Liking as an Overvalued Commodity

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Often when confronted with the pervasiveness of “liking” in the present culture, from the very small (Facebook posts that must receive a “like” as the highest measure of affirmation) to the way-too-big (valuing a presidential candidate’s “likeablity” over any other more significant virtue) I think of Willy Loman’s obsession with his sons being “well liked”–not that they are good people with fulfilling lives but that they are merely “liked” by others. It’s meant to seem to the audience like the delusional misconception of a man who never lived life well, but I worry about our culture becoming like Willy Loman; we all know how Willy Loman ended up.

In my experience, a particularly worrisome example (in that it worries me about the future of literature) was in my MFA program: a majority of our time was spent on “I like this”/”I don’t like this” conversations and on the equally useless “I don’t get”/”I don’t understand” conversations. Liking and understanding are two commodities that barely register a blip in any decent greatness measure, yet little time was spent outside this realm, and these workshops are run by people who should know better. I even had one workshop leader who took a vote on how many people liked a story. When the vote was roughly half, he proved only that the workshop was populated by human beings. In the preMFA era, great works were born from tumult and passionate resistance from groups of people with deep knowledge and love of one another, the sort of love that comes paradoxically with a concomitant measure of disdain, but throw a dozen disconnected strangers together and no wonder critique has the superficial pointlessness of a Facebook feed.

Don’t get me wrong: liking is valuable, granted, but it is a value so lacking in power and durability it requires hit after hit. It’s why the Facebook feed goes by so fast. It’s why likable novels get consumed in much larger numbers (I think of the way my wife burns through endless romance novels but she’d never profess any passionate love for them). It’s why likable songs get played on repeat. They have to be to get the same high. When the temporary buzz wears off, you hit until there’s nothing but used up husk remaining.

A more substantial and durable love is based on risking being disliked, unsettling, or displeasing. It provides the sort of high that only needs one hit to work but still we crave a constant return.

Conventional wisdom you might hear from educators is that liking lacks significance because it’s only doxa level truth, truth only valid to the individual. A wiser student seeks a truth valid to all. This is great for science and politics and rhetoric, but art (fiction included) is all doxa. It needn’t conform to any truth outside the individual. The real issue is liking is a weak stimulator and the easiest stimulator to elicit and measure and so the province of the lazy. Hence why I call it a comforting stimulator. Snuggling in a teddybear mountain might make you feel happy but the sort of happiness that preludes a nap.

I’m the last one to argue for the total elimination of likability as a consideration. It’s a nice component and perhaps a starting point of any valuable experience. You have to like someone on a first date to even contemplate marriage, but any married person knows liking is such a small component to the more complicated, sometimes hate-filled, but ultimately more rewarding experience of marriage. Likewise, if you dislike a book from the beginning, why continue reading it? But I doubt Thomas Hardy in the composition of Jude the Obscure ever said, “I better tone this down, or I’ll bum out all my readers.” He was more interested in piercing hearts and haunting readers, leaving readers with a sort of masochistic guilt of loving the emotional abuse of death and heartbreak and despair. I doubt Allen Ginsberg ever read the early drafts of Naked Lunch and said, “Sorry to break this to you, Bill, but I doubt it’ll get a thumbs up across the demographic spectrum.” Burroughs was more interested in plumbing the terrible depths of souls and exploring new possibilities of what literature could be. Likability is the last thing on his mind.

I first came to the realization of how little my reading comfort mattered after reading The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. The things that happen in the book to Yakov Bok, a falsely jailed victim of antisemitism in Tzarist Russia, are so unforgivable and horrifying that I yearned for some redemption or exoneration, soldiers swooping into save Yakov and blow away the Tzarist pricks, but the level of torture Yakov endures would require some Inglourious Basterds level revenge. When no such redemption occurred, I was left hating the book. Then I had the revelation: I love the book because it wouldn’t let me go.

