Letter from the EditorHow the New Sincerity led me to Yangshuo, China
Gabriel Chad Boyer
In his groundbreaking book, *Russian Thinkers*, Isaiah Berlin distinguishes between 19th Century French attitudes towards their writers and the attitudes of their 19th Century Russian counterparts. The French, he claims, considered the life of the writer to be extraneous, that the style and the skill of the author was paramount, while for Russians an author and his life were indistinguishable. I have always sided with the Russians in this regard. The writer is not just a detached craftsman or stylist, but a person writing about people. Do I believe in this person or not? In the world as this person depicts it? Is this author a false prophet or a true prophet? This is how I think of writing. How very Old Testament of me. Which brings us to the New Sincerity.
To my mind, the discussion surrounding the New Sincerity as it pertains to literature is tending in the direction of style. (As in, how best to generate a “sense” of sincerity.) How to appear sincere. This idea of a sincerity that is wholly about how best to come off as sincere to a readership who have been bred on irony regardless of your intentions, that is “fake” sincerity, seems more than insidious. It reeks of marketing and branding and other equally heinous practices. How best to package yourself to the meaning market masses. Sincerity is and always has been about a person’s intentions. Do you sincerely love me? Am I sincere in what I say? It is not a style someone puts on but the honest heartfeltness of your words.
Which is not to say I am some anti-style idiot who goes around laughing maniacally at the stylings of others. Sometimes perhaps. But also an awkward buffoon who never learned how to properly handle the beast of irony, who has always been clumsily ironic and helplessly sincere, who has spent his life running from the cooler peoples of the world because he could not abide in those cool waters. Who is only sincere by default. Because all my efforts at insincerity fell flat in the sunshine of my younger days and I learned quite quickly that I was cursed with the sentimental tears of my mother, and cursed to only be comfortable at the bottom of the world, where I can play king in the refuse heap and loiter among the plantlife I find there indefinitely. Currently, I live in Yangshuo, China. [See picture above.]
Yangshuo is a beautiful little resort town in southern China. It is surrounded on all sides by miniature mountains draped in scrublike vegetation. These mountains are known as Karst formations, and have been exquisitely captured repeatedly over the ages in any number of Chinese paintings. One of them is on the back of the 20 Yuan note. I teach English here to working adults. A friend of mine once said, “You always know if a Chinese person likes you or not.” These are some of the most sincere people on the planet.
I am not here to discover how to be sincere, however. I know how to be sincere. To be sincere I must be myself to the utmost of my abilities at all times. I learned how to be sincere from the drunks in Oregon. The man who leapt up from the bar stool when I said I could occasionally feel a woman’s heat when she’s sitting next to me, and then backed away from me slowly, while all the while staring me in the eyes like I was an honest-to-god demon. Eventually coming to understand that my various ironic posturings of my late adolescence and early adulthood were the posturings of a child who wants never to get hurt again and does this by never being sincerely himself. I learned about sincerity because I was looking for authenticity and to live an authentic life a person must actually make a sincere effort to live his or her life in the first place. That sincerity IS authenticity. But getting back to the childish irony of my younger days.
I came of age in the ironic nineties and surrounded by ironic art and ironic art rock, and I have a distinct memory of one of my friends, the film critic Chris Fujiwara, saying, “I hate irony,” and then bursting into an eerie laugh. As I said before, I myself was often ironic at that time, but my worst moments were always painfully sincere because I never stopped being a hopeless romantic, the sort of boy who watched *When Harry Met Sally* almost daily when I was fourteen in my efforts to understand male/female relations, kind of kid puts all his money on the most beautiful show-ponies even if not one of them has ever won the race. Point being, I could noodle with irony at that time, but it only thinly masked my many unpretty desires and petty indignations. And the books I was working on at that time weren’t much better.
There is one book in particular that I think best sums up both my childish attitudes towards women and towards writing. It was a book about an obsession with a very beautiful girl I had known since I was still watching *When Harry Met Sally* almost daily and written while I was still mid-obsession. That one didn’t go over so well. You may think writing a three hundred page book about some girl you fancy and your feelings for said girl is romantic, but how many nice things can you say? Not three hundred pages’ worth, I’ll tell you that much.
