Russell Smith Shrugged

by rsbakker

Holidays are upon me. But an old time foil o’ mine, Russell Smith, has managed to put me into an old time mood with a piece in today’s Globe and Mail.

The topic, predictably, is genre versus literature. And the argument, predictably, is the standard ‘argument’ given by those at the high end of any cultural authority gradient: Those on the bottom have no reason to bellyache because there is no bottom, the implication being, of course, that really, when all is said and done, ‘they’re just jealous.’

Smith is confused by what, for him, amounts to a mythical injustice. “Every day,” he writes, “I read angry emails and posts from sci-fi writers complaining about the terrible snobbery and irrelevance of the literary establishment which still doesn’t give major awards to the speculative or fantastical, or give it enough review space in the books pages of newspapers.” Now group specific dissatisfaction of any sort always begs for some kind of consideration of motivations. But Smith glides over this question, perhaps realizing the trickiness that awaits. Implying ‘They’re just jealous!’ is one thing, but actually writing as much would place him in some uncomfortable company. So he simply declares that he has never heard anyone in his ingroup explicitly dismiss genre–as if only those who explicitly embrace bigotry can be bigots. And as if he and his cohort don’t regularly deride the ignorant masses via their ignorant tastes. The guy doubles as a fashion columnist, after all.

Because make no mistake, Russell Smith is a cultural bigot through and through–and of the worst kind, in fact. He is a status quo apologist convinced he has nothing to apologize for, who feels hurt and bewildered and quite frankly, annoyed, by the deluge of small-minded belly-aching he has to listen to. And since he belongs to an ingroup that self-identifies itself as ‘critical’ and ‘open’–namely, as all those things each and every ingroup is not–he simply assumes that he has to be right. His is the enlightened institution. There’s no need to ask the motivation question, no need to consider the possibility that the perception of cultural inequity is all that cultural inequity amounts to (even though, it is the case that only writers that primarily self-identify themselves as ‘literary’ win the awards and the funding).

To get a sense of how bad his argument is, consider:

There is a paradox at the heart of these complaints: They proclaim the artificiality of genre divisions while simultaneously demanding respect for a specific one. Are we to abolish genres or privilege one? Either you want a level playing field or you don’t.

Sound appealing? Sensible? Well, let’s spice up the stakes a bit, see if it doesn’t sound more familiar:

There is a paradox at the heart of these complaints: They proclaim the artificiality of racial divisions while simultaneously demanding respect for a specific one. Are we to abolish races or privilege one? Either you want a level playing field or you don’t.

He doesn’t get it because he has no need to get it, because he belongs to what remains, in far too many cultural corners, the privileged ingroup. “Why does this argument even need to be made?” he writes. After all, so very many literary novels contain magical or surreal or futuristic elements, such as “Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.”

Apparently his people love our stuff when his people write about it.

Wake up. It’s about power, idiot, not the statistical distribution of tropes. It’s about who has it, and who don’t.

Unfortunately for us, mainstream literature is not nearly as irrelevant as it should be. It remains a fat, greasy parasite that continues to feed on far too much talent, continues to convince far too many bright and sensitive souls to turn their backs on their greater culture (in what is, without any doubt, the most momentous epoch in human history) all in the name of accumulating ingroup prestige within a socially obsolescent institution. All writers are post-posterity writers, nowadays, and if they truly want to walk their egalitarian, prosocial talk, then they need to reach out with their writing, self-consciously game the preference parsing algorithms that increasingly command our horizons of cultural exposure. In other words, they need to do the very opposite of what conservative apologists like Smith continually urge, which is to bury their heads in sand at the bottom of the hourglass.

“These category questions,” Smith writes, “are marketing ones, not literary ones.” Once upon a time, maybe, but certainly not anymore. If literature is as literature does, then what we call ‘literary’ today does precious little that can be called literary–thanks to marketing. The outgroup philistines that literary writers pretend to ‘challenge’ let alone ‘illuminate’ no longer stumble into their books, leaving only classroom captives to complete the literary circuit (with dead or moribund authors, no less). Literature describes a certain, transformative connection between writers and readers, and marketing just happens to be all about connecting buyers with sellers. Given that confirmation is the primary engine of consumer demand, literature is simply writing that jumps the tracks, that somehow, someway, finds itself in the wrong hands. The rest, as DFW would say, is fucking Entertainment. More apology.

The future of literature in the age of information technology lies with genre, plain and simple, with writers possessing the wherewithal to turn their backs on apologetic apparatchiks like Smith, and actually contribute to building the critical popular culture we will need to survive the strange, strange days ahead. The alternative–Smith’s alternative–is to preach to the choir, apologize and reinforce, cater to expectations–do all the things that ‘sellouts’ do–then to endlessly declare yourself a missionary of transformation. Quite a scam, I would say.