Puckered UpBy Justin Benton
May 29, 2010
What makes someone an asshole? Everyone knows one, and some of us are one, but it seems a purely subjective matter.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines asshole as “someone or something foolish or contemptible”. One of the more popular entries in the Urban Dictionary describes asshole as “someone being arrogant, rude, obnoxious, or just a total dickhead”. Denis Leary once sang that an asshole is someone who drives slow in the fast lane, enjoys Cuban cigars, and parks in handicapped spaces while “handicapped people make handicapped faces.”
I’m fond of assholes. I like the Henry Rollinses, the Ed Abbeys, the Louis C.K.s of the world. Assholes are the real movers and shakers. They get shit done.
I’ve momentarily become sort of an asshole for expressing my enjoyment of “Five More Bands for Joe Daly to Hate” by Steve Almond—who may or may not be an asshole. I enjoyed how Almond analyzed the argumentative fallacies of Daly’s piece. Readers couldn’t trip over their feet fast enough as they ran to the defense of Daly, the person, and his article. Here was a truly wondrous TNB moment, such a crucial shift in the general lockstep of the website. Like a monkey wrench in the TNB gears.
Admittedly, I couldn’t resist feeling disappointment at Joe Daly’s decision not to fire back. What a missed opportunity! Had I been in Joe’s shoes I would’ve given Steve Almond a piece of my mind. Because that’s exactly what Nervous Breakdown articles are: pieces of people’s minds.
I respect Daly’s decision to avoid waging war (and Steve Almond was correct: Joe Daly seems like a bona fide nice guy) but chances like these—to test one’s mettle as a writer and a thinker—are few and far between.
To each his own. But I can’t help thinking it’s like Geto Boys once said: no nuts, no glory.
In his recent article “Something Nice” Greg Olear labels me “the resident curmudgeon”. In the spool of comments beneath the article, contributor Richard Cox claims I “occasionally [make] comments…that seem contrary just for the sake of being so.” I don’t necessarily disagree with Olear and Cox. The fact that Cox could even remember some supposedly thorny comment I made a while back is oddly satisfying. The not-so-nice stuff, that sticks out like a broken tooth. But, see, that’s the thing about niceness sometimes. It leaves a fading impression.
More or less, I’ve transformed into the grumbling troll under the TNB bridge. It’s one thing to be an asshole, which I’m not gonna deny, but it’s a whole other thing entirely to be The Nervous Breakdown’s Asshole. And the whole liking-Steve-Almond’s-balls thing? Guilt by association, I guess.
There are a lot of kind, intelligent people working for this site for free. We give everyone the benefit of the doubt. They love the work and they give a damn about the potential of language, ideas, and story. Do they appreciate a good argument? The jury’s still twiddling their thumbs over that.
The Nervous Breakdown contributors are aware that the articles they post, the comments they make, the goddamn Gravatar photos they use, all of it creates an impression. Ultimately, each stroke adds crucial layer upon crucial layer to the formation of the Online Persona. So it makes sense that there is, generally speaking, an air of kindness at play at TNB. Being nice and supportive is an easy act to swallow. Nobody wants to look like an asshole. Although, depending on how you were raised, that sort of eggshell walk probably makes you look like a pussy.
Does it really just come down to this—assholes and pussies?
And what about dicks? The wino from Team America was right!
Those massive assholes who shit on everybody’s good time. Who put us down and make us feel stupid and small, Debbie-Downing everything and everyone. Fucking assholes. Don’t they know how good life can be?
And those fucking pussies. With their abbreviated names and seriouser-than-thou author photos and their niceness. Writing about sad childhoods, single life woes, and the fucking Trans-Siberian-fucking-Orchestra. Those fucking pussies.
I sound like a real asshole, don’t I? I bet the blood is rushing to your face and you’re grinding your teeth. And that computer screen you’ve been staring at all day while you should’ve been working, I bet you’re staring right through it. Giving it that million yard stare.
Or maybe you’re leaning back, rubbing your chin, and pondering the Perfect Comment—the one comment that will make everything seem okay again and boost your Online Persona ever further into the TNB heavens.
And then it’s refresh. refresh. refresh.
