"There is no humor in heaven" tattoo in black ink

There Is No Humor In Heaven

“Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
~ Mark Twain, Following The Equator

Starting in college, I began getting tattoos that represented various facets of my personal philosophy. Considering the direction of my life, it seems rather prescient that my first tat was “the Road is Life” from Kerouac’s On The Road.

Now, 15 tattoos into my inkification, I have added one more literary icon to my chest plate: Mark Twain. I have always been a fan of the great American satirist, even taking a course in college devoted entirely to him (taught by the incomparable Susan K. Harris), but this was the first quote of his that struck me not as more than just a pithy insight, but also a universal truism.

In fact, I didn’t come across this quote through reading Twain. Instead, this phrase was brought to my attention while reading Touched With Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, a masterful investigation of the link between bipolar disorder (or manic depression) and the artistic genius. I cannot recommend highly enough this scholarly exploration of mental illness and creation. So rarely does a book tickle both the right and left hemispheres of the brain like this work does.

So why did this quote stick out so much that it would earn valuable (and ever dwindling) skin on my chest?

Over the years of this blog, I have written about both my personal struggle with mental illness as well as my adoration for the art of stand-up comedy. If you have any familiarity with comedy, you’ll immediately know why those two are linked. Stand-up comedians are generally known as miserable people in real life, the type who will turn their personal misery into comedy gold for an audience. With the uptick of popularity for the form in the last couple decades, that is by no means a rule anymore, but the great comedians from George Carlin to Louis CK, from Don Rickles to Maria Bamford have always pulled their best material from personal darkness.

Humor doesn’t come from the perfect peace of heaven, it is formed in the stark despair of hell.

Twain’s quote could be limited to the art of humor and it would still be profound (especially considering that he remains the greatest American humorist of all time), but I believe that he meant to convey even more in those simple words. It’s not just humor that is forged out of hurt. The basic creative spark is birthed there, too. Are there musicians and writers who have created great works without suffering from mental illness or facing horrific life events? I’m sure. But they’re the minority.

Any study of artistic achievement and mental illness will reveal that the two are intrinsically linked.* A creative mind will create regardless of circumstances, but creativity spurred on by the dark nights of the soul will almost always produce works of grander, more universal elegance. As technology advances and our ability to predict the genetically preordained occurrence of depression grows stronger, our society will face the challenge of whether we should pre-select for healthier, non-inflicted offspring.

If I were to be a potential parent, I could understand the instinct to protect my child from the pain of mental illness, especially that of depression and its many variants. As someone wholly devoted to the creative longevity of the species, though, I find the idea that we could selectively eliminate mental illness quite terrifying. What great works of art would be lost if such possibilities had been available to us centuries ago? (A fair rebuttal to that concern is to ask, “What great works of art would we have had if the mentally ill had not succumbed to their disease before their time?”)

There is no simple answer.

The question of whether or not mental illness in general (and depression, specifically) has its benefits in human society and art is one that we will likely never satisfactorily resolve. But, as long as such ailments still exist, we can take solace from the truth that the erstwhile Samuel Clemens articulated so many years ago: There is no humor in heaven.

*This is also likely true of important scientists, but I haven’t studied that enough to make a definitive statement.

Teen Lit and Writing for Adults

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

I am so tragically unhip.  This isn’t exactly a newsflash, but it’s weeks like this that I see just how out of step I am with everyone I know.

It is possible that the cave you live in is not a wifi hotspot (there’s a homeless guy for that), in which case you might not have heard that this week, teen literature sensation The Hunger Games is appearing in movie theaters as the true first blockbuster of the year (sorry Tim Riggins).

I eloquently posted the following on my Facebook (something that’s surely totally passé, only further proving how out of touch I am):

As someone who has never read a single Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games or anything that could remotely be called ‘teen lit’ since I was, you know, a teen (and barely then, either), I must say this looks like the most interesting of the spate. It’s sci-fi instead of fantasy, and the female protagonist seems like a positive role model for girls, instead of that limpid pool of twatification that is Bella.

I could probably be talked into seeing this.

Of course, the universal response to this post was, “You should read the books!  LOLOMGSPLUGE!”  Or something like that.

Though I have very little experience with teen lit, I have been led to understand that the genre has grown considerably in recent years and there are genuine works of merit within it (the Twilight books notwithstanding).  I never read Harry Potter not because I have some major problem with teen fiction, but because they’re fantasy books and I don’t care about fantasy books.

That floats your boat?  Super, have at it.

I do have a passing interest in science fiction, at least when the science is emphasized, so The Hunger Games might be more up my alley, if, you know, I was still 16.  Unless I’m mistaken, though, this is science fiction of the ‘Future Dystopia’ type, and not of the speculative, map-out-where-we’re-going sort.  I’m a nerd, I want my science fiction books to teach me science.

Which is all to say, the movie sound likes an enjoyable couple hours at the theater (with a heroine I’d actually want my hypothetical future daughter to aspire to), but as a reading experience it would surely leave me dry.  I’ve been reading for a long time, I have a pretty solid grasp on what I enjoy.*

I don’t have a problem with teen literature.  I don’t really have a problem with adults reading teen lit, as part of a balanced reading diet.   But, as someone who has worked in bookstores of all size and denomination (corporate, privately owned), I know this is rarely the case. When the Harry Potter craze was in full effect, a study found, contrary to optimistic reports, that teens weren’t actually reading any more than before.  They mostly just read the Harry Potter books and that was it (and some gave up when the books got too long).

From experience, I can tell you this trend holds true for adults, too.  Aside for the mile-long line of apologetic, grown-ass women buying every Twilight book with their eyes averted, for the most part these book Sensations draw out a bunch of non-readers who can feel relatively confident that these books won’t require they ever use a dictionary.

