Bullshit Detector

Sincerity is a ripe target for mockery; schoolboys learn this early on. To mock sincerity, one needn’t bother with the subtle work of satire, and can instead swing bluntly, perhaps because sincerity is a close relation of earnestness: it sticks out its jaw. ‘I do not like people who are earnest about anything,’ wrote James Baldwin, and I know what he means. Everyone has had at least one encounter with the claustrophobia of another’s earnestness. The earnestness of others is embarrassing to an outsider, just as fervent belief is, or even the pangs of heartbreak – especially if they are earnest – but here we face a dilemma. Without sincerity, earnest sincerity – that is to say, without honesty, authenticity, genuineness – we don’t have much else; we certainly don’t have art. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act III is brilliantly told and, for language, unbeatable, but it is nothing if not a piece of extremely earnest self-expression.

Earnestness, like all such terms, contains shades of meaning. Hamlet’s earnestness is not the same thing as, say, Green Day’s earnestness during their recent anti-jingoistic phase. The latter does, as Baldwin suggests, clang a bit. It’s not especially good or memorable music – certainly it does not have very good or memorable lyrics – but it does seem to be, well, sincere. Like Coldplay, it at least wears a sincere face. (Or does it? It’s also very lucrative.) Whereas the songs of LCD Soundsystem, to use an example of particular contrast, are bathed in irony, and arrive steeped in knowing allusion to other bands, genres, periods of style; yet those songs are extraordinarily good, and the lyrics are not only good and memorable, but sharp and often quite funny. (One of LCD Soundsystem’s best songs is called ‘Daft Punk is Playing at My House.’) Nobody who’s listening goes rushing off to the thesaurus to find synonyms for ‘earnest.’

It is irony, but irony sincerely done. That the incoherent sincerity of Coldplay produces laughably bad lyrics while the world-weary irony of LCD Soundsystem produces terrific lyrics probably seems self-evident to many: the link between excessive sincerity and bad art is well-documented. There’s the schoolboy in all of us; schoolboys prize irony and aloofness, and the music world (at least the world of people hip about music) preserves those distinctions. We expect the worst as soon as we see someone wearing his heart on his sleeve. (No wonder: the phrase is Iago’s.)

What about the corollary? If bad art often has sincerity as its chief ingredient, can good art come from insincerity? A recent and quite funny novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist, takes as its premise that question (sort of). Its hero, Pete Tarslaw, seeking to impress the guests at his ex-girlfriend’s upcoming wedding and in turn shame that ex-girlfriend for ever having left him, decides that the surest path to doing so is to write a best-selling novel. He models his effort on the books of (the fictional) Preston Brooks, whose writing appears to be a sort of admixed caricature of David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons, as well as books by Mitch Albom, Nicholas Sparks, Wally Lamb, Winston Groom, and (at his most risible) Cormac McCarthy. (One of Brooks’s novels is called Kindness of Birds.) Hely gives a precise anatomy of the finely-honed rustic outsider image Brooks has cultivated for himself: a man at home with nature and tools, with the roughness of life. (In all writer-image cultivation, and especially in parodies of such, Hemingway looms large.) These signifiers of manliness allow the luxury of fluffier descriptions of his artistic process. ‘I call this the dance hall. Because characters will appear, and introduce themselves and ask me to dance. The character always leads. I bow, accept, dance for a while,’ Brooks says in an interview.

Hely’s novel is airily and pleasurably comic, and at times awfully slapstick, but it also wades into serious questions about what we call art and how we assign value to it. His target here isn’t really bad writing per se, or even the enduring and (to many of us) vexing popularity of so much bad writing. The real target is a culture that values the apparatus of a product over the actual quality of that product: a culture that likes stickers on the fronts of its books, that has lost track of what might constitute worth in a piece of art.* Tarslaw, in crafting his Preston Brooks pastiche, relies on Wikipedia to add authentic-seeming detail to his far-flung locales, one of which is World War II-era Tunisia; later, in Hely’s bang-on version of an Entertainment Weekly review (a ‘B’), Tarslaw’s novel, although it ‘can get cloying at times,’ is praised specifically for those details: ‘want to know what Tunisian fisherman eat? pages 213-217.’

‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector,’ Hemingway said. But that much ought to be true of everyone, not just writers. Preston Brooks, whether he knows it or not, is full of shit, and no one seems to realize it. He belongs to a growing plenitude of false sincerity, most of which goes unpunished, in a society that seems increasingly unwilling or unable to detect bullshit. It lives in our politics and in our discourse, and it’s no wonder that it trickles into our art. In a culture where so many buy into the supposed wisdom of a Preston Brooks (or the many writers for whom he is a proxy), it isn’t surprising that millions of people actually believe Glenn Beck means it when he issues his daily tears on television.