More than a few people on The Nervous Breakdown believe that an atmosphere of kindness and praise ultimately helps a writer grow. It may not be a quantifiable theory, but, hell, at least it’s a theory.
That sounds like wishful thinking to me, and perhaps a dangerous rule to follow for anyone who takes writing seriously.
One of my personal literary heroes, Larry Brown, once remarked that “writing is a skill you’ve got to learn, just like learning to be a bricklayer or a carpenter.” I like this sentiment and not just because I’m the son of a Union carpenter. I like it because it provides me with more hope and optimism than—I’ll say it again—any acts of perfunctory kindness and soft praise ever could. Brown suggests that anybody can become a writer if he works at it hard enough. Learning to write well can be a long and complex apprenticeship. I hope Larry was right.
But, then again, maybe he was just an asshole.
I was an asshole for a while on TNB in its early days. Can still be one.
I come from a free-for-all blog background (and a news background). People are vicious on newspaper sites. Downright evil. They troll anonymously. They piss on each other with words. It happens.
My thinking of comments and how to moderate them has evolved into something more positive. TNB helped that. Its encouraging atmosphere is a testament to the power of positivity and goodness that is needed in the world.
With that said, I disagreed with Greg Olear’s post. He should have just posted a similar comment on the Fishman piece. Why hide from it? I was snarky about my comment. But then, like a good TNBer I sent him a personal message and begged forgiveness in case he took my opinion sourly. lol.
I enjoyed this read. And I think TNB has evolved more to where assholes are OK to some degree. And TNB needed that.
Assholes are people, too, dammit.
There seems to be a resounding agreement that there’s a lot of nastiness on other literary sites and the like. I honestly don’t frequent too many, so I wouldn’t have any idea. But if so, then good for TNB. Perhaps I do take its goodness for granted.
Asshole, not an asshole, maybe an asshole, pussy . . . it’s all interesting. Sort meta-fictiony to have the posts responding to the comments to the posts responding to the posts responding to the comments, and so on and so forth.
You just made me dizzy.
Does this make it easier: Justin is responding to a post Greg made in response to a comment Justin made on a post that Steve made in response to a post that Joe made.
Jess, for that comment you win the Philip K Dick Meta Fiction Prize of the Day. Well done.
If Joe had just liked “Hey Jude,” this would never have happened.
Interesting points, Justin.
Like Nick, I have spent most of my working in a newsroom and the constant negativity and viciousness gets pretty tired after awhile. For me, it’s refreshing to be amongst a group of people who are supportive and kind. Kindness is much underrated I think.
But yes, sometimes a good argument can be a positive and necessary thing… but arguing for the sake of it is kind of boring.
I mean, aren’t there enough assholes in the world already??!
I like to think the good outnumbers the nasty. Am I naive?
Shut up, you stupid ass. I’m sick of TNB posts about TNB. You self-absorbed writer pricks. Fuck you all.
Okay, people. I’m joking. Deadpan fail, I guess.
No, no–I got it!
I had a feeling my one comment buried within the 300 or so on Greg’s piece might warrant a post-length response, and lo and behold, here it is. It’s oddly satisfying, in a way.
To be sure, and I’ve said so many times in various posts here and elsewhere, I think the best way to become a better writer is to know what you are doing wrong. And yeah, often that’s a subjective thing, but if I have ten people picking apart my novel manuscript, there are going to be some recurring ideas I can use. Hell, anything anyone says can be stored away and used in that story or maybe another one. As a professional writer, I absolutely want the harshest and most honest critique possible of something I’ve poured my heart into. I want that work to be the best it can be. I think a lot of writers are way too sensitive about their work and that makes it difficult for them to learn the craft.
As with most things, it comes down to context. Almond could have staged his argument as a comment on Daly’s post, expressed the same feelings, and it could have fostered great discussion. There are occasional heated debates on this site, like Will Entrekin’s post about Jesus being a socialist. Taking the time to write an entire post, however, and patronizing Daly with the opener “I’m sure he’s a nice guy” seems unnecessarily condescending. Why choose the latter when the you can achieve the same (or better) results with the former? And really, haven’t we talked about it too much already? It was just one post. One post doesn’t make Almond an asshole.