I know a lot of adults who never mention reading a book unless it features a wizard or a vampire.  If you are shamed by that description because it hits too close to home, good.  You should be ashamed.  Don’t call yourself a reader if you never read a book that challenges you.  You’re not a reader, you’re a passive receptacle for childish things.  Pick up some Cormac McCarthy, some Fyodor Dostoevsky, some Michael Chabon.  Or, if you like a little more playfulness in your literature, read Mark Twain.  He essentially created the modern young adult novel with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and then grew the story up with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, still one of the greatest American novels ever written.

If you’re scared of jumping straight from Young Adult to Actual Adult, start with Salinger and work your way through all those books you skipped back in high school because, I mean, ugh, reading books for school is lame, bleehhh

Covering my ass: Most of my friends are real readers (if not, I’ve probably insulted them at some point and they’ve subsequently blocked me from their newsfeed), so I’m fairly confident that they’re reading books other than Teen lit.  I reiterate, as part of a healthy reading habit that mixes a variety of genres and styles, Teen Lit is a-ok by me.

Writing For Adults

Personally, I don’t read teen lit.  The last book I read from that genre was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a slight but enjoyable work of non-genre teenage literature that I read when I was 19 after my college best friend recommended it. 

I don’t read teen lit because I don’t write teen lit.  I write adult literary fiction.  I’m not interested in dumbing down my fiction to appeal to a mass audience.  This is not to say I’m intentionally hoping to alienate anyone with my writing.  Quite the contrary, I hope that I have a successful, well-received career as a writer, with a wide-ranging audience.  But I’m not going to write about werewolves or sappy teen love stories to get there.

“My idea is always to reach my generation. The wise writer, I think, writes for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is sage advice from my favorite writer and I’ve carried it next to my heart for a long time.  I don’t take his exultation to mean write for teen youth.  People my age (the dreaded late 20s) are the youth of my generation, and so I hope to write words that speak to them.  I refuse to write down to them so the dumbest among them will gobble up my books.

I’m a big believer in the notion that you put out what you take in, which is why I voraciously devour great adult fiction in the hopes that my writing will steal even a fraction of that genius.  Sometimes I don’t enjoy the book I’m reading, sometimes I read a book and it’s so dense that I must muddle through and finish it just to be done with it.  That’s okay.  Reading should be both a pleasure and a mental work-out.  If it’s only the former and never the latter you’re doing it wrong, as the internet would say (well, actually, they’d say, ‘Your doing it wrong’).

So enjoy your teen lit, curl up with that pretty book after a long day at work and let yourself get enraptured in it so you can forget forget your deadlines and shithead boss.  And then, tomorrow, change it up and read something with a little more heft.

But save your breath.  I’m not going to read your teen lit, and telling me it only takes a day to read isn’t helping persuade me.

*I’m not ‘open-minded’ when it comes to literature.  Because I’m a writer, I am very judgmental of the work I read.  When it comes to music, on the other hand, I have no talent in that art form and so I am far more willing to put aside prejudgments and be won over.

F&@king Censorship

Mark Twain is a hero of mine.

I don’t use the word ‘hero’ often and usually not without sarcasm.  But, I genuinely mean it, I believe Twain to be the consummate American novelist, the greatest celebrity of his time while being giddily contrarian and openly antagonist of religion.  A true role model, you might say.

When I list literary influences and favorite authors, Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky and Kerouac are the first names on my lips, but Mark Twain is my favorite author who I’m not trying to emulate.  When I hear of an author compared to Twain, I avoid them because I know they’ll never live up to the comparison.

Twain stands alone among American authors, mixing the literary with the populist, highbrow with lowbrow, coarse satire with heart-wrenching sincerity.  I don’t consider him my favorite author, but I’ll argue for his stature high above any author you want to name.

So, this news pisses me off:  They are publishing an edited version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the 219 uses of the word ‘nigger’ replaced with ‘slave.’

No, this is not the same as editing the Godfather for network television (a practice I disagree with, also, but that’s beside the point).  If someone was reading Huckleberry Finn on ABC (a la Andy Kaufman), then fine, censor the reading of it.

But don’t censor a fucking book!  Books will be, and always should be, the last stand against censorship.  In books we can express any and every idea, no matter how unpopular, offensive or left of center.  It’s true, in this day and age, the internet is about as uncensored and unfiltered a place as you can get, but the internet isn’t art.  It can house art, it can display art, but it isn’t art in itself (it’s the world’s largest library).

Books can bridge that gap between popular art and elitist art, making it the perfect medium to disseminate new and/or difficult ideas to the masses.

The argument that censoring Huck Finn will help educators because the pervasive use of that word makes it harder for students to read or absorb the bookis such utter bullocks.  If students aren’t ‘absorbing’ the book, it’s because they’re lazy, bored fucktards, not because there is any fault with the book (a masterpiece if ever there was one*).  If that word bothers students, then it is the perfect opportunity to get students to engage in a conversation about it, about racism, about how the world has changed since Twain’s time.

What are students supposed to be getting out of their literature classes if one of the main themes of Twain’s book (the ills of racism) is whitewashed out of it?  The point of schooling is to bring kids up to higher thinking, not to lower education to their level.

If your high school kid is too squeamish to read the word ‘nigger’, then put them out of their misery.  You’ve bred something worthless, discard it and start fresh.

I support a publisher’s right to put out a censored version of the book, I just don’t support the usage of it in the classroom.

I mean, nigga please.

*Please don’t embarrass yourself by saying, “You know, I really don’t like Huckleberry Finn.”  You couldn’t lessen my estimation of you faster.