Thursday, April 19, 2012

Good Fans

In 1970, William S Burroughs wrote this. Nobody knows whether he ever sent it.
My Dear Mr. Truman Capote,  
This is not a fan letter in the usual sense—unless you refer to  ceiling fans in Panama. Rather, call this a letter from “the  reader”—vital statistics are not in capital letters—a selection  from marginal notes on material submitted, as all “writing” is  submitted to this department. I have followed your literary  development from its inception, conducting on behalf of the  department I represent a series of inquiries as exhaustive as your  own recent investigations in the Sunflower State. Your recent  appearance before a senatorial committee on which occasion you  spoke in favor of continuing the present police practice of  extracting confessions by denying the accused the right of  consulting consul prior to making a statement also came to my  attention.  
I have in line of duty read all your published work. The early  work was in some respects promising—I refer particularly to the  short stories. You were granted an area for psychic development.  It seemed for a while as if you would make good use of this grant.  You choose instead to sell out a talent that is not yours to sell.  You have written a dull unreadable book which could have been  written by any staff writer on The New Yorker—(an undercover  reactionary periodical dedicated to the interests of vested  American wealth). You have placed your services at the disposal of  interests who are turning America into a police state by the  simple device of deliberately fostering the conditions that give  rise to criminality and then demanding increased police powers and  the retention of capital punishment to deal with the situation  they have created. You have betrayed and sold out the talent that  was granted you by this department. That talent is now officially  withdrawn. Enjoy your dirty money. You will never have anything  else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In  Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished. Over and out. Are you  tracking me? Know who I am? You know me, Truman. You have known me  for a long time. This is my last visit.
This entry is not just an excuse to enjoy how right Burroughs was, is, and will always be. (And for reasons that will become clear below, if you actually liked In Cold Blood--for a reason other than it kicking off the 'investigative novel' genre--I'm eager to hear about it.) There are two ideas here I need today.

The first idea is just hinted at here: good art has something to do with actually being good.

(Whether Burroughs was, himself, a good person, is highly debatable, but his work had integrity: if he ever published a word that wasn't purely William S Burroughs it's news to me.)

Anyway: The idea that making or appreciating something (writing, art, movies, things) makes us better somehow. It's a dangerous idea...

We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning.
--George Steiner

...but it's also a popular, attractive, persistent idea. It has a truth and a lie in it and there's a line and I am thinking about the line.

People, anecdotally, often describe the moment they are able to connect with another person--to see they were on some level more than just an obstacle or irritant--when they see how much that person earnestly loved some song, some movie.

You can see an inkling of this same idea in attempts to make whole groups of people good by introducing them to 'the arts' in one way or another.

You can go on youtube right now and probably watch 12 different documentaries about any number of obsessive collectors of some cultural things and go "Look at her, she just loves Barbie stuff, wholly, generously, she's likable".

We see open embrace of things like this as fundamentally honest--to love something openly is to admit that if it were taken away you'd be hurt and, therefore, to show people a way to hurt you and, therefore, to risk getting hurt for the sake of telling the truth to other people. This is why dogs (who, being nonstealth predators, move directly, nose-first, and earnestly drooling toward your chinese take-out) seem to us so much more honest than cats. People like cats, but for different reasons.

This is not wholly an illusion: to be a fan, to enthusiastically like something someone made--a book, a movie, a record, a game--means you are appreciating something that isn't you. It isn't even your family. It isn't anything that will contribute directly to the success of your genetic material on the planet.

Per se, a person who is wholeheartedly aesthetically appreciating a phenomenon of the outside world is getting out of their own everyday concerns (essential to being able to imagine the suffering of other people) and appreciating that a human unlike them did something worth doing (ditto essential).


Yet, as we know, neither artists nor fans are necessarily good. And, worse, often their particular badness seems to flow directly from their love of the thing.

That's where the second thing I notice about Burroughs' letter to Truman Capote comes in: the idea that Truman's talent does not belong to Truman. It is not intrinsic to him. It was given. It can be taken.

