Interim: Some actual literature

I know that this should be an update about The Lion King, but it isn’t. I am too jetlagged and sick to finish writing that right now, and also I accidentally didn’t save a portion of the post when I last worked on it. So, that happened. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to say, since there is just a plethora of strange controversies people have dreamed up for this movie. It’s not like Cinderella, where there are all literally multiple books written about it, and an entire social phenomenon named after it, the Cinderella Syndrome. With these ’90s Disney films the controversies tend to be based more in ’90s radicalism and ’90s counter-radicalism, and neither strikes me as very intellectually substantial. The movie itself is more interesting than the controversies, and its influence on the changing world of musicals is probably going to dominate the discussion.

So, until I get that done, isn’t this supposedly a literature-based blog?

Well, yes, it is. Or, rather, it’s a literati based blog for culture and pop-culture, because someday I hope to get an article in The Rumpus… So, literature.

I had a conversation before Christmas with a few undergraduate writing students, and they expressed a certain frustration with professors who expected them to write in a “literary” fashion. Sometimes I think professors assume too much about what their audiences have in their personal lexicons, especially with terms as relatively vague and baggage-heavy as “literature” and “art”. These are ideas that have encompassed not books, but entire libraries, fields of study and philosophical arguments dating basically to the beginning of philosophy itself. Plato wrote on art. It’s a long discussion. And, while I don’t want to imply that these professors did not do a good job of explaining what they meant, or that I can do better in a blog that could alternatively be called “Two Nerds Bitching”, I do think that there’s an assumption that students have been tossed into the dialog of ideas a little earlier than what might be the case.

Actually, I think that this might be interpreted unfairly. I think many professors believe that they should not have to dumb down their classes and that students, whose primary occupation should be learning as much as possible in this rather novel period of life, should supplement their courses with additional material. This is true. However, I think that many bright students get left in a sea of terminology and possibly biased or partial definitions and, with what may be seen as an overwhelming abundance of library material, might come away with headaches and confusion. So, instead of saying that I have an answer to questions as vast and timeless as “What is art/literature?”, I’ll instead talk about what other, smarter people have talked about.

First of all, if you’re repeatedly being asked by a professor to write in a certain way, whether or not that professor has the carte blanche on all that is literary is secondary to what you are supposed to learn in this class. 9 times out of 10, the professor is trying to teach students raised on Hollywood blockbusters, TV, and fast-paced YA series how to use certain techniques. So, unless you’re just so revolutionary and brilliant that you need to fight against the system and show the world that your experimental, postmodern novel-in-verse is the next Finnegan’s Wake, I’m guessing this is an attitude problem. Obstinance isn’t a virtue in and of itself, and sometimes you need to do your writing exercises, draw your still-life sketches, play your etudes, do your plies and rond de jamb, practice your batting swings, and learn your multiplication tables. I don’t know why people think that writing is any different. You’re probably not going to suddenly breathe out the next classic novel without ever practicing your writing or studying the greats. It’s as unlikely as picking up a guitar and, without any practice or ever listening to music, shredding like a rock god. I’d like to dub this “American Idol Syndrome” or, since I currently live in the UK, “X Factor Syndrome”, the idea that out of nowhere you’ll suddenly become a star. It doesn’t matter that the winners of these shows have histories of practice, because they only really exist to their audiences between certain hours of the day, and their rise is like magic. Such is the reality in reality TV.

It's worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction... Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

It’s worth noting that the so-called music experts of these reality shows gave us the sterile, karaoke, High School Musical abomination that is One Direction… Oh, and Cher Lloyd.

But,  I do think that this frustration goes beyond the goth girl who dropped out of my undergraduate fiction writing class because she wasn’t allowed to submit Lord of the Rings fanfics. I think that this goes beyond people who just don’t want to write character-driven stories, or who think that they will be the next J.K. Rowling and therefore do not need to study Faulkner, and so on. Certainly, these people are real (horribly, horribly real), and, yes, they are an enormous drag on every writing course they enter. “Why do I have to read Moby-Dick when I’d rather read an urban fantasy about fast-talking wizards?” they say. Or, “I read popular fiction because I know what sells and I’m going to sell!” they proclaim, dully unaware of how much popular fiction is written by staff authors, or that the majority of such submissions are rejected unread. It’s terrible.

