I wish that we talked about literature the way that we talk about pop music.
Because, for some reason, when we talk about pop music, we sound like we actually care. I have had countless late-night conversations when I fought so hard to explain why we should objectively like Yeezus over The Life of Pablo; Drake over J. Cole; Slime Season 1 over Slime Season 2.
And, I’ll admit: It might sound stupid or pretentious when I suggest that there’s an objective answer to any of these questions.
But, first of all, of course there are right answers. If you like J. Cole over Drake, you seriously need to reevaluate the moral fiber of your being. I’m not sure if I can ever trust you. Don’t lie to me. You’ve probably cried many more nights over “Marvins Room” than anything in Cole’s entire discography.
I’m just kidding. But from my personal experience, we often argue about pop songs as if there should be a right answer. If we pretend that your pop music preferences are purely subjective, then it’s hard to explain why there was such an uproar when Taylor Swift won her Grammy over Kendrick Lamar. It’s hard to explain why our newsfeeds have been flooded by think-pieces that debate the cultural merit of Beyonce’s “Formation.” It’s hard to explain why there might be several J. Cole fans who never got to the end of my column.
There’s just more at stake when it comes to good music. These don’t seem to be the same harmless questions as “Onions or french fries?” or “White wine or red?” These insanely wealthy individuals make art that actually matters a lot to us. We develop strong attachments to either Drake or J. Cole. (In my experience, it’s usually one or the other.) We develop memories and emotional reactions, and these artists help us make it through break-ups, survive our morning commutes and throw successful parties. Suddenly, we are so passionate about our opinions that there seems to be a right answer.
It might sound like I’m stating the obvious. I mean, of course, art should make you feel things. Of course art matters a lot to us. Yet, I can’t remember the last time I ever argued about Frank O’Hara or James Joyce the way that I talk about Drake.
When we are given the task of discussing high-brow literature, our passions are suddenly deflated and our voices sound stiff. Our language sounds rehearsed, as if we were preparing for an oral exam, when we’re really just trying to answer, “Why did you like this book?”
I remember sitting in the waiting room of the English Advising Office, and this guy next to me chatted me up. I told him that I liked to read Pynchon, even though I’ve only read one book by him. I like Pynchon because he writes characters whose lives are always falling apart, and I think, “Hey! That’s me.”
For some reason, his response has really bugged me ever since, even though it’s been at least a year. To give my best paraphrase, he responded, “I’m really interested in books that explore the relationship between the human and the nonhuman.”
And, I just thought, “What the heck does that even mean?” I thought, “That can’t possibly be his initial, gut reaction to whatever he’s reading.” He sounded as if he was reading off his dissertation. Apparently, he was talking about science-fiction with androids and superhuman creatures, such as Frankenstein.
I was in that room because I was finally declaring my English major, so this guy’s response seemed to take on a symbolic value in my life. He reminded me of the strange, off-putting and unnatural tone that takes over when we talk about books.
You know, you would never talk this way about Beyonce. You would never say, “Oh! Did you see how she dropped that juxtaposition between images of the human and nonhuman? That’s parataxis, fam! Squad goals, fam! It’s lit!” It would be an off-putting clash of interests, like Hillary Clinton trying to do the Nae Nae.
And it’s not this guy’s fault, per se. We use this tone all the time when we talk about books. I don’t know why, but we have to come up with smart, pretentious reasons for why we like science-fiction books about androids. I’m just as guilty. I will ask, “But what would Jacques Derrida say about this poem?” Honestly? Who cares about what Derrida thinks?
When you compare these two tones of conversation, it’s easy to see why students care less about James Joyce and more about Beyonce. It’s just more enjoyable to talk about “Formation.” I’m allowed to have simple, honest opinions based on my own feelings, instead of relying on esoteric words and the ideas of French theorists.
And, if you looked back into the history of literature, you’d realize that our highbrow pretensions are quite silly and far from the spirit of these important authors. Way back in 1798, two poets named William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge dropped a bombshell artistic collaboration — the Watch the Throne of the 18th century — called “Lyrical Ballads.”
They thought that poetry had become boring and pretentious, so they decided to reinvigorate the artform by incorporating everyday language that normal, working-class people actually used. They drew inspiration from ballads, folk songs that were popular among the masses in the countryside. Songs that often accompanied dance. You know, they were talking about pop songs.
They didn’t care about metaphors or big words or highbrow mythic allusions. They were just trying to drop dope rhymes that normal people would enjoy.
So this pretentiousness is by no means a new problem in the arts, which gives me hope. Our literary past gives me inspiration for how to get people interested in literature again, which we all know is not an artform that is in good shape. We have to stop being so pretentious when we talk about classic literature.
I am starting a literary movement, right now. It’s called Dopeism. It’s simple. I’m not going to actually write anything. I’m just going to incorporate the word “dope” into my conversations about books. Hopefully, if it catches on, novelists will care less about winning literary prizes or impressing literary theorists, and they’ll care more about making dope shit.
Sylvia Plath? Dope. Toni Morrison? Dope. J.K. Rowling? Dope. Frank O’Hara? Mega dope.
Because, I think, if Samuel Taylor Coleridge were alive today, he would simply say, as if he were Kanye West, “My life is dope, and I do dope shit.”
Contact Jason Chen at [email protected].