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Our Natural Bent for Destruction and the Rights to Failure

“Is there an art that is dangerous? Yes. It is that art which upsets the conditions of life.”–Charles Baudelaire.

What are the conditions of life? Simply put: that which sustains it.

Does art sustain life? Does literature? Does poetry? No. None of those practices are required to sustain life. And we are better off for it. For who would want to rely on failure for sustenance? And yet, that is precisely what we have today. Failure. And lots of it. And that’s a good thing–for the arts and for life. Precisely because the very conditions that sustain life require failure in the realm of the arts.

This is, in part, the premise of Ben Marcus’s essay ‘I HAVE WRITTEN A BAD BOOK’ published on McSweeney’s. No apologies necessary. Failure is art’s bread and butter. It is that which keeps things going the way they are–it assures us that things will remain the same. Art’s failure is the success story of the status quo–and it fulfills all our dreams. Especially if those dreams revolve around a career in the arts. For without art’s failure how could life go on? Life requires everything that art–even and especially bad art–gives it.

One doesn’t have to read very broadly to realize that we are living on a trash heap. Look around you. If you believe that things have always been the way they are now, then you are probably 19 years old. And that’s okay. Cultural transmission is not one of America’s strengths. What’s not okay is if you believe Lady Gaga or Lil Wayne or Justin Bieber or any one of the other corporate-produced pop-star robots will provide you with the necessary ammunition to destroy this insidiously hateful society which seeks to destroy you. And in turn, turn you into a consumer automaton, denying you the chance to fail artistically.

It’s what we all want. History. To make history. And Marcus is right. For a book to make history, the ingredients are right there: concepts as characters; deadpan humor the tone of which sounds like an instructional manual; deliberately ‘bad’ writing; very little or nothing that happens; a near total absence of any kind of pathos. This is the stuff of great literature. And Marcus knows it. Which makes his novel in question–although it isn’t really a question so much as a black celebration–Notable American Women (Vintage, 2002), a veritable masterpiece of literature. And like all masterpieces a failure when compared to what sustains life. And yet, consumer life, life as we know it–boring, shallow, trite, insufficient, wanting, and, thus, wonderful–would be nothing without its masterpieces. Ben Marcus’s essay is a masterpiece of conformism. And don’t mistake that last pronouncement as an attack or a condemnation, for it seeks to be the sharpest kind of praise.

Much like the praise Joshua Cohen heaped on Tao Lin on Bookforum last year when reviewing Lin’s Richard Yates (Melville House, 2010). Again, the ingredients of ‘failure’, this time from Cohen: empty characters; a writing without useful or illuminating adjectives or adverbs; the use of regular language; deliberately short sentences devoid of descriptive language; hackneyed phrases put in quotation marks; the use of little or no commas or semicolons; a proximity to verisimilitude that’s too real; the employment of apparently pure transcription to generate text–and so on and so on and so on. It’s as if art–or culture, or political economy–or failure can somehow be prescribed, used also to elevate. Which in both cases–the Marcus essay and the Cohen review–the invocation of failure is used to do, intended or not.

Is this what we want art to do? Or is this just a ploy to make us feel better (Marcus) and to make others feel worse (Cohen)? Failure and the arts have gone on long enough. Perhaps, if we really want the kind of world artists dream about, it is time to end art. End art as a failed experiment so that we can realize its successes–if it has any–in the real world. Whatever that means. But for now let’s take it to mean our failed world.

19 thoughts on “Our Natural Bent for Destruction and the Rights to Failure

      1. For me, it’s not a question of liking or disliking Marcus’ fiction. I am more curious about his claims to failure. I feel I learned something from his essay published on McSweeney’s. And I feel I would learn something if I read more of his fiction. But the McSweeney’s essay got me thinking about stuff. I feel as though Marcus is family. So, I had to respond.

    1. Yes and no. Beckett didn’t come to mind while writing this essay. He probably should have–everyone tells me I should read him more. I probably should. But, it’s the position of artist–and the arts–in relation to ‘life’ that fascinates me here. Reading Marcus’ essay in conjunction with Ruff’s analysis of Baudelaire initiated a certain kind of interrogation I haven’t finished with yet.

      1. I don’t know about Ruff on Baudelaire, but Baudelaire’s writing on his poetry is hilarious- and addresses failure for sure- intros and letters- it’s been a while, although he loved himself too of course….love hate thingy.

  1. Thanks for pointing to Marcus at McSweeney’s but I would say it’s not an essay. It’s a story, a fiction, the “I” a character not a confession of the writer, except through fictional moves, a fabrication, the whole thing a fabrication and a wonderful one too, in the same family as “Borges and I” by Borges–though not analogous to it or pointing to identical writerly difficulties. Evenso, I did enjoy your own spirited stance, in particular the sentence– “If you believe that things have always been the way they are now, then you are probably 19 years old.” Thank you again

    1. Thanks for your comment, Catherine. But, an essay can be a story. I am not denying that Marcus is engaged in some kind of fiction-making. But, I decided that his attempt at doing so constitutes an essay. Essays can be fabricated. I mean, which ones aren’t? I agree that what Marcus wrote–whatever we decide to call it–is not necessarily confessional. But even so, it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of fiction.

      Let me just add that it’s not a 19-year-old’s fault for being 19 or knowing what he or she knows. I tend to sympathize more with 19-year-old’s than I do with 39- or 59-year old’s. Why? I’m not sure. I guess I just remember how difficult it was for me to be 19.

      1. I certainly agree that a 19 year old is not particularly at fault for thinking things are the way they always have been (or any other knowing or not knowing based on youth), but by the time one has lived on the planet 39 or 59 years (or longer, as have I) one really has no excuse for believing that anymore–that was how I read your sentence and enjoyed it, in no way faulting the young for what they have not learned yet, just the rest of us who do not always grow up with our years.
        I also tend to think there is no such thing as non-fiction, that more or less everything is fiction, but fiction knows it’s fiction, and I think Marcus’s fictional essay, if you like, knows it’s fiction. I just I didn’t see the fictionality foregrounded in your reflection on it, so when I went to McSweeney’s, I was happily surprised.
        And thank you again for pointing to it.

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