"Whadya mean rejected?!" [Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption...]

“Whadya mean rejected?!”
[Evard Munch, The Scream, a seriously better painting than my caption…]

However, there are plenty of bright, bookish people who get themselves on the wrong end of a confusing use of terminology. They don’t understand what their professors want. They don’t understand why they like something that seems lowbrow, or hate something that’s supposed to be highbrow. I think that a lot of talented and intelligent students somehow find themselves in this situation and burn out. And, I think that many professors believe that these students are like the “I don’t have to read writing to understand writing! I’m going to be a bestseller!” types, and brush them off.

I think that a lot of people first become unsettled by this discussion when they realize that their likes do not exactly pair up with everything that is or has been critically acclaimed. They find themselves reading a book and going, “Why do people like this? Why am I supposed to like this?” It’s like meeting a popular person and finding yourself in that uncomfortable situation when you seem to be the only one in the room who doesn’t like him. I think that this happens a lot in the visual arts and music, as well. People look at a Rothko and think, “I don’t get it. It must be crap.” People listen to classical music and are shocked to find themselves bored by Mozart and Dvořák, but enjoying Katy Perry. How can that be, when classical music is supposed to be so good and Katy Perry is so… whipped-cream boobies?

Truly she is the voice of a generation...

Truly she is the voice of a generation…

I think there’s a place between embarrassment and reactionary snobbery, and many people fall into it. “Well, yeah, I didn’t like Rothko. That’s because I haven’t been brainwashed into liking that arty bullshit! I’ve got common sense on my side. Sure, I like Vampre Night 7 better than Steinbeck’s works, but that’s because I’m a book-lover, not a hipster! And, yeah, I think Transformers 2 was a good movie and didn’t get Wild Strawberries, but that’s because I understand the common man, not that elitist crap. I might like Flo Rida, eat food that is cooked in 120 seconds, and think that Raphael was a Ninja Turtle, but at least I’m not a kale-eating snob who uses artisan cheese knives and wears vegan shoes!”

"Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I'm not a HIPSTER from OREGON!" [Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

“Yeah, sure, my diet destroys the environment, my money supports slave labor, and I listen to Cher Lloyd, but at least I’m not a HIPSTER from OREGON!”
[Image from Portlandia, which is awesome. Seriously. Go watch it.]

The tragedy here is that these people are hurting themselves, just as much as a person who refuses to eat anything but fast food. The unglamorous secret is that you’re not going to like everything. And that’s okay. You won’t like every film that makes it big at Sundance or Toronto, you won’t like every piece of classical music, you won’t enjoy every play, you won’t fall in love with every painting or sculpture, you may not get a performance piece, you might not like that Nobel Prize-winning author, and you may even dislike books that people call “classics”. And that… is okay. Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, what you’re experiencing is normal.

The arts come from people, people with their own quirks, perspectives, and visions. It’s like getting to see someone’s personality in audio or visual form. And, like the people you meet every day, you may not like everyone. This, however, does not mean that you should give up on art, music, ballet, “arthouse”, or literature. You may not like a guy named Ted, but that doesn’t mean that every Ted, Teddy, or Theodore in the world is an asshole.

"I don't approve of Roosevelt's actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose."

“I don’t approve of Roosevelt’s actions in Panama, and so therefore I boycott everyone who gets close to moose.”

Furthermore, those professors talking about art and literature have their likes and dislikes, as well. I had a professor who hated Death of a Salesman, and a professor who thought Shakespeare In Love was a really wonderful movie. I happen to like Death of a Salesman and I think Shakespeare In Love is the second most overrated Oscar winner after Titanic. There is room for discussion.

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

I cried so hard when I thought Jack might live. Thank goodness he died. See what you did, movie? You made me root for the iceberg! *sobs* You made me a bad person!

You see, the arts are not the sciences,and I think schools have done kids a disservice in not explaining this. I partially blame standardized tests, which turn everything into right or wrong answers, little fill-in-the-bubble sheets with simple, multiple choices. However, while there really is an answer to an equation and only in advanced math do we get more discussion (which, frankly, I don’t understand), the arts aren’t like that. Did you know that many people think some of Shakespeare’s plays aren’t any good?