Why are any of us here? To grow as writers? Promote our work? I always assumed any online writing I did for free was promotion, but while being here I’ve learned that’s not necessarily true. Posting and reading here is a way to share time and ideas with people who know what it’s like to be a writer. I don’t have that many professional writer friends where I live, so being part of an online community like this has proven invaluable to my craft and to the relationships I’ve forged. So yeah, I enjoy the back slapping and fuzziness. This isn’t a writer’s group, after all, it’s an online community of writers and readers sharing ideas about the world. It has evolved into its present state because more than a few people found it useful. If I need a harsh critique of my more serious work, I know where to go.
In any case, most forums and comment boards online are full of assholes. This is one of the few I know where people are pretty cool to each other…but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind someone taking me apart at the seams occasionally. Might be kind of fun, as long as they have a real point.
Why did you decide to join the community, Justin? Are you looking for feedback about your work?
Are you here to poke fun at niceness and watch contributors take themselves too seriously? Or does it simply provide a platform for you to be contrary for the sake of being contrary?
None of the above?
I am here to annoy the living shit out of Tulsa businessmen.
No, but seriously, I think it is interesting that some people have decided exactly what TNB is and ought to be. Seems like some folks envision this a literary community–emphasis on community–while others don’t require a gaggle. And there are other uses, too, plenty of fuzzy areas.
And isn’t that cool? I’ve always appreciated the chaos, the growth, the who-knows-what of TNB. I don’t really know what it is and I don’t really know what I’m doing.
I don’t think TNB is any one thing. The evolution of it is what makes it most interesting for sure. It’s definitely a lot different place than a few years ago when I first posted.
The public reaction to the Almond piece surprised me, to be honest, the general consensus of those who chose to leave comments. That doesn’t mean TNB is what they want it to be, of course, but if you look at TNB as a living, evolving system, it was interesting example of correction.
I was talking about this with Zara the other day. Do you think TNB is become a little more stratified? I don’t mean in a bad way, but rather than being one big flow of writing and expression, it’s becoming more of a collection of smaller streams?
I don’t know, Simon. Perhaps. As with any community, online or otherwise, there is some cliquishness to it. Sometimes you have time to read and comment on every post and sometimes you don’t. With so many more contributors it becomes difficult for the site to be homogeneous, but I still believe the most relevant pieces find a wide audience. If anything, the commenting can definitely be “narrow streams.” But not necessarily the reading.
I think that I can, with full gravitas and solemn credibility, declare that you, Justin, are NOT an asshole.
For the rest of you logic-challenged fools wandering around here with glib expressions, the reasoning is quite simple.
He’s not an editor.
Do the math.
I have a lot of time for the idea of evolution through adversity. I think it’s necessary, although maybe I’m wrong about that.
But, as RC points out… is that TNB is all about? We’re not a writing and/or editorial group. No one here is coming in with a mandate of developing fiction or non-fiction (great if it happens, but that’s not a task we’ve set for ourselves, is it?)
A friend is fond of saying that there are always five ways of saying anything. And two of them are right, and three of them are fucking wrong.
Niceness for the sake of niceness? Woolliness, fuzziness, the damnation of faint praise or the repetition of mouthed positivities over and over again until they become meaningless? I don’t see it as all that helpful.
But neither is mouthing off, slamming people down, or misjudging – and so badly – the spirit of the site a la Steve Almond. Much less so, in fact. Balance, here is key.
I was once part of an editing group on MySpace (I may have told this story before). The total and complete purpose of the site was copyediting. And so I edited a guy’s work for typos and grammatical errors. His response started with OK asshole. Let’s dothis..
Jesus. What a chump. Way to over-invest in your writing and your own sense of importance, pal.
I’ll say this:
– I wonder if it’s possible to be a mover and a shaker without being an asshole? Or does moving and shaking, by nature, ruffle feathers?
– I like having you around, Justin. We grow through a mix of adversity and fertiliser – sun and rain, you know?
– Thanks for the linkback. It must be asshole week, or something.
Simon, I like you too. You might say I have a crush on you. Is there a word for that? It’s not a bromance, not yet. Mancrush? I hope my wife doesn’t read this.
