by carl wilson

Queering the Pitch
(An Expression Whose Literal Meaning
I Have Only Just Now Come To Understand)

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I missed this Freakytrigger post when it first appeared last week. It brings up the most cogent criticism yet of the premise or placement of my book. Tom writes: "The utopian part of me wishes it was coming out as its own thing, not as a 33 1/3 publication. ... [The] choice of this book for this series queers the pitch, creates a structural divide between Dion and all other music covered in the series. These other acts get their albums written about lovingly by fans, Celine's is written about by a non-fan trying to convert themselves and explore ideas of taste. Celine Dion is a perfect subject for a book like that, and I think it'll be a terrific book. But it unlevels the 33 1/3 playing field - it makes Celine a special case."

He makes a sound point about the 33 1/3 meta-narrative. When I pitched the book two years ago, I felt the series inevitably reinscribed the notion of a pop/rock/etc canon. Perhaps that's not true now, though when I was interviewed on the radio this morning that's exactly how the hosts described it: books about "influential, important" albums, except mine. In this sense, it seemed like the right place for an intervention over canon criteria.

While I'd like to imagine the 33 1/3 editors would have accepted a "straight" Celine book from a plausible author with a good angle, "utopian" does seem a good word for the prospect. Likewise I doubt this book would have found a decent publishing berth anywhere else, at least in any version I would have been both willing and able to do. The match of series and book brings it to the most appropriate audience, in the less-than-ideal real world of taste: Pointing out that a field is already massively slanted isn't the same thing as "unlevelling" it.

Frank Kogan extends in the comments: "I like Carl ... but at the same time he may be the epitome of what I was calling 'PBS' in my book, embodying PBS virtues as well as flaws. The concept 'How do people like us come to terms with someone like Celine Dion?' seems almost guaranteed to render Celine lame in the context of 'our' appreciation. ... There can be good reasons to temporarily suspend judgment at times while listening to music, but 'This Is The Album Where We Have To Suspend Judgment' seems awfully condescending."

I'm dealing with my soreness over being called "PBS," however good-naturedly: I am pretending Frank is mistaking for a PBS accent what is actually a Canadian accent. (Frankly I don't see how criticism is ever really not PBS, including Frank's, Lester Bangs's, whoever. And good art is neither PBS nor anti-PBS; good art never heard of PBS.)

Otherwise: I hope that I never in the course of the book address an "us" that is presumed to include me, the reader and some vague group of people, save when that "us" is human beans. (A suspect device, yes, but useful.) Rather, it is about me, her and a range of particular thems. The reader isn't presumed to share my dilemma, just that it might tell us generalizable things about the workings of social aesthetics. The reader is presumed to be like me in that she's interested in knowing those things (in itself a ridiculous presumption).

I'm given pause by the proposal that suspending judgment is condescending. I'd say suspending judgment might be a habit to adopt every time we encounter a new cultural work, whether first-impression simpatico or not. Seeing how long we can leave it suspended. Paying attention to what ends up fraying the thread and causing judgment to come crashing down. There's a lot more about this in the book. But what else do you do to undertake a reconsideration? Is reconsideration inherently condescending? Or is this again more a meta-series issue?

An audio file of my chat this morning with the hosts of NPR's Bryant Project Park project can be found here. I've certainly been fortunate so far in my interviewers and their researchers - good questions all round.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, December 12 at 2:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (10)

 

COMMENTS

Strictly speaking, isn't the subtitle more of a bookstore joke than a record store joke?

Posted by benstimpson on December 20, 2007 12:08 PM

 

 

Matthew, I listened to part of one of the interviews; not sure if it was yours; glad it went well and congrats to your host.

I haven't read the book; was talking about the title.

My apologies if my guess that the title helped hook in radio producers and listeners is off the mark. It's painful to have my assumptions refuted, but it's good for me!

Posted by john on December 18, 2007 1:47 PM

 

 

John, did you hear the segment with Carl on Fair Game? I produced that segment and invited Carl to the show, and the thing I'm most proud of is that we avoided a lot of the expected traps almost entirely because our host enjoys Celine's music and was not ashamed of it, and we weren't coming from a position of "oh Celine is bad!" so much as "why do some people hate her?"

Posted by Matthew on December 16, 2007 9:22 PM

 

 

The Freakytrigger comment reflects what 33 1/3 has become. The early book on "Dusty in Memphis" was more of an interrogation of notions of Southern-ness and Alan Lomax's role in creating those notions than it was paean to the album, and Joe Pernice wrote a novella inspired by the Smiths' "Meat is Murder." I like the series far better when it's at its most freewheeling, and zone out at some point on the recording session accounts (depending how much I care about the album in question).

Posted by Alex on December 14, 2007 1:11 PM

 

 

Ideally the book would appear without subtitle in supermarkets and with subtitle in hipster record stores. You made the right choice. The gatekeepers of culture don't put you on the radio for writing supermarket books. Your Trojan horse is also a prophylactic against angry hipsters who don't read past the title.

Posted by john on December 14, 2007 12:51 PM

 

 

Fair call, John: The subtitle is meant as a Trojan horse, indeed, one that says, "A journey to the furthest reaches of taste," to the uninitiated reader and then reveals itself as "A journey to the end of my taste" and more particularly, "A journey to the end of taste as a concept." And that was me, not the editors, setting that trap. However, I did feel that without the subtitle, I'd get more Celine fans but not any of the people more in need of getting the argument. I do lament the idea that it will put off Celine fans, as I'd love a lot of them to read the book. But being overly purist about it would work to the book's detriment. I agree it's a compromise, at the least.

Posted by zoilus on December 14, 2007 2:54 AM

 

 

"A Journey to the End of Taste" is a witty insult expertly pitched to appeal to hipsters and NPR-listeners; it's very much an "us" title. The title is the hook, it reels the audience in, and if they end up with something thoughtful rather than something cutting, well good for them and good for you. (I have no doubt that the book isn't as cutting; haven't bought it yet; will soon.)

But the hook still cuts -- and not the intended audience. It flatters the intended audience. Judging the thing by its [front] cover, there's no way to tell that the title is meant to refer to the author's taste and/or the social role of "taste," and not Celine's fans'.

Not saying you're wrong to have pitched it this way, not at all. I think it's great, rude, bookish, pop (NPR-hip division), catchy, rock and roll.

Posted by john on December 13, 2007 3:09 PM

 

 

Ha, I ended up reading the Steely Dan volume immediately after I finished the Celine book. It's not bad, but out of the 30 or so I've read, it's by far the smuggest book in the series. The writer is like the ultimate stereotype of a smarmy, technically-minded Steely Dan fan.

Posted by Matthew on December 13, 2007 12:39 PM

 

 

Half-way through this post I was ready to chime in with a comment, but you instead say what I would have said:

"I hope that I never in the course of the book address an "us" that is presumed to include me, the reader and some vague group of people, save when that "us" is human beans. ... Rather, it is about me, her and a range of particular thems. The reader isn't presumed to share my dilemma."

This is fiercely true. One of the things that so struck me about the book is how it would (I think) welcome a Celine fan. Your views are articulated as entirely personal ones - even as neuroses, - not as part of a hierarchy of taste. It seems to me you worked very hard not to make the POV that of a conspiracy of critics/indie-kids.

Posted by sean on December 13, 2007 10:30 AM

 

 

I just want to say congrats and that I am so jealous - I want/ed to write this very tenor of book but about Steely Dan instead, and you beat me to the punch

Posted by alex v cook on December 12, 2007 7:39 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson