“Let’s open the floor to questions.”
“Is that so? Would it have been more interesting to you if I had murdered my sister?”
“It’d certainly make you more interesting.”
“… Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Thankfully not you.”
When you’re getting to know someone you should always keep in mind that there will inevitably be little surprises. It could be that you discover they’re impassioned pot smokers, or that they have a fetish for toenails, or maybe some other odd thing you can think of. Rest assured I don’t have a toenail fetish nor am I particularly interested in pot, for what that’s worth. Those would certainly be surprising revelations if applicable to me, but they’re not applicable. Nor is the fact that I have a subscription to The New Yorker all that surprising, at least not as surprising as the fact that I’m actually reading it.
So as I just said, there I was actually reading my New Yorker the other day and I happened to read David Sedaris’ long-winded piece called And Then There Were Five. If you haven’t read it, it’s all about his sister’s suicide and how it affected his family. It’s without a doubt a well written piece. Very heartfelt. A tour de force. Let’s all get together and “revel in ourselves because Sedaris is a genius and we understand him therefore we are also geniuses and everything he says has incredible meaning.” No one actually said that, I’m just making up what I imagine to be the unconscious mental processes that drives his readership.
I am quite clearly coming off as insensitive, but there is a point to this post, I promise. I feel that at some point the masses will ambush and flog me for my insolence. But that’s beside the point. Anyway, Sedaris’ piece is honestly a superbly written one, and through it we as readers are inclined to empathize and share. We are able to do this because of how he is able to invoke the familial spirit that, well, most of us are able to relate to. But this is also entirely beside the point.
So I read the piece; that ponderous (I really like this word), uninteresting, lackluster essay. I’m still not quite sure why I even bothered slogging through it, but I’d bet it had to do with the fact that I recognized David’s last name and that it was The New Yorker. I was also feeling particularly generous that night as I looked through my digital copy of the magazine. But throughout my reading, and especially at the end, one word came to mind: boring. A resounding boring.
Being who I am, as soon as I finished reading the piece I found myself launching into one of my inevitable daydreams where I was able to express exactly what I was feeling. It just so happened that this time it took the form of a reading by Sedaris where the audience was finally allowed to ask questions and I instinctively, prudently, yelled out “boooring”. While I’d never read anything else by Sedaris, I did know that he was some form of humorist or satirist, and I imagined that his reaction to my outburst would be, initially, to assume that the only kind of person who would yell out such an inanity would be a simple-minded peon who only craved stupid titillation from their media. However I am at a point now that I have a certain amount of faith in my writerly abilities, and to a certain extent my intellectual capacity. So I figured that my sardonic response, to Sedaris’ snide retort about changing the circumstances of his sister’s death (and I imagined this response would be in his character), would effectively convey that no, I was not an imbecile, and that my objections to his piece were founded on something other than just juvenile boredom. Then he realized that he wasn’t necessarily dealing with an amateur, became offended, and by the end of it I effectively turned into asshole.
Now I don’t want to make it seem as if I don’t respect the grief an individual experiences when faced by such an unfortunate event. I am in no way judging Sedaris for it, or his family, or his legions of fanatics. Suicide is a terrible matter. But writing style and a heavy topic alone don’t make for worthwhile, engaging reading, at least not to Andres’ brain at that particular moment. Because really that’s what the piece came down to. It was just an expose of writing, an opportunity for a writer to spill his guts on a national platform. My initial thought process was that, fine, this was a great piece, he opened himself up and allowed everyone to get a glimpse into his life. But to what end? Emotional solidarity with the readers? Okay, okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in The New Yorker? I would have expected something more rewarding, not just a tug on my heartstrings.
Therefore it was my hope, or rather it was my belief, that in this little fictionalized exchange I would have effectively conveyed the lack of worth of his piece. My thinking was that people would catch on to the subtlety of my little review and see that it was a genuine response based on the fact that the writing was devoid of life (horrible pun not intended, I think) and uninspired. It lacked any intellectual stimulation in my mind, therefore making it unworthy of New Yorker real estate. But I soon found out that this wasn’t the case, that not only was my review too reliant on my own mind filling in the gaps, but that I didn’t understand Sedaris’ role at The New Yorker.
It just so happened that I shared my review with a non-fiction writer in my MFA program, and she subsequently took me to task for it. She’s one of those self-professed Sedaris lovers, and while she conceded that Sedaris’ essay was indeed boring as all hell, she argued that it had value beyond its simple narrative because of the relationship Sedaris shares with his readers. She explained to me that what was beautiful about the piece was that it allowed her, an avid Sedaris reader, to get a small glimpse into his life, in effect bringing him further to life. She also enlightened me to the fact that Sedaris is a regular New Yorker contributor which explains the massive amount of space the magazine gave him for the essay. I felt kind of silly after she told me all of this.
But the thing is my initial review, that six sentence extravaganza, was an honest to god, knee-jerk reaction of mine. Perhaps I’m an idiot and a son of a bitch for even entertaining this entire thought exercise. But it happened, and I want to acknowledge it. Which then, finally, brings me to the question of whether criticism necessarily has to be objective. Is it not meant to be a critical, natural response to something you are exposed to? Even after being told why Sedaris’ piece matters I still think it is boring and without literary merit. I appreciate it, but I don’t value it.
In any case if you can’t appreciate any of this now, it’s ok. Genius is hard to come by.
That’s a joke.