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Necessary bad art
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
One of my favorite literary hatchet jobs of the past 20 years is Joe Queenan's Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon (1998), an excoriating attack on the worst of middle-brow American culture that existed in the mid-90s.
For the book, Queenan decided to immerse himself for a year in the utter dregs of pop culture of the time, which meant reading Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County, listening to the entire oeuvre of Garth Brooks (including the alter-ego "Chris Gaines" album), and watching every Adam Sandler and Chris Farley movie released during the era. On Broadway, Queenan went to see Cats and Starlight Express and the writer forced himself to dine at the most disreputable chain restaurants in the land, eating the deep-fried monstrosities at Red Lobster, drinking the legendarily hideous coffee at Dunkin' Donuts, sampling the faux Italian, Chef Boyardee-level fare at Olive Garden.
The book resulting from this perverse experiment is hilariously mean-spirited and venomous, as Queenan tees off on the "pack of cultural rodents" who had wrapped their fangs around the mid-section of American culture for years and refused to let go. Demi Moore, Billy Joel, Stephen King, Michael Bolton, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jim Varney, and countless other hacks all got raked over the coals by Mr. Queenan, who seemed to enjoy the cathartic experience of calling out bad artists for being so thoroughly unredeemable.
I bought the book in hardcover when it came out, and after reading it I immediate bought several more copies, giving them as presents to similar-minded, snarky friends, who I knew would get a kick out of Queenan's unapologetically cruel ravings. The book remains a totem for me, a handy reference guide, a primer on how to lambast the worst of the pandering, talentless weasels who dominate so much of the zeitgeist of seemingly every era.
I re-read Red Lobster a month ago, and while the book still makes me laugh out loud (Queenan has a real gift for the blowtorch one-liner), I was surprised to discover that my attitude toward it had changed. I still agreed with Queenan's assessments — most often I agreed whole-heartedly with them, in fact — yet I found myself distrusting the writer for some odd reason. It bothered me that Queenan had to seek out all these terrible artists; I didn't like that he hadn't bumped up against them before his forced, bad-art immersion. Was Queenan one of those guys who only reads Proust and Faulkner and Tolstoy and Philip Roth and only listens to Mozart and Beethoven and Tom Waits? If that's the case, there's no way I should trust the guy. It dawned on me then, that as horrible as Queenan made it sound to only experience truly bad art, there was one thing that would be infinitely worse, and that's to force oneself to only experience the best.
As a playwright, I learned a while ago how necessary bad art can be for the creative process. Seeing a terrible play or some truly awkward piece of stage craft is a 1000 times more inspiring than watching a flawless performance; something about seeing people flail about onstage really stokes the fires for any writer or performer. Most writers I know feel the same way — reading Shakespeare or Joyce or Tolstoy can be exhilarating, but it doesn't necessarily compel you to seek similar heights. You read those guys and you think, Why bother? Their achievements are so complete and overwhelming that they can inhibit any beginning writer from ever picking up a pen. Everything you do will always be painfully insignificant and pointless in comparison. But reading some hack, some truly awful modern novelist — someone like Dan Brown, or Stephenie Meyer — can be wonderfully inspirational. You read them and you think, just like that song from A Chorus Line — shit, I can do that.
But let's say you're not a writer, let's say you're not just someone who's trying to learn from hacks how not to suck at the art form. For those people — for anyone — bad art still serves a vital purpose. When I was in college, studying English, I remember how exhausting it was to take a literature survey course. The syllabi for these classes always contained nothing but the best writing of virtually centuries, with all the heavy hitters well-represented . . . and it was excruciating. I was a pretty advanced reader at the time, yet I remember being completely overwhelmed at the notion of reading all those great writers, back-to-back. After college, many years later, I had enough perspective to understand why those classes were so fatiguing.
It seem obvious to me now: reading a truly great piece of literature is hardly a benign experience. If the book is aesthetically powerful and evocative and profound it's inevitable that it will take a little something out of the reader. It's hard for any intuitive, thoughtful person not to get caught up in the scope and achievement of the work, and the experience will almost always leave a mark. Even voracious readers need time to digest what they've read, but in college, the intensive literature courses usually aren't structured to give the student any breathing room. I remember a particularly sadistic course at I.U. where, after climbing the mountain that was Ulysses, we were then allowed to "cool down" with As I Lay Dying. Great. Thanks a lot. It's a wonder that the suicide rates among English undergrads at the time didn't approach 100%.
For me, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and All the King's Men were all books that affected me in a physical way, and after I read them, I didn't want to get near another work of art. I wanted something trashy, something slight, something that I probably wouldn't respect myself for in the morning. So give me Harlan Coben. Give me Grace Metalious. I would say give me Jackie Collins or E.L. James, but that's where I draw the line. Even purveyors of trash have their standards, after all.