No Soft Landings
Hello folks, today is the big day - publication day for my second book. The Boston Globe has published a meaty excerpt, just out, that I think serves as a really good overview of the basic arguments I’m making. As for me, I am taking this week off from blogging. Though I’ve gone on a few trips since this newsletter started in March of 2021, I always had posts lined up for those times. This week I’m on a no-bullshit break, though not a vacation; I have been doing, am doing, and will be doing a ton of book promo and I just need a little breathing room. So no posts this week and I’ll see you again at 9 AM next Monday. This post functions as the last direct appeal I’ll make to all of you to buy my book, although I reserve the right to link to it until the end of time. And I’d like to make that appeal in kind of an odd way.
Consider this New York magazine cover story on the new film Bottoms, about a couple of lesbian teenagers (played by 28-year-olds) who start a high school fight club in order to try and get laid. I’m interested in the movie; it looks funny and I’ll watch it with an open mind. Movies that are both within and critiques of the high school movie genre tend to be favorites of mine. But the preemptive hype about it - which of course the creators can’t directly control - has been fundamentally false, fundamentally dishonest about what constitutes artistic risk and personal risk in 2023. The underlying premise of the advance discussion has been that making a high school movie about a lesbian fight club, today, is inherently subversive and very risky. And the thing is… that’s not true. At all. In fact, when I first read the premise of Bottoms I marveled at how perfectly it flatters the interests and worldview of the kind of people who write about movies professionally. As New York’s Rachel Handler says,
[Bottoms has] had the lesbian Letterboxd crowd, which treats every trailer and teaser release like Gay Christmas, hot and bothered for months. After attending its hit SXSW premiere, comedian Jaboukie Young-White tweeted, “There will be a full reset when this drops.”
And yet to read reviews and thinkpieces and social media, you’d think that Bottoms was emerging into a culture industry where the Moral Majority runs ths show. One of the totally bizarre things about contemporary pop culture coverage is that the “lesbian Letterboxd crowd” and subcultures like them - proud and open and loud champions of “diversity” in the HR sense - are prevalent, influential, and powerful, and yet we are constantly to pretend that they don’t exist. To think of Bottoms as inherently subversive, you have to pretend that the cohort that Handler refers to here has no voice, even as its voice is loud enough to influence a New York magazine cover story. This basic dynamic really hasn’t changed in the culture business in a decade, and that’s because the people who make up the profession prefer to think of their artistic and political tastes as permanently marginal even as they write our collective culture.
Essentially the entire world of for-pay movie criticism and news is made up of the kind of people who will stand up and applaud for a movie with that premise regardless of how good the actual movie is. And I suspect that Rachel Handler, the author of that piece, and its editors at New York, and the PR people for the film, and the women who made it, and most of the piece’s readers know that it isn’t brave to release that movie, in this culture, now. And as far as the creators go, that’s all fine; their job isn’t to be brave, it’s to make a good movie! They aren’t obligated to fulfill the expectation that movies and shows about LGBTQ characters are permanently subversive. But the inability of our culture industry to drop that narrative demonstrates the bizarre progressive resistance to recognizing that things change and that liberals in fact control a huge amount of cultural territory.
And here’s the thing: almost everybody in this industry, in media, would understand that narrative to be false, were I to put the case to them this way. This obviously isn’t remotely a big deal - in fact I’ve chosen this piece and topic precisely because it’s not a big deal - and I’m sure most people haven’t thought about it at all. (Why would they?) Still, if I could peel people in professional media off from the pack and lay this case out to them personally, I’m quite certain many of them would agree that this kind of movie is actually guaranteed a great deal of media enthusiasm because of its “representation,” and thus is in fact a very safe movie to release in today’s Hollywood - but they would admit it privately. Because “Anything involving LQBTQ characters or themes is still something that’s inherently risky and daring in the world of entertainment and media, in the year of our lord 2023” is both transparently horseshit and yet socially mandated, in industries in which most people are just trying to hold on and don’t need the hassle.
Like I said, I’m ready to be (expecting to be) charmed by the actual movie. And this is the lowest of low stakes and no one gives a shit. But I give a shit, a little bit, and it gets to why I’m asking you to order my book: because for 15 years as a professional writer I’ve watched people write things that were in fact incredibly safe, then get lionized by their peers for their bravery. Again and again and again. I’ve always thought the petty hypocrisy was plain; if you’re getting celebrated by a huge number of your peers for a piece you wrote, how could it have been brave? These pieces might have been good, true, correct, necessary, sharp, funny, or wise, and that’s enough. Brave isn’t everything. But it also isn’t nothing. And for all of the ways that I’ve softened in my older days, and as much as I’m eager to leave culture war behind, as much as I no longer flatter myself to think that I’ve been some sort of model of integrity and now understand that I was frequently just an asshole, as much as maturity has forced me to understand that being self-righteous about other people’s self-righteousness is still being self-righteous - for all of that, I still despise fake bravery, and I still see it everywhere.
As a consequence, I’ve tried to always work according to this rule: no soft landings. No pieces that put out their lips to be kissed by those with titles and influence. Of course I want my writing to be liked, and I always write with at least one eye on entertaining readers and demonstrating my own little vision of what beauty looks like in prose. But I never want to publish the kind of piece that invites hosannas from our priest caste. I never want to invite the praise of the smug, of the pious. I am a difficult person; this is mostly to both my detriment, as a person, and to my discredit, as a personality. But difficulty has its uses. And so I say, always, no soft landings. Let me be fractious and unlikable, so long as I say true things and say them beautifully. It was from those principles that this book sprang. They can’t make the book good, mind you. A book can be fractious and unlikable because it sucks. But genuinely challenging arguments are, I will be vain enough to say, rare commodities and getting rarer. And if you want that kind of principle to continue to have purchase in our system, if you want to see more of it in the future, you should consider supporting it with your dollars. If nothing else, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement is an act of total sincerity, dedicated to the question of how we can not just attempt to do good, but to actually do good. And it’s animated by my stubborn refusal to take the easy way out.
When it came time to publish my first book, after three years of a difficult birth and in an environment where I had no platform and few friends, several people asked me why I would publish that argument, then. Why would I come back from self-inflicted personal scandal and immense controversy with an argument that was so easy to misrepresent? Why give people the temptation of saying that it argued what it didn’t? Why leave myself vulnerable in that way, at that time? And the answer was that I had to make that argument, then, because it was so easy to misrepresent. Because it demanded nuance where I knew nuance would not be extended. Because I had to show people that, after the awful things I had done and the price I had paid for them, I was not afraid to say what I thought was true. No soft landings.