Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reading: The Advanced Genius Theory by Jason Hartley

Yesterday, I rode the bus around town and made a few stops (library, mall) to distract myself from writing too much as NaNoWriMo approaches. At the downtown library I idly scan the "new books" section and come across one that catches my eye. It's called The Advanced Genius Theory, by one Jason Hartley. Being a genius myself, I picked it up. Turns out the "theory" deals with the decline of great artists (its two primary examples are Bob Dylan and Lou Reed) without actually explaining it as decline. I checked it out from the library, and it became my bus reading for the day.

Hartley's "Advanced Genius Theory" attempts to explain apparent decline. The conventional assumption is that a genius has a hot period, then a high point, and then goes into decline and can be safely ignored in favor of the next hot young thing. Why the apparent decline? asks Hartley. Because the genius has Advanced far beyond the ability of his fans to understand and appreciate what he's doing — and this goes double for the early fans. Chuck Klosterman (whom credits with being the book's coauthor despite having only written the foreword, because he's more famous than Hartley) offers a concise introduction to the theory in his 2004 Esquire article. As Klosterman sums it up (and Hartley himself quotes this): "When a genius does something that appears idiotic, it does not necessarily mean he suddenly sucks. What it might mean is that he's doing something you cannot understand, because he has Advanced beyond you."

For the purpose of the theory, Hartley defines "genius" as "simply someone whose instincts — artistic, intellectual, physical — happen to be valued more than most other people's." But to even be considered as Advanced, one must first follow these prerequisites:
  1. You must have done great work for more than fifteen years.
  2. You must have alienated your original fans.
  3. You must be completely unironic.
  4. You must be unpredictable.
  5. You must "lose it" — spectacularly.
Think: Bob Dylan doing a Victoria's Secret commercial. Sting doing a pop single with Rod Stewart (who now sings old standards for people older than him) and Bryan Adams, then playing the Super Bowl with No Doubt years later. Honda scooter commercials. They no longer worry about pleasing or offending their fans because they're so established, so Advanced, that they can do whatever the hell they feel like no matter what anybody wants.

Hartley asks the question: Why do we love these particular geniuses anyway? The reasons are:
  1. They're great.
  2. They're innovative.
  3. They're a part of the past. (This is what the "fifteen-year rule" comes down to.)
  4. You don't understand them. You only think you do.
The problem with your favorite artists is that, like long-term lovers, they get too familiar and start to seem stale because of it. Familiarity, it has been said, breeds contempt. This goes equally for the artist himself. The same style he built his success on now bores him. The rebel who used to rebel against the world now rebels against himself. If he's Orson Welles, he appears in Ernest & Julio Gallo wine commercials in order to fund his never completed adaptation of Don Quixote. If he's in a band, he leaves and goes solo (Sting, Lou Reed, Paul McCartney) and switches to a completely different style because, of course, he's bored with his old style (said John Lennon: "I don't do Beatles"). Sometimes he does something deliberately alienating (Reed's Metal Machine Music, Sting's forays into Adult Contemporary, McCartney marrying/teaming up with a Linda Eastman rather than a Yoko Ono). He goes into a completely different field (Mick Jagger acting, Leo Tolstoy making his own shoes in his old age, Steve Martin mastering the banjo). Ultimately, the Advanced genius rebels not only against his old self, but his fans as well, since they're pretty much wedded to the old self the genius can no longer stand.

The opposite of "Advanced" is "Overt". You openly and brazenly rebel against the Man. You are sincere to the point of dropping anvils, perhaps even to the extreme of "author filibuster" in the manner of Ayn Rand (the most Overt major American author ever). You are innovative for innovation's sake. You likely believe that True Art is unintelligible, angsty, offensive, and of course sticks it to the Man. You make concessions to the audience, especially if the audience is in revolt against the Man. Sometimes you're a "bigot": litfic bigot, Linux bigot, modern or postmodern art bigot, etc. Sometimes you're downright mean-spirited. Most of all, you want to be accepted, even if only by the Cool People.

