Pronounced Dead: The Art of Cultural Assassination

[10 June 2014]

By Sean Bell

Above: Zombie hand image from Shutterstock.com.


Two critical catfights are claiming to have buried art-forms which have shaped our civilisation for decades and centuries apiece. Are they entitled to do that?

“If I were a writer,” Owen said, “how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.”
– Don DeLillo, The Names

Is the novel dead? Is rock ‘n’ roll dead? Are we dead, and if so, is this all just some kind of purgatorial torment?

I should apologize before I begin (always a good start): I am about to dig into some arguments which are not, by anyone’s definition, new. They reflect old—some might even say decrepit—concerns regarding elements of our culture and their questionable vitality. They are unified by a shared desire to put their chosen foes in the dirt, whilst simultaneously securing the relevance and survival of their proponents. Almost always, they are arguments between, and for the benefit of, critics.

If you fall outside of that jealous profession, then you were never intended to be a participant. As far as our self-appointed cultural gravediggers are concerned, you are either sheep or cannon fodder. You could be forgiven for not giving a damn.

The problem is, that would buy into the historically stubborn notion that our culture only matters only to our cultural elites, a view which is as dangerous as it is inaccurate. So when the novel is once again pronounced dead despite all evidence to the contrary, or a paradigm shift in music criticism is suggested on behalf of the hurt feelings of Taylor Swift fans, anyone who cares about literature or music has a vested interest. And when confronted by a potential murder, any dimestore detective could tell you what your first question should be: Who has the most to gain from this death? Failing that, though it’s rarely difficult to suss out, what message are the killers trying to send?

Novelist and talking head Will Self speaks loudly and often, but the message often gets garbled in the process: it’s part of his style. Such was the case at the beginning of May, when the Guardian newspaper published an abridged version of Self’s Richard Hillary memorial lecture, under the only slightly self-mocking headline ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’. This was an tacit acknowledgement, either by Self or a clever subeditor, that writers and critics have been calling time on the novel as an ongoing literary enterprise for a century, at least. Annoyingly for them, the novel or, more accurately, novelists, keep shrugging it off.

A month earlier, the New York Times magazine published a now-infamous essay titled ‘The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism’ by Saul Austerlitz, which proved to be the critical equivalent of kicking a hornets nest that has already been kicked several times that day. At this point, even the hornets are getting tired of going berserk.

Anyone serving up the nebulous issue of Poptimism as fresh meat must ignore the fact that it smells pretty funny, and could only be considered ‘new’ by those who think in terms of eons (if you want proof, here’s a PopMatters article by Rob Horning on the subject, published a mere eight years ago). But like checking the novel’s pulse, it’s an argument that never quite goes away.

Beginning with the (fairly incontestable) claim that “music criticism has gotten really weird”, Austerlitz argued that a populist deference to pop music, regardless of its artistic merit, has overtaken the critical establishment (a bold claim to make from the soapbox of the world’s most famous newspaper).

Though a respectable many threw up their hands at the whole tiresome controversy, howls of anger and derision came in short order from the ever-defensive pro-Poptimist music press, which condemned what it saw as Austerlitz’s old school ‘Rockist’ pretensions. The fact that Austerlitz and critics like him hold rock music up as ‘real’ art while being unable to recognise the virtues of pop proved, the Poptimists crowed, that rock ‘n’ roll has finally become irrelevant, and thus, over.

In defending their own preferences, they now sought, perhaps inadvertently, to kill off those of their enemies. All it takes for this to succeed is for people to believe them.

As manifestly different as these arguments may be, two critical catfights are claiming to have buried art-forms which have shaped our civilisation for decades and centuries apiece. Am I really the only one to wonder if they’re entitled to do that?

“twitter isnt dead the novel isnt dead nothing is dead stop trying to make death happen”
Ayesha A. Siddiqi, Twitter, 6 May 2014

Let’s get the cheap shots out of the way. There is no world in which I want to live where the novel predeceases Self. Nevertheless, the novel has been deemed DOA by the author of How the Dead Live, a fact which renders his argument ironic as well as risible. Like the determined peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Self believes he is hefting a corpse, no matter how loudly the corpse itself may object.

