mediocrity is the new black

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When I was small, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote and rewrote a single word fifteen times. I wrote the word, crossed it out and wrote it again. I was eight, and the assignment was to write a haiku about our family, someone we loved. I had one of those black notebooks where the cover was stiff and the pages inside were lined, thick. I had the word voice, because when I was small my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. It was the only sound. But it wasn’t enough to simply say that it was loud, no, there was something else. Something nefarious, ominous. It took me some time but I ended up writing a haiku–three lines, 5/7/5–that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. That was the word I’d been looking for. Thunder.

I was 8.

My grade school published an annual, which amounted to stapled sheets of colored paper filled with our poems, stories and meager hand-drawings. The cover was pale yellow and the interior blue, and the teachers had published all of my poems. When my mother thumbed through it I remember her saying the word thunder out loud and smiling. I’m not sure if she was proud of the word I’d chosen or if she was happy to have been written about. She was pleased with the attention, and that, for much of my life she would be my singular subject. I suspect, in one way or another, she’ll always find her way into my work.

In the movie Wall Street, financier Gordon Gekko tells a young Bud Fox, The most valuable commodity I know of is information. While Gekko was referring to insider information, the innards of a company not published in an annual report but rather strung up in the insides of gleaming offices, that quote, among others, remained with me. I always believed the most valuable asset one could have was knowledge. The journey was in its acquisition, so I spent much of my childhood and life in constant study. I read voraciously, I listened assiduously, and I saw worlds unfamiliar to me–India, the assault of color and shape–all in an effort to see, to know. I translate that world, or at the very least, make sense of it, through prose. I work it out on paper, on screen, and in the end what I’ve learned changes shape and form and becomes something new altogether. This is high art to me, and I hadn’t known of any other world where knowledge, information, was then used and transformed into art. The beauty of it was individuality. The way a child hears the timbre of her mother’s voice and how she may think of wind chimes (you can practically feel the softness, the lyrical quality of it, right?), while another writes, emphatically, thunder (the dark, the sharp, the edge of night like knives cutting into things).

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of pretty stories about angry people. The stories were long, filled with what word technicians would call exposition: a pile of pretty sentences that don’t amount to much. All of my life I hunted and gathered for words, but the problem now was I had too many of them. And I remember sitting in Nathan Englander’s office (he was my teacher for a time), and he printed out two copies of a short story I’d written and one page was filled, FILLED, with red (a bloodletting!) and the other was a clean copy where he’d written some notes on the margins. It took everything in me to not burst into the tears when I saw the butchery, but he taught me about the value of economy. That the most powerful way to show people the world was through the simplest of words. But those words had to work. They had to be a nesting doll, a possessor and deliverer of multiple meanings, and after, I spent years performing surgery on my work. I asked myself, how can I understand and then, how can I show? So that you can see. So that you can learn. So that you can create. And so that others can create. This mutation, it’s a site to see. And so on.

But now something’s changed. The most value commodity I know of is attention. I think about the movie Boogie Nights, where a young Mark Wahlberg loosely portrays the 70s porn king, John Holmes (Johnny Wad, if you must). In one scene, Wahlberg bounces up and down on the bed in his childhood room in his parent’s house. He’d just made love to a woman and he says, Everyone has one thing, you think? I mean, everyone’s given one special thing, right? That’s right. Everyone’s blessed with one special thing. I want you to know I plan on being a star. A big, bright shining star. That’s what I want.

It’s 2014 and everyone wants to be a big, bright shining star.

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I think about this in the car when I’m with two friends and we’re driving from the airport in Bangkok to the hotel from which I’m writing this now. I think about this when I’m in this car and I see a sign that reads, Service staff are not polite. My friend next to me points at the sign, we read it aloud and laugh, and then I pause because there’s something that threads between our hunger for attention, see me, see me, and the very cold honest nature of the words printed and displayed when one is welcomed into a new city. It’s there, I just can’t see it yet.

Later on that day we visit a mall where each floor is designed to represent a famous city: Rome, San Francisco, Paris, etc. We eat Thai food in a restaurant and nearly everyone is photographing something. Two girls fastidiously arrange their hair, their face, for a series of photos, selfies, they take in front of their food which has gone cold. There’s me taking a picture of the food on my plate. There’s a couple buried in the bowels of their phone. Everyone is participating in the world through a filter, a lens, and I set down my camera and realize how this bothers me. There’s art in that for sure, but if there is this omnipresent interruption, are we then not able to see? Not able to get this information, create this art? I’m not sure.

I go to bed early and wake at 4:30am to read this interview:

Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.

We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.

