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Letter to the Editor: If laughing at Jack Chick is wrong, I don't wanna be right

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I was disturbed to read Paul Constant’s editorial about Jack T. Chick. Much like Paul, I used the comics as a source of laughs. I use the word "disturbed" because the editorial points at a kind of revisionism that paints us, the kind of people that Jack T. maligned (a very broad category, I’ll admit), as being powerless subjects under him and our ironic consumption of his comics as acquiescence to his ideology.

The worst part about Jack T. Chick’s death is finding out that we can’t laugh at and mock bigotry anymore. It's finding out that hectoring morality and overweening earnestness are not the sole provenance of the Christian Right. It's finding out that irony and camp, which have saved countless lives, are unacceptable aesthetic categories.

Thanks,

Matthew Spencer

Hi Matthew,

First of all, thanks for reading and for writing in. I very much appreciate your taking the time to read and respond to our site.

For the sake of readers who are coming in late, let me just clarify: I believe you’re referring specifically to my statement that when I reappraised Chick’s comics after his death, I found them to be ”not fun anymore.” And I also said that when I collected them back in the 1990s, it “was easy for me, as a young straight white male, to enjoy Chick’s comics.”

This is something that’s been on my mind a lot, lately: I’m part of a generation — I guess it’s the tail end of Generation X — that was known for its over-exaggerated sense of irony. Like many people in my peer group, I liked a lot of pop culture in my youth specifically because it was so bad it’s good. If you were to ask me when I was 22 whether I liked Elvis because of the kitsch factor or because I genuinely liked Elvis’s music, I don’t know if I could have honestly told you. (Now, for the record, let me say that I definitely like his music, though maybe I was initially attracted to Elvis because of the kitschy trappings.)

I think one of the more damning legacies of my generation is that we never collectively moved past irony into a more meaningful cultural conversation. Millennials, as far as I’m concerned, have much more sophisticated interactions with culture than people my age ever did in their 20s. Scoffing was always the default cultural response for people my age, and I spend a lot of time wondering how many opportunities we passed up because we were too afraid of being scoffed at.

Not to date myself too much, but let me pull another example from my early 20s: Wesley Willis.

Wesley Willis was an “outsider” musician who created atonal, repetitious music, and a lot of people my age went crazy for him in the late 1990s. They bought his albums, went to his concerts, and proudly displayed his art in their homes. I was always uncomfortable with Wesley Willis fandom because I could never tell if people were laughing at him or laughing with him. Some might accuse me of being overly critical, but I think the idea of a theater full of relatively wealthy white kids gathered to see a schizophrenic African-American man is a culturally freighted event, and to me, it demands a little investigation. Are they mocking Wesley Willis? Do they genuinely enjoy him? Does their mockery matter, if it supports him financially as an artist?

It’s not the same as Wesley Willis, but Jack Chick also carries a charged dynamic. When I was laughing at Jack Chick strips, I was literally laughing at someone else’s hatred. Meeting hate with laughter seems like a good and decent response, but the hate was not, strictly speaking, aimed at me. It was safe for me to laugh at the hate, because I wasn’t the target. Of course, I know gay men who loved and collected Chick tracts, and so I’m not saying it’s impossible for the targets of Chick’s ire to find him amusing, and I wouldn’t dream of judging the way my gay friends laugh at Jack Chick.

It is all very complicated.

Of course humor is an intensely complicated thing, and it’s impossible to draw moral lines around why we find something funny. But I often think about this paragraph from a TIME profile of Dave Chappelle that explains why he ended The Chappelle Show:

The third season hit a big speed bump in November 2004. He was taping a sketch about magic pixies that embody stereotypes about the races. The black pixie — played by Chappelle — wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. "When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable," says Chappelle. "As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f_— time out after this. Because my head almost exploded."

I absolutely believe Chappelle: there are many different ways to respond to a racially charged joke, and not all of them are positive. Not all humor is constructive; in fact, plenty of humor is actively destructive. Was Chappelle right to deny the world new seasons of his show because he was worried about how some people would receive it? It doesn’t matter what I think; he’s the artist and so his choice is what matters.

Am I saying that we should ban destructive humor? Of course not. Laughter is speech and speech should be free. But as far as I’m concerned a little more inspection of why we find things funny isn’t a bad thing. (And sure, you can kill a joke by examining it too closely. But the wonderful thing about life is that humor is everywhere and even at the darkest moments in history new funny things are happening all the time. Comedy is an eminently renewable resource, and so dissecting a joke or two won’t rob the world of any opportunities for laughter.)