Whether or not this is in some way literally true is not the point. The point is it's a healthy idea.

Artist or fan, when you make the thing about you then you lose one of the benefits of art.

(Now there are a lot of benefits to thinking about art or books or games or food or whatever, but I'm just talking about this one: the benefit of exercising the sympathetic imagination.)

In artists, the path to jackass often goes like this:

The art is good.
The art needs to get made.
I make the art.
Therefore: I am essential. Taking care of me is essential.
Therefore: I can be a jackass since what I need is more important than what everyone else needs.

It's gross but it's simple and you can read about Picasso and learn how it works in 5 seconds.

In any fan, it can go:

The art is good.
I appreciate the art.
I appreciate the art because it is like me, it is the product of people like me, for people like me.
The art is therefore good because it is like me.
And I am good because I like it.
The art is good because it appeals to me or is related to me.
Therefore: if you are good, you will like this. If you are bad, you won't.
Therefore: if it is not aimed at me, it is not good.

Now every single great piece of art ever has probably benefitted from this dangerous but emotionally undeniable reaction. Sometimes you hear a song and it is you. That guy, that girl, that surfin' bird in that song--that's me they're singing about. Oh David Lee Roth I too have run with this Devil you speak of. That's not so bad. Everyone belongs to something and it is evolutionarily useful (and therefore endorphin-worthy) to recognize it.

When this kind of fannishness curdles is when you feel that feeling of ownership more powerfully than the feeling of appreciation that a person, in a place, did something good that you could not have done and they did it by (in some essential way) not being you and you forget that the reason the work itself is even good art at all is because it manages to be in some way about something that is still in some quantity unknown and mysterious.

This happens when the art you love (or even the art you made) is, to you, more about things you are sure of than about things you are not sure of.

This happens when your analysis of the thing matters to you more than all the many things the thing is to all the many people it is that thing (or other things) to.

That Auschwitz guy ceases to be broadened by Goethe, Rilke, Bach and Schubert if he decides they're good because they're sensitive and German and he gets it because he's also sensitive and German and that's how it works.

And all this goes in reverse, as well: you can hate Harry Potter, but if you hate Harry Potter more than you are curious about people who like it and how it works on them--more than you are willing to be surprised--you're letting your antifandom make you less of a person instead of more of one. And you are being unscientific.

When that happens, fandom is just everyday tribal chauvinism. I'm Irish, it's Irish, it is about how badass it is to be Irish. Next! You are then no different than the man who hires his nephew solely because he is his nephew. The person who likes the movie because it shows people who they can identify with doing things they want to do. This person is not doing anything unnatural or unforgivable, but they are doing a thing that has no aspect of generosity in it. You're just appreciating yourself, or things that it will help you or your ego--on some level--to appreciate.

Many people suggest the opposite: that art can be objectively analyzed and proven to definitely, actively, promote this or that set of values and that the mysterious and fascinating parts are the least important. This seems to me to be the height of stinginess toward pleasure and the height of presumption about the minds of people you don't know. The height, in other words, of every emotion that leads to fascism.

The parts of art that can easily be ascribed to a mere point of view (Lovecraft's racism, for example) are the least morally important in shaping the reader. Trying to grasp the work's uncanny power (extremely difficult, requiring imagination and reflection) will get you farther in any direction you want to go as a human being than playing spot-the-metaphor (child's play).

So, what I'm saying is: there are lots of cool things about cool things. But the only ennobling thing about them (as opposed to interesting or fun or educational) is when you're able to see them as apart from you. An art thing is good because it absorbs you into the products of another mind. Fundamentally: it is an object of curiosity. Curiosity can make you good.

The part of art that's about exploring the unknown and the not-yet-understood is the part of art that makes fandom fun and beautiful and open and can make it give you that "I may not agree with your hilarious anime costume but I defend to the death the awesomeness of you wearing it" ecstasy that comes when you look out on a convention floor and see its variety and exuberance and humanness and the fact that there's this enormous human thing in the world that isn't running just on power and hate for once.