I think the whole two-extremes argument is a bit tired. But it is interesting to look at why people are so, so nice. I mean, it’s weird and surprising, and no doubt a quality to preserve and expand. I am by no means suggesting that people stop being nice. I’m just not used to it.
And while I think it’s also important to be aware of all the nastiness out there in the lit world, and while we’re on the topic of extremes, how seriously can you take meanness? I can take it no more seriously than niceness. It’s all silly.
But what’s not silly is a good discussion. Thank you, Simon, for offering your two cents.
Meet me in the stalls at LAX. I’ll be the guy tapping his foot on the floor.
Speaking personally, I think I’m more likely to be nice out of a spirit of welcome, and also, because Jesus. Man. Have you read some of the stuff that’s out there? I think Brad’s editorial door policy has worked out very, very well. I think I mentioned this the other day too – after signing up to WeBook, my respect for writing on the internet has plunged to an all-new nadir. One more badly-written story about a fucking hitman or Werewolf Academy or a housewife finding herself after her divorce and I’m going to lose it. I can see now why literary agents drink.
There’s an interesting element to what you raise. The contractual niceness. Almost likes kids getting presents at Christmas for pretending to believe in whatever the parents need them to pretend to believe to pretend to feel better about themselves. Is this to deal with the isolation of writing as much as to advance in the pecking order? I dunno. But the least hint of criticism is stomped on fast regardless of the merit.
I’ve often wondered why facebook seems to have a contract toward everything being positive and yet it’s completely negative in spirit. It hooks people through negative reinforcement. It’s that high school hallway between classes where you pass everyone by. The fuck yous everyone hurdles look like this:
JUST GOT BACK FROM THIS TRIP. TAKE A LOOK AT MY PHOTOS! (everything is commodifying experience because, I guess, it didn’t happen unless you *post* it).
CAN’T WAIT FOR NEXT WEEK’S TRIP!
JUST ACCOMPLISHED THIS!
WENT TO THIS PARTY!
Very telling that you can’t *dislike* button or *meh* anything. Why?
My hunch is because a landslide of resentment would give way.
That’s too funny….and true too.
My cohorts and I decided that there really needed to be an anti-facebook, and they being french, we named it “fesse book”. Google translate that.
I used to bemoan the loneliness of writing, the not being a working part in the machinery of the world. The observing, the judging on high. But, really, that’s a load of shit. I actually went into an MFA thinking I needed to be around a community of writers. In hindsight it was a complete misestimation. I’m okay going it alone for now.
I’m glad you commented Brin because as I was writing this I was thinking about a terrific debate you and D.R. had on one particular piece. I cannot remember the title of the article, but it was intellectually heated and full of grit, the sort of thing I love to see on TNB. Not: “very good!” or “great, great piece”.
As for Facebook, man, I don’t know. I am there, but I don’t engage. I deactivated and my ma asked me to resurrect. So, I did, but I don’t bother with it.
It’s strange, because only Gary Coleman and Dennis Hopper knew this fact, but I actually flew down to LA and was knocked out cold by D.R. Haney after the debate you mention. I still have an imprint from his pinky ring above my left eye.
Just getting around to reading this and I appreciate your comments. Yeah, I had a decision to make when I read Steve’s piece and I chose the one that felt best to me. Simply put, I wasn’t going to be baited into defending myself or my piece. I gained nothing by attacking Steve for his piece, other than maybe looking petty and insecure. For me, no nuts, no glory meant having the balls to not react and to let people make up their own minds about me and my piece.
Good criticism belongs here. You’re right that there’s a lot of congratulatory dialogue among the contributors, and I can see where some people might take issue that there’s not enough critique going on. But speaking from my own experience, I’ve benefitted a great deal simply by hearing what people respond to, and what they don’t (often reflected by silence). This is a great place to be exposed to different styles in easily-digestible pieces, which can only help my writing.
As Simon said, I enjoy your contributions here- make sure you stick around. A little accountability is good for this place and you’ve clearly provoked a good debate here. Rock on, brother.
<<More than a few people on The Nervous Breakdown believe that an atmosphere of kindness and praise ultimately helps a writer grow.