Of course, the biggest example of this complicated-laughter phenomenon right now is Donald Trump. In the early days of the Republican campaign, in the late summer of 2015, everyone treated Donald Trump like he was a joke. I think if we were smarter about the way we laughed back then — if we laughed at him, rather than with him — we might not be in the disgusting situation we find ourselves in right now. And I’m not saying that I don’t find humor in the things Donald Trump says anymore; my Twitter feed is pretty much 90% gallows humor about Donald Trump these days, and without that comedy I sometimes don’t know how I’d get through the day. But the quality of laughter has changed as the severity of the situation has changed.

And so that’s what I meant about Jack Chick: it’s not as easy for me to laugh at his comics, now that I’m not in an enclave of ironic young white people, now that I know a lot of wonderful same-sex married couples who Chick considered to be subhuman, now that I routinely listen to the voices of women he would relegate to second-class citizens. The stakes, for me, have changed as I’ve aged and become a citizen of the world and met more people and learned about more experiences. At the time, I was a sheltered young man who surrounded myself with homogeneity; I think that in some respects there was a part of me that was laughing with Chick back in those days, not at him, and that realization makes me deeply uncomfortable.

So, finally, back to your letter: let’s be clear, I’m not saying that the people Chick maligned are “powerless.” But I am saying that I, as someone who enjoys a great deal of privilege from Chick’s perspective, feel strange about blithely being entertained by his comics. I’m not saying that you “can’t laugh at and mock bigotry anymore.” I am all for laughing at and mocking bigotry; I do a fair amount of it on Twitter most days. But I’m also interested in doing so responsibly, and examining the idea of what responsible mockery might be.

In the end, I don’t think we’re at odds, here, Matthew. I’m not calling anyone else’s behavior “unacceptable,” or “hectoring” anyone. You are free to laugh however you choose; I promise I’m not going to take away your right to laughter. The reason I used my own experience in the review isn’t because I’m a raging narcissist — well, it’s not just because I’m a raging narcissist. I did that because I wasn’t comfortable judging other people for the way they consumed Chick’s comics. If my piece somehow sapped your enjoyment of Chick’s comics, I apologize. But I also think that opens up an opportunity for you to ask why your enjoyment was so easily derailed. A good joke can survive investigation; in fact, intelligent comedy blossoms and reveals hidden layers under scrutiny.

So in the spirit of all this — comedy, Trump, hate, ignorance, introspection — I want to share the single best piece of comedy writing I think I’ve seen this year, a sketch that uncovers, investigates, and mocks some of America’s greatest problems in such a way that everyone is invited to laugh. This is what good comedy can do:

Sorry to talk your ear off.

Thanks again for writing in!

Paul

Letters to the Editor: More on the Washington State Book Awards

Editor's note: Poet Linda Andrews, author of Escape of the Bird Women, winner of the Washington State Book Award, and judge for 2014-2016, sent this letter to the editor in response to Susan Rich's article "Why does Carl Phillips need the Washington State Book Award?"

So, the 2015 Washington State Book Awards were granted and celebrated on October 8, though I fear some will be no happier with the winners than they were with the list of finalists. The author, Susan Rich, has a right to wonder about the process of choosing the award winners, so I’d like to respond to her concerns.

Indeed, Carl Phillips, a non-resident, did win in the poetry category, and Carl’s publisher submitted the book according to the guidelines which state that the author either be born in the state or have maintained three years continuous residence. We judges are sent the books that have been vetted according to those guidelines. We judge what we get. Susan mentioned Rick Barot’s fine book, Chord, and its national awards. But unfortunately it was not submitted for a Washington State Book Award. The article also mentioned collections by Michael Schmeltzer and Maya Zeller, whose books weren’t submitted, either. Books can be submitted by publisher or author, so here’s the good news: According to Guiding Policy #10, “a title that was inadvertently not considered one year is eligible for consideration the following year.” The next deadline is April 1, 2017. All books published in 2016 and any overlooked books from 2015 are eligible for submission. I hope that Barot and any others who qualify will take advantage of that policy.

But here’s a bigger issue: How can a poet’s work not be influenced by, be born of, that person’s history? Read Christina Stoddard’s fine book, Hive. The content of that book is firmly rooted in her Mormon upbringing in Tacoma and the trauma of living her young life in the shadow of the Green River killings. A finalist for this year’s poetry book award, Christina is a resident of Tennessee and she attended the ceremony last Saturday. Her work is stunning, home grown, and absolutely deserving of our recognition. Because authors move from the state for the chance to study or teach or to meet the demands of family, should their books be disqualified? Should David Wagoner refuse the honors bestowed on him by the University of Illinois? Would Michigan not claim Theodore Roethke as its own, even though he lived several years and then died in Washington State? Willa Cather wrote her Nebraska books while homesick in New York. The poetic/literary imagination is not confined by geography. We take our histories with us wherever we go and those histories feed our work.

