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Those Little Town Blues

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So,  I was thinking about yesterday’s post, and I want to clarify a few things.

First is that I never suggested that writers should add references deliberately for the sake of adding references.

In fact,  I thought I was stressing, over and over again, that the writer should write in the way that is natural to him.   I agree with Lymaree that the best luck a writer can have is to have a style that works on many different levels for different people–although  I do think that that works more consistently in film than in prose–but the bottom line, for me, is that the writer be true to himself.

I certainly do not think that there is any virtue in being obscure for the sake of being obscure, but I also don’t think there is any virtue in being accessible for the sake of being accessible. 

But what I really object to is the idea that the standards for “good” books should be set by the least intelligent, least educated, least diligent readers among us, the same people who made life miserable for the nerds and the geeks when we were all children.

Sorry, guys, but they had their run.  Books are my place.  And in my place, the standards of good and bad, right and wrong, cool and uncool, are set by people like me.

If you don’ think that’s a lot of what’s going on in all the arguments about “intellectual elites” and all the rest of it, you’re crazy.   Virtually every writer I know–and a fair number of the academics in the humanities, come to think of it–has a string of horror stories about childhood, all centered on that relentless imposition of mediocrity that is the standard American primary and secondary school.

Hell, it was that way for me in New England where, if there’s a need for budget cuts, the schools eliminate sports long before they eliminate academic programs.   I can only imagine what it was like for my friend from Mississippi, who grew up in a place where football was all that mattered for a boy and dating a football player was all that mattered for a girl–and the coach taught math because, let’s face it, it was more important to have somebody on staff who understood footbal than somebody who understood algebra.

We talk about conformity a lot, but the problem isn’t conformity, it’s what we’re asked to conform to.  And it outlives high school by a long shot.   Every politician, actor, filmmaker, novelist, journalist, you name it, is required to pay repeated abeissance to the Absolute Wonderfulness of the American small town and the people who live in it.

If they don’t, they not only get branded as “elites,” but if they’re prominent enough they get a nice little stretch on the FoxNews cycle. 

This came up, a couple of years ago, on a forum I sometimes contribute to, when I pointed out to a gentleman that if I had thought that staying home with my children and not having a career was the better path, I’d have chosen that one.  Since I didn’t, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I was just sighing and envious of Mrs. Homemaker, getting to opt out of the workforce like that and spending all her time with her family.

I  arranged by life to make sure I spent as much time as possible with my children–and given what I do, that was a lot of time–but to do nothing else for twenty years would have driven me crazy.

And it isn’t just that.  I’ve had a very expensive education.  I  think women who have that and ditch it all to go back home and “nest” are doing something at least ethically, if not morally, wrong, at least in cases where there’s no extraordinary circumstance (like the death or disability of a child).

Why is it that we’re compelled, so often, to pretend that we admire the average, the mediocre, the unambitious–that the highest standard we aspire to is to be “just folks”?

I don’t want to be “just folks.”  I never did.  Life with a big, ethnic, anti-intellectual family is not My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it’s a horror story that absolutely refuses to go away when you grow up and leave it.  

I think people have a right to do what makes them happy–well, short of serial murder or raping children–but  I don’t think that they have a right to demand that I even pretend to denigrate my own decisions in order to elevate theirs to cultural stardom.

Here’s what I think the truth is–there are significant things to be done in this world, and they will not be done by “just folks.”  Curing cancer, devising a better method to teach mathematics to  recalcitrant twelve year olds, making the next really spectacular movie or writing the next really significant novel–all those things take intelligence, ambition, drive, talent and the determination not to be just like everybody else.

Of course we need plumbers and electricians as well as surgeons and novelists–but you know what?  Plumbers and electricians don’t have to be “just folks” either.   The problem with “just folks” is not that they’re stupid, but that they’re ignorant and proud of it.

I write what I write the way I write it because that’s how I write.  When I add a reference, it’s not because I’m thinking of ways to be obscure, it’s because that’s what came into my head.

I  walked out on Small Townville a long time ago, and the last thing I want is to import the values of ST into the world I walked out of it for.

Written by janeh

July 30th, 2009 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Those Little Town Blues'

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  1. I didn’t really see anyone suggesting that references should be added for the sake of references (although it can be done, as Robert noted). And I didn’t see anyone suggesting that whether or not a book was good was (or should be) determined by the lowest common denominator.

    So I’m not sure where you’re coming from in this post. Yes, some people are anti-intellectuals, and politicians cater to them, as they do to any identifiable group. And the US seems to have more of its national mythos tied up in anti-intellectualism than Canada does, or maybe that’s just the impression I get from US media. But no one (except possibly the anti-intellectuals) are saying you can’t write books with references, or that some authors use references well, some badly, and some of them have different purposed for their usage at different times. Even the anti-intellectuals are probably just saying that they don’t like books that they can’t get because they don’t understand the references.

    And with reference to a comment yesterday – I don’t think it’s insulting to adjust my manner of speech to the people I’m talking with. It’s a courteous way of interacting with others, like slowing my (naturally quite fast) speech when I’m speaking with a foreigner who’s struggling, or trying to adjust my pace when walking with someone.

