Gooey in the middle because it’s half-baked, at best. I’m still assembling thoughts. But wanted to at least start hashing them out:
I remember that when I was taking workshops, the word “precious” was bandied about a lot. During college, where I took my first workshop, I learned quickly that this was a bad thing, a label you wanted to avoid. It was an outgrowth of sentimentality, a pox on a piece’s potential to achieve complexity. It fell into the realm of “commercial” writing, as opposed to “art”–and of course, most workshop teachers are fond of saying, at some point, that bit about the latter, about how we should leave the cliches and the jingles and the pat, happy endings to the masses at the marketplace, and work instead toward creating the starker, grittier, “more interesting” texts.
I have a lot of questions about this. And oh, the workshop parodies we could write (yawn, I know).
But first, I thought a lot about this idea of what constitutes preciousness, of the provenance, even, of the word as a modern-day critique. It was Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules that took aim at the preciousness of the witty salon ladies of 17th century France, whose word-games and love stories established préciosité as a rhetorical style. But in workshop parlance, the word generally delineates the writer’s attitude toward her or his work/characters/ending, etc. An attitude of italics. Where the moments are too emphatic, verging on fetishistic.
So what would the counter-instinct be–more distance between the writer and the text? A nonchalance? An aversion to cloyingness, to prolonging the pain or the magic, to happily-ever-after? Because that seems just as prescriptive, just as simplistic. And if we’ve been inclined toward narrative theory, we know that any kind of explanation that hinges itself on claims of “reality”–i.e., I like terror/destruction/fragmentation because it’s closer to “real life”–is a bit suspect. Words on a page are thankfully about the farthest one can get from “real life,” whatever that is. But we look for it there anyway, hoping to confirm or disprove our suspicions or beliefs, or else to get taken far away from them, to some wild elsewhere. So if it’s escape that we’re after–and so many of us who read are–is there one mode of creating it that’s patently better/”more interesting” than another?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the books I read as a child, the specific ways in which they captivated me. I think I was a better reader, then, but that’s another post for another time. Among other things, I love(d) fairy tales. (Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, etc.) Which might be considered précieuse as well as “precious,” but which are also decidedly un-precious. There are noblemen and pastoral settings, but also transmogrifications and deceit. Which suggests again that preciousness has less to do with the what than the how.
Question for Adam, in light of his excellent posts on Twee: is preciousness at all related, a distant cousin, do you suppose?
And what about Cuteness? Is it precious? Is preciousness cute, maybe explaining some of our aversion to it?
I’m veering, I know, but I still feel I might be in the same cul-de-sac, and wanted to share Jim Windolf’s article “Addicted to Cute” from December’s Vanity Fair, which I came across as I was mulling these things over and which seems relevant enough to include here. He douses the cuteness epidemic with some hearty shakes of vinegar.
“Maybe the move toward cuteness has come about partly because the idea of “edge” has gotten old. We used to romanticize tortured souls like Dylan Thomas, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin, but their equivalents from recent years—Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Heath Ledger, David Foster Wallace—have elicited expressions of pity more than anything else.”
Is Cuteness a liability to our writing, too? Do we love it in life but hate it on the page?
And now, it’s officially the sugariest “holiday” of them all, one I’ve always felt stunningly neutral toward. Still, who doesn’t love chocolate and a bubble bath?