The part of art that's about knowing for certain what it's about and knowing it is or is not about you is the part that writes an article about it for Slate that gets all the facts wrong and puts it all in a little nerdbox (with or without self-loathing) to be smug about.

We can't all be good all the time. There are (very sensibly) limits to our generosity and our democratic impulses imposed on us by the need to survive and actually get shit done now and then. But it's good to at least know when you've gotten ahead of yourself.

This is not so much about when you have said something precisely correct and when you have said something precisely incorrect, but about how much effort and brainspace you devote to reiterating what you think you know versus how much effort and brainspace you devote to checking to see if it's true.

The test:

People who like x are all like y.

If you are sure of it--and not curious about testing it and about asking around about it--then you are wrong. If you don't ever ask x about y, and don't really care what the answer is, you are wrong. You have let the part of being a fan that makes you bad get ahead of the part that makes you good.

You would not be the first person to let love make you wrong; but be careful.


Now, two things that are fun:

Phillip K Dick being prophetic, again. And being generous.
And our gnome, monk, ranger, rogue, occasional DM, and wizard, Satine, has got a new pin-up project, if you're interested.


Mach Piper said...

I think I have just developed a deep and abiding man crush on your writing/ideas.

Anonymous said...

Mind-blowingly wonderful essay. Thank you!

I had a point in my life when it hit me that I'd been conflating matters of taste with matters of virtue. I thought that people were wrong to like things I didn't like, and that my taste was a measure of my good character. Exactly the kind of narcissistic approach that you describe here.

Once I realized that taste is more like a kink than anything else, I felt so much better about just enjoying what I like, and if I couldn't always enjoy what other people liked, I could feel good for them for having something to appreciate. My world changed for the better.

There is a pivotal moment in the book "High Fidelity" when the main character stops making mixed tapes of music that he thinks his girlfriend should likes, and starts making mixed tapes of music that he knows she likes. That was a great way to put this idea across, to not make the art about me, to not so pedantic about what I enjoy.

Another point I liked was what you said about fans being likable, and that a sea of cosplay is great because it's not about hate or power. I've always felt that way about nerds in general. I love nerds because they actually found something they enjoy, something that's not motivated by the three acceptable reasons to do anything: status, money, or trying to get laid. In fact, they're hobby usually costs them something.

And for me, the working definitions of a principle is something that you do even if it costs you something. I'm not saying hobbies are principles, they I think that's part of the attraction, it's a dedication to something other than oneself that provides no tangible gain. It's a religious experience in a way.

Anyway, pardon the ramble and thank you for the amazing essay. I found it by following a link on Facebook.

Scott Faulkner said...

Very well spoken (when fandom curdles!) and well illustrated by these awesome letters. Thanks.

James Maliszewski said...

I'm not sure ... but I think I like what you've just written here. But I must cogitate some more.

Nate L. said...

Thank you, your exploration of other people, other art, other ideas, and other people's attitudes towards those things are one of the reasons I read your blog. Please continue.

Unknown said...

Thanks for appending that PKD letter - it's sad how close to the end that was, and how loose and happy he sounds there.

Mel said...

Wonderfully lucid. Wow. But of course maybe that is because I agree with you so completely on this. To element of fandom that I find so appealing is the unabashed love (yes, that is the correct word) of something that ultimately has no value (in the economic sense) beyond the fact that it is loved.

Doktor Nephron said...

Just wanted to say I thoroughly enjoyed your essay about Burroughs and Capote. Razor keen.

Patternwalker said...

I always love reading your take on things, man. It always pulls be into a brighter, more interesting world.

gregarious monk said...

Great post; thought provoking and insightful. Thank you.

Simon Tsevelev said...

You know what? You're probably right. Not specifically about hating Potter, because I think I've figured out what people like about that stuff, and I hate that, too; but about things like that in general. Hating stuff because it's bad is much more interesting than hating it because it's not me.

