Regarding The New Yorker Caption Contest,
Quantity does not guarantee quality. But as Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, in most fields, the more you do, the better you get at it. And this is true of Cartoon Caption Contests: In 2009, the creativity researcher Keith Sawyer interviewed a number of winners and found that,
cartoon contest winners usually generate lots of captions. Studies of creativity have shown that quantity breeds quality—what I call the productivity theory, because high productivity corresponds to high creativity.
Better get back at it.
In 2012 I was absorbed with planning a wedding and starting a new job. I also managed to publish a story and a poem, read with Bang Out again, win in Vegas, make ginger beer and pickles at home, volunteer at the food bank and a botanical garden, vacation in Hawaii, and make a snowman. But in reviewing the year, I find that unlike in 2011, I did not read well. I read too many celebrity memoirs on planes and books I knew halfway through it would be a mistake to finish. I would only recommend nine:
This year I resolve to read better books.
I’m headin’ fast toward forty-five
That’s an awful long time to be alive
Half my friends fight until they’re hoarse
On the slow train to divorce
The other half’re still eager
To get their unions considered legal
But I just continue gettin’ old
Throwin’ money at a house I shoulda sold
I daily dream of strikin’ gold
And once the fantasies catch hold
There goes all my self-control
Down an indulgent rabbit hole
I get off on calculatin’ how much I could stand to spend
Without offendin’ my poor friends
Romanticizin’ that lonesome journey
Roleplayin’ conversations with tax attorneys
But back in the real world it’s open enrollment
Two days left to compare the fine print
Weighin’ how sick I’ll likely get
Against the burden of years debt
Relivin’ guilt trips from judgmental doctors
Who despite all they must account for
Don’t think price should play a part
In decisions made about my heart
Once my flex dollars are all spent
Is it enough to hope to prevent?
As my friends and followers on Goodreads know, I say I dislike novels about writers and professors. This is primarily because while reading them I’m constantly irked by the impression that the author hasn’t tried hard enough to be creative. While I myself hate doing open-ended research, find that researching a topic for a writing project always backfires by making it harder to be creative, and am scared of getting another person’s experience “wrong,” I do partially read novels to learn things: how to play Dungeons & Dragons as my friend Matt describes in his novel; how to make fried green tomatoes; how to whittle a bow and arrow (this example is from a scene in a book I read as a teenager which I have always remembered, in which the hero goes to great lengths to empty his mind and the Oversoul, basically a satellite which has the ability to enter others’ consciousnesses, shares the experience of a craftsman who does his art so reflexively that he doesn’t think about it, in order not to drive the hero mad with another’s thoughts).
This is unfair, because there are plenty of interesting things to say about being a writer or professor (I’m actually starting to get back into academic satire), and all fiction is somewhat autobiographical, but I think what it comes down to for me is the fact that all novels are written by novelists, so there is the distinct possibility of a hugely disproportionate amount of them also being written about novelists. I am always on the lookout for examples which could be removed from the canon. (So mean!)
Perversely, my guilty pleasure is reading nonfiction about writing, reading, and editing. This is also a massively over-done genre, but these books keep getting published—some of them genius and some of them pedantic—because so many readers, like me, are also writers and editors. It’s kind of sick.
The reason I call this a guilty pleasure—despite the fact I don’t feel so guilty about it that I refrain from sharing it—is because it is so self-indulgent. I continuously revel in the redundant joy of reading about reading and writing when I could much better spend my time either reading about things I don’t know about or writing something myself. Preferably something new and informative, instead of a blog post about reading and writing itself, like this one. (Another guilty pleasure I will share in this moment of ill-advised candor is that I spent a good portion of the afternoon re-reading my own blog posts.)
