“What makes cult fiction cultish?”
“What makes cult fiction cultish? Can you recognize it by its ‘loyal, slightly flaky following’? Is it fiction that should ‘have been out of print for ten years’? Is it just a marketing label affixed by desperate publishers? Or is it fiction that has developed a readership outside the old network of powerhouse cultural organs; fiction that people read because they actually enjoy reading it?” These, according to those lovable libertarians at Reason, are the questions raised by The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction—which is ironic (if inevitable) given that this publication is ostensibly meant to answer those very questions.
Anyhoo, this book is already out in the UK, so arts columnists have already begun to ponder and pontificate. One reporter contacted A.S. Byatt, to get her opinion of cult fiction, but I found her opinion less interesting than the news that fans have created furniture and tapestries based on Byatt’s oeuvre. That’s nuts, and it’s also—for my money—mildly cultic.
My definition of cult fiction—which is, I believe, drawn almost entirely from Textual Poachers, a wonderful study of TV fan culture—includes participation, not just devotion or obscurity. One might (I might, for that matter) argue that all reading is participatory, but the word “cult” suggests ritual—a physical, rather than just cognitive or effective—kind of involvement. It suggests a community of believers. Thus, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult movie, even if its status as a cult movie is totally clichéd. Thus, Ulysses is cult fiction, even if it routinely finds itself at the top of the list whenever the best novels of the 20th century are compiled.
Among the virtues of this definition is the fact that it’s not totally subjective, while the idea of cult, as it’s used popularly, is. If cultishness is merely a measure of obscurity—and, according to hipster logic, coolness—then it is no more meaningful nor profound than when one guy tries to prove that his record collection contains more genuine arcana than some other guy’s, and I think we all know how soul-deadening and painfully futile that can be.
[THANKS TO TED FOR THE REASON LINK]
What kind of American English do you speak?
My Linguistic Profile
70% General American English
15% Upper Midwestern
I think my use of the word “cruller” and my occasional “y’all” (it really is a very useful word) account for my Yankee and Dixie quotient. I have no idea what the difference between Midwestern and Upper Midwestern is, although I suspect that one of them includes my pronunciation of “pajamas” and “aunt”. When I attended college on the Eastern Seaboard, I was roundly mocked for saying “pop” instead of “soda”. Finally, on what planet do people say “The devil is beating his wife” when it’s sunny out and raining?
[THANKS TO RUSTY FOR THE QUIZ LINK.]
Some Books I Look Forward to Reading Once I’ve Finished Ulysses
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Josie and Jack by Kelly Braffet
Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz
Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
You Poor Monster by Michael Kun
Small Island by Andrea Levy
The Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller
Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
The Wedding Mix CD: A Defense
Yesterday’s SundayStyles contained a rather opinionated little piece on the now-ubiquitous wedding-reception favor, the mix CD. I realize that, when one receives such a favor, the critique of the happy couple’s musical taste is more or less inevitable, but it’s also kind of bitchy, and to turn such an exercise in hipster snark into a full-length article seems like a bit of a stretch.
Of course I am feeling defensive because my husband and I made CDs for our own nuptial festivities, but I also feel that, as wedding-related offenses go, giving one’s guests a mix CD—even if it’s pure crap—is fairly benign. And, as this article points out in one of its few positive statements, music tends to be more interesting to most grooms than, say, outfits, flowers, or fingerfoods. Certainly, this was the case for my betrothed and me. Not only did Ted comb through his own vast record collection looking for songs, but he spent weeks searching the web for previously undiscovered gems.
I am not going to explain why our CD is awesome, because such a judgment is, obviously, entirely subjective and, anyway, I am biased by sentimentality. However, I will say this: I believe that every American home should have a recording of Elvis singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and our guests now do, and if our mix inspires anyone to seek out more Big Star or dust off her old Madness records, then our CD is a success.
A closing observation: The author of the piece notes that the mix CD has replaced Jordan almonds as the must-have wedding treat. If even a single guest appreciates the CD, that will surely exceed the number of guests who would have enjoyed the Jordan almonds.