Don’t take my choice of examples the wrong way: this is no Great Works Initiative argument. I’m talking about a personal experience that could happen with any type of book. Too often literature is split into oversimplified dualities — the false notion literature requires deeper devotion than superficially pleasing genre fiction, for example — that fail to capture the true complexity of the reading experience. Genre fans know well (better even) the love/hate intensity of fandom. Nerds, by definition, are more likely to describe what they love in terms of loving than liking. For example, Harry Potter fans would never claim to like the emotional torture of the mass good-guy-slaughtering that ramps up as the books progress, but it’s hard to imagine loving the books without this essential ingredient.

This became an issue in a recent book group conversation about the French graphic novel Beautiful Darkness. It’s a massively unsettling book about a dead girl rotting in the woods and the tiny creatures who once populated her body (or mind) now liberated and forced to survive in the woods. Most are unprepared, too dumb or innocent, or too prone to succumb to the worst of human nature, and most fail horrifically in this test of survival. Other members of the  reading group disliked the book for its unsettling qualities, for its lack of answers or redemption or resolution. The group groped for metaphors to explain the tiny creatures, embodied personality traits and so on, but I would consider easy conformity to such metaphors a flaw. I loved the book precisely for its unsettling qualities and its resistance to easy answers.

But this is not the sole province of indie comics; I didn’t really like the other indie comics we read (Essex County, Blankets, Daytripper) for their easy metaphors, for overly comforting endpoints (epiphany, catharsis, resolution, etc.) and characters who failed to elicit much emotion either way. The rest of the group felt the opposite on every point (hence the irrelevance of liking and complete subjectivity of value). For example, Daytripper had a gimmick that could potentially illicit discomfort (and thus passion) but the discomfort is undermined by inorganic arbitrariness and easy conformity to metaphor, leaving little to attach to but a character who may be unlikable but hardly interesting enough to illicit any emotion at all. In other words, it didn’t work for me the way it worked for plenty of others.

Likewise, the comic I nominated for the group as the greatest permutation of the form was The Infinity Gauntlet, a story so quintessentially Marvel Comicsy, all their movies are headed towards it. Marvel Comics is at its height of popularity and thus, set in too many simplistic competitions with so-called deep/serious work, is often accused of the sort of weak likability of superficial crowd pleasing. While I could argue this is rarely ever true of Marvel Comics (a long and complicated argument I’d love to have with you one day) this is certainly not true with The Infinity Gauntlet. The hero of the story is a genocidal maniac. Every conventionally heroic moment (from the conventionally heroic supposed heroes opposing the true hero) ends in death and helplessness. The bad guy/hero is so complete in his victory that when the reversal comes (because of course a reversal will come) and the conventional good guys win, it seems like the only thing that can defeat the villain is deep rooted insecurity and the inevitability of hero victory within the form, turning the villain into a tragic hero and justice into injustice. There’s little simple or superficially pleasing about it. In a great story like this, liking and disliking are flavors working with or against each other to enhance the overall greatness of the piece while more substantial commodities that risk displeasing through intensity have a greater capacity to forever haunt a reader’s life.

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The Porpentine Sisters :oR: The Purity of Raining Rainbow Corpses

Milly Triple Sixes had a sister named Josie Porpentine though none of her friends knew she had any family at all. Milly (according to Josie’s accusations) failed to come home for Christmas ever since she dedicated her life to (fake) Satanism. Josie revealed this lack of a Christmas return embarrassingly to Milly’s whole (fakely) Satanic rock band (Raining Rainbow Corpses) during one (random) garage practice (given greater importance (by Milly) considering the impending regional band battle (Band Battle at the End of Everything)). Josie was dressed in thoroughly unSatanic business attire. She could’ve been a legitimate business lady or a librarian or a senator, displaying the sort of conformity (at least according to this first impression) Raining Rainbow Corpses was supposed to rail against, but all in all she seemed like a nice and decent lady.

The problem was (at least according to Milly) Raining Rainbow Corpses might one day have fans. If these Christmas visits became common knowledge among these (fakely) Satan-worshipping fan legions, this would ruin her reputation for bedevilment and badassery (should that reputation ever actually come to fruition).

