What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

goldfinger-300x235

WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 24th annual honor was awarded last week and Erri De Luca takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Day Before Happiness. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of the worst passage from 2 years ago, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

7168-triptych-of-garden-of-earthly-delig-hieronymus-bosch

Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

Share

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

goldfinger-300x235

WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

7168-triptych-of-garden-of-earthly-delig-hieronymus-bosch

Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

Share

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

goldfinger

WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

7168-triptych-of-garden-of-earthly-delig-hieronymus-bosch

Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing  when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

Share

William, It Was Really Nothing or, The Faux Pi of Sarah Palin

Memo to Sarah Palin: when Lady Macbeth cries “Out, damn’d spot!” she is not talking to her dalmation.

I found Sarah Palin’s latest tearjerker invoking William Shakespeare particularly interesting on two levels (and, I say tearjerker in the sense that her indefatigable self-promotion combines with illimitable delusion to produce these types of comments, which at once induce laughter unto tears which then prompts one to weep for our future). First, it was, of course, The Bard who wrote the following lines, which demand to be quoted in full for a variety of obvious reasons:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I know, right? (This is life imitating art, super-sized.) But second, it is more than a little appropriate to consider that the other great William (Faulkner, that is) utilized this poetry for the title of one of the towering literary achievements of the last century, The Sound and the Fury. It is amusing (aside from the audacity) that Palin likens her creative license (or that of the semi-literate cadre of ghostwriters who Tweet for her) with masters of the form who on occasion changed the language. The difference, aside from the fact that they could actually speak the language with no small degree of proficiency, is that for artistic folks who innovate and advance our template for communicating or creating, one must already have mastered the fundamentals. This is demonstrably true of Slick Willy (Shakespeare) just as it is true of will.i.am (Faulkner), as it is true of Salvador Dali or Ornette Coleman. Can you dig it?

Sarah Palin is in what seems to be a historically unique position in that the more she embarrasses herself, the better it turns out to be for her career. And bank account. Sarah Palin is hated and loved in equal measure, always a good niche market. And she is popular, to a large extent, because her legion of dimwitted acolytes find, in her looks, attitudes, pronouncements and propensity for faux pas (faux pi?), a reinforcement of many things they want and need to believe. She is popular the same way boy-band pop stars are popular: she sells copy because the things that come out of her mouth are the things that a great many people want to hear. There is a formula for insipid pop music and there is a formula for pseudo-populist hucksterism.

What is different about Palin—and what makes her dangerous—is that while virtually every move she makes is calculated and carefully calibrated to resonate with the semi-literate and unreflective Americans whose bigotry is set on cruise control, she is not entirely disingenuous. Indeed, the things that most annoy the principled, learned and sentient citizens happen to be the things that are unaffected and/or unrehearsed. That is, her astonishing, almost impossible-to-properly-fathom ignorance. But that didn’t stop Ronald Reagan (whose amiable dunce routine, in fairness, looks downright Socratic after eight years of his Vice President’s son and Palin’s scorched earth ill-will tour). The problem, now, is what we have wrought as a nation with our voracious appetite for insipidity: being dumb is not only no longer an obstacle, it is a short cut. People like Reagan (and, to a lesser extent, his V.P.’s son) had to work hard to overcome their manifest intellectual shortcomings. Imagine how much time and energy is freed up (to fundraise, for instance) if you no longer have to fake it ‘til you make it. Think of how inordinately liberating it must be to celebrate—and be celebrated—for keeping it unreal on the campaign trail. Consider how much more confident one can be in one’s untested and uninhibited convictions if one never has to explain them.

I don’t blame Palin or her fans for this phenomenon. The staggeringly unenlightened have always been amongst us; mostly innocuous platforms like Facebook and Twitter have just given them more ways to connect and commiserate. No longer do misguided cretins have to conduct solitary diatribes in their attics or consult with their tinfoil hats in a dark room; now they can plug in, connect and blame the godless, the gays, the immigrants and the evil machinations of Socialist-minded social servants with one hand comfortably snuggled in the bag of Cheetos. They can incite riots and excoriate the elites without even leaving the comfort of their recliners.

But I suspect that even if social media (and, of course, the Internet) had been available two decades ago, an unabashed simpleton like Sarah Palin could never have made it out of Alaska back then. And for this I blame our disintegrating, increasingly useless mainstream media. The only thing liberal about today’s media is the appetite they have for horse races and sensational gossip over more mundane matters like what policies (take health care reform) actually contain and who they actually benefit, or making readership aware when a particular pol or pundit is straight-up lying. But we know this is treacherous ground to tread because, as Dr. Stephen Colbert established, the truth does have a liberal bias.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin’s latest crime against the English language and (more distressing) cocksure condemnation of racial and religious intolerance. No, not her own, but the ostensible hatred a certain ethnic and religious group harbors. That would be Muslims or, in Republican parlance, towel-heads. You see, because of 9/11 Muslims hate Americans, want to kill us, and their religious beliefs—and those who practice them—are violent and insidious. They also are not white or Christian, which is two strikes against them from the get-go. But this manufactured outrage over a Mosque in New York City is actually a teaching moment. In one imbecilic sentence, Palin is illuminating the misguided thinking that even allows someone to go there. Rather than attempt to disentangle the convenient (and conveniently backward and bigoted) sleight of mind that can equate Muslims with terror and a Mosque with violence, let’s try to use this insulting illogic in another scenario where Palin currently applies it. Below we have an image of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. As my perspicacious friend Tony James reminded me, Timoth McVeigh was Catholic, so clearly we need to tear down St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral (indeed, the proposed Mosque will be two blocks from Ground Zero; this church is practically across the street!). Needless to say, the average American redneck cemprehending that comparison would be as conceivable as the average Christian conceding that Jesus wasn’t, in fact, a honky.