Pete Tarslaw, in his insincere attempt to write a best-seller, is the obverse of Richard Tull, from Martin Amis’s The Information, a serious-minded but unregarded novelist with the misfortune to have as his rival a friend from university, Gwyn Barry, who is the author of preposterous, faux-profound best-sellers, such as a utopian novel called Amelior. (In interviews Barry talks about his passion for carpentry, tools, and manual labor.) Both Tarslaw and Tull see through the lie; they just enact different solutions. Tarslaw tries to replicate the feats of the bullshitters. Tull goes nearly insane trying to tear down his apparently less-talented friend, an effort that mirrors Tarslaw’s crucifixion, near the end of How I Became a Famous Novelist, at the hands of a crowd of staunch Preston Brooks admirers. They buy what Brooks is selling, and they like it.

Much of the brilliance and amusement value in Amis’s novel comes from the ambiguity surrounding Tull’s actual talent. Barry is a hack, but Tull might not be that much of a writer either; his real talent, aside from crossword puzzles, seems to be his ability to recognize Barry’s unworth. Hely, too, wisely preserves the ambiguity at the core of his satire: the reader never knows whether Brooks believes in the quality of his own writing – that is, whether it is sincerely done or is a craven pandering to commercial taste. Certainly, Brooks – like the writers he evokes – gives every outward indication of total sincerity, even as his comments about his own writing grow increasingly, glaringly ridiculous, a kind of nightmare version of the Art of Fiction interviews in The Paris Review. Tarslaw, however, knows what he thinks: ‘Preston Brooks is a genius. He’s the greatest con artist in the world.’

There’s nothing wrong with being entertained. But Hely’s novel isn’t going after the books – or the movies, or the music – that strictly entertain; after all, both Preston Brooks’s fiction and Pete Tarslaw’s novel sound like utter chores to read. Rather, Hely holds up to ridicule the belief, increasingly prevalent, that the worth of a novel is bound up in its ability to supply extraliterary value: the dietary habits of Tunisian fisherman, for instance, or perhaps something less tangible, like nuggets of self-help wisdom; and that a novel ought, above all, to make the reader feel good about himself. In other words, a book Oprah might choose for her book club.

How I Became a Famous Novelist serves as an indictment of a passive culture: we pay to see the most heavily advertised movies; we read the books everyone else is reading. That’s one of the reasons, I think, that Oprah’s Book Club is so popular: it’s popular because of its popularity. If you read the book currently on offer, you’re doing something hundreds of thousands of other people are doing. You belong. I haven’t got the figures, but I can’t imagine that her most recent pick, Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, sold more than a few thousand copies before Oprah anointed it, despite strong reviews and two stories originally published in The New Yorker. (The New Yorker, of course, is another kind of anointment.) That she has is terrific for Akpan and good for an industry which, frankly, needs all the bestsellers it can get. What rankles is the arbitrary nature of the whole thing – arbitrariness masquerading as taste, commercial triangulation dressed up as a kind of natural selection. I haven’t read Akpan’s book and have no opinion about it one way or the other, but I am sure there are a dozen books which are just as good and which might have met similar categorical desires. (People seem to be impressed that the book is by an African writer and that it is comprised of short stories, two boxes that Oprah’s previous selections have not, apparently, checked.) Perhaps Oprah really did read a dozen books, and was struck, particularly and personally, by Akpan’s; it is impossible to know. But the fact that hundreds of thousands of people who previously held no interest in Akpan’s book – let alone possessed the sort of literary curiosity that would have led them to seek out such a book on their own – are now going to buy that book simply because of a sticker seems more than a little like madness.


*Samantha Peale, like Hely, is a writer whose recent first novel, The American Painter Emma Dial, explores the sometimes illegible border between art and bullshit. In her book, an artist’s assistant suggests to his boss running off a series of twenty prints, simply for the income they will generate; capping the series at twenty, he points out, will sustain the ideal price. Think of Damien Hirst’s dot paintings, which have almost no aesthetic virtue and would indeed be worthless were it not for Hirst’s imprimatur, but which, for Hirst, are the equivalent of legal tender; producing them, or rather signing those that his assistants have produced, is for him literally printing money, and the only reason he has authorized only 300, as opposed to 3,000, is the same reason the treasury doesn’t print bills indiscriminately: inflation.


~ by mackenz on September 22, 2009.

One Response to “Bullshit Detector”

  1. Loved it

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