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one. [Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Namely, the cannibalism and rape one.
[Titus Andronicus, from the film Titus by Julie Taymor]

Did you know that writers as prominent as Jane Austen were loathed –by other prominent writers?

Namely, this guy.

Namely, this guy.

Personally, I dislike a lot of critically beloved art and literature. I don’t like The Lord of the RingsPride and Prejudice, Jeff Koons, or anything that Marina Abramovic has been doing lately. I don’t think that most of the Oscar winning movies are very good, especially things like The King’s Speech (although Circuit B will disagree with me about that one). I even think that Nirvana is an overrated band, and I don’t like Verdi’s adaptation of Othello, and I didn’t enjoy Les Triplettes de Belleville, or most of John Updike’s writings.

Is there a stronger word than "hate"? I mean... just look at this Koons shit.

Is there a stronger word than “hate”? I mean… just look at this Koons shit.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I should dislike all epic fantasies, English literature, postmodern art, performance art, Oscar winners, grunge bands, Italian opera, animated arthouse films, or strong, masculine voices in literature. This doesn’t even mean that I dislike everything these artists and writers have done. Furthermore, this does not give me grounds to depreciate the artists. They simply do not speak to me, but they do speak to many other people and I have to respect that and understand why.

The fact is, and this is the crux of the problem, the arts require a certain understanding to appreciate them. They have their own “languages”. Musical notation is, in fact, very much its own language. But, so is color, visual symbolism, visual cues, cinematography, acting, mise-en-scene, textures and brushstrokes and shapes, and, yes, language itself has its own dialects. While most people understand that language has dialects, especially when trying to speak to someone from another culture, it is for some reason often ignored that writing should have different dialects. However, this is true. One cannot, for example, say that a single, standardized, essay-type dialect is suitable for all of literature. Imagine if Shakespeare were forced into these structures? Or, how would you like to listen to a rapper who sounded like an academic essayist? Even various essays use different levels of formality depending on their function and purpose.

"I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: 'Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'" From "My Name Is", the essay.

“I came to the understanding that I had attained a certain Usher-esque significance in popular culture, whereupon I discovered the presence of devoted female fans in my concert audience. Furthermore, when visiting a White Castle, I was approached by a patron of my art who requested my autograph. I produced a pen and did sign the autograph thus: ‘Dear Dave, thanks for the support, asshole!'” From “My Name Is”, the essay.

Just as you cannot step into a conversation with people whose language you do not speak, you may not be able to access an artist’s work whose “language” you do not understand. What people do not realize, however, is that this doesn’t mean that they have a problem. You’re not at fault for not knowing someone’s language. However, if you want to converse with this person, you need to learn how to communicate. An inscrutable painting, a piece of music that bores you, a work of literature that you simply do not “get”, these may simply speak a different language than the one you are used to.

The good news is that very often basic exposure breaks down these barriers. NPR did a report which showed that listeners who were unaccustomed to certain kinds of music literally did not process the notes. Their brains simply could not comprehend all of the sounds. However, repeated listening allows people to learn the musical language and appreciate the subtleties of sounds and unfamiliar chords. Furthermore, scientists believe that literature actually affects a different part of your brain than, say, the next vampire romance or slick cop vs. the baddies novel. Unfamiliarity with the complex syntax and vocabulary, as well as the subtle character development and action, can be like working out a muscle that you don’t normally use. If you’re accustom to taking walks, even good walks, you’re still probably going to hurt when you take up marathon running or mountain climbing. It’s the same here.

Many people decide that when they cannot get into art or literature that they have some sort of terrible problem, or that the art/literature has a problem. The answer is that neither you nor the arts have a problem. You’re just not used to the art yet. It’s like not being able to swim a certain distance, run a marathon, or enjoy a really exotic dish. You just need to get used to it.

So, that comes to the frustration with this vague idea of what art and literature are.

I think there’s a subtle difference here that people aren’t always getting. That is: art can be anything. But, it isn’t everything. There’s a difference between what art can be and how art succeeds.

Art and literature are basically anything intended to be artistic and literary, as well as some highly successful things that maybe weren’t intended to be that high brow at the time but nevertheless affected culture profoundly over time. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, and obviously doesn’t do justice to the discussion of aesthetics. However, I think it does answer the questions of those who do not understand what their professors are talking about.

