Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

I Wanna Be Taken SERIOUSLY

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"That last post was so funny," he said to me.

"Oh, yeah!"  I said annoyed, "Wait until until you read my next post.  It’s going to be a SERIOUS analysis of Ecuador’s economy!"

I was having a "Woody Allen" moment.  You know, the one he had right after "Annie Hall" when he said to himself, "No more silly films.  Now I’m going to be taken SERIOUSLY."

One of my favorite movies is Preston Sturges’  "Sullivan’s Travels."  In it, a film director of escapist movies decides to become a serious director and goes to learn about "life" by living with the Depression-era hobos on the trains.

Today, every "artist" wants to be taken seriously.   Maybe that’s why supermodels never smile in their photos.  Even television people want critics to view their work as high art.  They show "retrospectives" of sitcoms like "My Two Dads" at the Museum of Television and Radio.  Porn stars now have their own award show.  Stuntmen are fighting for their own category in the Oscars.   Maybe because more of us are familiar with Desi Arnaz and "I Love Lucy" than Donizetti and "Lucia di Lammemoor," we need to make believe our low-brow tastes are as important as high-culture.  There was even a popular best-selling book by Steven Johnson titled "Everything Bad is Good For You:  How Today’s Pop Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter."   According to Johnson, we should let our children stay up to watch "Survivor" and "Fear Factor."

Go ahead and let them watch more television, too, since even reality shows can function as "elaborately staged group psychology experiments" to stimulate rather than pacify the brain.

Even the intellectually astute Michael Blowhard  has taken literary snobs to task for not appreciating the writing skills of sensationalist shlock-writer Jackie Collins, author of such books as "The Bitch" and "The Stud."

Why are many people’s attitudes towards popular fiction different than their attitudes towards the popular arts in other fields? By now, most sophisticated and educated people can see virtues in rock and roll; in sitcoms; in action-adventure movies; and in barbecued ribs, ice cream, and corn on the cob. Yet where fiction-books are concerned … Well, if these people are caught reading a blockbuster, they laugh, they apologize. They want you to know they’re slumming; they really do know better.  Really what they care about is the serious and good stuff.

I’m not a snob about these things and I like this reinterpretation of what’s high art and what’s low art.   Still, without sounding like a fuddy-duddy, there should be some standards, and there’s nothing as annoying as hearing a popular artist kvetch about their own popularity.  It’s one of the reasons so many Hollywood actors want to speak about politics.  They don’t want to just be a lowly actor and make millions of dollars for play-acting.  They want to be a force for good

Sitcom writers don’t just want to be sitcom writers.  It’s not enough to be making tons of money and getting your work on television.  You want to be taken seriously as a writer.  You may be a "writer," but the reason you’re not as esteemed as Dostoyevsky is because you wrote your first draft while drinking a ice-blended mocha at the Coffee Bean.  Dostoyevsky spent four years in the Siberian maximum security prison in Omsk, with ten-pound iron chains around his ankles and wrists in a lice-infested, filth-ridden “cemetery-of-the-living” which he later described in "The House of the Dead."  Now, even the Disney cafeteria isn’t that bad.

It seems ironic that so many artists are so concerned with being taken seriously when our culture seems only to care about what is popular.  The entertainment section of the paper is filled with stories about the top box-office movies and top-ten network shows.  Hollywood envies successful producers like Jerry Bruckheimer.  Who knows… maybe even he’s unhappy with his popular successes.  Is it possible that Jerry Bruckheimer is secretly writing a low-budget script about his loving relationship with his offbeat "grandpa" — a project without one car blowing up?

In the blogging world, you have popular sites like Gawker and Defamer that feed their audience snarky gossip.   They get large amounts of readers.  I have a friend who writes a fantastic blog on the topic of Earth Science.  He has three readers.  I would give you the link, but I think he would have a heart attack if too many of you actually showed up. 

Let’s hope that the producers of Gawker and Defamer don’t complain about not being taken seriously.

A popular artist who is overly concerned about being taken seriously is like the prom queen complaining that she wasn’t asked to be on the math team.   What are you complaining about?  We all want to be like YOU. 

