On the Consequences of Mediocrity

“The medium is the message.”–Marshall McLuhan

Mediocrity is both the medium and the message on the internet.  You can blog or tweet your opinions on politics, fashion, yoga, beer, art, travel, movies, and books.  You can pore over rough-hewn, poorly-researched articles at online publications. The facts may be wrong and the writing barely within the laws of syntax, but such stuff has driven newspapers and magazines out of business.

Mediocrity is good enough, writers keep saying at mediocre  online publications.  At Lifehacker, staff writer Nick Douglas shares his muddled thoughts on revising  the high school English canon.  In the  first sentence he declares, “The Great Gatsby is overrated.”  (You can imagine my dismay.)  He asserts, “The point isn’t to build a new canon. The point is to destabilize the idea of the canon, one that has propped up too many mediocre artists and excluded too many brilliant ones, one that feeds into a monolithic idea of America that looks nothing like the country’s actual past or present.”

The so-called “mediocre artists” propped up by the canon are, of course, authors of the classics. (Yes, I’m annoyed.)  Douglas smugly insists that students would benefit more from The Lord of the Rings (I read it when I was 10!) and a Y.A. author named Rainbow Rowell (whom doubtless the students read when they are 10).  His background seems not to be in literature or education: he has no interest in style or structure, and is unfamiliar with the concept of reading outside his comfort zone.  I recommend that he read the critic Maureen Corrigan’s excellent book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

One of the most sophomoric online publications is Book Riot, which bills itself as “the largest independent editorial book site in North America, and home to a host of media, from podcasts to newsletters to original content, all designed around diverse readers and across all genres.”  I don’t mean to single out any particular writer–the articles all read like blog posts–but I was annoyed by Abby Hargreave’s essay, “I Don’t Read the Introductions in Books.”  She says she used to read the introductions in college, but indicates it was kind of a bore, and now she doesn’t anymore.  She really hates spoilers!

Still, unlike Nick Douglas, she tries to be fair.

She writes,

When I graduated but continued reading, I went back to ignoring the introductions and any other forewords. I find now that I’m still suffering from a lack of background on a lot of the older material I read. That’s a natural consequence, but there’s nothing saying I can’t go back and read the introduction after I finish the novel. I often don’t, but that’s not the point. Some books include afterwords as well as introductions or forewords. This is especially great because it seems obvious to me that an explanation or analysis of the book—which introductions, in my experience, often end up being—should come after the main text. Spoilers aside, it’s difficult to get much out of an analysis if you don’t have the context.

It’s not that I mind whether or not she reads introductions. After all, she’s not a scholar.  And I think it’s perfectly sensible to read the introduction after reading the novel.  But I dislike the “It’s-okay-to-be-mediocre” tone.   Mediocrity can be dangerous, as we know from literature.  I recently read Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington’s The Midlander, the third in his Growth trilogy of environmental novels.  (He won the Pulitzer for the second, The Magnificent Ambersons).  In The Midlander, set in Indiana in the early 20th century, Tarkington tells the story of two brothers in a wealthy family, Harlan and Dan Oliphant, who dislike each other from boyhood.  Brilliant, snobbish Harlan graduates from Harvard with honors,  while sweet, stupid Dan barely graduates.

Harlan is a natural aristocrat, living with their wealthy parents in their lovely home, cleverly investing his money, and spending most of his time collecting books and reading.   Dan goes into business and works ceaselessly:  he buys a farm and intends to build a development there when the town grows.  People mock Dan as a harebrained dreamer, but the city eventually does expand in that direction and people buy the lots. Then Dan starts an automobile factory to serve the suburban residents.

Harlan sees the fall of their city as smoky factories are built in the neighborhood and  families flee to the suburbs.  Urban sprawl has attacked his city, as it has  other American cities.  By the end of the book  we appreciate Harlan’s insights. Although we love Dan’s personality,  Dan’s vision was destructive.   And Dan pays the price.

The middle doesn’t always mean mediocrity. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the mythic engineer Daedalus devises wings of feathers and wax to escape from King Minos’s prison.  He tells his son Icarus before they fly across the sea, “Fly in the middle of the path, because if you go too low, the water will weigh down your feathers, and if you go too high, fire will burn your wings.”

Daedalus does not mean mediocrity by the middle:  he knows from the political climate in which he alienated Minos that flying too high was dangerous. But Icarus flies too near the sun, burns his wings, and crashes. And Ovid, too, paid dearly for flying too high. The emperor Augustus  banished him  for carmen et error (a poem and an error).  And though Ovid wrote letters begging friends to intercede on his behalf (Epistulae ex Ponto), he died in exile.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

What I find tragic is not so much the desperation as the new self-congratulatory mediocrity.