the same tired tropes, stomping on a human face forever
I wish we lived in a world where lit-bros actually existed. It would mean more men were reading fiction, and a more literate and empathetic populace that actually debates and argues about good and bad books on their merits-and not just their reputations-would be a nice world to live in.
Not only are men not reading, the vast majority of popular books are written by women also, whether literary fiction or more popular stuff. IME as a fiction writer in the starting out stage, most agents are women also. I really think some people believe that literary agents are all men called Wyndham Smythe whose office smells of whiskey and gun smoke or something, and men in linen suits are all having boozy literary lunches. People really can't imagine power in any realistic or modern way.
I also find it tiresome the extent to which people's gender identity is weaponised with fiction, like as if all books can be boiled down to whether they were written by a man or a woman. If someone's book collection was all ancient Roman history written by men would this really be worse than if it was the collected works of Ann Coulter or something?
Books are a conversation between the writer and the reader, it's always a two-person relationship.
One of the saddest things to happen in the book world is that far too many brown and black writers have entered into the sad-ass self-referential performative state that Freddie references here. It was a white thing, really, and now it's a multicultural thing. Ugh.
Yeah this is mostly just the cultural moment that seems to stretch endlessly where "sophisticated" people hate anything "men" would like, as an extension of hating men in general, largely as a way of deflecting accountability for their own poor choices and the entirely predictable bad consequences that followed.
I just want to say that I wrote my college application essay on DFW. Then, I got my freshman roommate into him at a liberal arts college and we read Infinite Jest together and we talked about it all the time.
It was me. I was the litbro. Maybe the litbro barely existed but it existed in at least some form, and that form was me and some people on my freshman hall. You’re welcome for the content.
I did it because I enjoyed his writing tremendously and because I thought it made me look cool. Later, I got into drinking straight bourbon for the same reason — a habit that’s persisted longer than reading DFW.
Fwiw, I have more mixed feelings about his writing now but think some of his ideas and work was great and I’d like to read IJ again some day. It didn’t get me laid but there’s still time and I certainly enjoy watching tennis more because of him. Brothers Karamazov I read last year and it is indeed a triumph.
This entire post was incomprehensible to me, perhaps because I was born in 1962.
I will say that DFW's "Good Old Neon" is one of the best short stories I've ever read.
Wait: Rolling Stone still exists? Why?
These seem like preemptive strikes. Everyone knows the litbro is dead. But these regularly scheduled attacks are necessary to make sure he never returns to threaten the new crowd that occupies that cushy tier of culture.
These narratives are impossible to stamp out because they lend themselves to publishers making lots of money and allow them to continue to do so unimpeded. DFW is a convenient heel for them, but it's not even really about him. It's about making sure that the books, music, and movies which are currently being produced (and heavily invested in by said publishers) stay profitable. In order for this to continue it is necessary to believe these same media products are the best use of your time (instead of say, I don't know, getting a copy of Shakespeare's sonnets from the library for free).
And you know something? I could almost handle "poptimism" if they were self-aware or even acknowledged that the economics were what was driving the whole process. But the overwhelming majority of the time they do not, they act like these products of the culture industry are somehow intrinsically superior based on artistic merit, which they aren't and even if they were that has nothing whatsoever to do with why they are popular. At it's core its the same canard that the marketplace is a meritocracy and that the best things "naturally" rise to the top under this system.
The reason popular art is completely enthralled with "identity" is because this is the most effective means through which the culture industry can attract customers and create profits. It's a way to brand old things as new and sell the same intellectual property yet another time. I don't think it's controversial to say Marvel films have basically run the exact same playbook for 20 years, but if you slap a veneer of identity politics over it, suddenly it seems novel. Disney paid a lot of money for those intellectual properties and they are going to do whatever it takes to make that money back and then some.
I suspect I am a litbro. Or at least litbro-adjacent. Not that I worship DFW, or actually most of the list of people I found that supposedly litbros like. But I admit it: I have read things specifically because they are cool or appeal to a certain subculture. (I didn't read all of the ReSearch magazines for my health, I'll tell you that.)