We judges are a group of five and, as Susan noted, only one is a poet. That’s me. The article’s implication is that the others might not be able to adequately judge poetry. Poetry is not just for poets. All of us on the committee love the word and we discuss the work submitted to us with respect, evidence, appreciation, and deep belief in the beauty of a good book. We are entrusted with judging four categories. I personally have never written a novel, a book of non-fiction, or a memoir. But am I qualified to read and judge? Yes. The other judges are librarians and book sellers and worthy evaluators of good writing.

Concerning the article’s title, “Why Does Carl Phillips Need the Washington State Book Award?” I agree that he doesn’t “need” another award. But need is not one of the criteria. We, the judges, receive about 200 books to judge in the four categories assigned to us. Last year, more than 40 of those books were poetry. How can the judges assess the need of each author? What level of fame or financial security would disqualify someone? Should posthumous publications (one of which was a finalist for a 2014 book award) be disqualified because need no longer exists? The selection criteria since the inception of the awards are: literary merit, lasting importance, and overall quality of the publication. Those are the criteria we follow, and follow seriously, through all the months of reading and through our deliberations and decisions. The judging criteria have been in place for 50 years. They have honored many authors who have Washington in their hearts and in their writing. Home stays in the memory powerfully, no matter where the writer wanders.



The Seattle Review of Books responds:

All of the reading, deliberation, and conversation that goes into choosing an award recipient is never an easy task, so we want to open by thanking Linda Andrews for her time, attention, and her work towards the betterment of Washington's literary community. We appreciate her letter, and taking time to engage on this important issue.

We agree, too, that more local presses needed to submit works to this prize. We suspect many of those presses are now paying closer attention, and our hope is that next year's selections make judging even more difficult than it must have been this year, by dint of the quantity and quality of submissions. May next year bring 60 manuscripts; may the one after bring 80.

Where we differ is in counting influence. It is possible that Carl Phillips — a preternaturally talented poet, and one worthy of accolades — carries such strong influence from his familial connection to Washington State that his single year of residency imbued his life and work with evergreen ghosts. And while it is true neither Phillips, nor his publisher, broke any rule, either literal or ethical, in his submission, his win did hit a soft spot for many in our state, especially in Seattle.

We have long been a community whose art scene was localized and isolated. You see this in the literary scene, the music scene, the graphic and performing arts — Seattle always felt a little unsure of its own place in the world. And while the work produced here was on par with any international comparison (as evidenced by its worldwide consumption when we found our way onto the various maps), we have historically felt colloquial, ignored, and belittled. In fact, many artists, shunned while they were here, had to leave for Los Angeles or New York to receive the recognition they deserved for their work. Their leaving diminished us, and those who stayed and fought to gain ground for a Washington State artistic homeland deserve praise and acknowledgment.

We live now in a time of great renaissance of Washington letters and arts. Our literary scene, in particular, is exploding in Seattle, Spokane, Bellingham, Tacoma. High caliber work is being published daily by daring presses and journals, and writers with international standing come out of Washington State to make our reputation second to none on the world stage.

So while Phillips' work may have overwhelmed the judging criteria you list — literary merit, lasting importance, and overall quality — it certainly neglected one criteria that is not currently part of the judges' mandate: regional importance.

A work bearing the honor of Washington State Book Award should reflect the state which granted it such privilege. Why else would we bestow our attention to it? What are we saying by our assignment?

So while we, once again, thank Linda Andrews, and want to be clear that we do not feel she, or any of the judges, were negligent in their duties to the rules as they sit, we believe that the rules themselves needed be changed in two specific ways:

  1. That a residency requirement be implemented. The form, or strictness, of this can be debated, but it should be put in place to ensure Washington State artists are receiving this award.
  2. That the judging criteria consider regional importance, in addition to the other three criteria.

We want nothing less than the Washington State Book Awards to celebrate Washington writers, and we think this request is both reasonable, obvious, and what most laypeople would assume the award is for to begin with.

Letters to the Editor: Commercialit, revisited

Editor's note: critic Tom LeClair sent this letter to the editor in response to Paul Constant's blog post on LeClair's Daily Beast piece titled "Will Commercialit Ruin Great Fiction?"

In the 40 years I’ve been writing book reviews for national periodicals, it’s rare that one of my reviews is reviewed. In a recent post, Paul Constant called my review of Sweeney’s The Nest in the Daily Beast “unfair.” “Wrong” I could silently accept, but “unfair” seems unfair. Since I assume readers have not committed his piece to memory, I’ll quote from it in italics and respond:

First of all, I don’t care if marketing materials mention the author advance explicitly: there is almost no good reason for a book critic to ever mention an advance in a review.