“It’s what good people do!” was the sort of thing Josie Porpentine would say between screams with the sort of passion incongruous with her put-together demeanor (but similar to Milly’s passion in screaming about “Bastards of Corporate America” (or whatever she screamed about in her ultraSatanic screamery)).

“Fans of Satanic rock bands don’t tolerate anything to do with Christmas!” was the sort of thing (or nonsensical blather (depending on your perspective)) Milly screamed back at her sister (with unsurprising volume).

Chastity Schwartzbaum, the bassist for Raining Rainbow Corpses, told a blushing Milly, “Our hypothetical future fans will understand if you indulge in some seasonal family love.”

“No,” screamed Milly Triple Sixes (though her voice was scream-scarred from the hours of practice she mandated and finally started to show it). “This band is our only family now!”

“Don’t be offended if I fail to actually live like that, the whole family abandonment thing seems a bit icky to me,” said Chastity holding an over-big bass she was not yet used to holding. “I mean bass playing is a weekend thing for me. I love it like a Victorian novel cousin maybe.”

“Few can live up to rock purity,” said Milly in a calmer voice. “I’m no one to judge.”

Chastity’s objection was thusly shut down with only mild condescension. Besides, this conversation between Milly and Chastity only punctuated more explosive fits between the two Porpentine sisters.

By the way (because it seemed like a by-the-way sort of thing) Josie had strapped to her belly by babycarrier a robot plush with long limp dangly arms. Why would otherwise-business-like-demeanor lady carry a plush in this way (like harajuku girls)(or like a baby-less lady who lost her mind and carried dolls around as void filler)(or like–not really like anything Chastity had seen before)?

Josie said, “Your sister wants to sing in your show” (now referring to herself in third person to further the sense of incongruity?)(or perhaps there was a third Porpentine sister?)(It was fascinating how the squarest person in the room could be the most baffling.)

Milly said, “Did Doohickey tell you this herself, or is this classic Milly emotional torture time?”

“She said it’s her only Christmas wish.”

Then the robot plush piped in, “It’s my only Christmas wish.”

A few things now made more sense while a lot of things made a lot less sense. This little robot plush was called Doohickey (Chastity (at least) pieced this together) and she was the third Porpentine sister. Why Milly’s little sister looked like a robot plush was still a mystery, but it seemed rude to ask. (“It has to be a birth defect,” Chastity told herself. “What could it be other than a robot plush birth defect?”)

“Hush now, Doohickey. I got this handled,” Josie said and patted the robot plush like a pet on a belly harness.

Milly said, “I can’t let Doohickey sing in my band. That’s never something I’m ever going to allow to happen as long as I’m alive.”

Josie said, “Why? What reason could you have other than your outsized bitterness about all the world’s crimes against you? For that reason, you’d deny your sister’s one wish, the only thing she’s ever requested in her life?”

Milly (despite all her rock and roll bravado and rage that led so easily to any silent space being filled with her ragey sound no matter how senseless) failed to answer.

The Lava Sisters piped in at this point (Chastity could never tell the Lava Sisters apart (though one played drums and one played guitar, they became a unified entity while standing side by side)): “Milly has never been well acquainted with reality. She’s only so desperate because the Prophet will be at the concert.” (The Lava Sisters always seemed like transcendent entities, like doubling was only a secondary function of their deity status, so mentioning the Prophet seemed only to naturally flow from their lips.)

Josie said, “Who’s the Prophet?”

The Lava Sisters (whichever one) said, “The Prophet is only the local music critic. There’s a lot of onlys in this situation that highlight Milly’s complaint as ridiculous: 1) The Prophet is only a Milly-like self-aggrandizer; 2) it’s only a Band Battle at the End of Everything, not like a real concert any real human would respect; 3) we only got in because we paid a fee; 4) we’ll only be the first of a dozen, and real bands will be headlining. This argument is purely your variety of idiocy, Milly. Let’s let your sister sing. It’s not like she’d be much worse than you. This is a four person band after all, and that’s two votes to one.” (Chastity couldn’t tell at what point they were speaking in unison.)

