The Problem with Pretension

Lots of folks were picking what I thought of as smarty-pants, hyperliterate stuff. I kinda shook my head. I mean, what’s the point of trying to write a short story based on a Dylan song? (I always thought Dylan songs were short stories, only better.) Anyway, for me, “Rio” came up right away. For one, I fucking love the song, it usually makes people smile, even if they’re shaking their heads in the process. I sort of think you can divide the world into people who appreciate Duran Duran, and people who don’t, and I’d rather vacation with the people who do. To me, Duran Duran in general, and “Rio” in particular, shimmer with the absolute brain-freeze purity of pop-rock’s trascendent ridiculousness, whatever that means. And I like the drums and guitar. And, good Lord, the lyrics, to “Rio” especially, are an L.A. sunset, a hot breath of everything and nothing all at once. I love shit like that.

Duff sent me a copy of Lit Riffs, a collection of short stories based on songs. This is exactly the kind of book you want to be lent; it’s got some great things, but it’s wildly uneven. The above quote is by Zev Borow. I think it encapsulates a lot of what’s wrong with most of the stories in the collection, but also with short stories in general, and perhaps even with pretentious people at large.

Lit Riffs First, about Lit Riffs. It opens with a “lost” story by Lester Bangs. We’re all less fortunate for its having been found. As with many collections, reading the more famous name authors isn’t the best strategy. I was disappointed by Jonathan Lethem’s piece, and didn’t even bother to finish Aimee Bender’s. I did, however, enjoy Neal Pollack’s “Death in the Alt Country,” which reminded me of Robbie Fulks’s “Roots Rock Weirdos”, Heidi Julavits’s “The Eternal Helen”, Judy Budnitz’s “The System, and Borow’s “Rio”. While I’d heard of all the artists whose songs were chosen as inspiration, and even own CDs by most of them, I found most of the chosen lyrics to be obscure, and the stories based on them to be even more tenuously connected. Borow’s was the refreshing exception to this.

I once had a friend who was a fierce champion of short stories. I could never echo his appetite for them. Too often, I felt short story authors were trying to out-creepify each other. Thom Jones’s “I Want to Live!” exemplified this for me, and I found some of this tendency in Julavits’s story, though it had a self-aware humor that transcended the creep factor.

This creepification implies that art should be separate from enjoyment. I attended a class with the film director Peter Greenaway once, and he made an interesting distinction between enjoyment and pleasure. Enjoyment, he said, was simple fun. Pleasure, though, was more complicated, even didactic. Too often, I think, short story writers and other people of so-called taste valorize works of art that are complex over those that are fun. But either extreme would be unhealthy. Too much enjoyment produces vapidity, yet too much complicated pleasure leads to pretension. A balance of both, however, allows for learning and humor. I think Borow’s story and endnote capture this perfectly.

O.C. Mix 1 As an example of a non-pretentious, highly enjoyable collection of pop music, I highly recommend Music from The O.C. Mix 1, especially track 9, “We Used to Be Friends” by the Dandy Warhols. Brain-freeze purity, indeed.

3 Responses to “The Problem with Pretension”

  1. emily Says:

    The only time I got short stories to work for me was when I was revising for exams, when I didn’t want to get sucked in by a novel. Since that time is, I hope, unlikely to come again, I’ll need to find an excuse to get you to read Jane Gardam and Alison Lurie’s short stories, both of which are marvellous.

    Your blog is no longer being picked up by Kinja - any idea why?

  2. carolyn Says:

    get this - julavits’ little brother worked as an intern for me when i was the copyeditor at sport magazine. weird eh. i don’t like her writing tho. too twisted and despairing for me, particularly the novel.

  3. Girl Detective Says:

    Sounds like I’ll give Julavits’ novel a miss, then, because twisted despair is exactly the kind of pretentious but well-reviewed stuff that leaves me cold. Emily, I’ve read novels by Gardam and Lurie that I enjoyed a lot. Which of their collections (do either have more than one?) do you recommend? Every so often I do get in a mood for short stories, but I’ve been reading mostly young adult collections lately as research for my novel.