“Why is it art?” should really be less of a question than, “How is it art?” When confronted with a professor saying, “You need to be more literary!” don’t ask what it is to be literary, but rather how something is literary, and how it works. It’s in the writing of the book, the turns of phrase, the subtle development, the way the writing builds on traditions or breaks traditions. It’s in the compositions of artwork, the techniques, the designs. It’s in the musical theory and the composition and the performance of a piece. The how-is-it-art is in the parts, which give you the completed whole.

This is why we cannot use trope identification as a form of literary criticism, because the existence of a “Draco in leather pants”, and a “woobie”, and a “word of God” reference to something greater than the book itself does not have anything to do with the actual book-ness of the piece. This is also why “symbolism” (eg “This symbolizes that the bad guy is Hitler!”) is not literary criticism. Any hack can do that.  As redundant as it sounds, the first thing to care about in writing is the writing –and that is the same for art, music, and so forth.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and ...this.

That is why, despite similar dystopian(ish) tropes, there is a world of difference between 1984 or A Brave New World and …this.

You see, in visual arts we’re more comfortable with just flat-out saying this, while literature, being naturally more verbose, we’re more likely to write fourteen books on the subject. In visual arts, anything can be art. However, not everything is, as any artist or critic will tell you. So, where is the line?

The fact is, there is no multiple-choice, standardized test bubble answer –check here for art, and here for not art. The arts are very much a dialog, discussing life in different eras, and what their goals are, how they change from time to time, school to school, and person to person. Like learning a new language, the arts require audiences to put forth some effort to communicate with the pieces, and not simply sit there and expect to be entertained, as one might be with a Michael Bay movie or Vampire Academy novel.

But, I also think that knowing there is this effort and dialog does cause some people to over-think the arts. They are confronted with a piece of writing which they do not understand and they start doing the literary criticism version of what Calvin and Hobbes do with math homework.


They start making up really complicated ways of reading the piece and then get frustrated, as though they are trying to crack a code instead of read a book/view a painting/listen to a song/watch a film. I think that bad teachers, who make students analyze the color of curtains instead of the quality of prose, are to blame for this Da Vinci Code style reading.

Not everything is a code... including everything mentioned in this book.

Not everything is a code… including everything mentioned in this book.

In actuality, most books, music, film,and art are meant to be enjoyable. They may have a more subtle or informed sense of enjoyment than what you may get from Avatar, but they are meant to be enjoyed.

Take David Foster Wallace, for instance. His book, Infinite Jest, is often brushed aside as a “hipster” or “elitist” work. This is entirely due to the fact that it is over a thousand pages long and is non-linear in structure.(Because heaven forbid anyone sustain disciplined reading over an extended period of time! I guess Les Miserables is proto-hipster, then.) However, what might surprise those who sniff at his work is that David Foster Wallace was probably one of the least elitist writers ever. And, when wondering what his work is supposed to be about, he gives you not only the most concise answer but also the best answer for what to look for in literary fiction:

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

And there you have it. That’s why literature affects you differently than the zooming pace and snappy dialog of the sexy FBI agent and his will-they-won’t-they-do-it partner in the latest instalment of the Xplosions and Guns and Sex series.

I once read a terrible internet meme that said something like: “I read so that I can escape reality.” Now, while we all need an escape now and again, that is still a horrible sentiment. You read not to find comfort in the struggles of those who overcame in the past, or to find out about yourself and others, or to understand the world, or to seek beauty, or to empathize with others? You read because you don’t want to think about these things and would rather imagine supernatural love triangles and magic powers? What, do you not think you have any invested interest in what happens on planet earth? Yes, bad things happen to people. Let’s not eat lotuses and forget about it. We have some duty to our neighbors. We do not have the right to be ignorant of life and therefore end up hurting someone, voting poorly, developing prejudices.

