Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 13, 2010

old man Jacobs

Following the lead of Old Man Stewart here, I’m going to take a moment shake my fist at Bill Simmons.

I needed something nearly mindless to read at the end of a long, hard, illness-infested semester, so I thought I would try Simmons’s The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy. I got about a third of the way through it — it’s 736 pages in the hardcover edition, by the way — and then deleted it from my Kindle. Too much porn. Yes, porn — Simmons’s jokes have a pretty limited range: penises, breasts, porn flicks, a movie about porn flicks (Boogie Nights), penises, gambling, other movies, penises, and porn flicks. After a while this became . . . not offensive so much as numbingly repetitive and just plain sad.

It’s sad that porn is so mainstream now that Simmons can assume that pretty much everyone who reads his book knows as much about it as he does. And perhaps he assumes rightly, since hardly any of the customer reviews on Amazon mention this prominent, um . . . feature of the book. Nor does Amazon’s own review, or Booklist’s. Apparently porn has moved from being taboo to disreputable to risqué to defensible to invisible. Just part of the scenery.

Notice, by the way, that I did what we all do these days, which is to soften or even undercut moral disapproval with a self-deprecating joke. (See this post’s title?) Robert Ebert did something similar recently in the first paragraph of his review of Kick-Ass:

Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

Yeah. Do please tell me about it. I think the self-deprecation, the near-apology, comes in because we know that there is simply no point in arguing with someone who's happy with a world in which porn is thoroughly mainstream and there's some value in watching films that depict children being beaten and then killing (and, by the way, conscripting actual children to act out those fantasies). I cannot discern any point of commonality that would allow me to formulate an argument that such people would recognize as valid, or perhaps they would even be able to make sense of. I sympathize with Ebert's simple statement — "You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in "— but I doubt its sufficiency. I may be "so very not interested" in a particular world, yet still have to live in it and experience its consequences.

11 comments:

  • By the way, Simmons also thinks that "phenomena" is a singular noun the plural of which is "phenomenas." Just thought I'd add that.

  • In The Brothers Karamazov Dmitri says "Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man."

    I feel like that's a succinct way of summarizing a large part of what you're saying.

    And, sadly, it seems like in modern Western culture the devil has won the struggle to define beauty. Or, rather, divorced art from the creation of beauty. It used to be, I feel, that a great artist created a work that, beyond all of its subliminal aspects, simply awed the mind with its sheer aesthetic power. And I feel like art has lost that in that we no longer demand it of things like cinema and studio art. Paintings are no longer beautiful - they try instead to send messages and make political statements. Popular flicks are no longer the deeply thoughtful and artistically masterful works of Hitchcock, they are the mindless rubbish like Knocked Up, The Hangover, etc.

    Ultimately it's really just sad. Sad, especially, because as you say the people who see no problem with that kind of "art" are totally impervious to rational argument.

  • Michael Straight said...

    It makes me sad that so many of my favorite science fiction authors feel compelled to include (usually gratuitous and pointless) explicit sex scenes of some sort.

    And it's horrible that it's common enough and I've grown callous enough that it doesn't necessarily stick out. I'll go to recommend a book to someone and have to stop and think, "Wait, does that book have any really bad scenes in it? How bad is too bad? Does this person care, or not?" Or to raise the question to a friend and have to realize that, yeah, we're both used to that sort of thing.

    I don't read much popular contemporary fiction outside that genre, but I get the impression it's not just a problem in SF.

    I imagine this is even more of an issue at Wheaton. Would you get in trouble for loaning that book to a student?

  • Wouldn't get into trouble, no. Some people might think I wasn't being discerning.

    A number of times over the years I have assigned books to my classes that contained a good deal of violence and sexuality, and in those cases I have tried to let the students know beforehand and to explain why I didn't let those elements of the books keep me from assigning them. And in a number of cases I have had students after reading the books wonder aloud why I had even said anything. Wheaton students may come from conservative Christian homes, but many of them have had so much exposure to violence and sexuality through the books they read and (especially) the movies they watch that such things seem totally normal to them.

    I do not know enough about their private lives to know just how worried I should be about this indifference. . . .

  • I had the same reaction to Simmons's book -- I blogged about it here -- and I felt it was a shame, because it marred some really good writing about basketball, fandom, even non-porn pop culture. Also, it inevitably turns off lots of fans (like, um, I don't know, all women. Lots of whom like basketball).

  • As a faithful Snarkmarket reader, I don't know how I missed your review, Tim, but I did. I could have just linked to you rather than shaking my fist!

  • I saw this linked to by Rod Dreher as "Alan Jacobs gets fed up with an author who made too many porn jokes" and knew before clicking that it would be Simmons. He had wit (and a bigger range of material) when he started out but long since got in an annoying and boring rut, so I stopped reading him.

    As for Ebert, his public utterances since the stroke have run the gamut - sometimes (as here) he seems a very humane, decent man, at other times (as in his recent comments on the students suspended for wearing a flag on Cinco de Mayo) not only a leftist but one of the most shrill and intolerant variety.

  • Rod Dreher's juxtaposition of your post with the one on the Gulf oil spill fit. Plumes of p** lead to dead zones in the sea of culture.
    * * * *
    Last month at Calvin, the poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch said poetry serves as a tuning fork for language.
    The writing you describe here gets language out of tune. It's a loss.
    Poetry can also serve as a filter for language.
    * * * *
    Rod's comments about the coarsening culture reminded me of Paul Farmer's "long defeat." (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
    Unfortunately, that oil spill is starting to look like one, too.

  • Alas, I only added on the "whoa, this guy's audience must be 90% immature dudes" qualifier in the comments. (My initial review, which I wrote before finishing the book, was very positive -- I worry that I might have swayed you to buy the book without an appropriate warning!)

    It is the sort of thing that you REALLY notice over 700+ pages; a stray guys-only joke or Boogie Nights reference here or there, you might ignore, whatever, but it just snowballs.

    Also, the copyediting on that book was criminally bad -- again, the sort of thing you notice over and over again when you read long stretches at a clip. Your "phenomenas" is just one of many examples of sloppy mistakes, some of which actually turn out to be factual errors, not stylistic ones (even if they're stylistic in the act). Don't know if they rushed it out or just didn't care.

  • Don't know if they rushed it out or just didn't care.

    Wel, you know, if you assume that everyone else is watching porn flicks while writing, reading, or copy-editing, it takes a lot of the pressure off.

  • I don't know that the self-deprecating joke to start out is actually an entirely bad strategy or sign of defeat. I think plenty of people don't want to entertain criticisms of porn and the like because they equate it with people who are hopelessly stodgy and just want to moralize pointlessly about behavior that is not any of their business. If you can show that there are people who get that equation, and who get the stance of scoffing at the squares, but who still think there ought to be limits, it actually does make the criticism more credible.

    Another part of making that credible is avoiding that style of argument in the first place — the sort of grandiose rhetoric of declinism and high-minded morality of, e.g., the second commenter here (sorry to pick on you). Not only does it come across as stodgy, but it simply says "this is wrong" without communicating why, which provokes others to come back with "I don't share the values that tell you to feel that way, so let's just each have our own opinions". I think what's more fruitful is to move away from that sort of high-mindedness to just talk concretely about why the proliferation of porn might damage the possibility for happy and functional relationships (among other concrete effects). If you can make people appreciate that point, they'll have an easier time understanding what is at stake when others say it's "crass" or "offensive" to let porn just become part of the scenery, as you nicely put it.

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