What kind of horseshit notion is that?
I loved the “perfunctory kindness and soft praise” line, which is why I quoted it…although I don’t think that everything is like that. That said, PK & SP are, perhaps, the TNB default settings.
I like that you included the TSO reference here. That was funny.
And, in the spirit of both this piece and Simon’s day of anti-a-holeness, I think we need to post this, since you mention it in the piece:
I don’t really understand the comment process to be honest. So every now and then I stick my big toe in the water and make a comment but otherwise I just read all your comments. I thinks it’s part of my confusion about the Internet in general and the online personality and all of it. I’m not quite comfortable with it. I don’t think being a good writer has anything to do with intelligence or having valid critiques. So the two are completely separate. TNB is a whole other beast.
As you know, I quit FB because of your essay. And I’m still off. I just needed to read your essay–I was waiting for it, and there it was on TNB. To me, that’s a substantial deal. And very cool that I found it on TNB.
There’s a difference between being an asshole and having a legitimate discussion with contrary points of views. I read all the comments from the post about AA and alcoholism being identified as a disease and I learned more from the comments than I did from the actual post. And I didn’t feel like anyone was throwing soft pitches in that discussion.
I don’t think of this as a forum for critiques of writing–more for discussions about ideas and content. With that said, I’ll be an asshole and say shouldn’t your punctuation marks be going inside the quotes rather than outside? Example: The Oxford English Dictionary defines asshole as “someone or something foolish or contemptible”. Shouldn’t that period be inside the quote? It was all throughout your essay and it was pissing me off. I don’t mean to be an asshole about it but…
I need to correct something. You do need intelligence to be a good writer–but it’s a different kind of intelligence, based more on emotions, etc. Emotional intelligence.
Yes. Yes, you’re right about the periods, those little dotty assholes. What is this, 19th century Britain? Do you mind if I nudge those little rat-bastards back where they belong? Am I an asshole for doing that?
The paragraph between the first two sphincter-shaped pictures reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw the other day. As I approached the car, I read in big, bold, black letters: I’M A BITCH. As I got up closer, I read underneath that “just not yours.”
I saw a bumper sticker the other day on a farm truck that read:
LIFE’S A BITCH
WHY ELECT ONE FOR PRESIDENT?
And it featured a caricature of Hillary Clinton screaming.
I’ve never understood people keeping outdated bumper stickers on their cars. That strikes me as incredibly lazy. I feel the same way when I see weathered John Kerry stickers. Lazy.
Yeah, but there’s something cool about seeing an old Datsun with a “Mondale For President” sticker, you know?
I would like to thank Steve Almond for giving us the privilege of attending one of his lectures. I read Steve’s piece and Daly’s, five times. You’ve made me a better wannabe writer. Thank you both.
Is that the asshole from Vonnegut? Or did you draw your own ass-terisk? Either way, funny!
This is an interesting thing. I just wrote a story about one of the biggest assholes I ever knew. I was contemplating putting it up here, but waiting for approval from a couple of the people who also feature in the story. I didn’t want to be an asshole by writing about them without their knowing. I did not offer the same concessions to the asshole who I wrote the story about.
He was paranoid, dictatorial, completely controlling, petty and mean. He was just an asshole, moreso to the people he knew best, than the rest of the world who thought he was awesome. Strange.
Anyway, my feeling about assholes is complicated, I guess. He was a true asshole and provided no benefit by his jackassery. He wasn’t being a rabble-rousing troublemaker raising a flag against larger Goliaths who deserved to have their asses handed to them. He was just a jerk. He wasn’t being constructive in his ass-hattery.
On the other hand, I guess I feature in the story as an asshole myself, because, by a strange quirk of fate I was one of the only people who could be an asshole to the asshole without reaping horrible consequences. I was a little thorny problem he couldn’t get rid of, always slightly annoying him with truth and honest opinion. I didn’t cowtow to his fame, nor was I afraid of him. I just called it like I saw it, and it never measured up to what he wanted to hear. It was awesome.