And I think that really sums up the difference between a quality work, and something that professors/critics/literati-types won’t like. Good art is about being human. It’s about finding beauty. It’s about sharing in this great dialog of all these minds. Great art, not commercial, lowest-common-denominator production, is about the common person, reaching out to everyone, open to anyone, produced by anyone, the most democratic and glorious celebration of human life and individuals in this existence we call being human. The mega-studio blockbuster is made by executives so rich that they will never move in the same spheres as you, and made from collections of marketing data. It’s mass appeal is as calculated as selling corndogs, and made from elites and for the purpose of filling pocketbooks. One has to move beyond this strange prejudice that “easy to understand” means “for the common person”, which holds the corollary that intellectual pursuits cannot be achieved by common people. That, not the pursuit of beauty, is the truly elitist position. The person who says, “Well, I am not brainwashed by art and literature so I know that Moby-Dick is bad!” is the real elitist, setting himself apart and above all the many, many minds that have been moved and influenced by these great works.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.

Made by programmers, funded by wads of cash, ripping off plots from Fern Gully and Dances With Wolves, but marketed and gimmick-ed into existence through the sheer artistic force of demographic data, 3D glasses, and cash.

The fact is, literature and the arts are about being human. When we do not understand them, it very often comes from too many preconceived notions and the worry that the piece will be too difficult. In fact, very often the opposite is true. Very often the piece is simply the story that was inside a particular artist, and that artist’s voice is trying to tell it in the best way that she knows how. And that may sound corny and mushy and too simple for a piece that seems so complex, but it isn’t. You know that “oh-so-elite” David Foster Wallace? Here’s something else he said:

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

I remember watching with my mother this documentary called Between the Folds. It’s about origami, which doesn’t sound like an interesting documentary subject, but, like I mentioned before, it’s not the what but the how that makes something art. And, this is actually one of the most delightful and entertaining movies I have ever seen.


In the documentary, the origami artists discuss their development in a relatively new art form –that being the origami as fine-arts sculptures. What is interesting is how the art progresses through stages that usually take eras for arts to develop through, and how the documentary brings attention to this. Toward the end, the artists begin to look at the medium they love so much, which they have given up jobs and devoted their lives to working with, that being paper, and start to think about how little they can do with. I mean this in the most positive sense. Paper, to these artists, is absolutely beautiful, and they get a sort of kinship from the process of touching and folding the paper. I think many people forget the relationship between artist and medium, one which is very often something like a love story. If paper is beautiful, and touching and folding and working with paper is itself beautiful, then why should it simply be an art that dazzles people with the artists’ ability to draw up mathematically complex plans and turn them into 3D paper dragons?

And so, the artists begin seeking minimalist folds, one or two folds, abstracted and focusing only on the beauty of the paper. When the documentary was over, my mother said to me that it was really fascinating that as the artists matured in their craft, artists who were fully capable of creating very complex and mathematically detailed paper sculptures, were drawn to the simple. What does this yearning for simplicity say about humanity?

I think that being able to see this process, and how delighted the artists are, and how in-love they are with their craft, really helps demystify the idea that non-representational art is for this elite class of critics to interpret to the people, like guardians of an oracle. Take Rothko, for example, an artist often considered too obtuse for audiences, or possibly even a great bullshitter. No one except maybe Pollock gets as many “my kid could do that” comments as Rothko. But, this is because people are looking at his art the wrong way.

Like the origami artists, Rothko could paint in both representational –and surrealist– styles. However, he was drawn to simplifying his medium. It is like the artist Kandinsky said in his manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual In Art, art is more than just looking difficult. If you want that, go watch a trapeze act. Art is about expressing something about yourself, and life, and about seeking beauty, and about trying to present something rather special to the world. Rothko is about color.


I do not understand how these self-proclaimed guardians of beauty, against “Modern” art, cannot find any beauty in color, in the way it relates to other colors, in the way the light plays with it, in the delight of paint itself, in the sheer joy of color and medium. Do they ever find themselves in contemplation over a single drop of perfect alizarin crimson? Because that’s what it’s all about, no obtuse cipher of jargon and terminology, but the rapture of it, the beauty of it, the fact that colors, and paper, and words, and notes, and movement, and texture, and syntax are beautiful.


These supposedly difficult prose pieces are simply relishing in the sound, texture, and music of language, its power to move,surprise, delight, terrify, enlighten, enrage, and soothe. The complex notes of classical composition, which sound like incomprehensible noise blobs to the unaccustomed ear, are really these fantastic, unique sounds, which blend together in beautiful techniques to create some of the greatest music in the world.

