One More Thing About Advancement, or Going Positive

Two weeks back I wrote about The Advanced Genius Theory, a book by Jason Hartley that’s a plea in defense of the late careers of proven artistic talents—and, a little more subtly, a kind of critique of negative criticism. To be clear: I think Hartley has written a fun and entertaining book. I just don’t think he’s written an especially useful one in terms of helping readers think about musicians or writers. I’m oversimplifying, but Hartley is essentially exhorting readers and critics to give artists we love a second chance whenever they do things that baffle or annoy us. Fine, but what if giving those second chances are overly contrived and more trouble than they’re worth?

There’s nothing wrong with approaching movies, books—everything, really—in a spirit of optimism. But I confess my attempt to channel my inner Hartley failed miserably about a week back, when I was in Newport, Rhode Island, for the annual Newport Folk Festival. The fest’s closing act was a band led by Levon Helm, the great drummer and singer in the Band. I love The Basement Tapes, all those classic Band singles, and The Last Waltz, though not so much that I felt a need to consider anything he’d done since the late 70s. But that was an asset here: I could approach Levon Helm circa 2010 as a blank slate of endless artistic possibility. Optimism!

About two songs in, Helm and his band—a largish group of unimpeachably competent country and folk specialists—performed a cover of “Long Black Veil.” There was nothing especially bad about it, but nothing especially good about it either—it was the Kenmore washing machine of covers of “Long Black Veil.” Now, Advanced theory doesn’t demand that I love this cover, even if Helm is the guy who sang “The Weight.” But it does ask that I not reject it out of hand for the usual criticky reasons—that Helm’s best work is behind him, that the song’s tempo was irritatingly slow even for a mournful ballad like “Long Black Veil,” that covering “Long Black Veil” is kind of a cliche, and so on. Helm may very well be up to something that I’m just not getting, and it’s only a poverty of imagination on my part—or a pernicious cynicism, unique to critics, from which I suffer—that’s preventing me from grasping it.

At least, that’s the Advanced way of looking at things. But finding the positive in that song would require delivering the kind of praise fit for press releases and weekend shoppers (“Helm, now 70, is to be much admired for keeping the spirit of country history alive, as he and his band did on “Long Black Veil”…), engage in some grade inflation (“Considering Helm’s recent struggles with throat cancer….”) or conjure up some clever way to contextualize the performance (“‘Long Black Veil’ may be the only thing Levon Helm, Taco, and Diamanda Galas ever agreed on…”). Something, at any rate, besides saying what he actually did—play drums on a dull version of a worn-out song. What good would fake optimism do for me as a listener, or for a reader of any review I might write?

I thought about all this in the context of Hartley’s second response to my post (here’s the first), which rightfully challenged me on the glib way I ended my post. I’d written that the book is “a powerful counter against critics who come up with contrived reasons to dismiss things. But how much better is it to come up with contrived reasons to like them?” To which Hartley writes: “My take, though, is that it is far, far better to come up with contrived reasons to like something than to dislike them because liking things is more pleasurable.” He then writes that “if you need to trick yourself into liking Advance art by pretending to like it, that is fine.” Trying hard to see the good in Helm’s cover in “Long Black Veil” gave me no particular pleasure. It just made Hartley’s brand of optimism seem like a whole lot of work—not just in terms of teasing out whether or not an artist is Advanced in the first place (I concede that Helm may not be, though he seems to fit the general criteria), but then in terms of “tricking” myself into liking it, until I actually like it. Maybe.