So, how to I feel about assholes? Pretty strongly, I guess. If you’re an asshole, you deserve to have someone like me always needling you a little bit. And being an asshole can be a small thing, like this guy who just wanted everyone to pay homage to his awesomeness all the time, even though he wasn’t awesome; or a huge asshole, like BP. BP needs a lot of assholes jumping all over their shit and making them do right.
So: constructive asshole vs. petty asshole. That is the question.
Yes, that is a Vonnegut asterisk. That’s cool you noticed.
Isn’t the feminine equivalent a “cunt”? Or so I’ve read.
You raise an interesting topic, the idea of writing about people we know, and feeling apprehensive about what may come of it. I know a few writers who wrote about friends and loved ones and experienced bad reactions, some that permanently messed up relationships. It’s tough work, and do you really have to do it? Is it constructive or destructive? Is it better to avoid ugly truths or embrace the truth totally and fearlessly?
I didn’t know that assholes were selectively masculine.
I do know that I’ve NOT written more stories in this life because of my concern for the people I could have written about. I’m not comfortable with much writing because I’m not comfortable airing what may be painful details–even if, as in the piece I wrote about the asshole, I obscure the names and obvious markers.
The person about whom I’ve written the most, with the most detail about our situation is my father who’s ill. And I basically asked him for permission. He gave it willingly, not just because he’s okay with being exposed like a naked mole rat for all to see, but because as a professor of art for 35 years he believes in the power of truth, and especially truth in art. So I write about him, but even with explicit permission to write whatever I write, I still hold back some details.
It’s a fine line between human decency and truth sometimes. I’m not thick-skinned enough to feel as though I’ve personally wounded someone by what I write, so I don’t write it. I guess I’m afraid of being an asshole to people who don’t deserve it.
I think that’s a wonderful place to begin, asking for permission. There’s something sort of sweet about that.
I’ve written several songs that had bad relationship-breakup themes. And always, my wife interrogates me about whether there’s impending news that I haven’t made her privvy to.
The admonition that “songs explore the human condition” never seems to placate her.
What’s with all the asshole obsessing? People used to perjoratively refer to blogging/the sort of personal essays the Nervous Breakdown encourages as “navel gazing,” but lately it seems like the Nervous Breakdown has become obsessed with an entirely different orifice.
I think we’re reaching a tipping point, really, mainly because TNB is growing so fast and getting talked about so much. As it does so, I think we’re trying to figure out our brand/identity, which is evolving as we go.
I think that kindness and community can cultivate growth, but then again I’ve never managed to improve–as a writer or anything else–based on people’s reinforcement of my prowess. When I went to grad school, the classes that legit made me a better writer were the ones where my teachers thought I could improve and told me so.
I think that where Almond went wrong with his essay was that it wasn’t actually worth anything, didn’t actually do anything. It would have been one thing to have called Joe out if Almond had had anything worthwhile to contribute, if Almond had used the criticism to do or say something interesting.
I think a lot but rarely know anything.
I like the pussy-element you speak of. I’ve been involved heavily in the world of K-blogging (writing in and about Korea) and all that goes on there is nastiness. Death threats fly around, people get arrested for their opinions, and some are even chased out of the country. It’s a bitchy, back-stabbing cesspit that I wish I could bring myself to leave.
I like that I can come here and engage in civilised banter. I don’t mean necessarily back-slapping and “hey, great job buddy!” when someone sucks… But I like the fact that we’re all decent to each other. Mostly. I like the lack of assholes around here.
I don’t now about this…
critique is actually the most powerful affirmation you can get. Depending on who it’s coming from, and ESPECIALLY DESPITE who it’s coming from.
I run a song critique forum, and I don’t try to sugar coat problems. I don’t ever lose respect for the fact that someone put their heart out on their sleeve for me, but I don’t do them the disservice of faint praise.
It’s a fine line. clever/stupid, you know the drill.
But snark and denigration…naw. Not as much fun as it sounds like it would be!
[…] Asshole analyst and synthetic Ham. […]
[…] TNB’s community is quick to have discussions about matters relating to the mechanics of writing for the site in specific, or writing itself in general. Gina’s excellent piece on the risks of writing, for instance, garnered an instant and considered response. So too did the Benton/Olear juxtaposition of pieces about whether TNB’s commentary could be overly nice and/or the praise perfunctory. […]
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