So, there isn’t an easy answer as to what it is that makes something literary or art. And, yes, if you’re serious about it you’ll have to do a lot of studying and expose your mind to the greats of your field, the best writers, musicians, artists, et cetera. But, if you love it, this is what you will do already. It’s what you will want to do. That’s how people who love their art behave. The person who loves music is not the person who plays the radio and dances along to the Top-40 whatever, but rather the one who listens to the best of the best, and practices. The artist doesn’t just like putting posters up or “liking/sharing” something that looks cool; artists practice art and study the art world. People who love books are not people who dully consume them like potato chips, or madly seek out fandoms to obsess over, or correct typos on the internet. They care about writing, about quality, about great words, about language, about ideas.

Stravinsky's Petrushka manuscript

Stravinsky’s Petrushka manuscript

That kind of care is really the baseline for the answer. There is no exact answer, because this isn’t a science. But, the desire to enter this dialog of art, to work with the world of art and what it has done, to be aware of the arts and their ideas, and to love and delight in the materials themselves, this is the how. It won’t always work, but might.

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

Wild Strawberries by Bergman

An Abundance of Katherines: Cover Woes

Summary: When it comes to relationships, Colin Singleton’s type is girls named Katherine. And when it comes to girls named Katherine, Colin is always getting dumped. Nineteen times, to be exact. On a road trip miles from home, this anagram-happy, washed-up child prodigy has ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a bloodthirsty feral hog on his trail, and an overweight, Judge Judy-loving best friend riding shotgun – but no Katherines. Colin is on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which he hopes will predict the future of any relationship, avenge Dumpees everywhere, and finally win him the girl. Love, friendship, and a dead Austro-Hungarian archduke add up to surprising and heart-changing conclusions in this ingeniously layered comic novel about reinventing oneself. (from the first edition)

This is, undoubtedly, the most entertaining summary that I’ve ever found. It’s what persuaded me – yes, moreso than the very fun title (I do so love that title!) – to read “Katherines” in the first place. “Katherines” has since become one of my most favorite books. So, imagine my surprise when I realized that it’s the least popular of John Green’s novels. What? How? With that title and that summary, I was sure that it was an enormous hit. And shouldn’t the fact that it won the Michael L. Printz Honor Award garner it even more attention?

Disregarding the plot (I know that Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars are the favorites), I think that An Abundance of Katherines‘ lack of reader interest is due in huge part to the very uninteresting covers with which it has been issued.

Another K Cover

This is the dustjacket for the hardcover edition, published by Dutton Juvenile in September 2006. The title as a math equation is a clever representation of Colin’s obsessions: the Katherines and his Theorem. However, this is the lone creative feature of this cover. The Katherines are faceless, nothing more than brightly colored silhouettes. This is unfortunate, as they are the combined driving force behind the entire story and are interesting individuals in their own right. They deserve better representations.

The bigger problem that I see is the blank white background. It makes AAoK’s dust jacket appear only half complete. It is dull, and, unfortunately, suggests boredom on the part of the cover designer. If someone wasn’t engaged enough to make this book appealing, then why should anyone read it, much less pick it up?



Cover 2 is for the first paperback edition, published by Speak in 2008.

Sigh. Why do all the Katherines look a little too similar? This doesn’t appear to be a contemporary, romantic comedy. This is a science-fiction story about a young man’s encounter with a group of clones. (Hmm, that might not be such a bad idea, actually…) And I see that the white background has made yet another appearance. Lovely.

Further points of annoyance:

  • the dull coloration: brown, pale green, white (Make it go away!)
  • The very photo-shopped faces of the Katherines makes me reassert my theory that they are clones.Or androids. They’re too plastic-y, too smooth, too perfect.
  • The tiny, tiny title. Is this book really such a non-entity? Shouldn’t readers want to know what it’s called?
  • John Green’s name – it’s too enormous. I grow irked when the author’s name is so large that, on first glance, I suspect that it is the actual title of the book.



On to Cover 3. Yes, there is a third cover, one for another paperback edition. In 2011, the publishers of Penguin held a contest; residents (ages 13 and older) of the US and the District of Columbia could submit original cover designs for AAoK. A panel of judges would select the winning entry. This is it:

Question 1: WHAT IS WITH THE WHITE BACKGROUND? It could easily have been turned into a piece of notebook paper. Then, the images could be sketches by Colin. That would have been rather fun.

