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Preciousness, Cuteness: A Gooey-in-the-Middle Post in Honor of Valentine’s Day

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.


“There is probably no such thing as an uncomplicated cute image.”

“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?

11 thoughts on “Preciousness, Cuteness: A Gooey-in-the-Middle Post in Honor of Valentine’s Day

  1. There is a companion word that I use to hear a lot, also a descriptive, best avoided in the content of your work: sentimental.

    I took exception to this characterization once, in a fairy wimpy way. “I’m sorry – can you explain that to me?” (I finally said after the word had been used a few times) – “Is this something that I should be avoiding?”

    It’s odd, isn’t it, when you think back, perhaps as a child, when cute was good, sentimental was good, precious was, well, precious. I happened to love Winnie The Pooh and Stuart Little as a child. I think they were all three. Happiness was mine, then, unapologetically. Yahoo.

  2. OH. And one note worth mentioning on the romantic deaths: the formers (Dylan Thomas, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix) were all due to reckless lifestyles (adult term) and unintentional suicides; the latters, with the exception of Heath Ledger (we assume) were very intentional. That might explain in part why pity enters into our perceptions of their lives and their (perhaps more) tragic deaths. It was clear that, in spite of their successes, they were profoundly unhappy, as evidenced by their deaths.

  3. wow, that cute article is practically hysterical. calm down, man, cute isn’t the red menace. but isn’t what makes things ‘more interesting’ or ‘more complex’ that they can be cute and terrible at once, or anyway at differing moments? is that an obvious statement? in any case, i like kindness/cuteness in art as long as it doesn’t pretend that’s all there is or it goes overboard in its premsie. i think of jurrasic park when they are getting all kissy with the brontosaurus. i never met a brontosaurus but giant, dumb herbavore = kindly kind of goes out the window if you’ve ever met a buffalo. THAT’S sentimentality, the kind that cheapens art. but people (or even dinosaurs) taking a break from being treacherous and being ‘cute’ can not only be real but welcome.

      1. oh i like koons okay, i like spectacle in art and i’m a fan of hubris. better than koons or hirst though i like franz west, whose stuff seems both more playful and more serious. they aren’t exactly comparable, but west does a lot of big pink public sculpture and such and tries to be interactive and have wide appeal, etc.

  4. Wonderful Kristen!

    Should we exhume Sontag and her Notes on Camp?

    It seems to me ‘cute’ is a reflex word that might not mean what it really means, but is a deflecting word – dismissing word, a putting in a box word, like saying a film is a ‘Western.’

    If something is defined we don’t have to deal with it, or so it seems to be logic.

    1. I also think there is something bordering on noxious that Vanity Fair is critiquing cuteness culture. Their business is exploiting envy, something much more harmful.

  5. Kristen: This is really interesting. I think cuteness is an affective category that needs to be examined seriously.

    A lot of great points here about Jim Windolf’s VF piece. Joseph: definitely there’s a bit of hysteria here and a lot of cultural anxiety. Notice the language of the caption at the beginning of the article: “America has been flooded by a _tsunami_ of cute…” (emphasis added).

    This goes without saying that I was particularly taken aback by the representation of Japan–surely there’s some noxiousness here, Greg. (By the way, I love the idea of exhuming Sontag’s brilliant piece on camp– I actually thought of it when reading Kristen’s post– it nicely gets at the “cute” aspects of poets like John Ashbery or Elizabeth Bishop without trivializing their work…)

    But maybe we should also exhume Said’s ORIENTALISM. To me, this was the pièce de résistance of Windolf’s logic:

    “It is strange, but possibly correct, to think that every time we gaze on a cute image these days we are seeing some weird aftereffect of World War II. The cuteness created by our bombs has come back to seduce us.”

    Like a great ghostly Geisha rising from the ashes of war–no better yet–like Astro Boy dressed as M. Butterfly’s Song Liling, (s)he comes to seduce us… please, Jim…
    Am I being overly cranky here?

    John–haven’t you been to Japan-?-what do you think?

    And any fans of pop painter Yoshitomo Nara? Surely he belongs in this conversation– his images of little girls are not quite “cute and terrible at once” but they definitely trouble Windolf’s claim that Japan had a “desire to show its dependency.”

  6. definitely agree about Windolf’s p.o.v.–and about the potency/poignancy of the cute-and-terrible. so long as it doesn’t feel prosthetic, maybe. children can certainly be cute and terrible. i think of edward gorey’s ‘gashlycrumb tinies,’ some stories by kelly link and judy budnitz and, goodness, there’s robert blake, lewis carroll, and so on…we should make a master list; i love this category. and i love the sontag/camp connection. michael, i like your insights re: japan, and woods, i wondered what you might have to say about that too.

    preciousness –> cuteness –> Camp? or is there a better continuum?

    someone draw a diagram. i love diagrams.

  7. I think “precious” is one of those words that is sometimes far too easy to throw around, maybe a little facile, and I feel like it sort-of automatically shuts shit down instead of opening it up for greater understanding/clarification, if that makes any sense. I am also sometimes suspicious of it b/c it feels heavily gendered. I think people sometimes throw this word at works I might describe as “delicate,” and I’m thinking here of works like Lily Hoang’s “Changing” or Molly Gaudry’s “We Take Me Apart,” both of which, w/ their use of form and stylized, somewhat feminized imagery like fairytales, lovers, dresses, flowers, etc, I could see some jackass calling precious, but both are super fierce texts that I think have that interplay and tension between elements Joseph Young is describing above (I think his comment, and also Greg’s, is right-on).

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