Milly Triple Sixes stared at the Lava Sisters (whom she’d known since all of them were smaller than Doohickey) with all the Satanic power she could manage to force through her eyeballs: “You don’t know the Porpentines” (one of many falsehoods (presumably (since Milly was full of so many)) but something about this seemed truer than the rest). Milly then turned her Milly gaze to Chastity (the new girl (the one who knew everybody the least)) and said, “What’s your vote, Chastity? Two votes to two makes it a tie, and I’m the tie breaker as the band leader.”

Chastity opened her mouth but had nothing to say. All of it left her boggled and blank. Whatever followed and all its tragedy was now piled on Chastity Schwartzbaum.

Doohickey did sing at the Band Battle at the End of Everything. She sang “Santa Baby,” too low to even make out the words (uncertain of how microphones work or incapable of holding one properly in limp arms). The audience laughed (uncertain of the type of irony applicable in the situation). Even the Prophet laughed. Milly and Josie stood in the back, powerless against the laughter, except for Milly to mutter “Idiots” and “Assholes” too low for anyone but Josie to hear her (more certain than anyone). Chastity could read her lips from stage and knew exactly what she was saying (uncertain of whether it was for the audience or the rest of the band). She and the Lava Sisters likewise did nothing to save poor Doohickey. They barely knew music to begin with, so improvising “Santa Baby” was sapping most of their mental and emotional energy (they usually let Milly’s rage cover any deficiencies).

Doohickey’s voice faltered like she was finally feeling the emotional effect of the laughter (a barelyfalter but the tragedy was unmistakable). She couldn’t leave the stage (legs too limp (hence why Josie carried her everywhere)) but it was Milly this time who rushed to lift her, pushed through the laughing crowd, slung Doohickey over her shoulder like a baby and walked out to the alley, angrier now at everyone than she’d ever been (Doohickey: “I liked it.” Milly: “Stop lying!”) and stomped like she could break the stones beneath her.

Chastity followed her out to the alley and tried to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t even consider the laughing.” But Milly was too fast and too monolithic a force to ever hear something so pitiful (and none of this was about Chastity anyway).

Then Josie passed Chastity, grabbed Doohickey out of Milly’s arms. Milly had no choice but to relent (she was the weaker one)(Chastity imaged a tugging that would tear the little sister’s body to pieces (but of course that wasn’t the real Milly Porpentine)(she became nothing but a crumbleheap the way Doohickey might’ve been had anyone resisted)).

Josie disappeared (as Doohickey’s little voice said “Merry Christmas” to all the new band friends she made) into whatever mysterious and purposeful life she lived.

Milly stood there (Chastity stood behind her) with nothing to say to shatter the world or the pure and silent and cold winter white around her.

The Principles of Particulate Stimulation (a Theory of How to Make and Understand Art)

I developed the system/concept I call “particulate stimulation” as, I hope, a practical tool for fiction writers – a way to understand the internal mechanisms of fiction’s interaction with the reader – but I believe these concepts are applicable to all the arts and to serious criticism as well (since I have yet to encounter a critical strategy that approaches the arts in this way).

In short, the concept rests on the notion that the primary, irreducible value in fiction (or in any experience of the arts) is in the direct stimulation of the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) that breaks down the barrier between self and other. This is an essentially irrational, gut-level act, so the irrational and the gut-level understanding of fiction (and other arts) is favored as a primary value. I call this value “primary” and “irreducible” because it is the first value to consider – whether or not it is the greatest value is up to the individual – and it is the one value that remains once other values are eliminated. If one were to ask “Is this piece of fiction (etc) good?” and “Why is it good?” one might name a large number of possible values, but if one were to say “Without this value, could this be good?” or “In the history of fiction (or art), has an example of a good work existed without this value?” and eliminate values in this manner one by one, the only one remaining would be stimulation. For example, values such as meaning, reflection of philosophical/social concepts, or universal model of behavior might be cited as a story’s source of value, but could a story be valuable without any of these? Yes, of course it could. However, could a story be valuable devoid of stimulation? Unlikely. So, in the practical sense of optimizing this irreducible value, the writer then considers them secondary. The role of meaning or social reflection, for example, becomes a secondary function to how these factors optimize stimulation.