Question 2: How in the world was this not the winning entry?

  • The Katherines are (finally) represented as unique individuals.
  • The car (called Satan’s Hearse) calls attention to one of the most important points of the entire story: that Colin agreed to go on a roadtrip to escape his old life and his old identity. It’s a symbol of freedom, of new beginnings, and I can think of no more fitting representation for Colin.
  • How many times should I write that THERE’S NO WHITE SPACE THERE’S NO WHITE SPACE THERE’S NO WHITE SPACE ANYWHERE!!!! Every inch of the cover is decorated expertly.

An Abundance of Katherines deserves a better cover. No, it needs a better cover. I sincerely doubt that a new cover would make it more popular with people who are already fans of John Green, but it would invite newcomers to take a more in-depth look at one of the works of a high-caliber author.

– Circuit B

A note to my readers: I know that some (or all) of you may have excellent reasons for liking or disliking An Abundance of Katherines. If you wish to write them, please don’t do so in this post. I want only to address and call attention to the issue of covers.

What Makes It Good? (pt. 3)

First, I would like to apologize for the delay in posting and not finishing the October series. Personal life seems to have gotten in the way. I intend on updating the horror discussion, however. But, for now, I’ll post the third section on criticism.

I think that, before pressing further into the subject of what makes something “good”, I’d like to address one of the troubles I mentioned from before. I really have a hard time feeling very charitable towards those who limit beauty to an era, a style, some pet-love. But, the question remains, is there a right or wrong in art?

I think my previous blog post probably makes it clear that I am by no means a relativist. I believe it was Richard Dawkins who pointed out that a relativist will abandon his ideas when, say, boarding a plane. Some things are just better than others, and a well constructed plane is superior to one that will blow up in mid air. There are real, measurable truths, and I have enough faith to believe that we can reason to them –such as the truth of existence, matter, individual thought, mathematical truths, and general a priori knowledge. I think that fluffy, wishy-washy –ism is fairly out of vogue, anyway. So, no, I’m not a relativist. And, as far as art goes, I do not believe anything is art. But…


I do believe anything can be art.

These statements are syntactically different, and that difference is important. I’ll try to do my best to deconstruct them. The first premise is Anything Is Art. If something “is” something else, then the “is” can be thought of like a little equal sign, like in a math equation:

Anything = Art

Of course, the word anything means just that: any sort of thing. If you see a thing, it is a part of this “anything”. Your baseball, your aunt’s doily collection, your uncle’s spittoon, your father’s favorite brown loafers, your mother’s gardening gloves, Labradors, Super Mario Brothers, every Michael Bay movie, that picture of a dog your wannabe-artists friend drew, gibbons, Precious Moments figurines, the statue of David, the pyramids, The Great Wall of China, absolute zero, microbiology textbooks, The Mona Lisa, David Lynch’s house, Donald Trump’s hairpiece, a lost and forgotten sock, your cat’s hairballs, giant squids… these are all part of the “anything” category. If we accept the above premise as correct, we have to say that anything, anything at all, is art.

But, what is art? If you mean an artificial thing then we still have a problem, because Labradors, squids, gibbons, and possibly even absolute zero would not count, and so obviously “anything” cannot be art. If that were the case, you could enter your goat in The Louvre. While goats are charming in many ways, and may be beautiful and entertaining, I don’t think it is categorically the same as a painting.

So, should we say anything that is made by humans, that is any artifact, is art?

All artificial things = art?

But, then we still have a problem. Even those who do not understand art will probably agree that a bandage, a Barbie, and a Botticelli are not categorically equal.

What we have here is called equivocation. This is a logical flaw that happens when a word has two different meanings, and those meanings are mixed up. It’s like mixing up honey, the sticky, sweet stuff, and honey, the slang for sweetheart. This could result in a problem, because eating your sweetheart on toast is generally not smiled upon in most societies.

Art as artifact, as in something that does not occur in nature is not the same thing as art as a work of art intended to be art.

Artifact ≠ Art

However, in the category of art, there is a hierarchy. What this is, of course, is where people have arguments. But, the fact that there are discrepancies does not mean that anything anyone wants to be art may be art. Chefs may argue about the value of a certain spice or a particular procedure. But, they aren’t going to serve your microwavable breakfast burrito as high cuisine. They know what goes into making food. They don’t care that you like microwavable breakfast burritos. That may make them feel a little sad, actually.