With perhaps some inkling of his own absurdity, Self restrains himself from full-on apocalyptic prophecy: he admits that ‘serious’ novels will continue to be written and read, and that even in the murky digital netherworld we now inhabit, revenue streams for writing will eventually be established and codified. Yet even when he grudgingly admits that good novels have been produced since the 1939 publication of Finnegan’s Wake—the arbitrarily chosen cut-off point where Self feels the the literary novel finally ran out of steam—he nevertheless argues that they are “zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.”

Reactions from the realm of bookchat came quickly and predictably, and just as predictably, Self’s celebrity could not obscure the easily observable holes in his argument. “If serious novels will neither cease to be written nor read,” wrote David L. Ulin  in the Los Angeles Times, “then it’s tough to say that the literary novel is dying — any more now than it has ever been.” (‘Notes on the (non-)death of the book’, the LA Times 5 May 2014.) Meanwhile, writing in Salon, Daniel D’Addario acknowledged that Self’s argument is “certainly nothing new — not that it’ll stop a publication from inciting panic in the publishing industry six months from now by reframing the debate, again.” (‘From Forster to Vidal to Will Self, the debate over “the death of the novel” is very much alive’, May 5 2014)

Arguments like Self’s have often rested on claims that the novel’s artistic possibilities have been somehow exhausted, a tactic which is almost always a means for one literary generation to pre-emptively insult those they fear might follow and surpass them. Self, possibly to his credit, does not depend on these prejudices, perhaps because they become less believable with each and every new publication that successfully challenges our jadedness. Self instead points to the novel’s loss of its former place at the heart of our culture, and the ever-worsening economic climate for professional writers of all kinds.

While the first contention is arguable, the second is undeniable: as this column has argued before, the already-imperfect relationship between art and commerce has only been made more untenable by the Great Recession, and when the livelihoods of artists are threatened, so is the art they might produce.

It makes no sense, however, to argue that the novel must die for capitalism’s sins. Self presents the novel’s death as sad but unavoidable—an artistic natural disaster. But if the novel becomes what Self believes it will—a niche product at the fringe of our culture—it will not be because of any inherent flaw in itself. It will be because claims like Self’s were not challenged, and the problems of sustaining or reforming livelihoods and industries were not tackled. “I don’t care about art,” Tristan Tzara once said. “I care about artists.” But really, it’s impossible to care about one but not the other.

Given that Self’s argument brings no real contribution or suggestion to the problems he identifies, why did he even bother to raise the issue? Is he that desperate for attention? Well, yes, but I believe there’s more to it than that. In making his claim, Self’s priorities can best be summed up by his response to the worries of his teenage son, an aspiring rock musician who Self charmingly refers to as a canary in his own “personal culture-mine”. The younger Self shares the common fear that everything has been done before, and believes that those who did it first tended to do it best.

“Sod you and your creative anxieties, what about me?” whines his father, the famous novelist with a long career behind him and money in the bank. “How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?” Obediently, his canary/son “immediately ceased his own cheeping.”

In other words, Self’s concern is not for the artists who may follow him, or the future of their art as a whole, but for himself and the ageing literary cohort to which he belongs. From a man who has been cluttering up the chat shows and award ceremonies for as long as I have been alive, this is a difficult plea with which to sympathise.

Self, whatever you may think of him, has had a good run. But when considering the novel and not the novelist, one needs to think in different, bigger terms. Self, and anyone else who believes the novel is even capable of death, cannot see it as anything bigger than themselves and their own squalid careers. Frankly, the novel deserves better.

“Contrary to press reports, rock ‘n’ roll is not dead… It is alive, and here to stay.”
Earl Sheridan, the
The Guardian, 14 January 1969

So Self makes an unconvincing assassin; many could have guessed as much. Has Poptimism had any more luck with rock ‘n’ roll? Well, yes and no.

Again, cheap shots first: as Tom Hawking put it at Flavorwire, “you can tell a debate has become really tired when it reaches the pages of the New York Times.” Beyond that, the spectacle of the New York Times positioning itself as the last defender of rock will be hilarious to anyone who ever listened to Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners, where he has two choice words for the paper’s high-minded critics (hint: the second one is ‘you’).

Only When the Money Is Threatened Does Change Ever Come

Still, Austerlitz’s essay did a dirty job, and did it well. In response to the rapidly revived controversy, NPR published a brief correspondence between Carl Wilson and Ann Powers, both of whom could be defined as a breed of Poptimist, discussing precisely what that meant. The headline of Wilson’s first contribution asked and then answered the debate’s most pertinent question: ‘Why Do People Have a Beef With Poptimism? Because It’s Winning.’