Here's some of the strict criteria Hartley came up with that will likely make you think the theory is a joke:
  1. You must wear a black leather jacket and black sunglasses (mirrorshades in my case, since that's the canonical cyberpunk cliché) at some point in your career. (And yes, I have a leather jacket, two actually, though I've only worn one of them in public once. No mirrorshades yet, though...)
  2. You must sport a mullet, precisely because it's uncool. (Think: Lou Reed in the '70s.)
  3. You must always appear on the cover of your solo albums (at least if you're a musician).
  4. You must do the above without even a trace of irony.
Needless to say, he is completely unironic about this. These are requirements.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the genius reading the book. Am I Advanced? ("You" are, in fact, the subject of the book's last chapter, in which Hartley applies the theory to his readers.) Well, I haven't been doing publishable work for 15 years, I don't really have fans yet, I haven't had the opportunity to "lose it", and I may have a bit too much irony in me. But there is a period in which I can safely call myself Overt, better known as the Nineties. My first ten Project Notebooks (for the project that ultimately became Spanner, along with related fiction and art projects), for the decade beginning in 1991, came under the dual influence of Ayn Rand and Camille Paglia, believe it or not. It was the period when I hated on Marvel Comics at anime club meetings and proclaimed comics to be the new rock 'n' roll (in the revolutionary sense) while dancing on the grave of rock 'n' roll (the music; grunge was a corpse then rotting into nu metal while girl pop idols and boy bands ruled the music world). I hadn't yet learned to think dialectically, and my sense of irony was still underdeveloped. I was huge on the young Web but didn't yet grok it (my early attempts at a website and a blog failed, to say the least). My fiction works would remain unpublishable until two years after I started doing NaNoWriMo (that would be 2008, actually), and they took the form of script fragments.

Today I have a blog and post stories online, in words rather than pictures (though I'll take advantage of the NaNo adrenaline boost to get myself back to the drawing table). I've made my peace with rock 'n' roll's decadence and have even started watching TV shows again (some of them, taking advantage of the longer serial format, are actually better than most movies). Instead of raging (against the Machine!) with Thomas Frank over rock's Faustian bargain with the Man, I'm agreeing with Steven Johnson that modern videogames and TV shows actually make you smarter, even going so far as to adopt the complex multithreaded storytelling technique of the most popular TV dramas and incorporate it directly into my style. I still don't care for superheroes and I despise Fox News (which, in my opinion, is as Overt as one can get, consisting of nothing but shrill anvil dropping).

Of course, I may be merely in the early stages of Advancement or on the verge of it. Some of my fiction may strike readers as a deliberate attempt to alienate readers (hey, it's the rock 'n' roll way). Some would claim irreligion is Overt by definition, though Hartley might give me a pass for going through New Age, Neopagan, and Buddhist periods; besides, I'm not as shrill about it as an Ayn Rand (she called religion "moral cannibalism", which is as Overt as you can get) or a Christopher Hitchens. Rock fans and critics value youth and energy (and, in the case of punk rock, inexperience) for their own sake; I may not quite have the youth, but I sure have the energy, and "hot new author" probably counts as still Overt according to the theory. After all, the jocks haven't discovered my work yet and aren't yet beating up my early fans (the litfic snobs, sci-fi geeks, fanfic 'shippers, and NaNoWriMo scribblers). I still have the political radicalism of my twenties, though my libertarianism has gone more left-wing; apparently, the theory seems to require that one become blithely antipolitical on the assumption that since the world will always belong to gangsters, let the gangsters have it. Unless you're Al Gore. But then, his political career is over. He's an author, environmentalist, and documentary movie star now. And for all my "I wanna get read" literary ambition, I'm still wary of doing commercials for Honda scooters (but Vespa is always welcome to call my agent once I get published) or, in the literary equivalent of doing duets with pop idols, writing "young adult" novels starring sexy vampire boys (preferably gay). Even so, I did get derailed from my early manga calling and ended up novelizing my own undrawn comics, and isn't that like going solo?

Of course, what Advancement ultimately means is that, after your initial period of popular success, you pull ahead of your time and you don't care what your fans and haters think (and sometimes they're the same people). The important thing is: I don't care. I'm confident enough in my ability to write (and edit my own writing) that I no longer feel it necessary to ride the latest trend (which, by the way, is Paranormal Romance; my personal gimmick is to decouple cyberpunk from science fiction). I have my own style, and people can appreciate it on its merits; if they don't, oh well. Of course, Hartley likely won't read my fiction because he mostly reads Classic Novels; I'm a shameless online purveyor of pop fiction (or in the case of my more litfic stuff, pop metafiction). I can be as deliberately obscure as any litfic author, and sometimes am, but I'm no snob. Even after I actually get some comics published, I don't think Gary Groth (publisher of Fantagraphics Books and king of the art comix snobs) will be on speaking terms with me anytime soon.

So am I Advanced? Maybe, maybe not; it's still far too early to tell, since I still don't have any fans to alienate yet. I may merely be Refined Overt like David Byrne. But your mileage may vary. Besides, I don't really care, even if I just happen to be a genius...

I've barely even touched the surface of the theory in The Advanced Genius Theory. Hell, neither have Jason Hartley and Chuck Klosterman. And sure enough, as Klosterman points out, it's not even widely accepted yet. He even argues with Hartley over who actually is Advanced. But he insists that Advancement Theory is the future of intellectual discourse in America and possibly Europe. For all I know, it's the hot new theory that's all the rage in Japan. And Klosterman says it's the way we will understand rock 'n' roll in the future. After all, it's the best way so far to understand rock's decadence...

Back to The Space Helmet Show...

No comments:

Post a Comment