I found some things I genuinely loved that way. (Nabokov, for instance.) Some I didn't, and I admit to being a person who tried to read "Gravity's Rainbow" more than once. How could so many people love it and I just found it irritating and precious to the point of being repellent?
The only way I've found to remedy the "same tired tropes, stomping on a human face forever" is to seek out cultural writing less. The sheer quantity is soul-killing.
I do find it odd that DFW has ended up as the primary target in the literary world of this sort of critique - the guy who described the rest of the litbro canon as the "great male narcissists", after all. (And you couldn't get a more cutting portrayal of that kind of narcissism than James O. Incandenza.) I suppose there's not much mileage in calling Norman Mailer a misogynist, since he just palpably was one, and punched your man for saying so. There's grounds for laying the charge at DFW's door, of course, but he seems to me a more complicated case: a man who was clearly unwell who dramatically failed to live up to his own standards. It's a more difficult target to hit, and therefore demands more ordnance, and apparently the ritual of digging up his corpse, re-executing it, and re-burying it every year or two.
As for Infinite Jest itself, I both enjoy it and have never gotten more than 300 pages into it. It's not enormously formally experimental, certainly (or at least no more than 50 of those first 300 pages are); it's quirky and whimsical in tone a lot of the time. I feel that maybe it's a good 1000-page novel with a great 750-page novel trying to get out. The footnotes seem largely redundant, and the ones worth keeping could easily be worked into the text. (Pratchett remains the gold standard of the fiction footnote in my book - short, sweet, and right there at the bottom of the page so you don't have to juggle ten bookmarks trying to keep on top of everything.) It's like with old American TV shows: some of them are great, within the constraints of the form, but they're just so bloody long - you have seven 25-episode seasons, and even I don't need that much Buffy.
Perhaps I will change my mind if I can stop doomscrolling for long enough to finish it.
1. "The answer, perhaps, lies somewhere in this recent piece from The New York Times Magazine, which argues that the artistic obsession with novelty and experimentation, the primary obsession of modernism and so something like the default goal of artists for more than a century, has recently run aground."
It is my theory that romanticism eventually gives way to snarky irony, once authenticity-at-all costs has nothing new to say, there arw no remaining taboos to break and the bourgeoisie have become shockproof. Irony itself also being a dead end, in the same way that most of us outgrow kittenish name-calling.
2. Why do humans let critics tell them what to like? If you want to like Robyn (whatever that is) and the critics wax rhapsodic over Interpol (not for me), so what?
3. If you are bored, go through old human fashion magazines and compare the way we imagine human fashions of, say, the 1950s with what people actually wore. You can play similar games with the popular music charts.
It's really even worse than you describe, because the very complaint that art and culture have run out of steam in the age of the Internet was compellingly articulated by Simon Reynolds…back in 2011. The Marxists were here long before anyone else, and Reynolds' book Retromania builds on works like Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism (2009) and, Fredric Jameson's critique of postmodernism (1992, but really developed over the course of the 1980s—ironically a period people like Reynolds and Fisher saw as a flourishing of musical innovation especially, and I am with them on this).
Responses to this general critique tend to run in one of two ways a) No It's Not and b) OK, But This Is Fine. I was unaware of the Times Magazine article until reading your post, but it's amusing to see we're in the b) phase now, whereas poptimism was/is the prime example of a).
Have you heard about those new corduroy pillows? They're making headlines
(Thank you, Bloom County.) Good piece, though.
And Freddie earns his five bucks for another month.
I respected Infinite Jest without liking it. (Reading it was like driving 3,000 miles on a coast-to-coast highway that has a speed bump every 20 yards.) The pain in the book was palpable, but I thought Wallace was trying to treat a sucking chest wound with a box of fireworks. Didn't work.
You know what I really liked? Valley of the Dolls.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, litbros.