Loquacious said...

Marking this as a time and place to remember- this is the kind of thinking and writing I aspire to (but have not yet been given the talent). Thanks for sharing.

Roger G-S said...

> to love something openly is to admit that if it were taken away you'd be hurt and, therefore, to show people a way to hurt you and, therefore, to risk getting hurt for the sake of telling the truth to other people.

Should be posted in letters of iron over the door to the internet.

Tavis said...

Agreed on both "wonderful essay" and "world changed for the better". At some point I realized that upon finding someone who liked something I did, I would start asking them about other related things I also liked until they either hadn't heard of it or didn't agree with my judgement. In either case I'd walk away feeling superior, having ruined a chance to actually connect with a fellow fan.

I think that your point about narcissism explains why sales figures of 4e vs. Pathfinder was edition-war ammunition. Whether a lot of other people like the same thing you do becomes really important when it's them mirroring your fandom that matters, not the enjoyment you get from it yourself.

Zak Sabbath said...

That last bit is one thing I still do not quite understand: the "what we like is popular therefore...(anything)"

I can understand wanting the reasons you like something to be understood

I can even kinda sorta a little understand wanting your thing to be populat

I can't understand what claiming it is or isn't popular could possibly mean in terms of quality. I mean, most of the worst things in the world are popular. Hell, there are way more murders than copies of Pathfinder sold every year. Does that mean murder is better than Pathfinder?

And likewise the people who go "We like THIS and lots other people do too so we're normal". Last I checked any survey, the average person was a drooling idiot--what do they think calling themselves "normal" proves abut games?

Zak Sabbath said...


Kaiju said...

Powerful stuff... nice work!

Anonymous said...

you did not just distract me from finding a copy of pappus' mathematical collection... you did not just distract me from finding a copy of pappus' mathematical did not just distract me from finding a copy of pappus' mathematical did not just distract me from finding a copy of pappus' mathematical did not just distract me from finding a copy of pappus' mathematical did not just distract me from finding a copy of pappus' mathematical did not just distract me from finding a copy of pappus' mathematical collection...

*note to self: do not read Zak's blog while doing something highly important late at night*

Unknown said...

There's always a stink of irony when a writer accuses another writer of being a sell out when the later ends up doing the same thing like William Lee did in those Nike Spots he starred in back in the mid 90's, but what can I say,I love the old man's stuff. Burroughs was the closest thing if HPL became a dope fiend and his Naked Lunch is nothing less then great. it's the closest thing in literature to feeling like your inside the mind of someone completely mad in a world even more insane. Burrroughs scenes in Drugstore Cowboy are fantastic.

I read once Burroughs and David Lynch wanted to collaborate on a film project. What a shame it never happened.

Zak Sabbath said...

Oh my god I forgot about that Nike commercial...

but still, the writing held. Right up 'til the end.

Anonymous said...

the term 'sympathetic imagination' is particularly helpful (i refer to
it as 'mirror neurons', but your term is good).

i plan on including this *entire blog post* in a letter to my cousin,
a classical composer, seein' as how we tend to trade these kinds of
thoughts in our exchanges about creativity.

it seems like whenever i really like one of your posts i'm tempted to make a comparison between what you're talking about mathematics.

in mathematics (and no other currently understood field of human endeavor, though we are getting close to an age when other fields will resemble math; ie, once the symbol-processing content of the human psyche has been fully assimilated by ultra-smart future humans, someone can go, i like harry potter, and someone else can go, oh, i like fictional characters belonging to the class XY556 too! maybe we should date!), asd-spectrum type people like me has spent his life being inclined to become obsessively fond of things about which he doesn't have to worry about the whole 'i like/make this therefore i'm good' dilemma.

that's because, in mathematics, there are 'dualities'.

what are dualities?