Then I had something of a nervous breakdown in New York, in which I thought I could see inside people, or that I could feel the souls of people moving through me as our bodies passed on the street. I returned to Boston to sit around the apartment in my socks. I experimented with automatic writing and bizarre editing experiments in which I would cut up several of my many unfinished novels and combine them painstakingly, reveling in the unusual scenes created thereby. And all the while, honestly and sincerely trying to find a new way to write. I met the editor of the Humanities at Harvard University Press one night and we discussed the history of religion all night, and at the end he gave me his calling card, and a few days later I sent him a copy of my schizophrenic detective novel (the product of my aforementioned experiments in automatic writing) and he started avoiding me at parties after that. For some reason this made me happy. Because I wanted to write unreadable books. Because I wanted no one to understand. Because I wanted to be unlike anyone who had ever been before. Which. I still want to be unlike anyone who has ever been before, even when I am fully aware that I am in fact just like everyone else. But just because you acknowledge you are like everyone else, it doesn’t mean you start writing like you’re a hallmark card that only just recently learned how to think for itself.
Then I went to China in the Fall of 2005 and embraced my foolishness. Three years later I published a collection of these many foolish experiments and have since published two very sincere books by two very sincere men. Does this make me a member of the New Sincerity? It’s a question that keeps me up nights.
The New Sincerity is closely related to, though distinct from, two other schools of writing. New Childishness and Twee writing, which are what they sound like. It dates back to 80′s Austin rock and claims as its members, whether these members consider themselves members or not, David Foster Wallace and Wes Anderson, Miranda July and Lars Von Trier. It was a performative movement before it was a literary movement. DFW’s 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction“, has become something of a rallying cry, and Lars Von Trier’s odd brand of pagan/christian spiritualism certainly feels sincere, while Wes Anderson and Miranda July both give the feeling of precocious children. They present stories that seem sincere, but this sincerity is also very likely a stylistic device of the “we laugh because it’s funny, we laugh because it’s true” variety. We enjoy the humorous characters they present us with specifically because they’re so sincerely human, even when their lines were more than likely written in a very arch way. In fact, BECAUSE their lines were more than likely written in a very arch way.
Many of these people I like. In fact, I wholeheartedly ascribe to DFW’s famous article from the early 90′s in which he said, “The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere.” But the key distinction to make here is that Wallace is speaking of people who very naively put themselves on the page for all to see, and not the coy “fake” sincerity that seems more popular among the younger New Sincerity set, who put on sincerity without all the heartfelt uncertainty that comes with sincerely saying what you sincerely mean. You can be crushed by the level of sincerity Wallace is suggesting here, but I doubt anyone will ever be crushed by being “Newly” Sincere. Perhaps I’m wrong. If so, please enlighten me.
According to AD Jameson, who is a friend, an author for this press, and aligns himself with the New Sincerity, the movement (in poetry specifically) was formed and begun in 2005 by Joseph Massey and Anthony Robinson and Andrew Mister. As such, this NS (again according to Jameson) stems from:
1. “The NS is one major current literary focal point in the debate over what in writing counts as “ironic,” and what counts as “sincere”… Mind me well: this is not a debate over what is “genuinely” ironic or sincere (although some will mistake it for that), but rather a debate over how those effects can be generated right now in literature.”
2. “The NS also serves as a focal point in another long-running debate, between those who want to find some way to make the writing feel less mediated (“writing about something”), vs. those who would rather foreground their writing’s artificiality (“writing about itself”).”
3. “The NS tends to be a formally-derived style, and its effects are achieved by means of devices/rhetoric/style.”
It’s really this last point that is the cause for all my ire. Of course I hate the first point as well, specifically because the effort to generate a sincere effect seems about as insincere as they come, as I have already said, and that this debate itself just goes to show how terminally ironic the institution of the arts has become in America (and how inauthentic and self-conscious) but it’s just on this last point that my blood really starts to boil. That a movement of New Sincerity would be derived formally just seems too absurd to be believed. Sincerity is derived from the intention to be sincere as I keep saying over and over again. Fact of the matter is I just don’t believe in the sincerity of the New Sincerity.
