“OMG” can’t do the trick, I know that much. Columns like this one demand much, much more, something along the lines of IGHAOYL (“I’m gonna hurl all over your leg”) or maybe SPA? (“Suicide pact, anyone?”). Seriously, just when I think American culture can’t possibly get any more intellectually inbred, I see something that makes me wish the sun would just supernova already. It’s hard to know where to even begin with Susan Shapiro, though. Her piece is such an Everglades of emotional appeals and logical fallacies that you need a machete to chop your way through them. When she decries writers “going to the computer wearing a three-piece suit”, it’s not because writers ought to resist prefabricated points of view—oh no, one needs to be “weak, vulnerable or relatable”. She writes “…a litany of bitterness will not suffice. My rule for first person nonfiction is: question, challenge and trash yourself more than anyone else”, as if trashing yourself isn’t the ultimate act of bitterness. She says “Sharing internal traumas on page one makes you immediately knowable, lovable and engrossing”, when in fact it makes you sound like a high-maintenance drunk. And she says “The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice” when in reality it means that you were willing to embarrass a relative in the world’s eyes because it got you some attention.
It blows my mind that Shapiro would drag Robert Lowell into this, but I’m glad she did because Lowell’s poetry is the perfect rebuttal to the self-fellating, catharsis-by-numbers kind of writing that she’s into. Casual readers of Lowell’s life have no idea what his poems are “about” on the he-said-she-said soap-opera level that interests Shapiro, and yet the meaning of those poems is usually clear. (For a so-called “confessional” poet, Lowell could be dumbfoundingly obscure.) And what if it isn’t clear? Recognizing that not all art was created for our personal enrichment is just as important to human development as learning how to walk; mysteries sometimes abide forever, even in works we know like the back of our hands, and sometimes the background facts are plain none of our business. We aren’t entitled to the particulars of every illness or failed marriage (in fact, they only bring us down), and in any case art needs some level of mystery to get off the ground at all.
Robert Lowell didn’t just vomit up undigested chunks of his life in order to “hook” his “audience”. Anyone can be the stenographer of his own life; an artist does something with the materials first, but the only time that Shapiro does talk about transformation—“they can transform their worst experience into the most beautiful”—I can only wonder which one of us is nuts. Great writing—which, by the way, is often uglier than sin—only happens when it can’t be written any other way. Shapiro’s just an airhead, I know that, but when she describes “the right place” as “the heart”, I can only think the heart ain’t shit if the head isn’t along for the ride, too.
You catch my drift. Claustrophobia and the needles of narcissism are two of the big reasons I’ve been taking a break from the Internet. The ego on display, no matter whether it’s direct or reflected, was wearing me down, and I wasn’t in a good place to begin with. It shows up in the A.V. Club writers who can’t write a review without first running down their lifelong history with The Munsters; the Facebook posters who like dogs or old movies or taking pictures of their goddam dinner, which they post again and again and again, as if it’s the only thought in their head; or how ads for the product I just saw on Amazon magically follow me around the net like an unrelenting mirror of my taste. I suspect Susan Shapiro thinks nothing of such things, but from here it feels like a mental lockbox, every side of which is labeled ME. Frankly, I don’t think we’re worth the fuss. It’s a big, big world out there, much bigger than little old American us can imagine, and I want it to stay that way. What I’m really talking about here is humility, but let’s let it dangle for a rainy day.