"In mathematics, a duality, generally speaking, translates concepts, theorems or mathematical structures into other concepts, theorems or structures, in a one-to-one fashion, often (but not always) by means of an involution operation: if the dual of A is B, then the dual of B is A."

so, i can really hate a particular mathematician's way of doing math. but when it comes to their results, i can usually find a way of seeing how they're sorta like things i love, because for mathematics revolves around finding, proving, and exploiting dualities.

(this has had a cumulative snowball effect which has led to mathematics being able to 'dualize' nature, thereby describe nature, thereby invent things based on nature.)

but that can't happen in art (yet) because of our K-12 education system (and the limitations of our current century's understanding of the human psyche).

it has been multiple-choice quizzed into my cranium that truman capote is a good writer who is fundamentally important as an expression of good 'ol american bullshit and that william s burroughs was a druggie who wrote complicated atemporal narratives, just like that turgid gravity's rainbow.

college is sorta different, of course, but still exposes the same fundamental set of prejudices, ie moby dick and tristram shandy are both great books (how? what characters? what plot?) and ancestors of gravity's rainbow, unlike that naked lunch.

hzdgmg said...

Hi there. Your articles must require a lot of research and rumination to put together. I love how the internet puts all those connections at our fingertips.

I like WSB but my most consistent contact is through the "Spare Ass Annie" collaboration with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphopracy. His delivery is unreproducible in my head.

Anyway, that's prepamble. I have a podcast on which I interview roleplayers "inside the Actors Studio" style and I'd like to have you as a guest.

Episode #4 or #5 and then #8 onwards is really where I've settled on a style if you'd like to check it out.

Drop me a line (contacts on the page) if you're interested and I can send over the questions. It usually takes 1-1.5 hours to record depending on how may opinions a guest has. You seem to have a few...

Anonymous said...

Dig it! Nail. On. The. Head.

Yes, art is subjective...but it doesn't give douchebags the right to dismiss it with a wave of their hairy knuckled hand.

And yes, some of my favorite writers/artists were in some/many respects, creeps. Burroughs, Kerouac, HSThompson...all pricks...talented pricks who didn't let their faults compromise the inherent value of their work...but pricks nonetheless.

Speaking of Burroughs, howz about a pseudo-Gamma-Worldian campaign map based on the Red Night Trilogy, Naked Lunch, and the rest of Bill's bizarro wasteland geography!?

Schleiermacher said...

Hm. This provokes and frustrates me, because I am convinced you are wrong, but I cannot defeat you. I contend that this:

"The person who likes the movie because it shows people who they can identify with doing things they want to do. This person is not doing anything unnatural or unforgivable, but they are doing a thing that has no aspect of generosity in it. You're just appreciating yourself, or things that it will help you or your ego--on some level--to appreciate."

is what every fan of anything is ultimately doing, but I cannot construct an antithesis as eloquent as your thesis.

The Cramp said...

I think you have to first accept a certain cultural pragmatism (common enough among Americans, Protestants, etc. etc.)to see that passage as 'necessarily negative.' (as opposed to 'sufficiently negative' if you follow my usage.) It's about pleasure. Which is a vexed issue. It's not bad, it's just not more than pleasure.

Zak Sabbath said...


You have made a grave and egregious error if you believe the only way to enjoy fine prose, camerawork, drafting technique, humor etc. is to see in it reflections of your own ideas, attitudes, etc.

To cite a painfully obvious example that even the dumbest person should be able to grasp: the demolition derby.. Cars hitting each other--that spectacle is beautiful. I identify with no car involved.

Calithena said...

Does this have anything to do with roleplaying games?

Since the answer is certainly 'yes' if you scope it broad enough, I guess I can refine my question to 'what'?

Calithena said...

I also enjoyed the essay, I'm just trying to figure if it has application to the chicken wire and ice cream.

Calithena said...

Not trying to be a jerk - genuinely curious. The general points are worth making, certainly.

Zak Sabbath said...

Many people in RPGs are chauvinistic about their taste. If you can't think of any you are blessed and should count yourself lucky to not know them.

