Lately, as you may have noticed, I've been fascinated/horrified by the increasingly prevalent "likeability" standard as the primary criterion for assessing the value of literary works. (James Wood addressed it here; and here's Dan Handler, Brendan Halpin, and me, most recently, here.) The basic idea is, or seems to be, that it is the author's job to provide the reader with pleasant, admirable characters whose predominantly unobjectionable views and laudable actions are endearing, inspiring, indomitably-spirited, just-so-doggone charming etc. And nothing but.
There's a word to describe such characters, their attitudes, and the state of mind that prefers them, which harkens back to an earlier, much maligned, era of social disapproval of and frowning upon art: Pollyanna-ish. It was, and remains, a pejorative when it applied to literary characters, or anything, really, but it seems like its spirit is making a bit of a comeback on the internet these days, though today's readers seem to expect even more from Pollyanna than their puritanical mid-to-late-to-post-Victorian counterparts ever did. The contemporary reader, it seems, wants a novel's narrator not just to be nice and fun and unobjectionable and "positive", but also to be a role model, an all-around wonderful person, the kind of person you want to get to know, spend time with, make out with, possibly even marry, and grow old together with.
Failure to provide the reader with such a virtual soul mate is seen as an unforgivable failing on the part of the author and a glaring flaw in the writing itself, something so bad that it's hard to see why the book was published in the first place or why anyone would give it any "stars" at all. The corollary to this tendency, and possibly its inevitable result, is that the flaws and quirks that were once regarded as important parts of character building and indeed can be the entire reason for the existence of the novel in the first place are seen as little more than careless and infuriating mistakes on the part of the author (rather than, like, what he or she was trying to do all along.) Or the very literary conceits that form the basis of some works are derided in a weird "this doesn't pass the smell test" spirit that I've compared to "reviewing" Hamlet by saying: "of course, there really are no ghosts, and the editor should have caught that."
But here I have stumbled on a much better example from real life (or from what passes for it on the internet), a reader review of Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret that I present without further comment as a sort of pearl of great price:
I'm surprised that this has such good reviews. It's about a little girl that really wants to get her period?
I think that the main character is just silly, she doesn't stand up for herself, and she doesn't really seem to like her friends - but she sticks around with them anyway. One girl tells her a big lie and she hardly seems to care.
Hey Margaret, it's me [reviewer] - you should get better friends - and also, getting your period kind of sucks, don't wish away the time you have without it!
Sound advice. Judy, you fucked up.
I suppose if you elect presidents based on whether or not you'd like to have a beer with them, subjecting literary characters and the novels in which they appear to the same test isn't much of a stretch, and isn't a whole lot worse. But of course, if novelists really were to adopt these parameters and follow the logic of the cult of likeability, the end product would be unrecognizable as literature, and pretty lame. And maybe this is a Pollyana-ish view on my part, but the cult of likeability had better be careful what it wishes for because I think even it would hate the result if its implicit program were ever to come to pass.
So apparently we are now arresting, jailing, and breaking up the families of parents for letting their kids do stuff that was totally normal when most of us were growing up, like going to the park, waiting in the car, "babysitting each other" (as in the first linked article), etc.
Nosy neighbors call in complaints, armed officers arrive to take the parent to jail and abduct the kids so that they may face the trauma of being ripped from their now impoverished homes (along with possible abuse and neglect) in a series foster homes. Even conceding, for the sake of argument, that leaving an eleven-year-old waiting in a car for thirty minutes, say, is somehow a bad thing to do, how did we turn this kind of routine parental choice into a criminal matter? Possibly leaving a ten-year-old to watch a five-year-old for a few hours, though it too was once quite an ordinary thing to do, is ill-advised parenting that carries some degree of possible risk to the children's welfare. But with regard to the aforementioned welfare, can that really be what we care about when our proposed remedy is to drag the parents away in chains, cause them to lose their jobs, and break up the family?