And where did New Sincerity in literature specifically come from? Although we have already listed many sources, Jameson, in another place mentions that, “some (including myself) think the desire for such aesthetic effects has arisen due to the sense that “MFA realism” is moribund, as well as an exasperation with more Theory-driven writing movements like Language Poetry, postmodernist (metatextual/self-referential) fiction, and with heavily ironized McSweeney’s-type lit.” Which. I can buy and very much agree with. And Jameson has one more point to make, that “one may use the devices and styles of the NS to achieve a wide variety of effects — including irony!” Which. Yes. The “ironic watching” Wallace refers to is as much integral to writing as the sincere doing from which we honestly interact with the world. And I am once again confused about where I belong and who I belong with. Do I belong with these people after all? Who are these people? Why do they feel the need to join a crowd? Do they not know that crowds are inherently evil and should be avoided at all cost?
But we’re not talking about good and evil, but writers, and the various schools of writers. Which. Writers are not fish. Perhaps it’s that.
Perhaps it’s also true that the New Sincerity began after 9/11. That after this moment in our history many young writers and artists wanted to engage this seemingly newly sincere America with their newly sincere words. I was also deeply affected by what went on around that time. Specifically, I wanted to build a spaceship and colonize another planet, because I saw the end of my own in the events following 9/11, the incessant war-mongering and fear that filled every television and every heart. I also began to ask, “What can we do to change the world?” I remember the Ot’s as being a time when activist art was what everyone was doing, which seemed to make sense after the indifferent irony of the preceding decade. I felt responsible. I had spent so long concocting absurdist experiments and completely indifferent to the world, and look what happens. GW in the white house. Flags on every SUV.
And it was my desire to see the world as it really is that drove me to China the first time, back in 2005, and to the anarchist commune I lived on in Oregon after that, and to wildland fire-fighting. It was my desire to experience something like Boris Dubretskoy had in *War and Peace* (when he ended up in that POW camp and learned to appreciate life for the first time) that brought me to the fish-processing plant in Alaska where I made the 5,000 dollars necessary to publish my huge tome. Each of these was done in an effort to sincerely interact with the world and by so doing to learn how to speak of the world and those in it with all sincerity. However, this was not a childish or formulaic enterprise, and it did not produce childish or twee writing. (As I said before, all my most childish writing was done in the late nineties when I was in the middle of an emotional collapse and honestly believed the science fiction novel I was writing, *The Manikin Textbook*, was actually going to take place at some point in the distant future.) Childish naivete is very dangerous in a time when people are already being manipulated as if they were children.
What is needed are new myths, yes, but how do we discover these new myths? There is no set path that will lead you to the place you have never been.
And Yangshuo? How I ended up here is a long story. Involving a single day of panic after a summer of no work, a school in Laizhou that said I was not who I said I was after I’d just flown across the pacific to get there with 300 Yuan to my name, and two months of pneumonia in Zibo, for which I was hospitalized at one point. I would often wake to cough violently until I vomited up a fistful of yellow phlegm, and throughout it all working six days a week. It was around this time, and on a particularly bad morning, when I thought I could very well die here in this small industrial city in the Far East, that I decided the most important things in life are the people you care about, and furthermore that I needed to start writing realist fiction.
Then it’s January and I’m taking a 36-hour train trip to Hong Kong, in a hard sleeper with my now 10,000 Yuan taped to my inner thigh, and handing my passport over to a very small and very old Chinese man in the subway to get a new visa. Then I’m on an overnight bus full of the tiniest beds and looking at the passing oddly shaped shadows while discussing David Foster Wallace with an Italian working in Hong Kong’s financial sector but currently on vacation with his girlfriend. Then I’m here.
The rainy season’s done now. The back alley behind my apartment building is littered in bright red plastic bags and lined with tiny garden plots that the locals water with a nervous regularity. Just behind these garden plots is a steep incline and above that a dirt road. If you take a left at the top of the stone steps that lead to that dirt road, you’re in the countryside in under three minutes. I would jog through scenes not unlike the one pictured above back when I was jogging. (Since I started smoking again, I gave up jogging.) People smile and wave here, especially when you answer them in mandarin. In the more downtown area, the streets are clogged with Chinese and foreign tourists. The streets are paved in large rectangles of rock. Miniature mountains peak out from behind crumbling plaster apartment blocks everywhere you look. And stranger rock formations too. Like something you’d see in *Avatar*. Some mornings I want to stay here forever. Away from all my well-meaning friends. Away from everything that matters to me.