Recently, there’s even been some fighting among the usually mutually-supportive women writers as some tried to separate themselves from the popular chick-lit label.   When Curtis Sittenfeld reviewed Melissa Bank’s "The Wonder Spot" in the New York Times Book Review, many saw it as an attack on the genre —  and an excuse for Ms. Sittenfeld to re-create her own image as a "serious" writer.  Popular chick-lit writer Jennnifer Weiner then responded to the review, mocking Ms. Sittenfeld:

"The more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you, to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order."

Why is  Ms. Sittenfeld ashamed of the term chick lit?  It is very popular and has helped hundreds of other female writers to get published.   If you write a light book about a young woman in Manhattan juggling men while working as an assistant editor at a fabulous women’s magazine, chances are the book is Chick Lit.  If the book is about a poor female mine worker dealing with her mother dying of an inoperable tumor, chances are it isn’t Chick Lit

Soon, sitcom writers are going to complain about their work being called "sitcoms."   Will sitcoms soon be called Short Televised Humorous Novellas?

As some woman might suggest in a chick lit book, "Do you really need to have it all?"  Do you need to have popularity and be taken seriously?

As for myself, I’ll hold off on that article about Ecuador.  I still want as many readers as possible. 

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47 Comments

  1. One thing many writing gurus say is to “write for yourself.” It always feels about like masturbation to me — and the kind where you’re reliving a past encounter. Writers need to be exposed, read and probably even a little loved.

  2. Yes, it’s tough, but not as tough as doing comedy.
    When asked if he thought dying was tough.
    ~~ Edmund Gwenn, actor, d. September 6, 1959

    Stay away from Ecuador!

  3. As a writer who desperately wants to be taken seriously (but only after the mortgage payment is made), I sympathize with those writers who have the same desire. But it has always struck me the only sure way of doing this was to die – preferably at an early age.

    Sadly, dying young is no longer an option for me. The blush of youth has metamorphosed into blotchy red spots pocking a pasty complexion and a W.C. Fields-like nose from one too many benders. Still, dying under mysterious circumstances may be an option.

    The one hitch to it all is the dying business. The will to fame can’t overcome to the will to live. I suppose the reality is I’m just not a genuinely serious writer, just a wanna-be.

    I recall way back in what seems like the beginning of time the singer-songwriter Jim Croce. He had a pleasant song or two on the radio. (I think even Frank Sinatra covered his “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”) He was quite popular but at a middling-star level. Until he died. Then, it seemed everyone discovered he had been some kind of quiet, affable genius. Some spoke of him in the same breath as Lennon-McCartney. I remember thinking at the time, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown? Genius?”

    Personally, I’ve always liked my conception of Shakespeare – a working schmoe who wrote what was popular. It has always seemed to me, no matter how lofty his placement in literature now, at the time he lived he was essentially a writer of what was popular.

    I admire anyone who can get something completed – a novel, script, whatever. It’s harder than most people think. If they can complete something that’s good, even better. And if the can make a living at it – now that’s really something.

    Besides, most people who judge merit based on popularity or obscurity wouldn’t know a good work if it walked up to them and shat on their boots. I feel blessed that my own tastes allow me to enjoy the popular and the obscure, the tragic and the comic, the light and the heavy. Those who can’t have a limited number of choices. Mine’s as vast as the world.

    Frankly, people who decide to read/not-read something because it’s Chick-Lit, science fiction or some other category are idiots.

    (Also … Jason, as for being loved, I’d rather be paid. People can love me later. Though the thought is a nice one.)

  4. Look what dying young did for James Dean. He made a couple of movies… and kids still buy his poster on Hollywood Blvd since he never got past his rebel stage (and never had to make any guest appearances on the Love Boat when he got older).

  5. The one other aspect to dying young I could never figure a way around was the fact that some other s.o.b. would get to collect my royalties. I could never see a way to work that one out.

  6. I remember when Chiclets moved to ‘serious’ packaging, to try to compete with rival high-brow competitors like Orbit and Dentine. ‘Stop calling us Chiclets’ they complained.

    But you are Chiclets.

    Let that be a lesson.

  7. Neil,

    Wait!! Stop the presses!! You made a mistake!!!

    Jennifer Weiner didn’t say that… If you check out her blog entry at:

    http://jenniferweiner.blogspot.com/2005/06/in-between-unloading-my-galleys-and.html

    you’ll see she was being critical of Curtis Sittenfeld’s review of THE WONDER SPOT — which blasted chick lit, demeaning it. She was quoting from Sittenfeld’s article. That first sentence you quoted was actually from Sittenfeld. Weiner is on YOUR side, and has never disowned that chick lit label. She appreciates the entertainment value of her books and other well written chick lit.