Calithena said...

Yes, of course. People are like this with everything, but you do run into it with gamers too, especially the ones who are passionate enough to discuss RPGs online. In philosophy we get to this issue through Hume and Kant and the "Paradox of Taste." John Keats' letter to Reynolds of 1818 has some useful advice on the subject.

Calithena said...

My dear Reynolds,

I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner—let him on any certain day read a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose and let him wander with it, and muse upon it, and reflect from it, and bring home to it, and prophesy upon it, and dream upon it—untill it becomes stale—but when will it do so? Never—When Man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting post towards all "the two-and thirty Pallaces" How happy is such a "voyage of conception,' what delicious diligent Indolence! A doze upon a Sofa does not hinder it, and a nap upon Clover engenders the ethereal fingerpointings—the prattle of a child gives it wings, and the converse of middle age a strength to beat them—a strain of musick conducts to 'an odd angler of the Isle' and when the leaves whisper it puts a 'girdle round the earth. Nor will this sparing touch of noble Books be any irreverence to their Writers—for perhaps the honors paid by Man to Man are trifles in comparison to the Benefit done by great Works to the 'Spirit and pulse of good' by their mere passive existence. Memory should not be called knowledge—Many have original Minds who do not think it—they are led away by Custom—Now it appears to me that almost any Man may like the Spider spin from his own inwards his own airy Citadel—the points of leaves and twigs on which the Spider begins her work are few and she fills the Air with a beautiful circuiting: man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul and weave a tapestry empyrean—full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering of distinctness for his Luxury—But the Minds of Mortals are so different and bent on such diverse Journeys that it may at first appear impossible for any common taste and fellowship to exist between two or three under these suppositions—It is however quite the contrary—Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in Numberless points, and [at] last greet each other at the Journeys end—A old Man and a child would talk together and the old Man be led on his Path, and the child left thinking—Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour, and thus by every germ of Spirit sucking the Sap from mould ethereal every human might become great, and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furse and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees. It has been an old Comparison for our urging on—the Bee hive—however it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the Bee—for it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving—no the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits—The f[l]ower I doubt not receives a fair guerdon from the Bee—its leaves blush deeper in the next spring—and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted? Now it is more noble to sit like Jove [than] to fly like Mercury—let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at: but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive—budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit—sap will be given us for Meat and dew for drink—I was led into these thoughts, my dear Reynolds, by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of Idleness—I have no read any Books—the Morning said I was right—I had no Idea but of the Morning and the Thrush said I was right—seeming to say—

Calithena said...

'O thou whose face hath felt the Winter's wind;
Whose eye has seen the Snow clouds hung in Mist
And the black-elm tops 'mong the freezing Stars
To thee the Spring will be a harvest-time—
O thou whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phoebus was away
To thee the Spring shall be a tripple morn—
O fret not after knowledge—I have none
And yet my song comes native with the warmth
O fret not after knowledge—I have none
And yet the Evening listens—He who saddens
At thought of Idleness cannot be idle,
And he's awake who thinks himself asleep.'

Now I am sensible all this is a mere sophistication, however it may neighbour to any truths, to excuse my indolence—so I will not deceive myself that Man should be equal with jove—but think himself very well off as a sort of scullion-Mercury or even a humble Bee—It is [no] matter whether I am right or wrong either one way or another, if there is sufficient to lift a little time from your Shoulders.

Your affectionate friend

John Keats—


People often quote the middle of this letter on aesthetic education and community, but the last sentence is critical too - the piece relevant to your post - and of a piece with the rest.

Zak Sabbath said...

...and it probably makes a lot of sense to people who get paid to sit in universities talking about art instead of getting paid based on exactly how many Bees or Mercurys come to sup and wallow in the moist fastness of their scented petals.

Anonymous said...


Calithena said...

It's a poet's take, not a philosopher's. I failed to make you happy with it, though, so apologies.

Zak Sabbath said...

grrr snao snap snap bark bark