And to what end? To prove that critics had it all wrong about Bob Dylan‘s Christian records? To not appear “stuffy,” “tweedy,” “unimaginative,” “smug,” or any of the other adjectives people use when a critic dislikes something other people enjoy? Optimism is an essential attribute in a critic—if you’re not approaching any new book, movie, record, whatever, in the hope that it might be your new favorite thing, it’s time to look into a new line of work. But optimism shouldn’t—needn’t—be so effortful. If it seems like I’ve drifted well away from this blog’s purview, it may be worth pointing out that a Hartlian argument makes its way in literary circles. While I was in Newport experiencing Helm’s mediocrity, I was also thinking about “Going Rogue,” in which Steve Almond considers the negative review he recently received from the New York Times Book Review. Almond can’t help but feel that some kind of darker agenda is occasionally at play in the NYTBR‘s star chamber. In assigning Jay McInerney to review Joshua Ferris, Almond writes, “You could just see the editors sitting around with this one going, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll get the old It Guy writer to take on the new It Guy writer!'” When Will Blythe didn’t like a book by George Saunders, Almond writes, “I felt this creeping suspicion that he simply had it in for Saunders.”

Almond isn’t arguing that all negative criticism (including the criticism he received) is agenda-driven, but he draws no small amount of comfort in calling out the times when he believes it does. Almond is admirably self-aware about his conflicted feelings, and he makes a point of calling attention to a few negative reviews he admired. But the question I’m left with, from reading both Almond and Hartley, is this: Do they believe that only negative reviews are written from a posture of insincerity and craven agenda-setting? Can’t a positive review be just as insincere, just as cravenly agenda-setting? The answer to that question might go some way toward clarifying how much they want to respect quality criticism, and how much they simply want to dismiss negative criticism as mean-spirited and dishonest.

Everything Bad Is Good Again, or Notes Toward a Better Understanding of the Advanced Genius Theory

In 2004 journalist and critic Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay for Esquire titled “Real Genius,” which attempted to explain a peculiar theory about popular culture called Advancement. The theory, invented by Britt Bergman and Jason Hartley, is at its core a way to reclaim the late careers of seemingly washed-up artists: Musicians like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan aren’t in decline, the theory goes, and they never could be. They might do things that displease you as a fan (like record Metal Machine Music or convert to Christianity), but those actions in no way signify failure; Reed and Dylan have just “advanced” beyond your understanding of them, and if you recognized their early genius you’ll ultimately come around and see the genius in their later work too.

Klosterman’s article attempted to lay out a set of principles of Advancement that struck me as obscure, arbitrary, or contradictory; a few years later I was working with a proponent of the theory, and after overhearing enough parsing about whether Sting was advanced or not, I’d had enough. I wrote a cranky blog post dismissing Advancement, got into a fun but ultimately unhelpful squabble with a commenter named “Val Kilmer,” and figured nothing more needed to be said. But Hartley has expanded the theory into a book, The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?, and I confess the scales have fallen from my eyes, a little. Back then, I dismissed Advancement as “Ren Faire for rock critics,” but I got this almost completely wrong. Advancement is actually a way of looking at culture and conversations about it as a kind of vast entertaining Ren Faire in itself, but where critics are relegated to unhappy minor roles like Junior Mead Supervisor and Falcon-Poop Disposal Expert.

Because while Hartley enjoys parsing whether Elvis Costello or J.D. Salinger might be Advanced, the theory is mainly predicated on attacking the received wisdom about artists that critics like to trot out; without critics, there would be no need for Advancement. For Hartley, people who say Woody Allen makes movies too quickly and that they’re always about Woody Allen don’t appreciate the fact that a) his plots are more diverse than he’s given credit for and b) he doesn’t care what his fans think, let alone critics. (That second point is critical: One of the parlor-game aspects of deciding whether an artist is Advanced is figuring out if some dumb career move he or she makes is sincere, which would be Advanced, or willfully attention-getting, which would be Overt.) Hartley makes his frustration with critics especially plain in the book’s closing chapter, in which he criticizes the Overt, un-fun way of looking at things: For this crowd of killjoys, “a truly good book must be somewhat obscure but embraced by certain influential critics. It must feature the word ‘tumescent.’ I should have an antihero. It should end in the middle of the story. It should be very long.”