I close my laptop and try to sleep but I can’t. The interview puts me to thinking about a conversation I’d just had where I talked about being frightened of the whitewashing, the homogeneity of the work online and the composition of a superstar blogger. The Photocopy Culture. Certainly, there is individuality, democratized art, and those who break ranks. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Essays and it makes me question my work. It makes me want to take a scalpel in order to get deeper, to see if there’s something else I could say. Excellence pushes me, challenges me, makes me work harder to learn, see, create and share, but the thing is I’m seeing a lot less excellence and a lot more mediocrity.

I realize this is a lot to unpack, and I don’t even know if I can do it justice in a single blog post, but there’s something that’s slowly burrowing under my skin and pricking it. A murmur, something just about to break the surface (the ticking is the bomb), and I found myself enraged when I see that the desire to be liked, favorited, shared, noticed, trafficked, coveted–those base emotions now override the desire for knowledge. Look at me versus let me look inside. Get under the hood, fiddle around, as it were. And that quest to be noticed, to have your voice rise above the din (as referenced by the hundreds of articles that give you tips on getting noticed!) somehow, for me, removes the beauty that once proliferated the online space. A time when people weren’t preened to dishabille perfection, didn’t arrange their totems of worship to then filter and photograph them, waiting for the inevitable “likes.” Perhaps this is why I challenge and question my own work and how I represent it on this space. Perhaps I started to feel this rage a year ago when I wrote a review of the Kinfolk cookbook, which was more of a lashing out on this kind of imperfect perfection culture and its inherent deceptiveness and danger to those who seek to emulate it. I wrote,

There is no real visceral connection between image and type. Rather, the cookbook tells us the story of people who project the lives you wish you could live, and the recipes are merely an antecedent to that lovely fiction.

Point blank, the book was a pile of fuck. Mediocrity at its finest. Sure, the artwork was beautiful, the images bucolic and austere, but there was something wrong with the book. Aside from fact that the writing was an assault to the English language and the recipes went untested, I was sickened to the core about the physicality of the book and its perceived meaning. This book was meant to suggest excellence in its marriage between design, type and image, but it was instead the Trojan horse of art. It was pretty but devoid of actual meaning. Simply put, it was mediocrity dressed up in Sunday-best finery.

That’s what I’m seeing these days and I think that’s what drove my rage when I was having lunch with friends yesterday. A lot of what I’ve been seeing online is really pretty but it’s soulless, lifeless–it’s a replica of a bland original. It makes you desire to covet and acquire rather than hunger to learn and create. And The Photocopy Culture, the peanut-crunching lot, are being rewarded handsomely for their terrific fiction. And so more people see this and say, I want that shiny thing too, and on it goes.

It used to be that the most valuable commodity was information, now it’s adulation, attention. Please, please let me get what I want, Morrissey pleads.

An artist friend tells me that this, what’s been happening, all of it, doesn’t relate to my art. She says, you do you. She says, you keep creating great work amidst the ruin. She says, you ignore and slog through. She says, it’s not about you. She says, keep sifting through the rubble. And I do just that for a time. I get my equipment. I excavate. I ferret out work that challenges and inspires me. I try to ignore the growing fervor (fever, really?). I try to say that the blogger who can barely string a sentence together has a two-book contract is not about me. I try to keep creating, but I wonder this: will I drown from the clamor above me? From the voices, the thunder, of those who want to be seen versus those who love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness, as D.H. Lawrence would have it.

Do I just love and produce when I see so many destroy! destroy!?

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4 thoughts on “mediocrity is the new black

  1. Interesting. I read that interview. I do agree that NYC has become more suburban for a large segment of the population, and they are happy about it.

    I think a quest for knowledge was not the norm nor was/is valued. Making money and pulling up ones bootstraps is what we admire. Who cares about quality? As long as you are bringing in the money, it’s all good.

    We revel in mediocrity. This is nothing new. There has always been a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture despite the fact that our Founding Fathers were smart (and flawed). Maybe all the social media has made that mediocrity more visible?

    Also, why should people strive for excellence when it’s so easy for knuckleheads to do well?

    The fact that Sarah Palin was actually considered a viable VP candidate? That is mediocrity at its height. I’m still not sure how someone who wore her ignorance like a badge of honor was allowed to be on a major party’s ticket. Thanks John McCain.

    I do think a backlash is brewing. The bloggers that readers connect with are going to continue to do well. Those who care only about their sponsored posts, their IG numbers, etc. won’t be able to sustain their success once their readers move on to the next “it” blogger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’ve hit on something, Arlene. The fact that social media has created a sort of megaphone for ignorance and mediocrity. And you’re right? Why strive for excellence when you see scores of people being rewarded for doing the bare minimum.

