, between sips of coffee and bites of bagel, and the sort one may require a whole distracted lunch hour to consume. As my inclinations run, most of the Long Form stories I read tend toward tales of true crime, or somewhat serious takes on what a generation ago was an unserious subject: pop culture, by which I mean what, for a time in the university when I was spending time in the university, was referred to as “cultural production,” which was taking over for the former term for things people made with words, verbal artifacts reflecting the culture in which they’re made and reflect, which used to be called Literature. And literature departments, we were told, were on their way to becoming cultural studies departments, and literary scholars would become cultural studies scholars.
The evidence of this sea change was everywhere: Women’s Studies, Film Studies, Other Things that are not Proper Literature Studies. And then there was Creative Writing, academia’s kicked-around but apparently lucrative younger sibling that existed to both generate and comment on cultural production–
nobody was sure if creative writing departments were actually producing literature, but they were producing tuition and endowed chairs. They were also ostensibly generating material for future Professors of Cultural Studies to sift through, in the form of poems and short stories, alongside episodes of Law & Order: SUV, Britney Spears CDs, and Dungeons & Dragons think pieces. (When some of these graduates graduated and failed to set the literary world afire with their poems and stories, they moved on to Hollywood and began writing for television and the movies, and in doing so, some made good for themselves, or became able to afford a mortgage and a car. But that’s a different essay.) In other words, there was then, and is now, a lot of stuff out there to write about, and despite any confusion you might read into my tone here, all this variety is a good thing, at least if you’re looking for interesting things to read during those times you happen to be reading and not watching screens. (Though if you’re like me, most of your light reading is done on a screen.)
I’m not sure what the climate in the university is now but I don’t think a great change has come about in how we study literature or in the production of mostly verbal cultural artifacts. I haven’t set food in the academic world for nearly a decade now, though, so I’m not really an authority. I do know that the literary journals no longer publish me anymore, though they once used to. I have moved on, too, and instead of producing cultural artifacts in the form of poems, I write television recaps for websites that don’t pay much. I do know there is an economy here, but few are able to crack its secret workings, or monetize this thing in a way both acceptable to the pop culture authorities and the university. Or that’s how it looks from my small country. And so I continue to participate in the production and consumption of verbal artifacts, in forms both long and short, alongside others, which in some cases are my former university colleagues.
I know one person in particular, trained in literary studies—in the Film Studies sub-department—at the university that I also attended, who went on to get a PhD elsewhere and has managed to make some kind of living (that’s as specific as I can get without looking at her bank statement) as both a “serious scholar” of pop culture, and as a popular writer about pop culture, the sort that gets profiled on podcasts (another “new” form of cultural production) specializing in Long Form writing. But that’s just one person. There are thousands—or at least many hundreds—of folks like me, who write between 500 and 2000 words a day about television or pop music and don’t even get page views, much less fair compensation or attention as scholars. But most of us aren’t proper scholars and that’s all right too.
Let’s try another approach. When I was coming up as a young scholar it was as a person who had abandoned the field of Creative Writing for the more traditional route of graduate studies in Literature, who did most of his work, for what it’s worth, in the field of poetry, which, in the university, in its commercialized and monetized form, is a subset of Creative Writing. My career plan was not a clearly realized one but a vague collection of hazy ideas based on anecdotal evidence from the generation immediately prior and from the relatively happy ongoing artistic outcomes of my rough peers. Like them, I would finish a PhD dissertation, publish a couple of mostly unread poetry books with respectable presses by my mid-30s, publish an obscure book of academic criticism, secure a sinecure at a university, and because I possessed a Literature PhD, teach not only Creative Writing, but the purer discipline of Literature, or, if by then it had become such, Cultural Studies. I’d generate a modest but pleasing income, maybe own some property, and give readings a few times a year on the department’s dollar (if I was lucky).
Of course that didn’t happen. None of that happened.
These last couple of years I’ve found myself engaged mostly in light reading, as I mentioned. I’ve also become more attuned to writing itself. I’m studying the writing that comprises this light reading and I’ve been dismayed to see that a lot of it is, to my sensibility, regretful. Regretful both in the sense of “bad” and because I see a lot of wasted talent out here. And then I remind myself that it’s an old man’s lament, the grumbling of a failure who wants to believe that most everyone else is flailing just as wildly as he is, and who seeks some kind of righting of his own sinking ship by declaring the whole enterprise damned. This is also known as sour grapes. Or, Everything is Terrible.
