The other day, I was on the train and a poet came on and started reciting poetry for money. The poetry was awful. A few lines went something like this, (I’m paraphrasing but not really exaggerating): “Money is bad / It can really drive you mad / Money can take over your life / I knew a man who told me he loved his money more than he loved his wife.”
People from all walks of life, on probably every level of education, were on that train, and everyone seemed equally aesthetically offended by the poem. No one gave him money, then despite the anti-money message of his poem, the performer started making passive-aggressive comments implying we were all cheapskates.
Other subway performers don’t incite this kind of reaction. No one comes on the train like Ferris Bueller in that scene where he starts playing the clarinet and says, “Never had one lesson!” No one does the Elaine dance. People practice their work tirelessly to earn the cash they’re asking for, and it’s virtually always great and everyone on the train enjoys it. Why should literature be any different?
I brought this up to some friends, saying bad literature in any context is often given a free pass on the grounds that the writer is just expressing him- or herself, or else it’s understood that good literature is not democratic, that the good stuff is all locked away in hallowed university vaults. My friends said I was overstating the quality of the subway musicians and dancers.
Someone recently sent me a link to the website of National Poetry Slam Champion IN-Q. IN-Q is a half-asleep white man with a goatee who performs bad slam-style poetry at TED talks and in Vegas. He has a “partnership” with the World Series of Poker and co-wrote the Official Coca-Cola World Cup Anthem. Sample line from his poetry: “The only thing I know is that we’re all in this together / [labored, thoughtful pause] And the future of this Earth depends on how we treat each other.”
This essay from Splitsider has been going around lately that makes the case against Jimmy Fallon’s brand of basic, cultural reference-based brand of non-comedy. Lip sync battles and the like. There’s a wrinkle in the article’s logic, though: it contrasts lame late night talk show bits like lip sync battles and famous movie scene reenactments with an equally lame joke by Kathy Griffin, the point being that Griffin’s joke at least demonstrates craft.
But humor doesn’t always come from the kind of mechanical engineering that you can break down and explain Splitsiderishly, or else you wouldn’t laugh at a little kid or an animal being funny. Bill Murray’s smirk and Richard Pryor’s look of bewilderment don’t amuse you because of the well-constructed jokes that precede them.
Thomas Edison said that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” but that’s horseshit because Edison also got to where he got to by slandering Tesla and murdering an elephant. Obviously brutality was an additional factor he didn’t include. Pretty shitty math for a scientist.
Maybe each individual success, the kind of success that leads to being called a genius, comes from varying amounts of inspiration, perspiration, brutality, raw talent, privilege, and luck, and the degree to which we are outraged by any success, or the degree to which we approve of any success, depends on how much we perceive each factor to be responsible for that success.
For example, an all-American success story like that of Barack Obama or Jay-Z comes from minimal privilege and maximum hard work and raw talent, (or 100% Illuminati membership, depending on who you ask).
By contrast, there’s been a lot of (usually subtly and not-so-subtly sexist) criticism in the past decade or so of Kim Kardashian’s and Paris Hilton’s inherited fame, and the way in which it only increases the more often they do perfectly normal things like shop and have sex.
The career of a kind of slam poetry Pat Boone like IN-Q could only exist as a result of A. white male privilege (the poet on the train I described earlier, bad but also pretty much as good as IN-Q, was African-American and unkempt), B. the luck of being around at a time when slam poetry has taken off just enough for a certain number and type of people in LA and Vegas to go, “Hey, there’s this slam poetry thing tonight…” and C. at least enough talent to be able to memorize all those words, a thing that I am bad at.
I imagine that on the way back from a sold-out auditorium poetry reading, IN-Q heads back to his palatial bungalow in the Hollywood Hills where he lives with nine supermodels, but on the way he stops by a comic book store, where he knows the kid working there. The kid makes this incredible zine, and it makes IN-Q’s whole day to hear that the new one is out. Gives the kid a bro hug and says, “My man.” IN-Q goes home, scarfs down a salad rich in antioxidants while standing, and reads the 24-page zine cover to cover, laughing and slapping his knee at the funny parts, tearing up at the poignant parts, marveling at the drawings, like “Can you believe one kid did all this with just some markers?”
He puts the zine on his bookshelf next to the others and feels a brief pang of sadness in knowing that you could never sell the thing, not in a million years, for so many reasons: not the right market for it, no mass appeal, not prescient, doesn’t sell itself, no elevator pitch, no one with 1,000 followers and an avi that’s a cartoon of herself holding a glass of wine would tweet a favorable review that encapsulates the zine’s major selling points: “[x] that also has [y] in it? Yes, please!” There’s no “Yes, please” factor.
IN-Q has sex with three of the models and passes out. He wakes up in the morning, refreshed and ready to tackle the challenge of thinking of a word that rhymes with “self-actualized.”