Much like the novel, why does rock ‘n’ roll’s grave need to be danced upon, unless there’s a worry that something might dig its way out?

I can understand why Wilson might reach this conclusion; it’s where all the empirical evidence seems to point, after all. Representing popular music—the clue to which is in the name—meant that its victory has always been assured. There has never been a time in pop music’s history when its dominance, in one form or another, has ever been threatened, mainly because it constantly evolves. But I cannot agree with Wilson; not just because (if you’ll excuse me sounding like a t-shirt) rock’s not dead, but because you cannot win a self-declared war with a false binary.

Poptimism and its acolytes do not pretend that pop music is relying on them for its survival. Even if pop music isn’t immortal, it does a damn good impersonation, which is perhaps why no one has attempted to preemptively label it ‘dead’. Nevertheless, Poptimism does work on the assumption that certain other things are dying, and it aims to help the mortally wounded reach their fate. Something in me resists that.

As a critical philosophy, Poptimism is not a defence as such, but more an expression of acute paranoia about those few areas where pop is not universally lauded, music criticism being chief among them, because bad reviews are still sometimes written by those who follow their own suspect stars.

It is odd, indeed, it is Poptimism’s central oddity, that Poptimism is so often framed against rock music, as if rock and pop had never been one and the same thing. Arguably, this is because so many of Poptimism’s would-be ideological opponents are defenders of rock’s preeminence, who also happen to be overwhelmingly white and male, an imbalance that is far more important (and destructive) than critical proxy wars.

Here, criticisms are absolutely valid and vital, if we have any hope of undoing those injustices. But it does not follow that, in order to combat sexism, racism, homophobia and the staggering inequalities within music and music criticism, we must buy into Poptimism entirely. Just as the novel may be separated from its criminal economic surroundings, rock may yet escape the prejudices that have made it a musical refuge for white dudes (a reality that, say, Debbie Harry or Jimi Hendrix might take issue with).

And to suggest that the realm of pop music is any less affected by issues of race, gender, class and sexuality would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The only difference is, pop is often insulated from the effects of such criticism, just as rock once was, by its consistent commercial success. Only when the money is threatened does change ever come. Also, to put it mildly, those who would plead forgiveness for Miley Cyrus make unlikely advocates for social justice.

If anyone thinks I’m being suspiciously defensive of rock, let me say that a decade or two away from its place on the gravy train may be the best thing that could happen to the genre (if not necessarily the people who create and sustain it). It’s interesting to think that, after decades of building an image around alienation and disaffection whilst simultaneously conquering pop culture, rock may find itself once again on the fringes of society, only practised by the dedicated and the weird for their own unprofitable amusement. Still, that doesn’t mean that the (admittedly hazy) philosophies of rock and those who love it must be eliminated, leaving only scorched earth behind.
Poptimist attempts to kill off what they define as ‘rockism’ are interesting for another reason: if rock music is so exhausted, why does the regard for it that still exists even need to be self-consciously killed off? Much like the novel, why does its grave need to be danced upon, unless there’s a worry that something might dig its way out?

Poptimism, at its worst, isn’t an attempt to defend Pop—which has always held the potential for beauty and greatness, and doesn’t need a bunch of easily offended hacks to confirm the fact—but rather an attempt weed out those last areas of resistance to its unquestioning domination. Dissident opinion shall not be permitted. As Austerlitz put it: “Poptimism now not only demands devotion to pop idols; it has instigated an increasingly shrill shouting match with those who might not be equally enamored of pop music. Disliking Taylor Swift or Beyoncé is not just to proffer a musical opinion, but to reveal potential proof of bias.”

Both Poptimists or Rockists will loudly accuse each other of having a strangehold upon our culture’s critical consensus, warping it to suit their own unjustified prejudices. To determine the truth of either claim, start by asking which one allows for a greater diversity of opinion. Neither camp is innocent.

Are there critics who give commercial pablum an easy ride because it speaks to their lowest instincts? Do we suffer a surplus of stars who maintain their celebrity by pretending to embody artistic values which they do not practice? Absolutely. But are there also self-important snobs, Rockist or otherwise, who seek more influence over our culture than they truly deserve? Has good music been unjustly sidelined or overlooked because it does not please the tastes of a powerful minority? Again, a strong affirmative. None of these facts are new, and they do not require the formation of a false debate.

