Novelist and Screenwriter Bruce Wagner tells a story on the podcast The Unspeakable with writer Meghan Daum whose podcast is devoted to talking about things we’re not supposed to talk about but really must talk about. I hadn’t thought about Bruce Wagner in quite some time but his voice and his books sliced through American culture like a hot knife, always revealing and exposing the squish. Man, his books are great, but great in the way so many of us from the previous generations craved. This is especially true of my generation, Gen-X, where we continually needed to scratch the surface to make it bleed. We were the generation that flung ourselves headlong into the likes of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and wandered to the fringe, far far away from the sanitized Top Gun sheen of the Reagan era.
I was surprised to hear he had emerged again, this time on Daum’s podcast, which I listen to eagerly every time a new episode drops. Daum has noticed how rigid things have become and is one of a few alpha voices out there making noise about the purity panopticon of the modern age. With COVID trapping so much of us indoors (I haven’t been touched by another human being in a year) with nothing but the chatter and connectivity of a manipulative universe of algorithms to make us feel more informed, more important, not so alone.
Every day the death count spikes. Every day is no good news. Every day it feels like we’re in freefall. It is times like this that we need artists who are brave enough to pull back the top layer and show us some kind of truth about humanity so that we can try to make some sense of it. One of the best ways to do that is through satire. Satire in 2021 exists as a weapon against the other political side, not so much a universal truth shared. Satire must, in 2021, follow strict guidelines of who can be made fun of. Take, for instance, the recent Bernie meme, which was hilarious in all ways. There was grumpy Bernie with his arms and legs crossed, his brow furrowed, a color-clashing blue mask across his mouth and those giant ridiculous cartoon mittens. There was nothing funny about inauguration day except THAT. And it was really really funny.
It was the meme heard round the world. It could not be stopped. It was everywhere, even used as a promotional tool. But at some point someone on Twitter caught on to the fact that Bernie was indeed a white male and the whole thing was actually awful because why was it a white male? (A white male who can fit in anywhere!) It should not be. It should be, this person decided, a black female like Michelle Obama. And in that meme they could feel value. They could participate in something that was good, not something that was bad.
Okay fine, whatever. The thing is, the Bernie meme – like the reviews for Hillbilly Elegy — was an E-ticket for human expression. Nothing was off limits because he is a white male and thus, he can be made fun of. Or in the case of Hillbilly Elegy, a white director making a movie about not just white people but TRUMP people? Yeah, the knives could come out guilt-free. People need that. They need to be able to express themselves and not trap everything inside for fear of offending someone.
But more than just people in general, artists specifically. Satirists especially. Bruce Wagner had stuff he wanted to write about characters that lived in his head. There was just one problem. “Sensitivity readers” at the publishing house. They had one for body image, gender and race. His book, The Marvel Universe, which would have come out this October, was mildly offensive, they said, in regards to the body image part of it. But of course, was it language they objected to? The main character calling herself “fat”? Yes, that was pretty much it.
At 67 years old, Wagner says that he isn’t trying to conquer the world anymore. In fact, he believes we’re all pretty much “cancelled” already since we’re all going to die. He also says that he mostly has nothing to lose anymore because the time when he could really make money for his books is gone. Not just because authors don’t really make a lot of money on the fringe but because what he writes is way too much for publishing companies to deal with now.
So he put up his book, The Marvel Universe, for free and in the public domain on his site. There isn’t even a link to a Patreon or PayPal or a subscriber link. It’s just there for you to click on and read. But also in so doing, he’s taken himself out of the capitalist feedback loop that is really an ongoing conversation between the product providers and the consumers. Cancel Culture is really about only that: consumers telling corporations what they will be buy and what they won’t. Once you remove yourself from that loop there isn’t anything anyone can really do. Nobody can hurt you.
But once you are cancelled you can’t really fight your way back because you have become a “touch not the unclean thing,” in the parlance of the Amish who frequently shun members of their own community for being their own version of “problematic.” When I heard about Bruce Wagner’s book for free and online I almost couldn’t believe it. It was like stumbling on a suitcase full of a million bucks. How can this be right here? And how can it be by someone who still wants to peel back the top layer and expose the squish? Ah, the power of art when it is unleashed by people who still have the courage to deliver it.
When something is offensive, you really do have the choice of sitting with it, thinking about it, chewing on it and wondering where and why this kind of thing exists in our collective human experience. One of the great things the best satirists do is point out hypocrisy and delusion. I’m not very far into Wagner’s book yet, but I can already tell that he’s diving right in to our strange age of self-display and narcissism. We have created these avatars that represent who we are but aren’t, in fact, as everyone who uses Instagram knows, who we actually are.
Here is Wagner’s thoughts:
“One has to imagine that one is already cancelled, one will be cancelled, that is the nature of mortality. But one has to accept one’s imperfections – and the word imperfection doesn’t really make sense because there is no perfection in terms of human behavior, and in all of our lives we can find areas sometimes vast, sometimes less accessible, of shame or disappointment or bad acts. This is the nature of being human. I’ve been cancelled already in my head. That’s why I write. That’s what the catharsis has always been for me, is to write about the most vile imaginings, because, as I said earlier, it is my birthright – being able to throw light on dark corners.”