I do not know why, but there are many people who insist that the only way to know anything about art is to not know anything about art. And no, they are not reciting a Zen koan. What they mean is this: if one is not educated in what goes into art, how to read a piece, the technical and procedural aspects, one can appreciate what it says more purely. Their souls are untainted by all that educational nonsense involving reading and study and discipline like that. It’s a very romantic idea, that one can only view art tabula rasa, and suddenly be projected into enlightenment. Knowing nothing, one can suddenly see with clarity and before you can say abracadabra, they have reached art nirvana.

‘Round these parts, we call that bullshit.

First of all, this objection to art would only work in a case of absolute, infantile purity. One would have to have no experience at all to come in with this state. Just because you do not knowing anything about art, does not mean that a person is not coming in with biases and experience. This would completely ruin a real blank-slate experience. In fact, those arguing for this position usually have strong biases. They may think that all art people are poseurs, all art critics are snobs who hate humans, and all art that isn’t strictly representational is blasphemy (with a capital S in the inevitable Scream). Usually, they make some claim that all non-representational art is anti-spiritual (despite this being empirically untrue). They come with many biases already in place, and so are not experiencing the art on its own terms, allowing it to speak to the person in the way that they advocate. They may see themselves as pure souls, but it’s simply untrue. The more self-insistent they are upon this subject the less it is so. How can you really be having a pure, tabula rasa experience if you are consciously thinking of yourself as this pure character, and therefore bringing a bias from the start? It’s absurd. The only way this would work is if a person had no contact with the outside world, and no idea that there even is art at all, and suddenly ended up in a museum. My guess, however, is that this person would just feel overwhelmed and confused, and would still not have this art-nirvana experience.

So, after fully establishing that these viewers are not doing what they think they are doing, there is a second problem. Why in art would it be preferable to know less about the subject in order to understand it? If you cannot speak a language, you cannot appreciate it more for your lack of understanding. If you have never studied cooking, you cannot appreciate the variations in taste, texture, contrast, et cetera, as you would if you were a chef or a food critic. If you have never studied music, you simply cannot appreciate the complexities of a composition in the same way that a musician would. This is obvious, and yet people constantly assume that their lack of education in (predominantly studio) art gives them an advantage. This goes back to their whole purity issue, but one has to question why this is the case. If you cannot speak a language, wouldn’t you trust a translator? You certainly wouldn’t attack a translator for spoiling your pure experience with a language you do not understand. I think that anyone noticing this exchange would see the observer as somewhat of an idiot, and also very rude. And yet people act this way in galleries and toward artists all the time. The artist could be enthusiastic at the beauty she is seeing, and excitedly trying and show this world to another. But, shouting clichés at the artist or art lover is supposedly the purer response.

The fact remains that, like it or not, art is an actual discipline that requires study, work, and more work. Like science, language, philosophy or anything else, one simply cannot have a reasonable opinion without knowing something of art itself. And, to understand art, one needs to ask questions. What do we know about the design? What do we know about color theory? What was the historical context? What was the school of thought? What is the psychological impact? What was the philosophical background? What is the science behind the colors and composition? Where was it made? How was it made? What is art for? And who the hell is this artist guy, anyway?

You cannot burst into a gallery and suddenly know everything about art any more than they can burst into a science colloquium with the background of one college survey class and debate quantum physics. While art is not an empirical science, it does have a discipline.

This brings me back to the purpose of this tangent. Yes, there is discrepancy in art. However, these arguments are not about whether or not anything abstract is from Satan’s bowels. The discrepancies are about relatively small points, individual artists and their worth. And to make these arguments, one has to study art. This means reading.

Art is not elitist. It just requires some work, just like anything else. The point is, anyone can enjoy art if they decide to study. The discipline is open to all. There are public libraries everywhere, as well as the internet. Someone who does not understand Japanese and will not study Japanese may enjoy the sound of some words, but will never be able to deconstruct Basho in the original text. It won’t happen.

So, how can one understand what makes art good art? And how does this apply to literature, movies, music, and so on? Well, that’s the issue. But, the answer is probably lurking in some good books.