What would be an appropriate remedy? I don't know, something short of ensnaring the entire family in the (notoriously unjust and corrupt) criminal justice system, perhaps a helpful pamphlet entitled "So, your kid wants to go to the park..." Maybe the nosy neighbors could be encouraged to keep an eye on the kids while you run some errands, instead of acting as the unofficially deputized Eyes and Ears of the State and calling the cops. (That pamphlet could be called "So, your neighbor has to run to the store...")
I know that's crazy. We've left that folksy, helpful social world far behind, if it ever really existed. But this thing that's really happening right now is even crazier.
Like so many other instances of the law's increasingly draconian reach into what were once universally assumed to be private matters, it happened gradually while we weren't looking. And it must be happening, continuing, now, even as I type. Bit by bit, more and more things are being made illegal, many of them quite ordinary, some of the newly invented crimes so technical and abstruse that no one could possibly predict or divine what they prohibit; bureaucrats and their armed agents enforce the prohibitions with brain-dead literalness, just doing their jobs, forsaking common sense and without pausing to reflect on whether the outcome will help anyone or do any good, or if it is even remotely in keeping with the alleged intent of the measure in the first place. There's a kid in a car. Someone must pay.
We won't know where it's all headed till we get there, by which time it's almost always too late to turn back. This is madness, we say, upon learning of each successive outrage, knowing deep down that madness has become normal. It's a small thing, really, and there are many bigger, worse things could be happening and aren't (yet) so that's a relief at least. Dystopia is a process.
Came across a copy of the 1967 Rosemary's Baby hardcover at a used bookstore and got it because it felt like I should probably have one.
It is inscribed with the name of a former owner, a pentagram, and the words "Proud Pagan".
Very impressed with Ti West's House of the Devil (currently on Netflix, and super cheap on Amazon.) I've never seen a better, more effective attempt at re-creating and re-imagining a retro style in film, right down to the feel of discontinuity in the abrupt, over the top denouement, the ironic anti-climactic, not over-explained final credits image, the vaguely established but played-for-all-its-worth conceptual backstory. It's very cleverly done. The cinematography is beautiful, and authentic. If you want an encapsulation of the essential experience of watching horror movies in the 70s/early 80s (basically, what it was like to be a teenager in those years) you won't do better than this. It really took me back. Recommend it highly.
The New Republic says "we told you so" about The Catcher in the Rye, but this critique ("Holden Caulfield isn't as clever or perceptive as he thinks he is") is rather embarrassingly obtuse. That's what's *good* about it. It's like saying "I can't help but feel that Frodo's ambivalence about the Ring stems from an unfortunate weakness of character..." Yeah, the editor really should have caught that....
I think this may have been our first show at Gilman. Photo by Ian Harper.
This kid just thought it would be funny to pose with the book because of the title (I assume) and indicated in a subsequent tweet that he wasn’t too interested in the book and didn’t buy it, but it’s a great image nonetheless.
(And it’s always nice to see evidence of books actually being sold in bookstores, not to mention people actually being in those bookstores. It still happens.) So, thanks Dylan.
So, today is the official publication date of the new edition of King Dork.
It features a new full color frontispiece (if frontispiece means what I think it does) -- basically it's the full view, in color, of the illustration seen in the ripped off corner of the cover. (Fun fact: that was originally going to be the cover of the book, till we hit on the idea of defacing The Catcher in Rye instead.) Also, it includes an excerpt from King Dork Approximately and updated, John Green-heavy, "praise for" hype text.
Theoretically at least, you can order it on line and receive the new one, or even buy it in a store (one hopes) if you want to make sure.
King Dork Approximately won't be out till December 9, but you can pre-order it, as I keep saying ad nauseam, probably.
This article/interview is kind of a blast from the past that wound up on my google alert-o-sphere because someone seems to be archiving the Kitchen Sink at the moment. To my surprise, there’s a bit in there that fairly closely foreshadows on accident some of the stuff in King Dork Approximately, showing, I guess, something or other. I was so much closer there, I'm farther than that here.
Anyway, thanks again Juliet.