But what of this light reading? I read a couple of things this week that generated actual feelings in me—feelings both about the technical features, the form, of the prose considered, and the useful content contained therein, and feelings about what use, as a reader and failed writer (in the sense of failing to have generated cultural effects or personal monetary gain), this kind of light reading affords me now and can provide in the future.
The first is a short essay on the Kenyon Review blog by Jeff Alessandrelli, a Portland writer whom I know primarily because we both read at the same event back in June of 2015. I remember that his reading style involved a lot of high volume, a lot of what sounded like screaming, or barking, or maybe something that 30 years or so ago might have been considered punk rock. In any case, he wrote an essay on a rejection letter that he received after having submitted to a poetry book contest some years ago. What follows is his analysis of the letter, quoted in full, and a few thoughts on subjectivity in judging, on artistic taste and experience.
It’s a good read. It’s extremely elegantly written—the prose is what I’d call “sturdy and graceful” and never boring but also not showy. I found myself nodding my head and agreeing with everything and not gainsaying a single word. And his conclusion—judging is hard, and sometimes years of experience helps, and sometimes it doesn’t, and at the end of the day, artistic judgment is always subjective, and there’s no accounting for taste, and simply hanging out with famous people or being involved in the discipline of Creative Writing for years upon years doesn’t necessarily make you more qualified as an arbiter of literary quality than someone else. To which I say—yeah, of course. And that’s what I find so frustrating about so much good writing I run across during my daily light reading. It so often fails to engage anything beyond the self-evident; of course that’s more my problem than Mr. Alessandrelli’s. But I enjoyed reading it. I have since gone back and read all of his blog posts on the Kenyon Review, and I’m glad he’s doing this.
A few weeks back, a poetry professor who runs a well-respected literary press and a well-respected MFA program, extended a shout-out to an “up and coming” young poet who is also a prolific reviewer of poetry. This acknowledgment came via Facebook, which is how most literary news, gossip, and minor and major congratulations travel these days. I know of the poet and find her poetry to be quite delightful, inventive, one of a handful of young contemporary poets I get excited to see new work from. The professor-poet’s congratulations focused on the young poet’s review work and how refreshing and important it is.
I finally read some of these reviews, and how can I say it? I was disappointed in the clunky prose style. The paragraphs barely hang together. The sentences are tentative, mostly short and declarative, lacking the sort of variety that makes the act of reading pleasurable to me. It’s a sort of writing that feels rushed in the worst way, inelegant, the opposite of the grace and sturdiness I applauded a few paragraphs above in another writer. But, and this is an important but, the content of the reviews is compellingly lucid—it’s clear and descriptive and succeeds at doing what almost all poetry reviews fail at: convincing the reader why he or she should or should not read the damn book. So much poetry reviewing is extended blurbing, full of tortured superlatives and awkward compliments, so bereft of indicators of such things like whether the reviewer liked the book, what the poems are about, what kind of reading experience can we expect? I want to see more reviews like this. I think the prose will clean itself up, or work itself out, or maybe it doesn’t need to. Maybe I’m projecting my old man insecurities where they don’t need to be projected.
There are a lot of people out there writing things on the internet, writing light reading for me and others to consume and pass over, and a lot of these people, mostly people younger than I am, come from similar places educationally. They are academics or former academics or poets or former poets, people with MFAs or with a lot of writer friends, and they do this thing every day with varying degrees of success, whatever that means.
I’ll keep reading and keep cheering on the good things I see, and I’ll try not to puzzle too strenuously over the things I don’t care for. Every day or two when I post something I’ve written, or when I file away something I’ve written for future revisions, I’m two things: satisfied at having done the work, and deeply disappointed at not having done a better job. It’s probably like that for a lot of us, regardless of our backgrounds, our successes and failures as artists, as professionals in our educational careers, or anything else. We go to work or we don’t.
Finally, a friend of mine passed on an article the other day, one also from the genre of light reading, with the rough and slight and borrowed assertion that the “great artist” must learn to say no. That the only way great art is created is with an abundance of time, and the artist’s duty is to create time for himself, to shun the requests of others, to hoard his time and to shit out beautiful things. Okay, it didn’t say “shit out.” Of course you can tell that I think this view is hogwash. But I also don’t believe in “great art,” I guess. I am grateful, though, for all the rest of us average and fair-to-middling artists, or former academics, or current adjuncts, or unemployed weed smokers who continue to write and produce light reading for everyone. And sometimes, maybe, when they’re lucky, they will also produce some Pretty Good Art, MFA or Full Professor or Media-anointed or Culturally Approved, or Not.
I am content to remain here, reading, writing a bit.