In Defense of Kerouac


First off: No, the trailer doesn’t look all that faithful to the book, though it’s been over a decade since I read it, so I can’t claim to be all that much of an expert on it.  Secondly, Kristen Stewart inspires a lot of “meh.”  But a movie trailer is just a commercial for an artistic endeavor, so one should never be too quick to judge based on a marketing department’s 2 minute reel.

That said, this isn’t about the movie.

This is about the reaction to the movie, or really, to On The Road and Kerouac.

The trailer has been live for only a few days, but the sneering mouths of internet cynicism have already sunk their teeth into it.

And what are their criticisms?  Well, they usually take two paths*:

“Kerouac was a shitty writer, Capote said the book was typing, not writing,” parroting the astute analysis that Lindsay Weir gave in an episode of Freaks and Geeks over 10 years ago.

or

“Hipsters love On The Road.

I’m going to start with the latter.  Hipsters?  Really!?  Does no one get the irony of claiming hipsters love On The Road when the term ‘hipster’ meant a totally different thing in the 50s when the book was published?  ‘Hipster‘ doesn’t mean anything anymore, it’s just a catchall phrase used to describe anybody who likes something that you don’t like.

You’re a hipster if you like On The Road.  You’re a hipster if you like Radiohead.  You’re a hipster if you like Downton Abbey.  Tell you what, anti-hipsters of the internet, how about you make a list of things that it’s okay to like without it automatically meaning you’re a pretentious hipster, and we’ll all agree to like only those things.  Isn’t that the great thing about the internet, allowing us to see the great variety of art and experiences that exist, and then hating all of them?

So, sod off with the hipster critique.  Using the term should be like smoking a cigarette, every time you do you lose 5 minutes of your life.

But back to the “Kerouac was a shitty writer” criticism.

This one feels a bit more substantive, but it strikes me as being just as useless.  How do we critique the merit of art?  By its lasting appeal?  Then Kerouac seems to have merit.  By its cultural cache?  “Hipster”-approved rock band The Hold Steady referenced On The Road on their great “Boys and Girls in America” album, so Kerouac must still be a cultural force (and, of course, there’s the movie).  Maybe great writing is only that which is approved by academia?  Well, Kerouac is taught in high school and colleges throughout the country, so he’s got that going for him.

Okay, so maybe the only true way to determine merit is to hear what fellow artists have to say.  We’ve heard from Capote (does he count as a great artist?  He has one well-known book, In Cold Blood, and another that’s only remembered because of the terrific Audrey Hepburn film version).  How about other artists.  Bob Dylan said On The Road changed his life.  Kerouac is said to be an influence on authors like Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami.

What does it all mean?  Was Kerouac a ‘bad’ writer?  It seems to me, people want to determine the quality of writing by comparing it to other people’s writings, but how is that an objective study of quality?

I’m not making an argument for artistic relativism.  I think there is a distinction between what is good and what is bad.  But I’d argue that’s more of a matter for history to decide than for any individual.  Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Hart Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald:  All authors who had (and still have) their share of detractors.  For every well-read, intelligent person who hates Kerouac, there is another who loves him.  Legacy is what truly matters, and in this field, Kerouac is excelling.

But, I really don’t think people’s problem with Kerouac is his writing, or even his appeal to ‘hipsters.’

No, what I think people really hate about Kerouac is that he inspires the young (and the young at heart).  Because he appeals to teenagers, it’s easy to snidely dismiss him as literary fluff with no place on an adult’s literary shelf.  His writing speaks to a mindset that conflicts with the “Money and security is all that matters” mindset.  He speaks to an artistic temperament that often falls out of favor with the older. 

And by older, I mean 30-year-olds with jobs they hate.  I think people who are truly happy with their career and life choices rarely have a problem with Kerouac because they get it:  You make your choices, I’ll make mine, and that’s the definition of freedom.

You find a person who hates Kerouac (and the people who read Kerouac) and I’ll find you a miserable tosser.

That’s not to say that you have to love Kerouac.  It’s perfectly fine to read On The Road and not be inspired by it.  It is the heart of artistic freedom to like what you like and dislike what you don’t.  But hating something because of who likes it or because it doesn’t inspire you the way it does someone else is childish and lazy.  I realize that message goes against everything internet commentating represents, but I’ll stand by it.

Come now, sad, angry internet commentator, it’s okay to be inspired.  It’s why art exists.

*There’s also been the argument that Kerouac was a terrible person, so we shouldn’t praise his work.  If we start tossing out every artist who was a lousy human being, we’re going to run out of art.

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3 thoughts on “In Defense of Kerouac

  1. JK is just an American Imperialist to me … and of overblown cultural importance.

    From the Canada, Australia & NZ perspective — he barely saw anything. The white colonies of the British Empire may not have had all the resources or agricultural capacity of the US … but made up for this is extreme regional variation.

    There is no analogue as extreme travel is done by people from these areas when travel is possible.

    To even reach the amount of variation in the white colonies of the British Empire, you would need to visit

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guam

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puerto_Rico

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Samoa

    Historically …

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_Canal_Zone

    • Explain “Imperialist”? How in any way did his writings or lifestyle reinforce American power, especially internationally? Words have meanings, choose to know them. And, the irony of saying he ‘barely saw anything’ and then only listing Canada, Australia and New Zealand as alternatives. No mention of Asia, Europe or Africa? Seems like you’ve got a bit of the “imperialist” in you to, eh?

      Let people travel as they do. Some people will see the whole world, others will never leave their hometown. It’s no one’s duty to travel any particular place. The whole point of living a traveling lifestyle is that it’s your own life, your own style, so let it be.

      Personally, I plan to travel the world when I’m done with this project, and I’ll make Australia and NZ in time (even if you are a lousy representative for them). Just give it time.

      (Oh, and “Max Power?” The Simpsons ran that joke into the ground nearly 20 years ago.)

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