Generally I’d agree, but I had a good reason. It was not only Sweeney, an unknown writer, who received a million-dollar advance for a first novel. Three other recent first novelists I mentioned received similar advances, which were used to promote their books as new literary discoveries when, in fact, most if not all of the books were conventional (and therefore commercial) works with a patina of literary sophistication—what I called “commercialit.” As I said, I don’t begrudge Sweeney the money. As I also said (but Constant ignored), my worry is that paying such advances for “commercialit” will make it more difficult for truly literary writers—those who might be read 20 years from now--to get their work published by major publishers.

But more importantly, the Creation of a Term to Identify a Publishing Trend You Just Now Noticed is a bad reviewing trope. LeClair shoehorned four different books into a category — “commercialit” — that doesn’t even make sense. So these books are well-written but “safe,” whatever that means?

Since Constant doesn’t specify how the four books are different or how they are literary, I have my doubts that he has read any of them. They are different in subject but similar in their traditional storytelling burnished with M.F.A. sophistication. I take some pains to say what “safe” means and contrast the four first novels with dangerous literary novels by a range of contemporary writers.

This is not a trend that was created by a new generation of writers.

Middlebrow or commercial fiction has been with us since Hawthorne’s “scribbling ladies.” What seems new to me is that young or youngish writers with M.F.A. degrees are producing work that can be marketed as literary when the work is something less than that. My informants in and from M.F.A. programs tell me that much of their instruction now is in how to succeed, not in how to produce original and quality work.

This is not to say that there isn’t an interesting piece to be written about the publishing industry spending too much money on debut novels. But that piece is not a book review. It’s a reported piece, with interviews and supporting evidence and facts and sales numbers.

What Constant calls my “trend piece” had to be at least partly a review (The Nest was the occasion to examine the larger issues.) because the piece was about literary quality, not something that a “reported piece…with facts and sales numbers” would likely address. My “supporting evidence” is the described limitations of Sweeney’s writing. Readers of the other three novels I mentioned can form their own opinions.

Stop trying to make “commercialit” happen, Mr. LeClair. It’s not going to happen.

I regret to say that “commercialit” has already happened. If Constant is not a fledgling, he should know this. If he’s not happy with my term, he could at least admit literary publishing has been commercialized in the last ten years by the takeover of independent literary publishers by large entertainment conglomerates that can pay enormous advances and reap promotional benefits from those sums. Fledgling writers know this, so it’s understandable—if unfortunate--that they would write for the market that exists.

Finally, Mr. LeClair is always happy to be addressed by and receive advice from an experienced editor, but I have to wonder if Mr. Constant had an editor for his piece (as I did for mine in the Daily Beast). I’m a reviewer, not an editor, but it looks to me as if Constant took an immediate dislike to my remarking on Sweeney’s advance and then offered a series of disconnected questions and assertions that didn’t engage in a coherent way with the argument I was making, and that’s what I thought was unfair. At the top of his piece, Constant makes it known that as a co-founder of a review site he is busy, busy, busy writing. This may explain the slapdash structure and even the slightly snarky address of Mr. LeClair. A worrier, I’m concerned that Constant’s piece may represent some or much of web discourse, blog-like writing that is self-edited or that is so rushed to fill space that it seems unedited. So, since Constant takes it upon himself to advise me in his piece, I’ll advise him to find an editor before he “publishes” in the journal of opinion that he co-founded.

Tom LeClair is the author of three critical books, six novels, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated literary journals, magazines, and newspapers.



PAUL CONSTANT RESPONDS

Thank you for writing in. As you yourself note, there is absolutely nothing new about this friction between commercial fiction and literary fiction. You’re just slapping a new name on an ancient conflict with your “commercialit” label. For centuries, critics played at this silly gatekeeping game, and it’s part of the reason why literary criticism has withered away in the age of the internet. Book critics must give up on this hoary construct — this author is a sellout; this author is a pure artist — if they expect literary criticism to survive as an art form for the next hundred years.

Advocates of commercial fiction like to frame literary fiction as elitist; advocates of literary fiction tend to argue, as you do, about whether commercial fiction is somehow worth “less” than literary fiction. These arguments are both uninteresting; they imply a binary choice where no binary choice exists. I have never once visited a home where the bookshelves for serious, literary novels are separate from the bookshelves for “commercial” fiction. Most of the avid readers I’ve met somehow manage to read and enjoy both. Why not try to find the value in a book, rather than wringing your hands over the attribution of pointless labels?