Wagner says he doesn’t see himself as any kind of warrior against “cancel culture,” and doesn’t engage online in the fight about it. Once he does, he said, he becomes someone who takes a side. Rather, he prefers to observe all of it, even those who are fighting against it. It’s a hurricane, he believes, that we can’t fully assess until it moves all the way through, knocks down all of the trees and buildings. Only then will we know what will rise up and take its place.
It is a pendulum that has swung in one direction, and will likely swing in the other. But none of us knows where it any of it will land.
It will take time, probably years, for the fear and rigidity revolving around art to loosen. Maybe a whole generation. To have any sort of power in art one has to push back against the status quo, or those oppressing it. Here is another example of a disagreement I had with someone that I know. I was fretting over the Burbank School District’s decision to remove the books that were deemed offensive or problematic or hurtful to some students in the class. Those books are “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Cay” and “Of Mice and Men.” My friend pointed out that they weren’t banned but that if one kid in the class feels hurt that certain words are read out loud then it means that child can’t be required to read it, and anyone else in class that wants to read it can only do so in separate smaller study groups.
This is where there is a fundamental dividing line between those who believe art matters and is important and those who think they’re important but not more important than one person being offended by the text. Schools and parents can certainly do what they want but it’s a strange place to be as a culture that words in great books, or great books in general, can be thought “unsafe” or dangerous. When I was a kid I went to see movies like The Exorcist. It scared the shit out of me, still does, but it trained my brain to be tough where art was concerned. Remember it’s art. Or as Danny says in The Shining, “It’s like pictures in a book. It’s not real.”
But we are a nation, and a country, reeling from trauma. My generation was followed by parents like me who raised kids in an overly-protective way for fear of them becoming school shooters or ending up in therapy complaining about us as bad parents. We raised a generation of kids who are used to being protected, to fear almost everything. Even art. Especially art.
Towards the end of their conversation, Wagner and Daum do touch on Hollywood. Both conclude that only on cable TV (I would imagine this includes streaming platforms) can the freedom to tell good stories still exist. Movies have become kind of quaint, they say, because so much has been upended with both the pandemic and the strident policing of what kinds of products the new generation will put their money behind.
The blockbusters pretty much stick to the protocol while making massive tentpoles. As long as they adhere to the demands of the younger generations in terms of casting choices, and as long as they offer up apologies when they “do something wrong” and promise to “do better” they are allowed to keep making millions. That is why so much of it is a conversation between who is selling and who is buying.
That is why the Oscars, too, are finding themselves in a really strange place. They’ve alienated half the country already, but they are moving even more into the realm of serving custom meals to First Class passengers and pretending like the whole plane should be happy about it.
I like to think that long gone voices like Roger Ebert or David Carr would be out there poking the beast a little when it comes to how films, the industry and the Oscars have bottlenecked.
There are plenty of people writing about right now but you have to know how to find them. Here is Alana Newhouse’s piece called “Everything is Broken” in Tablet:
Because this cohort insists on sameness and purity, they have turned the once-independent parts of the American cultural complex into a mutually validating pipeline for conformists with approved viewpoints—who then credential, promote and marry each other. A young Ivy League student gets A’s by parroting intersectional gospel, which in turn means that he is recommended by his professors for an entry-level job at a Washington think tank or publication that is also devoted to these ideas. His ability to widely promote those viewpoints on social media is likely to attract the approval of his next possible boss or the reader of his graduate school application or future mates. His success in clearing those bars will in turn open future opportunities for love and employment. Doing the opposite has an inverse effect, which is nearly impossible to avoid given how tightly this system is now woven. A person who is determined to forgo such worldly enticements—because they are especially smart, or rich, or stubborn—will see only examples of even more talented and accomplished people who have seen their careers crushed and reputations destroyed for daring to stick a toe over the ever multiplying maze of red lines.
So, instead of reflecting the diversity of a large country, these institutions have now been repurposed as instruments to instill and enforce the narrow and rigid agenda of one cohort of people, forbidding exploration or deviation—a regime that has ironically left homeless many, if not most, of the country’s best thinkers and creators. Anyone actually concerned with solving deep-rooted social and economic problems, or God forbid with creating something unique or beautiful—a process that is inevitably messy and often involves exploring heresies and making mistakes—will hit a wall. If they are young and remotely ambitious they will simply snuff out that part of themselves early on, strangling the voice that they know will get them in trouble before they’ve ever had the chance to really hear it sing.
If you read Wagner’s book you will no doubt hear that voice running through your head that tells you what you are reading is acceptable or offensive. We’ve conditioned ourselves to do that because we know if there is one thing that is out of line that means you must take a side on the art itself. You have to say you are supportive of this or not. If you are supportive of it that makes you guilty of the same thing the book is being accused of.
If you post the Bernie meme what does that say about who you are and what you care about? If you post the Michelle Obama one how does that play in your definition of self? Wagner’s book has not yet been called out, as far as I know. He hasn’t been dragged out in the public square, written about in a scathing Daily Beast review. And so it is offered up for free for anyone to read, and to remember a time when publishers would have fought tooth and nail for the chance to publish it.
Here is a link to The Marvel Universe. Read at your own risk. I plan to.