Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Anti-Creative Establishment

     [F]or as long as I’ve been alive, in all Western countries, the way to be respected or promoted or advanced in any artistic, news or otherwise intellectual field was to convincingly mouth the platitudes of leftism in its Marxist incarnation. If you could add a genuine touch of Stalinist psychopathy, then you’d be considered genuinely righteous and advanced faster. -- Sarah Hoyt
     “Normality is everybody doing and thinking the same thing.” – Larry Linville as Major Frank Burns on the M*A*S*H television show.

     Establishments...establish. What do they establish? Why, The Rules, of course! The entire point of an Establishment is the establishment of The Rules...and, of course, the enforcement of The Rules with a relentless ferocity upon anyone and everyone who even comes close enough to the Establishment to be noticed by it.

     If you yearn to be an Establishment, it’s because you have a sheaf of Rules in your back pocket that you’re just itching to ram down the throats and up the asses of everyone curious, careless, or unfortunate enough for you to know of their existence. There’s little point in being an Establishment otherwise. The Rules are all – for you, and for anyone swept into your orbit.

     “But what’s the point of The Rules?” I hear you cry. AHA! That’s the question no one is allowed to ask. (Yes, it’s against The Rules.) The Rules are self-justifying, immutable and perfect. Their authority is metaphysically armored against alteration or doubt. A bit like the Koran, really. But never mind all of that. Just obey The Rules, and all will be well. At least, from the Establishment’s perspective.

     There’s a fly in the ointment, of course, and he’s the size of a B-52. For there to be an Establishment, there must be something outside the Establishment: a blank spot on the map, an ungoverned territory, a wild in which the writ of The Rules runneth not. They who constitute The Establishment cannot help but be aware of that dark realm...and it bugs the living shit out of them. Much of their time and emotional energy is occupied by attempts to fold it into their demesne.

     They have no concrete sense of what would follow if they were to succeed. Perhaps that’s for the best. What sort of novel would have resulted, had Ahab understood a priori that his final confrontation with the white whale would entail his death?

     It’s not too strong to say that a “creative Establishment” is a blatant contradiction in terms. Rules are the antithesis of creation. They don’t liberate; they mandate. Yet we who toil in the indie-fiction vineyards are frequently consumed by the paradox. That doesn’t include those who find themselves sliding into its maw.

     I should draw an important distinction here. Some rules are necessary. For example, a book purported to be in English must be written in recognizable English. Enough attention must be paid to spelling and grammar to make it comprehensible, else the product will be a fraud. But such a rule isn’t the sort promulgated by an Establishment; it’s merely sound ethics as they pertain to fiction.

     The Rules as Establishments have them are about substance: what you must, may, and must not say. The Establishment’s enforcers concern themselves with themes and motifs, not grammar, spelling, or punctuation. (They’ve even been known to remain resolutely blind toward such matters as formatting and pagination.) Mangle the English language all you like, they say, but never, ever employ a prohibited idea or display tolerance for a prohibited conviction.

Never suggest that men are more capable than women in any way.
The Christian faith is inherently patriarchal and oppressive.
Businessmen cannot be upright or heroic figures.
There are no differences among the races.
Don’t dare criticize Islam.
Abortion is sacred.
Capitalism kills.

     And on, and on, and on, a seemingly endless list of prescriptions and proscriptions that constrict the writer like a gallows straitjacket. But with so many propositions and convictions ruled out by The Rules, what’s there left to say? And with so many writers eagerly parroting the positions approved by The Rules in the hope of receiving the Establishment’s blessing, how likely is it that anyone will succeed in saying something fresh and original?

     On a lighter and hopefully more useful note, I’ve recently been enjoying Welcome to Night Vale, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s bizarre novel about a desert community in which there are rules about everything...some of them literally impossible to obey. Reality itself is conditional, even questionable...or it would be, if the question “What is real?” hadn’t been forbidden by the Night Vale City Council. Despite a degree of surrealism that borders on schizophrenia, it’s a fascinating experience, an excursion into a fictional meta-anarchy in which no rule is ironclad and no Ruler can enforce his will.

     The book, which relentlessly refuses to allow the reader to assume anything, even about story events already narrated, is the sort of thing that would come from a writer in full-scale rebellion against rules of any sort. Yet it’s written in recognizable far. (I’m only about a third of the way through it as I write this, so it’s best that I not assume anything about what remains. I’m sure Fink and Cranor would agree.) It observes enough of the conventions of good storytelling to be worth a reader’s time and attention, even as its protagonists gyrate through an untrustworthy land where everything, including the laws of Nature, is largely a matter of local opinion, however diffident or transient.

     In its determination to leave every aspect of the story, the setting, and the characters in a quasi-Schrodingerian indeterminate state – NO! Don’t open the box! – Welcome to Night Vale reminds me strongly of some of the late Robert Sheckley’s fictions. Whether it has a statement of any sort to make, apart from the obvious one that “just as in a cartoon, in a novel anything can happen” (Beep! Beep!) is unclear. One way or the other, it’s refreshing just as an act of rebellion, a thumb in the eye of Establishmentarian rule makers.

     Yet when it was published, Welcome to Night Vale swiftly became a New York Times best-seller. There’s a moral in there, somewhere...but sadly, asking “What’s the moral?” has also been forbidden by the Night Vale City Council, so I’m afraid that I must leave it to your private musings. Don’t look at the hooded figures in the Dog Park. Have a nice day.

1 comment:

owlish said...

Welcome to Night Vale is also a podcast/radio show.