None of us, either as a society or as individual fans of music, needs a Rockist critic to tear down pop, or a Poptimist to rip on rock. You might as well send an opera critic to review Nicki Minaj, then treat their bafflement as wisdom. This is why, sooner or later, all critics tend to become specific in their purview, no matter how much they may define themselves as open-minded generalists.

My favourite pop critic right now, if you’re interested, is the consistently brilliant and semi-anonymous ‘Todd in the Shadows’ who, despite his self-identification as a fan of pop music, is entirely capable of highlighting its flaws and vices; he does so better than most, in fact. More to the point, he does so by seeking merit in what he listens to, which is all any critic can do. Even if critics do not recognise it the same way, acknowledging the importance of artistic merit is as close as we can get to any kind of objectivity in music criticism. That belief, unfortunately, places me in the anti-Poptimist camp.

Later in their NPR correspondence, Powers innocently suggested Five Ways to Be a Better Poptimist, which inadvertantly made it clear to me why I could never be one. Number 2 prodded my anti-capitalism, ‘Understand that selling records is the point’. But it was Number 3, ‘Acknowledge that the assembly line is a cornerstone of pop’, which made me a convert in the opposite direction. With no suggestion that this reality disturbs her sleep at night, Powers confidently asserts that “there’s little room in this game for purist notions of artistic integrity.”

Here’s a fun game: imagine the circumstances, any circumstances at all, where that sentence being said, as an instruction for future conduct, is a good thing. Anything? No, me neither.

No one (apart from me, maybe) is arguing that the entire system be realigned to focus on pure artistic integrity and nothing else. But Powers nevertheless argues that there is no room within music journalism for foolish idealists who cling to some idea of art, and who wish to apply it to the medium that is so obviously an art in itself.

Put it like this: if I find myself at a bar after a gig, I’m not going to refuse to drink with any critics calling themselves Poptimists. This is not Gangs of New York, although sometimes I wish it was. However, I will (probably over the course of several rounds) happily argue with them about why Taylor Swift is awful, growing more profane and philosophical as I go along. When Poptimism offends me, it’s when it’s used to try and end such encounters. But we’re critics: you don’t ever end the argument.

This also means I can’t tell the Poptimists to shut up either, because once you start doing that, bad things follow. I can disagree, but I can never and would never demand their silence. This takes us back to the point I made at the beginning of my meandering: this is an argument between critics. It was never intended for you, or anyone else. That limits its relevance somewhat. And I would never demand you care about such an petty brawl, save for the fact you’re reading PopMatters, which implies you have at least a passing interest in what critics, here or elsewhere, have to say about books, music, films, games, comics and our culture in general. Why that is, only you can answer.

“I don’t need you to tell me I’m good.”
—Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners

So where does that leave us? ‘The Novel is Dead’ will rumble on; so will ‘Poptimism v. Rockism’. These are two debates which will never die, unless we consciously decide to stop indulging in them. But if two artforms beyond value are prematurely buried just so these critical clusterfucks can endure, that will be a tragedy that no amount of argument can undo.

This is because art cannot be separated from artists, and both of these arguments are attempts to control what those artists might become. It’s impossible to argue that the novel is dead without arguing that aspiring novelists should give up and apply their talents elsewhere or not at all. Similarly, the Poptimist consensus works on the assumption that music criticism affects the music that comes after it; otherwise, why all the fuss? By proclaiming rock dead, they are, knowingly or not, seeking to kill the dreams of all who believe otherwise.

Personally, I’m not particularly worried. To anyone who has decided the novel is a spent force, I would ask this: think of whatever specific thing you believe the novel can no longer do. Now wait. Given time, you will be pleasantly proven wrong. Literature works like that. The only way the novel is going to die is if the novelists die, too.

As for rock ‘n’ roll? People have been trying to kill rock ‘n’ roll since the moment it emerged into the popular consciousness. Though their tactics have grown more sophisticated, they have always, always failed. With the full benefit of historical hindsight, ask yourself why that might be.

The only people who wish death on art are those who are threatened by it.

Sean Bell is a Scots-Irish-Armenian writer based in Edinburgh. His journalism has been published in the Glasgow Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Evening Times, the Scottish Review of Books and Death Ray magazine. He can be followed at www.twitter.com/SeanCMBell


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/182142-pronounced-dead-the-art-of-cultural-assassination/