The Anxiety of Irrelevance (an Open Letter to Arthur Krystal)

by rsbakker

Dear Mr. Krystal,

It’s invisible to you and most all of your peers. In engineering they actually have a name for it: ‘unk-unk,’ an abbreviation of the ‘unknown-unknowns’ of Donald Rumsfeld fame. Not only can you not see, you cannot see that you cannot see. Ignorance is bliss because it is absolute. No balm is so numbing, so effortlessly destructive, as not knowing.

But you’re beginning to feel it nonetheless, aren’t you? The anxiety…

The literati are drifting into the same fog that swallows all failed cultural programmes. The siren call of all those professors has grown thin and insecure, and the bright and cunning youth are turning to different pursuits. Your first mistake, when all is said in done, is the human one. It’s the mistake we all make all the time. It’s the engine of the evening news: Groupishness. We are walking, talking yardsticks, us humans, condemned by nature to condemn according to those values we find most handy–our own. You think of yourself as a ‘critical thinker,’ not realizing there is no such thing, just varying degrees of bigotry. The proof of this lies in the thoughtless way you place your kind at the top of your authority gradient, the same as those who place you on the bottom.

With ‘unk-unk,’ comes ‘me-me-we.’

Your second mistake is to defend traditional communicative values in the middle of the most profound communications revolution in the history of the human race, to be an aesthetic conservative at a time when nothing could be more preposterous. Everything about your cultural habitat is changing, leveraged by accelerating technologies that will lead us who knows where in a matter of decades. Look at the sales! you cry. The galas! The prizes! forgetting that the best fed animals are those found in a zoo.

Your third mistake is to think literature is a thing, and not just any thing, the thing that you happen to know, command and possess. Thinking this, you assume that literature, the fiction that transcends ‘mere fiction,’ can be defined by relations of resemblance. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…

Who gives a damn about clipped wings!

But literature has always been an event. This is how it transcends: by refusing to be a fixed thing. Literature ‘looks like’ nothing. Only it’s consequences can define it. Literature moves. Literature challenges and transforms. Literature turns souls around, and sends them in different directions. And this, Mr. Krystal, is what makes me pity you and your cloistered circle–your ilk. Because all you can do is rehearse the postures you learned in school, regurgitate a fixed form packaged for effortless consumption by a dedicated audience: the canned intellectual buzzes, the warmed-over wisdom, the indispensable rule-breaking.

Oh yes… And the interviews. All that faux-transformative ambition.

Literature, meanwhile, has done what it’s always done, moved on, leaving your ‘masterpieces’ to waddle content, overfed and flightless, appreciated by mobs of like-minded souls, people who share your voting record to a tee, who nod and cluck in approval whenever you magically ‘challenge’ those who read no more than your titles and dismiss you laughing. Somehow, without quite understanding why, you have found yourself defending a genre against literature.

Because we, those who are never quite as significant as yourselves, see clearly how much damage you have done advocating, endlessly advocating, that the bright and the cunning turn their back on the cultural commons, on the ‘low’ subject matters that allow them to reach out across a balkanizing society. Everyone can recognize an aristocrat by their silk shirts, and a pretender by their ratty shoes.

Oh yes. You feel it. You feel it in the comment threads, in the ‘unmotivated’ vitriol that ‘shocks and dismays’ you, in the emptiness of claiming authority where no authority is conceded. Snark! you cry. Snark! never pausing to truly listen. You feel it, the anxiety of irrelevance, because you see it, how despite all the sales and galas and prizes, the polling tide continues to turn inexorably against you. The corporations! you cry, though they stack your books just as high. You wring your hands, blame the very culture you have created. By writing for yourselves, you’ve been writing for people like yourselves, the clones who wave the same flag of make-believe difference. By all means, you urge, write about them, the base and the witless and the disenfranchised, but do not dare write for them. Not if you want to be taken ‘seriously,’ my ingroup brother. No, write for us.

Meanwhile, those on the outside do what those on the outside always do when backs are turned against them: they turn their backs in turn, define themselves against. And vote accordingly.

Watch this election closely, Mr. Krystal. Watch closely, anxiously, and as you marvel that it could be so close, that so many of them could be so benighted, as you pass your fat and lazy judgment on the culture, the times, or whatever patsy your unconscious conceit renders, pause, Mr. Krystal, strip away the ancient vanities and plug yourself into the living American equation. Ask, for once, What have we been doing wrong?

Because you are losing our battle–that much is incontrovertible.


R. Scott Bakker