Sometime around mid-2007, after graduating law school and worrying about a job as Son #2 was in utero, I became culturally irrelevant. Having sold off most of my (non-classical) music and movie collection a couple of years prior, I wasn’t interested in what was going on “artistically” in the world around me, mostly because very little of it sounded or looked like art; it resembled trash. I was dead to contemporary literature as well. After a brief but disastrous flirtation with being an English major in 1998 during my freshman year of college, I had sworn off fiction for almost a decade, though my wife, who double majored in English and Spanish, cajoled me now and again into putting down Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, or whatever philosophical page-turner had caught my fancy to read something — anything — of literary substance. It was nice. However, I quickly realized that I was woefully behind on all of those classics “everyone should read,” and so I told myself, facetiously, that I would get around to folks like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace right after I finished the complete novels of Anthony Trollope. (I haven’t even started yet.) Granted, I’ve made some exceptions here and there. For instance, in 2012 I bought used all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels for a song and proceeded to read them over the course of the summer. Also, during my brief tenure as a New Yorker subscriber, I read a short story or two.
Now, keep in mind that to declare myself culturally irrelevant has nothing to do with whether or not I am relevant to culture. (I’m not.) More importantly, it does not mean that I am in any sense “above” it, though I won’t lie: part of me sometimes thinks I am. I just don’t see the attraction of investing my energy in culture when there is so little aesthetic, intellectual, or moral return guaranteed. How do I know this? After all, if I am not “engaged” then I can’t really conclude anything, right? Here’s a confession: I cheat. I cheat by poking around in what other people think of culture, not to following their findings blindly, but to discern what type of persons are receptive (or hostile) toward what is being bandied about as “the next big thing.” Yes, there is a selectivity bias attached to this very peripheral project of mine, but it keeps me safe from the black mood of regret I might otherwise feel after investing X number of dollars or Y number of hours in some book or album that turns out to be utter rubbish. This approach also insulates me — mostly — from getting pulled into celebrity vortexes or swept away in an undertow of Twitter wars and blogging feuds. All the world can go on doing nothing serious on its own steam and without my notice.
I’ll give you an example. My Google News Feed, which often behaves erratically due to my apparent inability to calibrate it properly, alerted me to one Emily Gould, a glorified gossip columnist and confessional writer who apparently paved the way for the hit television show Girls. (That’s a contested claim, but it’s a marginal matter — I know very little about the show.) Gould, who is releasing her first novel this week, has apparently made waves for years by trashing celebrities and ripping into people she doesn’t like with impunity on social media. I could have spent some time browsing through Gould’s body of work to find out what she was up to and why people cared, but it was so much easier to just hop over to the online blog/magazine Reluctant Habits where the editor, Edward Champion, wrote 11,000 words gutting Gould and the low-brow trend of “literary celebrity” she helped to create.
To be honest, Champion’s takedown of Gould and other “middling millennials” is a wee bit longer than what I normally go for, but it’s a fascinating catalog of where a certain, increasingly large, segment of “literary culture” has gone in the United States. A bold n’ brassy presence on social media is noticeably more important for an author’s success than talent it seems. What struck me the most about Champion’s piece is how utterly uninteresting so much of this “stuff” is. Do we not all have friends, or at least acquaintances, with tales like Gould’s or other “writers” who trade off other people’s secrets and imperfections in order to draw a crowd? Or am I so far removed from the times that I am incapable of detecting the life lesson on the human condition that Tweeting about a lost cat delivers?