So I had my second installment all mapped out. I decided that since my first piece focused on MUSIC influenced by WRITING I wanted my next to focus on WRITING influenced by MUSIC. I picked my subject, surprisingly harder than I had initially anticipated but I was pleased enough. I began outlining: title of books, title of songs, examining and outlining how Elvis Costello’s sardonic lyrics masked in pop-sheen and general smarmy prep-school aesthetics were almost identical to those of the author I chose. I was feeling pleased. Then Bret Easton Ellis had some pretty disgraceful and despicable things to say about the James Deen rape/sexual assault allegations and almost involuntarily I thought whelp, fuck that shit.
I could have said who cares and hidden behind a familiar and easily-defendable position that personal politics shouldn’t get in the way of the “art” a person makes, or whatever. Ellis has been a cantankerous bastard for quite a while now but I thought most of it was an act or carefully constructed public persona; he seemed too interested and engaged in America-as-Post-Empire to feel like the “real” Old Guard. In many ways he was the anti-Franzen, with an active twitter account and relevant podcast series; he seemed to shirk the traditional modus-operandi most writers of that generation seemed to thrive on; he worshiped low art in spite of his suit and tie, he engaged in new media, he wrote about the death of cinema.
But really, all this is to say that Ellis let me down. Perhaps (most definitely) it is my fault for looking up to such a snot-nosed brat, but there was something about his suit coat and ever-present cigarette-stand-in-for-middle-finger that I found so admirable. It is precisely for these reasons that his reactionary and almost comically-conservative POV about the James Deen situation is so troubling. Despite not writing a relevant novel for some number of years, he had positioned himself as so contemporary, such an astute finder of ur cultural pulse that I never expected him to be so far from it. But 2015 was a year for exposing our truer colors, and I suppose Ellis was no exception.
So in some ways it was no surprise when i was googling Elvis Costello I found old accounts of a racist rant. It’s times like these when I think of an early Sonic Youth lyric – “Let that shit die/find out the new goal/Kill your idols…” and ponder, yeah, maybe. But then I think how Thurston only wrote that song because Robert Christgau kept giving them bad reviews (the first half of that lyric is “I don’t know why/you want to impress Christgau”) and so it was probably more personal than a broader statement about starting from ground zero and ‘fuck our heroes’ and really, I’m not the biggest (or even smallest) Elvis Costello fan. So then maybe just find heroes that aren’t pieces of shit; but is that so easy?
I think the short answer to that question is yes. Yes it is. With so much incredibly diverse and interesting and genre pushing work being published today (by people who aren’t firing off their mouths and saying insanely stupid shit) why look back? Sure, Less Than Zero was pretty great when I was a teenager and I still think the postmodern self-awareness of Lunar Park was a huge leap forward for Ellis, one he hasn’t topped since, but really, what’s the fucking point of me going over the influence Elvis Costello had on his writing when we all know Blake Butler has a great book named after a Brian Eno song that dwarfs those achievements by permitting both the physical and mystical aspects of music to permeate his work. What’s the fucking point when Lindsay Hunter gives poignant and revealing interviews discussing what she listens to while writing , championing PA-post-hardcore bums Pissed Jeans, a band who’s seething modern anxiety is so clearly present in her prose? Why the hell even waste my breath when Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel takes us on a far more lucid and evocative journey into a land where music, violence and culture are so intertwined and we cannot separate them.
Mario Vargas Llosa recently wrote a big book of nonfiction that, upon hearing the title of and having a vague familiarity with the author, I got excited (title: Notes on the Death of Culture). Unfortunately, it appears to be another oldhead ranting about how “kids don’t respect (capital-A) Art anymore” and we should spend more time “reading Ulysses instead of watching that damned reality television and staying hooked up to the internet with all those cat videos!” Before I say that I couldn’t be more bored with such an opinion, I should probably mention those aren’t direct quotes. In an age when more unique and groundbreaking work is being put out by independent and boutique presses than ever before, such a point of view is really nothing but condescending at worst and lazy at best.
So, maybe don’t kill your idols, maybe just look for new ones, ones that are already here, ones that aren’t saying insanely stupid and ignorant shit because they are there, you just have to open your browser.