    Nancy
    (see why it’s important to have Republican friends? We are ON TOP of chick lit.)

  8. Nancy – I made the changes. Thanks a lot for setting me straight. You Republican chicks are the best!

  9. I CANNOT stand Jennifer Weiner. Man, she’s annoying.

  10. Melliferous,

    You must not have seen her photo shoot in Entertainment Weekly, where she donned lingerie!

    Neil, Yippee! Condee in ’08!

  11. That was an interesting, engaging post.
    This comment comes from me, a low-brow dumb-a$$ who doesn’t know a thing.

  12. Not enough people realize I am NOT being serious…it’s lonely being a clown sometimes

  13. I think that if people are buying and enjoying your work, that’s damn well enough.

  14. I did see her photo shoot in Entertainment Weekly, still irritating.

  15. I spent a lot of years listening to sitcom writers bitching about hacky shows out there… in the midst of writing shows that were equally hacky. Not even ironically.

    Oh, and maybe it’s not “write for yourself” so much as “write what you think is good.” You know?

    Anyway, after reading this post, all I have to say is RIGHT ON!

  16. This conversation has gone on in English departments for years and years. When I taught Shakespeare, I made sure to tell my students that he wasn’t really born as a superstar until the 18th century. Until then, he was just another playwright trying to make ends meet on the London theatre scene.

    I write about ‘popular’ Renaissance plays (i.e. the ones that supposedly suck), but I see the merit in them–but I know the difference between those plays and the ones that people worship. I don’t always agree with the distinctions, but the distinctions keep us talking about art (whether it’s “high” or “low”–whatever that means).

  17. I want to be taken seriously as a writer, but I think the absurdity of real life is suffiently serious. I suppose I’ve done enough serious (boring) adcademic writing to have had my fill.

    I may be taking myself a little too seriously, though. Last night, I had a dream that you blogged about my blog. (I’m not kidding–my first blog dream!) And then, today, you post a pic of someone getting a pie in the face. How did you know? Eerie.

    PS I am a huge Preston Sturges fan but I think the truly silly ones are the best (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and The Lady Eve). However, Sullivan’s Travels is the best read–I have a collection of Sturges screenplays. Great stuff.1

  18. I have found the most personal satisfaction in working on projects I am proud to have been part of.
    I have always been a backstage person who tries to stay out of the spotlight… even in the playbill, my bio rarely reads more than ACG is the stage manager.
    I think I choose to become a stage manage because most people outside of theatre don’t know what we do or that we are even there. No stagedoor Johnnies for us.

  19. why do i have a sudden urge to become a republican? hmmm.

  20. Seriously or not, anyhing that keeps my intrest after page one is good, be thay chick-lit, sci-fi, shakespeare, or blogs… so eh, keep writing… someone will read it.
    But if you’re like the Bard, it just may take awhile to be considered great.
    No wait, that’s to be considered serious… no, maybe it’s just great.

    “Where for art thou…”

  21. Great post and comments! Amazing – what did happen to writing and reading what you enjoy? It would be best if we could abandon our high school mentalities and all go back to being three. Back then, we didn’t care who people were because of size, gender or some other ridiculous characteristic. Everything new was fascinating to us. If we didn’t like it or find it stimulating, we moved on.

  22. I have got to quit messing around with this blogging stuff and get back to writing–for myself, someone else, I don’t really care. It would certainly be nice to get paid for it though. I need to work on that…

  23. Stumbled onto this site, thought I would say hi. 🙂

  24. then there are some of us who are desperately trying to be taken less seriously.

  25. Are you saying my post on the upcoming Bolivian constitution has hurt my readership? I’ll start carrying a camera when I go surfing. Strike that, the girls are usually on the beach. I’ll trade enjoyment for readership any day.

  26. Who is Jennifer Weiner.

  27. Jennifer Weiner writes chick lit.

  28. The only thing that makes you sound like a fudddy-duddy is use of the phrase fuddy-duddy 😛

  29. Excellent post!
    “A popular artist who is overly concerned about being taken seriously is like the prom queen complaining that she wasn’t asked to be on the math team.”
    This is high art, my friend.

