You may think of David Sedaris as the smart, funny, gay writer that everyone seems to love. But he’s also something else entirely and it is *this* identity that holds the key to his phenomenal success. David Sedaris is an iconoclast.
What is an iconoclast, anyways? Mr. Wikipedia sez: “People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied figuratively to any individual who challenges “cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious”. Conversely, one who reveres or venerates religious images is called (by iconoclasts) an iconolater; in a Byzantine context, such a person is called an iconodule or iconophile.”
It’s interesting that since the dawn of time, civilizations eventually generate cultures which end up building institutions to support those cultures. The vast majority of the citizens then love those cultural institutions…until an iconoclast appears to attack them. This iconoclast, then, can gain a large following of “anti-” people. People who are against certain aspects of the culture and their institutions. I think of Socrates undermining the fabric of ancient Greek society with his dialogues and endless questioning, of Martin Luther and his 99 problems (and a bitch wasn’t one), and of counter-culture figures of modern times like Hunter S. Thompson, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock, David Foster Wallace, and especially David Sedaris.
The Austin Writing Workshop discussed this iconoclasm as it relates to irony in literature last Friday night. I recorded it, and you can listen to the discussion as a podcast by clicking PLAY on the audio player above.
But this idea of iconoclasm also got me thinking about artists and identity in general. In the world of hip-hop music, every artist has to have a unique identity to go along with his talents. I was watching a documentary about Eminem’s label, Shady Records, and that’s essentially what they look for before signing an artist to the label. In music, I had a discussion with the band Blues Traveler recently (really — see below)
about a news article labeling them as a “jam band.” Their attitude was that if you get recognized in any way as an artist, you will then become defined and confined in a certain role. They didn’t mind it so much, but they’re one of the few successful musical acts in a sea of failed artists. I thought, too, of Hemingway’s reputation as a “tough guy” writer, David Foster Wallace as a “people’s academic,” and Stephen King as a horror writing machine.
Human beings seem to need to label, and to taxonify everything so they can keep things sorted in their minds. This being the case, I’m going to re-brand myself as the knish-eating writer. (Just kidding. Although knishes are delicious.)
In a sense, all innovators and inventers — people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Google dudes, the founders of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, etc. — are iconoclasts. There’s even a new company with my friends @meggilliland and @tiffanymadison called Creative Destructors that celebrates this need to break apart the old and raise up something new. And when these new technologies start threatening traditional businesses, the trad-bizzes run to the government for more laws, more enforcement, more protection from innovation. In art, there’s less of this, since there will always be a segment of the “art market” anxiously awaiting the new new.
Of course, it sounds cool to be the rebel, the iconoclast, the lone ranger. But there’s a reason why most people don’t go that way. It’s dangerous. It’s much safer to stay with the pack, do what everyone else is doing, and just go with the flow. It’s much harder to, say, publish a book of literary fiction stories with no academic credentials, no big publisher or literary agent on board to help with promotion, no advance review copies, no blurb from Jonathan Franzen or Richard Ford. But who would be crazy enough to do that?
Because that’s the rub, isn’t it? Either you have the *kind* of iconoclasm that resonates with enough people to make you successful, or you don’t, and you just wind up being that weird guy who tried that weird thing that one time.
Saturday Show Podcast is the only literary podcast that brings the philosophical truth to the masses. Plus, dick jokes. Also, I have no idea why there are two audio players showing on this page. Deal with it.
Approximate time stamps below:
0:00 Introduction to the Podcast
0:41:00 Promotion for “Infinite Ending” by Frank Marcopolos
1:16:00 General discussion, including the purpose and structure of the Austin Writing Workshop, David Sedaris bio and background, comedy, genre, social position, writer identity, killer assassins, Hemingway,
07:26:49 Reading of “21 Down” by David Sedaris (Performed by Frank Marcopolos)
13:38:00 Group analysis of “21 Down” by David Sedaris, including Sedars’s wit, self-depracating humor, plotlessness, resonance, over-examples, too many cars (or other details) in a story, funny lines, importance of theme, short stories about killing Will Shorts, Silo Apparent in different stories, society-level themes, all writing being autobiography, the objective rules of writing, Ernest Hemingway’s style, humility, iconoclastic philosopher perspective, lenience of iconoclasm because of homosexuality, Bill Maher, philosophers not being tied to an ideology, Socrates and his enemies, TV show called “Bones,” the heroine in the TV show called “Homeland,” Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, insult to convention, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, Howard Roarke, the TV show called “Monk,” absurdity of character, Junor Diaz and his character of Junior.
38:17:59 Group analysis of a member-submitted story, including it being well-crafted and polished, categorization of story as dry realism, authenticity, real details, examples of such details, Johnson grass, contract with reader, the problem of the main character, Hemingway, resolving the issue through events and plot, the Medal of Honor, ending with questions, a nuanced view of courage, John Wayne, visual ways of writing, Socrates, Hemingway, theme discussion, opening the discussion the way it needs to be opened, “If you’re not a philosopher, you’re going to have trouble being a writer,” writing moralizing one-sided stories, tapping into what’s already complex, bring things out in a Socratic dialogue, excellence in details, details working overtime and doing twenty things and supporting theme and resonance, attention to detail and author authenticity, thematic development, parables, subtlety, Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, literalism, Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, Red Badge of Courage, romanticism, iconoclasm, Friedrich Nietzsche, chasing rabbits, Dostoyevski, rambling, O. Henry, dialogue, humor, and politic satire.
1:26:20 News clip about David Sedaris
1:33:30 End of podcast