Instead, the focus has almost entirely been on her beyond-W butchering of English syntax and no one (outside of the progressive blogosphere which, while useful and necessary, is mostly preaching to the choir) seems terribly concerned in addressing the racist and moronic reasoning that would even lead one to endorse such backwards thinking. (That said, it must be mentioned that the collective genius of humanity has rallied in a time of need, and is busy at work on Twitter making appropriate mockery of Palin’s bungle. Enjoy the hilarity @ #shakespalin.) Naturally, the emphasis has involved a “discussion” of whether she intended to make up a new word (duh) or whether we should take it seriously (DUH). Less than a little effort is made to remind anyone that everything she is saying is historically wrong, mean-spirited to the point of psychosis and flat-out racist. One could also make a case that she is persecuting another group’s religion, something Christians, for all of their whining and “War on Christmas” crapola, should be at least a tiny bit sensitive about. Of course, as we know in America the only groups who are genuinely persecuted are white fans of Jesus and billion dollar crybabies who pay too many taxes (Ha).

(Sidenote: it is either disconcerting or enticing—and possibly both—to consider what would happen if people like Palin and her ilk were really forced to sit down and actually read the bible or the Constitution (including the Bill of Rights) and understand who Jesus really was (even as a fictional character) and who the founding fathers really were (based on the things they actually believed and wrote which, unlike the authors of the bible, bear their signatures). Would heads explode? Would pre-packaged ideologies, at long last, suffocate on their own fumes? Would something approximating enlightenment ensue? Would reading lessons be necessary first?)

A prediction: There is an unforseen silver lining in all of this. Most of us have suspected for quite some time that Palin is the de facto leader of the G.O.P. brand; the only people unwilling (or understandably unable) to acknowledge this are the insiders and party elders themselves, who have so much to lose if and when she ultimately steps out of her Fox-News bunker and pre-scripted press releases (which she calls speeches). Once she puts herself in the proverbial crosshairs of even cursory (and at that point inevitable) media scrutiny, the lies will unspool and the façade will crumble and a modicum of sanity will be restored to our woeful world. And along the way the unthinkable will happen: the Republican contenders will necessarily have to go on the attack. That is when things will get very interesting indeed.

And people will write about it, we will laugh about it, and we will do everything in our power not to learn from it.

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A Serious Mess

First off, full disclosure.

I don’t exactly have a love/hate relationship with the Coen Brothers, because there is too much gray area. Some of their movies I love without reservation (Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski) and some I really find inspid (Miller’s Crossing, O Brother Where Art Thou and especially The Hudsucker Proxy). But, I guess, to their credit, they also have plenty of films I am largely indifferent about, or find simply okay (this includes near misses like Barton Fink and Blood Simple). I was underwhelmed with No Country For Old Men the first time I saw it, but liked it better the next time –always a good sign. Burn After Reading was what it was: a lark; a lightweight effort with a heavyweight cast, mostly salvaged by the never unimpressive George Clooney. And then there are the rest of them, of which the less said the better.

Which brings us to A Serious Man. Their latest film garnered some, well, serious praise (including two perfect-10 ratings from colleagues from PopMatters whose taste and opinions I admire). If you have not seen it yet, be prepared for some spoilers: this is not a review; it’s a postmortem. The plot, presented as a pitch, sounds irresistible: college physics professor (and Jew) who seems a nice enough fellow is, without warning, suddenly made to suffer a series of unfortunate events; he is a present-day Job for our postmodern times. Add the Coen brethren’s patented black humor alongside their perverse sensibility, and hilarity shall ensue. Pretty good premise, right? (My first thought was, we’ve already seen this one, and it was called The Man Who Wasn’t There, which was less a movie and more a 90 minute exercise to see how many cigarettes Billy Bob Thornton could smoke.)

The leitmotif of the movie is provided (in a typical instance of when the Coen brothers’ goofy irreverance goes wrong) by the Jefferson Airplane chestnut “Somebody To Love”: When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies. This is its first problem. Setting up the framework of this anti-morality play, however cheekily, with such a literal (and cornily shoehorned) statement of purpose begs two big questions which had better be answered in some fashion. One, what is the truth? Two, is there any evidence that there was ever any joy inside our hero?