      When I left New York for holiday this divide really grated on me. And while it feels like I’m complaining (I’m aware) it also kind of breaks my heart that people don’t care about basic things such as subject/verb agreement meanwhile I struggle and push myself to the very limits of my creativity. I also have one eye toward a clicking clock, my expiration, so why not desire to break ranks?

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  2. I read an excellent article about this a few months ago that even had a slang name for this new mediocrity. The name may have been poorly chosen because I can’t remember it and therefore can’t google it to find the article. The writer of the article mentioned being invited to see a “great” band and realizing that the band was far from great, not that you would have known it from the enthusiastic response from the audience. This reminds me of my own experience attending various performances over the years.

    Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, we didn’t have Broadway but we did have did have the Fisher Theatre where plays appeared on their way to Broadway or appeared after their Broadway run was over. We also had a boffo drama program at Wayne State University that graduated many notables including Lily Tomlin and S. Epatha Merkerson. And, of course, we were Motown. I had season passes to the Fisher Theatre. I attended productions of Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre (Shakespeare) and Bonstelle Theatre (contemporary drama and comedy). I attended Motown’s annual Motortown Review every year and lots of other performances over the years including dynamite shows by James Brown and a three hour concert by Led Zeppelin. This long-windedness is my “I walked 25 miles through 15 feet of snow to get to school story,” which is to say I remember when a performance had to be really outstanding to get a standing ovation and I remember a day when encores were not de rigueur as they are now.

    That said, it’s almost always true that the more things change, the more they remain the same, or as Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . ” Joyce Carol Oates stated it well in her introduction to the 1979 Best American Short Stories collection:

    “Though much is routinely said about the troubled state of contemporary fiction—as it is said, routinely, about the troubled state of contemporary politics, religion,—morality, education, and television—it seems to me self-evident that we are living in an era of particularly well crafted creative work, whether fiction or poetry. More good work is being done by more gifted writers than ever before. More magazines are being published; more public readings (of prose as well as poetry) are being given. I know that it is fashionable to lament the passing of a literate order—I know that one is supposed to worry aloud about the malefic effect of the media and “eroding standards” in public schools, and the fact that notorious nonbooks or ghostwritten concoctions are best sellers while the sales of an award-winning collection of poems are distressingly low. Yet it has always seemed to me that such observations fail to take into consideration that the audience for serious literature at any given time has been fairly limited, and the audience for difficult literature has always been extremely limited. Decades ago, people say, there was a far larger market for short fiction—The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, among others, paid high prices for stories—while today the market has been severely curtailed. Once upon a time a writer such as Scott Fitzgerald could make a handsome living by his short stories, but today he would certainly have to produce novels if he wanted to survive. The laments are familiar: we have heard them many times. But what they fail to acknowledge is that mass magazines of the twenties and thirties were primarily interested in slick, formula fiction, the sort of thing that now goes directly into television and would never qualify as “serious.” The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s were the television of their time, and if writers such as Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Saroyan, Irwin Shaw, O’Hara, and others could make a living from them, it was perhaps to the detriment of their art. (See Faulkner’s Selected Letters, for instance, which makes dismaying reading: he exhausted himself churning out stories he considered trash for the high-paying Post, in order to finance the writing of his novels—which were, of course, commercial failures.)”

    Yes, there’s a lot of mediocrity, not to mention pure crap out there but there’s a lot of good stuff, too. I’m NEVER EVER at a loss when it comes to finding something good to read and I expect that to be true for as long as I live.

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    1. This was beautiful, Keith, and JCO certainly gives one much to think about as I’ve always felt we’ve been complaining about the state of American fiction — too much garbage, not enough substance, etc.

      I absolutely agree that I’m always able to find great writing, but I think Arlene made an interesting point with regard to social media making it more prevalent. Discovery is even challenging for me these days in the age of iTunes and Amazon, and I often feel overwhelmed by the seemingly heaping landfill of garbage and I spend more time sifting through the rubble to find the gems worth holding.

      Maybe it’s me, but something HAS changed. There was something intriguing about exclusivity in fiction and art, but at the same time I see the worth in democratization because it allows for such a proliferation of voices we wouldn’t normally have been exposed to. I’m divided on this, you know? I remember creating Small Spiral Notebook in 2002 because I couldn’t find the writing I wanted to read in the literary magazines where agents and connections allowed some to cut through the proverbial line. But at the same time it seems as if everyone believes they are great when really they’re second-rate, and I know that sounds cold and cruel, but that’s the plain truth. Anyone can string a sentence together but that doesn’t make them a writer. Publishing doesn’t make everyone a writer, but it’s that gift, that movement of sound and type, that creates greatness. And not everyone has this.

      I can ramble on for days, but this is something with which I continue to struggle.

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