Bitch: The Masculinity Issue
If you don’t have a subscription to Bitch, you should, firstly, go straight to the magazine’s website and get yourself one. Then you should head for the nearest Bitch distributor and pick up a copy of the Spring issue. I’m not just saying this because I happen to have two short pieces in this particular issue, but, now that I’ve mentioned it, let me tell you about them.
Among the “Bitch Reads”, you will find my review of Reading Oprah, a scholarly—but neither pretentious nor arcane—investigation of Oprah’s Book Club. If you have ever looked askance at this cultural phenomenon—perhaps because you, like me, are a literary snob—Cecelia Konchar Farr will wipe the smirk right off your face with her very reasonable praise for the Book Club. Indeed, the book is worth reading just for her pleasantly devastating takedown of Jonathan Franzen.
And, because this is the Masculinity Issue, I put together a brief taxonomy of beta males on TV for the back page. Here’s an excerpt:
The Fat Slob
No TV archetype is more venerable than The Fat Slob. When Jackie Gleason—one of TV’s earliest stars—stuffed himself into a bus-driver’s uniform on The Honeymooners, he pioneered an enduring image of the working stiff who just can’t get a break. There have been other, less noble, incarnations of The Fat Slob—Homer Simpson comes immediately to mind—but The Fat Slob generally remains a sympathetic character. And he’s come a long way since Ralph Kramden’s day: He still works hard to maintain a middle-class living, but he is now, more often than not, married to a slender hottie at least a few years his junior. Just as dumpy porn actors makes it possible for Joe Sixpack to imagine himself scoring with nubile babes, the Fat Slob presents a model of sub-alpha-but-sexually-successful masculinity to which even the below-average man might aspire. Exemplars: Fred Flintstone, Dan Connor on Roseanne, Doug Heffernan on King of Queens, Jim on According to Jim.
When you buy the latest Bitch, not only will you get the rest of this scintillating article, but you’ll also get an essay on the down-low as a pop-cultural phenomenon, a bearded-lady hall of fame, and an article entitled “Senex and Sensibility: Boys to Men in Wes Anderson’s Film Oeuvre”. Obviously, you should buy it right now.
Archival Interview: Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker
In my last posting, I linked to a handy religious-inclination quiz, and a few of my friends used it to discover their own scientifically-determined spiritual home. Apparently, my friends are mostly pagan.
Anyhow, my friend Kate was surprised to see that Christianity came in dead last for her. This was surprising, I think, because she—like me—spent her undergraduate years studying Christianity and admires many facets of this religion. She concluded that “when you pick and choose the parts of Christianity that you believe, you can't really expect someone else to see you as a Christian.” Kate raises an interesting theological point: Who gets to decide what it means to be a Christian?
This reminded me of an interview I did several years ago with a Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker—feminists, theologians, and practicing Christians. They had just written a book, Proverbs of Ashes, in which they assert that the traditional emphasis on Christ’s death creates a culture of violence. They suggest that, instead, Christians focus on Jesus’s message—a call for love and compassion—rather than his grisly sacrifice. It’s a provocative argument, and one that I find very attractive.
Of course, I realize that my views on Christian doctrine and practice probably don’t count for much, seeing as how I’m an agnosto-pagan with a fondness for Buddhism.
Which Religion Is the Right One for You? (New Version)
Last week, I was both crazy busy—two exams and a paper due—and a tad under the weather. I think we can all agree that such a combination of phenomena is, in a word, bullshit. I did, however, find the time to do a little soul-searching, by which I mean that I took an online quiz entitled “Which religion is the right one for you? (new version)”.
I was not at all shocked to learn that I am agnostic, nor was I previously unaware of the appeal of Buddhism and Paganism. I was, however, a tad surprised to see Judaism at the bottom of the percentile pack, as I think it’s a wonderful religion—so bookish! I was even more disconcerted to see that I am theoretically as inclined towards Satanism as I am towards the Hebrew faith, as I generally generally regard Satanists as idiots (except for Jayne Mansfield, who was hot), while I’m just wild about Jews.