Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sex & Cheesecake

Candy Everybody WantsIf lust and hate is the candy,
if blood and love tastes so sweet,
then we give 'em what they want.

So their eyes are growing hazy,
'cause they wanna turn it on.
So their minds are soft and lazy—
well... who do you want to blame?
10,000 Maniacs, “Candy Everybody Wants”

Aqua Teen Hunger Force - Volume Three“See? Kids love pizza, and they love squalor.”
—Master Shake, “Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary”

Kim Kardashian Sexy Bikini 22-by-34-Inch PosterWalking through Dadeland Mall is an assault on the crotch and mouth. Go in through the main entrance, and you’re flanked by restaurants. On your right is The Cheesecake Factory. Minutes after the mall opens, there’s already a line of people waiting to get in. Look through the windows and you’ll see the fat dripping off the lifted fork of pasta, the cheesecake slice so tall it tips over when you cut into it. Keep walking and you’re hit by fumes from hair and nail salons, tantalized by mannequins and posters in suggestive poses, stabbed by the beat of a different song from every store, chocolates at Godiva’s, cookies from the food court, gold and diamonds on velvet displays, Kim Kardashian’s tan, sweaty navel at GNC . . . .

You can walk the entire mall, over 185 stores, and get only two messages: sex and food. The ideal is to combine themKim Kardashian eating something. What cannot be consumed in one way or the other has no place or value.

People love it.

The problem is not sex or food. The problem is the atrophy of the rest of the body. When the only parts of ourselves that we stimulate are the crotch and mouth, the brain, the heart, perhaps, atrophy. Which is why you should read good books.

Though we seem aware of what junk food can do to our bodies, no one seems to think about what the junk book diet is doing to our brains. Our crotch and mouth disease has atrophied our brains to the point that we believe all books are goodas if the mere act of reading was going to turn us into intellectuals.

Theraflu Severe Cold & Cough (6-Daytime, 6-Nighttime), 12-Count Packets (Pack of 2)In truth, I am appalled at what people are reading. We sneer at television for its simple, vulgar plots, and then turn around and make bestsellers out of the same in print. We seem to crave love stories most of all, from the innocently rendered to the sexually explicit. What’s wrong with such stories? Most of them lack complexity. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back in infinite variations. It’s hard to find a story, in print or on film, that doesn’t provide a happy, comforting ending, where all dilemmas are resolved, and all the complexity of life is reduced to some kind of lesson as warm and useless as Theraflu.

Poetry is not exempt from banality. Many people who still read and write poetry complain that poets have abandoned some connection to the real world they supposedly once possessed, that contemporary poetry lacks politics, or passion, or importance. Perhaps. But go to that little shelf in the back of Barnes & Noble that contains it, and you will find the same stories that are in the books, on television, and in films, poetically rendered. Apart from the stray small volumes from indie presses that look like pamphlets next to the Classic Anthologies (collected Milton, Keats & Shelley, etc.), what predominates are anthologies of rhymed love poetry or themed collections on friendship or mothers, light verse as comforting and glossy as greeting cards.

This is what we want: writing that is easy to understand even on a first reading, messages that reassure us that the simple lessons of our childhood are, after all, true, that the good are rewarded and the evil will be punished. Themes that feed our preexisting fantasies about romance.

We are stuck, stunted. We can’t move past fables and fairy taleswe don’t want to. We seek confirmation, affirmation, validation. We don’t want to grow or be challenged, we want to be soothed and lulled. We want cheesecake.

In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black WomenEvery year, I teach Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” twice, once in my creative writing class and once in my introduction to literature. It’s such a great story, and great for teaching, classically rendered, humorous yet profound. Every year it’s more of a struggle to get my students to see the story in its historical context, however. All they seem to know about the Civil Rights era is that MLK had a dream and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus (these are the “inspiring” soundbites they have been taught). I have a handout I’ve been using for years to quickly familiarize them with the basic concepts of the Black Arts Movement and other “obscure” knowledge of the era that is so central to understanding the story. And this year it finally happened. When I asked my first-year class what the story was about, someone said, “It’s about being true to yourself.”

I pressed for more. “In what way?” I asked, hoping to get something more specific, more relevant. “You know, stand up for what you believe in and don’t let anybody tell you who you are,” was all I got. I pressed for more: who in the story is standing up for what she believes in? what is it that she believes in? who is telling her otherwise, and why?

Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner (Modern Library)Eventually, we unraveled the story more thoroughly, but what breaks my heart is how much of it is lost in the effort to rush to a comforting, familiar message such as “be true to yourself.” The harder questions—the unsettling ones such as who am I? and what or who defines me? and why?—are ignored, not to mention the really hard questions Walker is posing, which are what to do with the legacy of slavery and how to define African-American culture. These questions are uninteresting to the cheesecake addict precisely because they are too specific. We want to “apply the lesson of the story” to ourselves so we can feel warm and fuzzy, and, since we are not black women in the 1970’s, we have to ignore that part of it. Even my African-American students don’t want to dwell on these questions. The 1970’s are part of that “huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.” If they understand the story’s relevance to them, it’s an unpleasant relevance, and, given the choice, one they would rather avoid facing.

What do you want to think about? What do you want to read? What do you want to write? What is art? Some more tough questions. I will attempt to answer. Art will not comfort you or be easy to understand, nor will it do the mere opposite, which is shock you or be intentionally obscure. Art will require more from you than sitting in a comfy booth and ordering cheesecake. It will challenge you to think as well as to feel. You will be confused, you will be upset. You may be enlightened, but never comforted.

Am I a snob? Yes! I claim it. Better a snob than an anti-intellectual, which is its own kind of snobbishness. I won’t apologize for enjoying thought or craving knowledge, which is my inalienable right as a homo sapien. Nor will I entertain stupid arguments about who is “better”; that kind of blanket judgment, along with tricycles and Twinkies, is better left to third-graders.

But what about fun? What if I enjoy a trashy read, a “guilty pleasure”? Go ahead. It will have about as much effect on your brain as the cheesecake does on your thighs. You will never grow as a writer, however, if you keep reading the same story. The mark of the beginning writer is the rush to the moral at the end of the story and the jab to the heart in the poem. It is all you know because it is all you read, all you see and hear. Read your vegetables. You can train your brain in much the same way you can train your palate. Do you really want to be reading chicken fingers the rest of your life? Redefine what you find enjoyable. Put your brain on a healthy diet.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other StoriesThis is more difficult than it sounds, because good books, like good food and good men,are hard to find. Try to find a decent piece of fruit at the mall. Cookies, yes. Pizza, yes. A banana? Like, from a tree? Going to the bestseller lists to find a good book is like going to the mall to find good food. You will only find what sells, which is not the same. A good place to begin is The Big Lists: the Nobel Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize. These are good starting points until you cultivate your own informed taste, and then you can go ahead and argue with them.

Don’t be afraid to read in translation, or about topics, themes, places, or people unfamiliar to you. Choose writers who are still alive, still being publishedyou want to cultivate your own sensibility, not that of the distant past. Read critically, like they taught you in schoolcompare books and writers, keep a reading journal. Think. It’s okay to enjoy yourself, but ask yourself why something pleases you, or not. Don’t just put the book down when you’re done and reach for the next (or for the cheesecake!). If you’re having trouble understanding a book you want to read, research. Go online. There will be study guides, reviews, other readers. Join or start a book club in person or online. Goodreads is a pretty decent place to find other readers. Just make sure that they are discerning readers, and don’t give up.

Life is short. Read hard.


  1. Excellent post and of course you baited me here by posting about sex & cheesecake. I wish more students had teachers like you. I do. I am right now into a Zadie Smith phase, totally infatuated with her. From time to time I pick up Vanity Fair. I think we have all been infected, I know I am not excluded.

    As to your students, they are a product of technology, of ease and speed of information. Technology is king, the arts a waste of time, served better to just romance the opposite sex and then put away. Teachers have a daunting task ahead of them, how to compete with the way information is delivered by technology via the classical way it was done before? How will these minds shape up in a world where the Twilight series is a best seller and Kim's curves beckon...I don't know? I do know that you shape and touch the future, you have an important job in your hands. You have my admiration.

  2. Ha-ha, got you with the title, eh? Hoping to prove my point with that. I'm banking this post will get more views than any other. I hope other people are moved to post what they are reading. And there are wonderful things to read on the Internet, you know. It's just that most people shy away from them. Gotta train that palate!


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