    Of course, since it’s a nearly automatic process, I don’t do it because I think the person I’m conversing with is stupid, and if I give that impression, I’m not doing it well.


    30 Jul 09 at 7:12 am

  2. You know, I think I get a whiff of strawman in your argument here, Jane. It’s no doubt true that there is a lot of anti-intellectualism around, both here in Oz as well as in the US, and it does tend to get more than its fair share of air-time in the popular media. But I think you only have to recall this past presidential campaign – not to mention the previous eight years – to see just how unattractive the so-called intellectuals in your country and ours can be, and how contemptuous they are of ordinary people who for one reason or another don’t agree with their worldview even if they understand it.

    I have to say that I’d cross the road miles away to avoid meeting up with the sort of people who think Michael Moore has something useful to say about anything. Or the Hollywood set who hold in total contempt at least half of those who put bread and butter on their tables.

    It’s one thing to dislike boorish, ignorant yobboes we all suffered in high school and beyond. it’s quite another thing to emulate their obnoxious behaviour which, for example, many of Sarah Palin’s more vocal critics did – and continue to do.

    It seems to me that too many intellectuals everywhere have got a long way up their own fundaments, and it’s high time they came back to earth.


    30 Jul 09 at 9:04 am

  3. You know, essentially everyone grows up in a small town. Even though we may live in a suburb or a metropolitan city, our circle of acquaintances and the people we interact with is limited to about the same as if we lived in a smaller place. There’s only a certain number of people one can deal with, and believe me, there’s no place to hide in a large school, any more than one can in a small one. Teasing, mocking and anti-intellectualisim *will* take place, regardless.

    I may have initially changed my dialect to fit in when I was working on the assembly line, in order not to be singled out, but eventually I realized that different speaking styles actually enhanced communication. I wasn’t insulting them, nor were they insulting me, what it did was make the process of communication transparent to *them*. Adaptation is not insult, where it serves a purpose. And what I found out then and later was that speaking style has nothing to do with intelligence.

    Once I found myself working with a recent Egyptian immigrant with very little English. Since she was doing a basic assembly job, I presumed that she was ill-educated and capable of nothing more than the Americans alongside her. Imagine my surprise when I found out she had a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Cairo, but couldn’t work in her field because she didn’t know enough technical English. She was taking this job until she learned what she needed.

    That, and other experiences, taught me that often, “just folks” are not even just folks. In many, if not most people, there is a hidden quality that will surprise you. Where there is aggressive anti-elite feeling, as in much traditional country music (which takes the “ignorant & proud of it” meme and puts it right out there), what I see is a serious inferiority complex, and I feel for them what I do for all the inadequate; pity.

    In friendship and conversation, I seek out people similar to myself, who think big words and high concepts are a good thing, but dealing with the rest of the world, I deal in the way that will create the least conflict. If that means adapting their dialect, most times it’s less of a hassle that way.

    I can admire Jane’s “damn the audience, take me as I am” attitude, I tend to take a quieter path. Or perhaps I’m just cowardly.

    While many people seem to think that popular opinion should determine quality, and others that an elite should do so, I see no advantage to excluding either one as a factor to consider in our own judgments. When people start up with the just folks crap, I consider the source, and then make my own decision.


    30 Jul 09 at 1:02 pm

  4. If you want to say that many adolescents value sports above the life of the mind–and that we have some middle-aged and older adolescents–I’m with you all the way.

    As for anti-intellectualism, I’d keep in mind the blurred line between sturdy independence of thought and yahooism. There are any number of intellectuals–or at least people with the right credentials who think of themselves as intellectuals–who are outraged by people simply not caring about things the “intellectuals” think are important. Mind you, this can often be something not in the intellectual’s actual area of expertise–anything from global warming through the Holocuast–but the intellectual knows what the “correct” answer is, and will brook neither contradiction nor indifference. Let them confine their outrage to areas which really are of general importance and about which they really have done their homework, and they’ll get more sympathy.

    But the small town bit keeps coming–if you will pardon the reference–out of left field. My home town (pop 200,000, give or take) lost the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company not too long ago. The responsible parties explained that the corporate executives couldn’t attend major leage sports there, and took off for a city in the northeast. (We had improvidently spent the tax money on schools, parks and a first-rate public library system.)

    I now live within commuting distance of a big city which recently tore down a major chunk of low-income housing to put up a baseball diamond–at tax-payer expense, of course. And the area has the sort of public libraries Amazon dreams about.

    If you think that being “stupid, ignorant and proud of it” is a small town thing, I’ve got a bridge over the Potomac I’d like to sell you.


    30 Jul 09 at 6:19 pm

  5. I think the problem with literal small towns is that the population is too small to support an intellectual contingent. Yeah, there was anti-intellectualism in my town–but there were enough nerds and geeks in high school that I had a decent peer group, and many of the teachers were intellectual and supported me, and so on. My husband grew up in a small town in rural Kentucky and there was literally no one he could talk to, no respite from being weird and picked on. So yes, small towns are worse, because the stupid, ignorant, and proud of it take over!


    1 Aug 09 at 5:44 pm

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