There’s nothing wrong with taking the piss out of stick-in-the-mud critics, and Advancement does have the advantage of being funnier than any other critical theory out there; Hartley is a hugely entertaining writer with a rare talent for being contrarian without being snarky. Has a great riff on the notion that the Rolling Stones were bad-ass and the Beatles somehow weren’t:

Sure, Mick Jagger wrote a song about Satan and a guy got killed at the Stones concert at Altamont, but Paul McCartney wrote a song about an amusement park ride (“Helter Skelter”) that got a lot of people killed, so I say the Beatles were just a bit badder than the Stones. How many more people have to die before the Beatles get the credit they deserve?

The problem with Advancement—and the reason why it’s easy to regard it as a parlor game, if not an outright prank—is that its scope is limited. The theory only applies to artists who have a proven history of unquestioned brilliance (15 years, Hartley suggests), so the theory tends to get caught up in details about whether a musician’s acquisition of sunglasses and “world beat” musicians signifies Advancement or not. (Yanni would be the ultimate Advanced musician, I suspect, were he ever any good.) Another limitation is that Advancement mainly considers careers, not individual works—or at least doesn’t consider individual works in any interesting way. (They’re always better than you think! Because an Advanced artist made them!) Hartley is never more flat-footed as a writer then when he writes about a particular album; when he considers Dylan’s album Shot of Love, he lapses into the kind of fanboy fawning fit for a message board. (“The second song, ‘Heart of Mine,’ is a lovely, piano-heavy tune that shows off Dylan’s ability to sing in a conventional style when called upon to do so….”)

Hartley writes about Advanced writers, but not nearly in as much depth as I would hope. He describes Don DeLillo as a Refined Overt, part of the tribe of “artists who manage to cultivate their weirdo street cred late into life while somehow managing not to annoy people.” (By Hartley’s theory, I think DeLillo seems to be best categorized as an Advanced Irritant, because he clearly doesn’t care about what his fans think, and he’s been denying his fans the big Underworld-y brick of a novel they’ve wanted for more than a decade now.) He reckons that Thomas Pynchon is Overt, which sounds about right, but his heart isn’t really in this particular aspect of the theory; the chapter on writers is less than ten pages long.

In the interest of helping to fill out the theory a little, I tried to figure out which writers might fit the bill. The first one who sprung to mind was Jonathan Lethem, because Lethem once wrote an article made up of plagiarized sentences and then tried to work in some of his theories about it into a bad novel about a rock band, but that seems like an Overt move, and being controversial in itself isn’t enough to be Advanced. (Contemporary writers don’t generate very interesting controversies, as a rule. The biggest to-do of the past year was Alice Hoffman blowing a gasket on Twitter.) James Franco deciding to take a break from acting to pursue an MFA in writing isn’t advanced, but playing an MFA student in a Gary Shteyngart book trailer might be (at least to the extent that you think Franco’s any good, as a writer or actor). I suspect Stephen King is Advanced because he immediately followed up a very thoughtful and helpful book about the principles of good writing with Dreamcatcher, a novel in which people are infected with a virus that makes them shit space aliens.

The ultimate Advanced writer is likely somebody like Joyce Carol Oates, who suffers from the same complaints as Woody Allen—too prolific, too focused on a limited range of subjects. When people say they’re tired of Oates, it’s likely not because they’re actually reading her; they just feel defeated by her sheer output, and they’re sick of hearing about it in the New York Times Book Review. But though Advancement might help clarify the reasons why people might reflexively and unfairly dislike an artist, it doesn’t do much to tell me why an artist’s particular work might be any good, why Little Bird of Heaven might be better than The Gravedigger’s Daughter, even if I accept that they’re both pretty good. (She’s an Advanced artist, after all.)

Hartley, for all his critiquing of artists, is essentially averse to committing acts of criticism, and the argument bubbling under The Advanced Genius Theory is that you’re better off being averse to it as well. As he writes in the book’s conclusion: “Once you have achieved the Advanced state of mind, something amazing happens: you start to like everything.” He’s not arguing against discernment: “You can still have ‘good taste,'” he writes. “It’s just that the question becomes how much you like a work of art rather than whether you like it.” It’s a powerful counter against critics who come up with contrived reasons to dismiss things. But how much better is it to come up with contrived reasons to like them?

Update: Hartley responds here and here.