    Seriously, though (as you want to be taken), I declared to everyone since I started my film career: I don’t care if I never win/get nominated for an Oscar. I wanna win the NATO/Showest’s awards, in which theatre owners congratulate box office draws. It’d be great to be both, but given a choice, I’d rather be the prom king than the mathlete.

  30. I think the best way to have your work taken seriously is to be serious. My blog is nothing but seriousness from the top of the screen to the bottom and that’s the way I like it. When you are serious people take you seriously. Second, to be taken seriously you must deal with serious issues. Ecuador is not a serious issue; a country that puts its capital city next to a live volcano is a fat woman about to slip on a banana peel and fall on her ass joke waiting to happen. So skip this entirely. Skip the Bolivian constitution as well; since the establishment of the country the military has overthrown the government a couple of hundred times. In fact, overthrowing the government is the Bolivian military’s stock in trade, since fighting and winning wars, an army’s usual reason for being, seems to be beyond its capabilities (they havent given up hope, though; there’s still a Bolivian Navy and an Bolivian admiral, even though the country lost its seacoast to Chile back in 1879 and is now completely landlocked). So skip the Bolivian constitution as well; it’s probably printed on cigarette paper at this point. Remember, seriousness at all times will win you respect and may even help you get chicks; buy yourself some glasses, serious hornrimmed ones, if you dont have a pair already.

  31. Akaky, my heart belongs to you. Seriously.

  32. I’ve never heard of Chick Lit before. You are so educational. I love that expression and will be using it often.

    I also love Chick Lit.

    And yes, Florida drivers suck. I know that’s from an old post but time is of the essence these days.

  33. Akaky,

    You just made me slip into a coma….

    Nancy

  34. If Akaky gets any more attention here, I may have to throw in another cute kitten photo as a distraction…

  35. Neil, FYI, I work for a publisher who has a very popular line of chick-lit books featuring some very good authors. It’s a topical and marketable genre…at least for now.

    Did you or your readers know that there’s also a genre called “mom lit”? Those are those chicks who’ve developed from the chick-lit genre, have gone on to marry, are still hip and enjoy mommyhood — or perhaps “enjoy” isn’t the best word; maybe “endure” is more like it. Like many chick-lit novels, there’s lots of humor and name-dropping and issues and attitudes that women, and some men, can relate to.

    Support your chick-lit/mom-lit writers today!

  36. I used to be a snob about what I read, but then I got into my career and didn’t have time to be snobby. Now I love all kinds of literature, from cheesy to thought provoking.

    One day I will publish both a “serious” novel and also a “chick lit” one, just to show people that I kick ass.

    Although, with all this said, I was still very ashamed to admit that I read “The DaVinci Code.” IMHO, Dan Brown is a horrible writer, but damn can he come up with interesting ideas. Of course, I say all this because I am eternally jealous of his millions while I live on a teacher’s salary.

  37. Neil, I think Pearl is trying to vie for my position as “chick lit expert.”

  38. Does any one publish guy-lit books? Or are guy-lit books novels like “The Perfect Storm” and “Moby Dick.”

  39. Hey, Neil, we did have a male writer write an anthology of short stories for our chick lit line — what can I say? It didn’t do too well in the marketplace. I guess men and chick-lit don’t mix…when it comes to writing these books. They only mix when it comes to supplying fodder for the storytellers!

    (We also publish guy-lit books — I used to refer to them as “the A Team meets Rambo” stories.)

  40. Guy Lit is sold at Adult Bookstores. Coincidentally, readers of both genres are know to reach for the kleenex.

  41. I’m thinking Chick-lit seems to be a hot, profitable market. Neil asked about Guy-Lit, but I think that’s too broad. So what about Hung-Like-A-Hamster-Lit? I think that could fly. I’m sure there’s a market for it.

    My first concern is colours. Chick-Lit seems to favour covers with variations of pink. What would Hung-Like-A-Hamster-Lit favour? Blue is my guess, but what shades? Indigo seems too depressing. Robin’s egg perhaps too light-in-the-loafers? I just don’t know.

    I think the main character in such fiction should be unattached – but in what way? In a divorced/separated kind of way? Or in a single (as in bachelor) kind of way? And what would his profession be?