I have been thinking about guilty pleasures lately, mostly because when I hear the term I cringe. I recently started Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, which basically seems to be a defense of and call for “genre fiction” to be recognized as great literature. (It is not lost on me that while I count Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay among my favorite books, I have never brought myself to read Wonder Boys, simply because the movie so squarely sets it in the books-about-writers-and-professors camp.) The first chapter of Maps and Legends basically covers the same territory as this blog post by Ursula K. Le Guin (yes, she’s still alive! Thanks Brady for the link and Caroline for the recommendation to finally get around to reading this awesome author), though the two authors take different tacks on the issue of book marketing and bookstore categories, both of which are ostensibly meant to help readers find more of what they like (this is another great opportunity to draw your attention to a modern issue which freaks me out: the filter bubble). Chabon suggests moving all “genre fiction” onto one big fiction shelf with no distinctions, while Le Guin mentions the idea of subdividing the literature shelf further into magical realism, war novels, etc. (Fortunately, now that we have the Internet we can just do both!)
More on point of this post, both authors discuss the “guilty pleasure” aspect of reading genre fiction. I think they use the term correctly, since many prideful readers do not like to admit that they read historical fiction or science fiction or romances or mysteries or even young adult, or when they do, they are unwilling to defend their choices by explaining to friends who don’t share their tastes the true value these books have, besides being good “airplane” or “beach reads.” (This criticism exempts those of you who do recognize and share the value of literature relegated to this “lower” status.)
And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre—one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious—is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I loathe).
(He goes on to say, “A genre implies a set of conventions—a formula—and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates.” I agree that this argument is often made, and it’s interesting to note how it runs exactly opposite of the similar argument often made of poetry, which is that conventions, formula, and limitations make for “higher” art).
But in general, the problem with the term “guilty pleasure” is the note of pride or self-congratulations that sneaks into it. Guilty pleasure mix tapes are a prime example. True guilty pleasures are things like strange, obsessive personal grooming habits you wouldn’t tell your friends about (and which I will not list here), or secretly enjoying racist, sexist jokes which you can’t explain away as “ironic” or “telling it like it is.”
Le Guin explains how disgusting this usage can be:
[New Yorker writer Arthur Krystal] uses Chesterton’s phrase, “good bad books,” for genre novels, and calls reading them a “guilty pleasure”—a phrase that succeeds in being simultaneously self-deprecating, self-congratulatory, and collusive. When I speak of my guilty pleasure, I confess that I know I sin, but I know you sin too, nudge nudge, aren’t we sinners cute?
What do you think? What is a true guilty pleasure? What are your self-indulgent pleasures? Can you defend them?
While I have abandoned writing my novel (and my blog) in favor of planning my wedding and trying to think of new ways to say “Click here” or “Find out more” or “Buy this book” for my day job, I still like to keep my hand in the game. On Saturday, July 21st at 7:30 pm I will be reading with Bang Out at The Make-Out Room. Last time I read with this series, in August, was super fun, with hilarious readers and a festive vibe. Basically not boring. Other reading series take note! Their locations are dark, cool, and drinky. My poems will be dark, cold, and bitter.
Unfortunately, I spend a lot of time at work talking (if not thinking) about branding and “branding issues,” despite usage of the word “issues” being a pet peeve of mine. Could you get more vague? I prefer “ramifications” or “complications.” But this isn’t about that.
Andrea’s changing jobs soon, and in preparation she’s taking some Illustrator courses, and in taking some Illustrator courses, she made a logo for my blog!
I find it very romantic that she knows my favorite fonts. Additional thoughts on brand integrity here.
An old one:
Congratulations to Andrea Helmbolt
for her proficiency in shooting a Colt,
her ability to catch every detail
while sending me millions of emails,
her skill at scanning Craigslist
for any connections that may have been missed,
her success at growing not older but wiser,
oh yeah, and her promotion to Manufacturing Supervisor!
And a new one:
Here’s to our travels and our trials,
our foils and our fables,
to our wagers and our winnings,
and our year of new beginnings.
Here’s to what has been
and to what will be:
Let’s go back to Vegas.
I feel I’ve got some luck left in me.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!