February 6th, 2011 17:04 EST
Why Should Our Art and Literature Be Rooted in Adversarialism?
Is it a cultural blemish?
Sometimes, usually when I scan the classified advertisements in literary journals, fondling the possibilities, I think the contest industry ought to be as vestigial to our culture as the tailbone.
Isn`t it emblematic, I ask myself, of the senses we disuse "intuition, the ability to read micro-expressions, precognition among them? Isn`t it a bit too sharp-edged?
Like all contests, the literary contest, which has such a compelling raison d`etre, creates outsiders who are, for lack of a better word, losers. But are they? And what does it say of a society that keeps designating losers and outsiders? What does it say of a society that cannot revel in its creativity without creating a caste system? In what century will such a society become as unthinkable as human sacrifice?
Oops, perhaps that`s not a good metaphor, since it may be said we still engage in human sacrifice. But you know what I mean.
The literary contest industry, which seems to grow daily, is a reflection of our hyper-commercialism, our wont to turn discourse into polarizing competition. The outcome more closely resembles our politics than it does a horse race or sports event. But our triumphalist obsessions show like soup on a necktie. We don`t just want winners, we want losers too. An everyone-wins culture is to us a kind of gray limbo to which we consign sissies. We can`t imagine excellence without dragging someone`s banner in the dirt. I should think this is an ideal culture to outgrow. Why, after all, should beauty and enlightenment be rooted in adversarialism?
I would like to think of the contest industry as an unqualifiedly healthy indicator of a robust literary culture. But I regard it more as I do Wall Street "casino, a facet of a gaming culture. I would like to be dissuaded of these misgivings "after all, I see the obvious merit in the phenomenon and am myself a beneficiary "but they persist. There is nothing wrong with adolescence, to be sure, but eventually it passes. Or not.
In my most curmudgeonly moods I conceive of this contest culture as analogous to churches, clubs, secret societies, fraternities, sororities "all engaged in the manufacture of outsiders, because who else is calling them outsiders? I am by nature and experience especially attuned to the heartbreak of being outside looking in, and also to its advantages.
And in my better moods I wonder if the Internet is in this instance antidotal, because it is breaking down the gatekeeper concept and democratizing the way we communicate. It is challenging the gatekeeper elite, while the contest industry is entrenching it. In some ways, the Internet "in Egypt and in literature and art "questions whether the hoi polloi can be trusted.
I`m a contest winner myself, a beneficiary of that culture, but I`m also a many-time loser and a designated outsider. I think I have enough hash marks on my sleeve to raise these questions. My caveat is that I sure as hell don`t have any answers. But, as an old newspaperman, I always have liked the questions more than the answers. They`re so much more informative.
Michael Karlberg raises these issues in a much broader and more exhilarating inquiry in his book, Beyond the Culture of Contest: From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence, whose title admirably makes my point much more succinctly than this essay. My contribution to such a discourse can only be as winner, loser and worrywart.
The rationale for the booming contest industry is that it:
" encourages literature, " encourages writers, " generates money through its reading and entry fees to publish books, " creates literary buzz, an essential ingredient for promoting literature, and " helps support a truly dizzying array of excellent literary periodicals.
But what else does it do? Well, that`s what I have been wondering about. It certainly generates inbox and mailbox despair. It certainly disheartens. And yes. it brings elation and encouragement. So, as with everything else, there are trade-offs. And yet I can`t shake off the growing feeling that it will someday be seen as an artifact of a kind of wrongheadedness, a manifestation of a winner-and-loser society, a winner-take-all ideology.
I can envision a society in which the celebration of contest will be seen as the battle-ax, and society will be seen as having moved on, having evolved to a less alienating and more inclusive way of enjoying its own creativity.
My qualms are mitigated somewhat by knowledge of how important competitions were to the ancient Greeks, our benefactors. The Arabs, who painstakingly rescued Greek culture for us, used to hold great competitions in which tribes painted their best poetry on banners. These festivals must have resembled The Gates, the banners installed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Central Park. Perhaps festival is the word that distinguishes these practices from today`s contest industry. They centered and unified the culture, as baseball or football do.
I`m not a namby-pamby. I grew up among boarding school bullies, molesters and deniers. I played baseball and ice hockey. I know a lot about losing, and only a little about winning. I had to fight for my own little bit of integrity. So I`m not impressed by anybody who responds to my concerns by saying, Well, that`s life, that`s the way it is, there are winners and losers. They impress me only as half-wits. The business of a culture is to evolve.
The seedy aspects of a contest culture "the occasional rigging and fixing, the preconceptions, circles within circles "these matters are not my proper concern here, however deserving of discussion they might be. What I`m concerned about is our fixation on who wins, who belongs, who deserves, who loses, who is an outsider.
I started thinking about this ever more seriously two months ago while I was simultaneously reading two books, the collected poetry of A.S.J. Tessimond and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Here were two exciting, rewarding poets of the 20th Century who had somehow been written out of the canon because, for one reason or another, they didn`t quite suit the prevailing in-groups of the time "the Auden disciples, the Eliot people, the New Criticism enthusiasts. These two wonderful poets fell between the cracks.
We can argue, and we hear this argument, that the contest industry has widened the net. More writers are published because of it, more are recognized, and more empowered. I have no reason to dispute this. But I gladly envision a society in which the industry will be viewed as primitive, crass and even destructive. I have no persuasive arguments to support this indictment. It`s just the way I feel.
And for all its mildewy narcissism, inanity and self-indulgence I see the Internet and particularly the social networks foreshadowing a culture in which we will find a way to celebrate the creative act with more grace. I think we will find a way to allow the most memorable writing to find its way into our collective consciousness without standing on the heads and hands of others.
If you want to know one reason I feel such malaise, study the submission guidelines of the various literary journals. Some are thoughtful, compassionate, respectful, but many are narcissistic in the extreme, smart-alecky, mean-spirited and self-indulgent. Okay, that`s life, you say. Do you say it? I say it doesn`t have to be that way.
I am well aware that many people will find this hopelessly naive "almost the antithesis of what we believe about ourselves. But it was and remains hopelessly naive to think we should turn the other cheek and love one another "ideas profoundly unsuited to our adversarial culture, ideas that still aren`t compelling to corporate churches that create more outsiders and losers than the contest industry. Indeed they are contest industries.
True, there is a difference between contest and adversarialism, but not much. True, the Greeks come down to us as admirable precursors of our own civilization, but there isn`t a single culture I would slavishly emulate, although there are many enviable aspects of them.
Does anyone else share my apprehension?
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com