Let’s look at the tale of the tape: decent man with annoyingly needy brother who has moved in. And a vulgar wife who asks for a divorce to facilitate the affair she is having. And two bratty kids. And a racist neighbor. And a health scare. In lesser artists’ hands, a protagonist with this sort of curriculum vitae is a guy we like and can relate to who has horrible things happen and just when it can’t get any worse, it gets better. You know, the types of movies usually starring Will Smith or Tom Hanks. The problem with A Serious Man is that Larry Gopnik, despite all the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, never seems to lose much that he’d be better off without. And I’m quite certain that is not what the Coen Brothers are after, which is not the fault of the actor, but of the writing and direction.

O Brothers, Where Art Thou?

The film’s internal engine stalls on this irreconcilable conflict: if we can’t help thinking Larry has never been happy, or might be in a better place away from all of these miserable creatures all around him, it sort of sucks the air out of the movie’s momentum. And because the viewer (or, this viewer) became distracted by this…distraction, it…distracted from what must be the primary objective of any film, which is providing unfettered engagement without distraction. All of which is to say the Coens violate the operating principle of the storytelling process, and it isn’t “give us a character we care about” (that is something only unimaginative critics and untalented writing professors blather about); rather, it is: give us a character who does not strain credulity to an insulting degree. When minor characters, especially ones in Coen Brothers movies, are somewhat less than believable, it can be and often is in the service of delightful nuance. In other words, it does not grab attention or focus from the thrust of the proper narrative. On the other hand, if that character is the prime mover of the action (even in a movie where the prime mover is Fate with a capital Cliche and the protagonist is the dust this Mighty Wind blows about with biblical imperiousness), we are stuck in neutral, which in Coen Brothers projects is often (and generously) assumed to be black humor.

At this point one can sense the more defensive fans sighing in exasperation and patiently explaining how the monstrous math equation in the classroom illustrates everything, or the (very Coens-esque, or is that Coensian?) Asian student personifies the enigmatic fulcrum upon which action (or, in this case, inaction) prompts reaction, or the even simpler fact that it’s black humor, dummy; Gopnik is the pawn of an uncaring universe and the better he tries to be, the harder the universe bends him over. Well, okay. But then we’re failing on simple human as well as artistic levels: one need only look to the slums of Bombay or the killing fields of any third world country to see innocent people suffering terribly for crimes they never committed. Maybe the Coens should have named this one Slumdog Hundredaire.

Or try this: even though Gopnik’s suffering is over the top, even by Job’s standards (Job, mercifully, never had to deal with the petty foibles of a professor sweating tenure), one doesn’t feel pity for him in regards to his contemptible progeny. At what point is he himself at least partly culpable for the churlish punks he has reared?

Put yet another way: if this is tragedy, it calls to mind why contemporary audiences aren’t particularly fond of or familiar with the ancient-school shtick of some recondite curse invoked to explain how and why everything goes wrong. There’s a very good reason the Deux et machina act doesn’t resonate with folks these days. Or, the abiding genius of Shakespeare involves his ability to delineate the human element informing the big unraveling.

And if all this makes me sound like a prudish traditionalist, I would suggest that the film’s entire structure is slickly super-glued to resist critique: the person offering the criticism is simply not in on the joke; they don’t get it. And I’ll eagerly stand up and be counted as being all for any endeavor mocking the platitudes and sadism masquerading as morality that organized religion so often makes a killing (often literally) from. Pointing out, as the film does, the obtusity of the clerics and their incompetence in dealing with virtually any sort of human dilemma is something to be celebrated. Ditto the Coen brothers’ obvious disdain for lawyers: don’t hope for comfort or expertise from these dissembling shmucks. On these points, I’m picking up what they’re putting down.

Listen: I ain’t offended by misanthropy; I can handle the truth. And if The Truth is that the Coens loathe humanity, or the world, whatever. More power to them, but I felt the same way I do when I watch virtually every Woody Allen movie: please, for your sake, I hope you are in actuality a very happy person and merely a miserable artist. In the final analysis, it’s not the filmmakers’ view of the world I find offensive (or facile); it’s their hostility toward artistic engagement. What they successfully create in almost every film (except the great ones) is a bleak cinemascape that leaves a certain demographic (likely the same ones who worship Woody Allen movies) feeling smug and superior, and a clique of not-quite-as-intelligent-as-they-think-they-are critics rolling over and panting for more stale scraps.

The big punch line is more like a punch in the nuts. When the inscrutable rabbi finally speaks, his quote (bringing it all full circle!) of Jefferson Airplane is…can I get an Oy, man? And from an editorial standpoint, simply quoting the lyrics would have been tolerable, barely. But the too-cute-by-two-thirds naming of each individual band member is both unbelievable and profoundly unamusing. It is an archetypal bad Coen Brothers moment: one feels the intrustion of their arrogance, their self-love surpassing their other people-hate. At long last, one grows tired of the types of movies made by grown men who ultimately love nothing quite so much as the smell of their own farts.

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