Cosmetic product users, beware; you could end up as adorable as this.
I had written an article for this week where I went on from here to discuss the photo of a model who’d been hired to dress as a wasp at one of this year’s hugely popular American comic book festivals, and went on to talk about the ordinary people who dress up as fictional characters they admire, trying to eat the royal jelly of the coolness, sexiness, and individuality of, say, the Joker or Jack Sparrow, and become that character by association. By doing so, I said, they were in danger of killing their own true individuality. It was a pretty good article. Sadly, it had little to do with bees and less to do with fiction, so I scrapped it, and I’m going to discuss Gabriel Josipovici’s now-notorious comments about Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Julian Barnes being “hollow.”
If there’s one sort of literary-based article I’ve come to loathe, it’s the ‘Everybody, look! A moderately well-known writer or academic has dared to impugn a member of our beloved literary canon’ announcement, which from Roddy Doyle slagging off Ulysses to Josipovici calling Barnes “smart-alec, slightly anxious”, never deviates in style. It always has the exact tone of the sort of schoolchild who’s heard one of his peers say something a bit silly and can’t wait to tell the rest of the class so they can all mock together.
“Oh my God, Gabriel- I can’t believe you said that! Guys! Guys! You’ll never guess what Gabriel said!”
Let’s save the ‘decline of literature’ implications of Josipovici’s words for another day (though they would have fitted well with the decline of the honeybee) and concentrate on what he said about the authors “showing off” and “an ill-educated public being fed by the media – this is what art is.” He goes on to wonder why writers like Rushdie feel the need to boast and shock. Ignore the elitism and let’s remind ourselves that the authors, as well as the public, are being fed royal jelly by the hive of literati. And, honestly, glancing back over the sort of royal jelly they’ve received over the years, you’d have to be horribly arrogant to think that you could possibly avoid being affected by any of it.
“Will Barnes ever write a dull or mediocre novel?”
“Every sentence and every paragraph works with the coiled precision of the watch mechanisms that the narrator's father repairs, and glitters with the lapidary perfection of the diamonds he sells.”
“[Saturday] offers a detailed portrait of an age, of how we live now, and... it offers more, something transcendent, impossible to dissect.”
And then there’s the New York Times Book Review review that puts Rushdie in the company of Swift, Voltaire, and Sterne. (Incidentally, Metacritic has a books section. Who knew?)
I don’t want to speak for the authors themselves, but I do wonder if even Kafka could have kept his insecurity secure when he was being told this sort of thing. Self-satisfaction is built on self-doubt, and, as writers, we are constantly in dialogue with our readers, whether we claim otherwise or not. And, because we’re largely insubstantial creatures, their reaction is always going to affect us, even reshape us. We want to be outsiders, but we do long for the approval of the hive; we want, above all, to be heard by them. If Beckett had been as “damned to fame” as he clearly enjoyed claiming, then why publish in the first place? Why did B.S. Johnson cling, desperately, to one critic’s assertion that he was “one of the best writers we’ve got”, repeating it in covering letter after covering letter to uninterested publishers? Did even Allen Ginsberg really want to break out of the mainstream alone, so much as create his own edge-group?
I decided to put up a photo of the wasp-lady anyway. Unless she is a bee. Is that the Transformer behind her that's meant to be like a bee? Why does the Transformer species even know about bees? God, I'm so confused.
Only true literary royalty can accomplish that paradox of being one of the people, being their representative, their voice, being appreciated by them, while also being alone and apart. It’s queen bee or nothing, for a writer. And, most interestingly as far as this metaphor goes, hive members have been known to “cuddle” their queen to death, pressing their bodies around her and suffocating her. Hive = critics, queen = writers established in the canon; geddit? Geddit?
Additionally, there are many potential queens, but it’s only the one who sleeps with the hive that reigns supreme. And these potential “virgin queens” like to try and kill each other. I was amused by the Literary Encyclopaedia’s winningly objective entry on Josipovici;
“Gabriel Josipovici is one of the major contemporary British authors. If this fact has so far escaped the notice of British literary critics and much of the British public, this is no doubt due to Josipovici's denigration as 'merely' an “experimentalist”.”
So this becomes, in my mind, an issue of a member of the counter-culture movement scoffing at the mainstream – and he couldn’t have chosen any more mainstream authors, you note, to attack. (Is it my imagination, or are the worldwide media making this sort of contrarian thing more prevalent? A book wins the Prix Goncourt, Michiko Katutani shoots it down. To Kill A Mockingbird has an anniversary, we hear it may not have been all that, and immediately read a counter-article stating that, actually, it was. Armond White seems to have built an entire career out of doing this.)
Yes, readers are affected by critics who tell them what art is; and critics who tell them what art isn’t. So are writers. All of us enjoy forming tribes rather than opinions. The Internet has a wonderful, crass name for this- it’s called ‘circlejerk’. You sit in a circle with your friends who all agree with you, and you, er...jerk, communally. Rushdie will have his circlejerking hive, and Josipovici will have his. But what the latter should not do is posit himself as a lone voice speaking out against the hive mind of literary criticism when he’s a wannabe queen bee as well. He isn’t literature’s new saviour against Rushdie and co., but another voice, yelling into the sea of voices.