    And how much emphasis on back-page classifieds of the “enhancement” variety should there be?

    I’m puzzling over all these issues; I have no answers. But if Hung-Like-A-Hamster-Lit can make a go, I think it will owe a great debt to Chick-Lit for blazoning the publishing trail.

    I’m enthused. I think this would address an underserved market (underserved in many ways). I’m already imagining the dialogue:

    “Just who do you think you’re going to satisfy with that?”

    “Why, me, madam. Me!”

    (Apologies for all the comments I’ve added, but I do enjoy this topic.)

  42. See, Neil, Nancy is in a coma from the seriousness of it all and Tatyana is in love with me, sight unseen, which is the best way to be in love with me; my visuals are not kind, to put it mildly; and I didnt have to pander with chicklit or toss in pictures of cute little kittens or anything like that. Seriousness at all times is the way to go. For my next trick I will deliver a five hour lecture on the effects of Diocletian’s debasement of the Roman currency on farm prices for wheat and other staples in northwestern Upper Dacia in the third century C.E. and its long term ramifications for tax policy and army recruitment in the area. Seriousness, Neil, seriousness, the more profoundly serious the better; in fact, if you can get rigor mortis to set in while they are still alive so much the better.

  43. Neil,

    “About a Boy” is an example of “lad lit,” although most are not as popular.

    Akaky, I really thnklo.gm* .2
    g’er

    ;;;;;;;;;rg
    ey

    ………………………… (flat line)

  44. See? It works every time.

  45. I thought “guylit” was generally acknowledged to be technothrillers — all machinery, thrills, armaments, geopolitical crises, reporting-for-duty, dealing-with-dumb-generals, the complete opposite/reverse/inverse/whatever of chicklit. I could never get through more than a few pages of technothrillers, myself — I guess I’m not guy enough. And, yeah, there’s a whole lad-lit thing going on, with sitcommy bittersweet growing-up themes and tones: Tom Perrotta, Hornby, some others.

    Hey — and, beware, a semi-Serious question coming your way — isn’t America a bit of a special case? Nearly all of what has become our own particular arts-canon started off as commercial, or as popular. Our high-art tradition is a rather minor and always beleaguered one, where our folk and commercial arts have had a lot of gung-ho energy behind them. “Huckleberry Finn” is basically a kids’ adventure novel. Duke Ellington was composing and performing dance music for sweaty crowds. Cary Grant and Howard Hawks were doing their best to make crowd-pleasers. And we’d be dumb, and we’d be denying ourselves a lot of pleasure, if we quarreled with this. (And yes, I know that a lot of what we now think of as Euro high arts weren’t created as High Art. America still takes the commercial thing to an extreme.)

    Yet how to handle this, so far as the lightweight/heavyweight thing goes? Do we proclaim Cary Grant a “great artist” and then discuss his work in sombre tones? We’d be missing the point, no? Yet, y’know, it looks to me like maybe he really was a great artist. And maybe it’s worth spending a little time looking at his work and thinking about it and discussing it, and even “appreciating” its virutes and maybe even learning from it some. Yet we have to avoid getting too damn sombre about it, no?

    I dunno what to make of all this, do you? I tend to conlude that it’s less about making “objective” judgments and more about how we take these things. You aren’t going to have an emotionally wrenching Dostoeyevskian experience watching “Topper.” You’re going to have something else completely. Yet maybe it’s pretty great in its own right.

  46. Michael Blowhard — I think we probably agree on this. Except you’re taking the angle from the POV of the critic examing art, where I was starting from the POV of the artist who feels insecure working in a “low” art. The moral of “Sullivan’s Travels,” was that the hero learned that his dumb movies were of more social use than anything he would do that is “serious.” I’m glad you bring up Mark Twain and Cary Grant, two of the most unassuming artists we’ve had, neither of them who went around thinking of themselves as “artists.”. I’m sure Mark Twain enjoyed his popularity and would be surprised today to learn that he is included as part of America’s literary canon. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you tell Jackie Collins that she should be taken seriously, she might ACTUALLY start taking herself seriously, and then where are we going to have smutty books to read? Look what happened to Jerry Lewis after the French started to take him seriously?

  47. I have faith in Jackie — I think she’d laugh me off. A sign of her greatness, perhaps?

    And don’t you dare associate me with critics! I’m one with the teeming masses, I am …

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