But there are the many projects I have been involved in and those two books I released, by AD Jameson and Colin Winnette, both of which are interesting, and could perhaps be classified as New Sincerity. Jameson’s book, *Amazing Adult Fantasy* is full of stories featuring favorite fantastical characters from his childhood. He claims that one of his main concerns while writing this book was to “eliminate all irony” from his writing. Which. Now that I understand, it makes sense, but what I liked about the book originally was specifically that his authorial voice felt like it was always shifting throughout the book and so I could never quite pinpoint it. Some stories felt very coy to me, and others seemed almost like the most blatant form of fan fiction. (To Jameson, they were all nothing more than fan fiction.) His larger novel, *Giant Slugs* is more definitively sincere, and a very strange, difficult, but rewarding book. The weirdness of the imagery is alluring and unnerving, and sometimes downright infuriating, but the last fifteen pages or so makes it all worth it.
In Colin Winnette’s case, it’s the simplicity of his story that’s so alluring. His novel, *Revelation*, takes place at the end of time, and through the eyes of a few childhood friends, and throughout their mundane everyday lives. Like Raymond Carver retelling the apocalypse is how I like to think of it.
And when I read these books, and books of this type, I almost can buy it. Because these are newly sincere and interesting books. But the performative art of Miranda July and the bulk of the New Sincerity writing I cannot abide by. Perhaps it’s just that I want to refuse to join with the New Sincerity so badly because I would refuse to join my own birthday party. But it’s not the individual writers I have a problem with, but the very idea of a New Sincerity and the discourse that generated it.
I would suggest that the NS is just a rebound ideology, and will more than likely be remembered as such. Rebounding of course from the equally absurd Post-Modern position. The New Sincerity is just another example of institutional silliness. Yet another put-on by the people who have made a career out of putting you on. When speaking of PoMo v. the NS what we’re talking about is not a way between two warring states, but the silliness of one versus the silliness of the other. They’re both silly. They both deserve to be mocked, because great writing does not come in a pretty little package. It comes from those various historical figures who were the ones that never fit. It is the neither/nors of the world who stand out because they couldn’t make their way into the more elusive sitting rooms of their day. The outmoded ironists and undercover sentimentalists. For example, from the sincerity of a man who has lost everything and is just trying to hold onto some small thing to keep him sane in the face of a world gone mad. I believe in my own brand of sincerity, which is to try to weep because I just can’t take it anymore, but I can’t weep, instead letting loose a strange wheezing sound. This is me being sincere. I sincerely did that a week ago.
So where do I belong? Among the language poets? Writing what Jameson referred to as “moribund” realism like I believed while on death’s door in Zibo? I admit that our realist fiction often seems to be a put-on as well, but that’s only because our authors do not believe in writing the way modernist authors did or their predecessors. In the Freudian age the effort to expunge the darkness behind the real world, delving into the murky waters of the subconscious like a poorly equipped deep sea diver, was a very pressing and important matter, whereas now realism is just a technique we are taught at MFA programs, as Jameson himself suggests. Realism was once something you learnt by way of your suffering in the real world, whereas now it is something you learn through workshopping your prose.
There are no easy answers. Only questions. These questions are the same as they have always been, but that doesn’t make them any less true. When I was younger and writing my childish fantasy, I succeeded in writing in a new way, but I did not succeed in writing in a way that others were interested in reading. I succeeded only in making something weird that I can pull out and peruse with real pride. It is for this reason that I have titled my 1,000 page tome, *A Survey of My Failures This Far*. This title is sincerely meant. They are failures. They are failures specifically because my childish sincerity produced only pretty anomalies.
By the same token, I am pretending to think I have failed when I also believe I have not failed. I take every position. I am both sincere and ironic, realistic and completely lacking a realistic bone in my body. And perhaps just maybe I’ve only been playing at sincerity this whole time. But then again, perhaps we all are. Which is precisely why the NS is such a dangerous enclave. If “fake” sincerity becomes the norm even in the supposed truthful world of the literary arts, then we are all lost.