The writer must also understand how the drive toward stimulation and the irrational breakdown in barriers between self and other meets the contradictory drive to eliminate stimulation (I simplify these forces below as “The Gut” and “The Mind”). To load a story with excessive emotions or completely irrational oddities, for example, might meet with the mind’s resistance to emotions and oddities, including the complex array of mental mechanisms designed for this resistance (such as subordination and categorization). To optimize the stimulation, the writer must strategically recognize these mechanisms for resistance and craft accordingly – to evade the gatekeepers, in other words.

This concept was designed to compensate for the massive deficiencies in my own creative writing education in which teachers would rely on superficial truisms or false universals without the capacity to explain or justify them. It was like teaching a cooking class by naming all the pots and pans but giving no clear understanding of flavors and the interaction between flavors. Following clichés like “show, don’t tell” might make a story more snappy, but why? I never got a good explanation, so I had to come up with one of my own: concrete imagery engages the gut while abstract narration engages the mind.

That being said, here is a simplified list of various factors to consider in understanding Particulate Stimulation:

Overview:

The Mind: Designed to eliminate stimulation (e.g. danger, discomfort, etc.) through:

  • Subordination (creating a hierarchy to organize the chaos)
  • Abstraction (elevation into the undying ideal)
  • Turning the irrational into symbols/metaphors
  • Categorization/Separation (favoring the safe over the dangerous)
  • Resolution of mystery

The Gut: Seeks stimulation (food, sex, mortal danger, etc.) by eliminating barriers between self and other (leading the reader to vicarious experiences):

  • Danger/fear
  • Rage
  • Desire
  • Gratification of physical needs (food, sex, etc.)
  • Unresolved mystery
  • Happy feelings (to a lesser extent)

Comfort/Discomfort: Though the mind seeks elimination of stimulation, one type of stimulation it accepts is comfort.

The Mind: Comforting stimulators:

  • Brief bursts of stimulation:
    • Conflict resolution
    • Mystery resolution
    • Fulfillment of desires
    • Epiphany
    • Catharsis (the false notion that art exists solely to eliminate stimulation)
  •  Function often as coda to end a story
  • Often mistaken as the main point of the story

The Gut: Discomforting stimulators:

  • More sustained source of stimulation throughout a story
  • A majority of the value is in optimizing discomfort
  • But also doing so without the mind rejecting the text (in its need for comfort)

Imagery:

The Mind:

  • Favors abstraction.
  • Concrete imagery is subordinate to abstract ideas.
  • Images stand in for or “mean” something

The Gut:

  • Parataxis: The juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated image without a directly stated connection.
  • Dislocation (the surrealist version of parataxis): Disconnected images dislocate the viewer/reader from the present world, create a dreamlike effect

Characters:

The Mind: A character:

  • Stands in as a universal model
  • Represents the human condition
  • Learns a lesson so we can learn a lesson
  • Leads to vicarious catharsis
  • Resolves paradoxes.

The Gut:

  • Driven by irrational desire
  • Full of unresolved paradox
  • “Negative Capability”: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—John Keats

Repetition:

The Mind:

  • Mechanical Repetition:
    • Copies must be exact to eliminate possibility of failure/danger
    • This creates a diminishing return as stimulation reduces with each copy)

The Gut:

  • Organic Repetition:
    • Another stimulating irrational paradox: both unique and of a pattern
    • Repetition of some patterns while remaining individual (as with any living being) indicates the presence of life without overt mental control
    • The rule of threes: 2 occurrences might be coincidences and 4 verges on mechanical repetition, so 3 indicates the presence of life.
    • The most pleasing music has been historically based on a 3 part pattern