The difference between hipster name-checking and geek name-checking

downloadGeeks and hipsters are similar in that both groups are defined by the ways that their members use popular culture to define their personal identities. But the two are very different in terms of their group dynamics.

When I was doing the Dangerous Voices reading last weekend, one of the questions asked to the authors was, “Would you like to make a  shameless* plug for someone else’s work? A story or book or restaurant or app or something that you recently loved?”

The other reader, Myke Cole, recommended Wesley Chu‘s The Lives of Tao, which is the first novel in a highly-acclaimed new space opera series . And he prefaced the recommendation by saying something like, “Oh, you’ve probably already heard of this, because it’s been getting so much buzz, but I think the book is just so great…”

I, on the other hand, recommended Dezső Kosztolányi’Skylark,** which is a cult-hit 1930s Hungarian novel that was recently reissued by the NYRB Classics series (I wrote about it here). I didn’t even say the name of the author, both because I can’t pronounce it and because I was fairly sure that most of the audience would not have heard of him, I just described the conceit of the book (it’s a very high-concept novel).

Both of these are perfectly good recommendations. We both enjoyed our respective books and recommended them wholeheartedly. But it’s interesting to see what we chose to recommend. Skylark, despite it’s cult-hit status, is still a pretty obscure book. It’s been out for years, and it still only has 17 Amazon reviews. Most of the audience had probably not heard of it. The Lives of Tao, on the other hand, has been out for about a year and has already gotten 113 Amazon reviews. I’ve heard of it, and I imagine that a good fraction of the audience had as well (although I doubt many of them had read it).

Each of these recommendations promised different things to the audience. Myke’s recommendation told the audience, “This novel is popular. It’s being talked about. If you read it, you’ll be getting in on a good thing, and you’ll be connected to a larger community of people who love it as well.”

Whereas my recommendation said, “This book is not widely read. If you read it, then you’ll be special, because you’ll have experienced something that other people have not experienced.”

As much as we want to say that we only consume mass media because we want to be entertained (or enlightened), the truth is that if our media tastes didn’t satisfy deeper and more primal needs, then we probably wouldn’t care as much about books or movies or TV. One group of people–geeks–consumes media because it offers a sense of community, by connecting them to other people who understand them and feel the same way as they do. Another group of people–hipsters–consumes media because it satisfies the (very basic and human) need to feel important.

Both motives have good aspects and unsavory aspects. The populist instincts of geekdom result in a lot of community and a lot of genuine good feeling. But it also means that people sometimes crowd around stuff that’s not really that good. In fact, not-good stuff almost has an advantage, because not-good stuff often appeals to people who aren’t very sophisticated consumers of media, and, thus, it’s able to accumulate a larger community.  In geek culture, there’s often a sense that if something is popular, then it must be good.

The aristocratic instincts of hipsterdom result in a lot of love for a lot of obscure authors and obscure works that would otherwise be lost forever. There’s something very fertile and very exciting about this constant quest to find the next thing. But it’s also destructive: when things reach a certain level of popularity, they’re no longer attractive. Thus, there’s much less convergence, and even things that are genuinely good are often unable to get the kind of traction that they would otherwise have. At their worst, hipster instincts result in people trashing stuff just because it’s popular, which is absurd. Since popularity is really only a measure of how much people like that thing, this basically amounts to hating on stuff just because other people like it so much.

Some would say that geek appreciation is genuine, while hipster appreciation is an affectation. I don’t think that’s true. Both groups genuinely enjoy the work. If I read The Lives of Tao, I’d probably like it. And if a geek read Skylark, they’d probably like it too. But we don’t just put books on our to-read list because we think we’ll enjoy them…usually we prefer to read books that will also fit into our self-image.


*The question didn’t really address why we could conceivably be ashamed of plugging someone else’s work.

**It’s surprisingly difficult to recommend a book when you can’t spell or pronounce the name of its author.

Dezso Kosztolányi’s Skylark

coverJust finished a book that I’ll never be able to recommend to anyone, because I don’t have the first idea how the author’s name is pronounced. However, Dezso Kosztolányi’s Skylark was a really tight, highly thought-out sort of book.

I was a bit wary of it at first, because it had one of those description that feel almost a bit too interesting. Like, the ones that make you think maybe the book is too high-concept to really sustain itself. It’s about this husband and wife who live in retirement in a small Hungarian town with their only daughter, who’s nicknamed Skylark. The thing is, Skylark is really ugly. Just super ugly. So ugly that she’s never gonna get married or anything (not sure that someone that ugly really exists, since lots of ugly people seem to find someone, but let’s go with it for the sake of this novel). And because of that, she’s settled down to this very measured existence with her parent. She cooks and cleans. They do everything together. She always walks between them. They don’t go out much, since she doesn’t really like to be seen in public.

But then they send her away for a week’s vacation with an uncle. And while she’s gone, the parents open up a little. They eat at a restaurant. The dad starts rekindling some old friendships (they’ve lived in this town their whole live, after all). They get involved in the little dramas of the town (the heir who’s in love with an actress, the poet who feels stifled, etc). The mother starts playing the piano again.

And then the daughter comes back.

The novel has a very interesting structure. It’s a bit like a horror novel. There’s not a lot of conflict on the page. Mostly it’s very light and very pleasant; it’s about two people who’re learning to live again. But you have this constant sense of foreboding: “What is going to happen when Skylark returns?”

The characters don’t think about it too much. They do their best not to think of it. But the reader can’t help but wonder, constantly. What is going to happen? Will they return to that dreary life? Or will they get rid of her somehow? Or will she learn to live too? What will happen?

The tension is unbearable.

And the ending is so perfectly executed. It’s so exactly right. And it’s not at all what I saw coming. In order to create this ending, the author had to walk the finest line. Just a little swaying to one side and it’d have felt anticlimactic. And a little swaying to the other and it would’ve felt overwrought. As it was, it was perfect.

And the upshot of the book itself is brutal. I mean, the tone is light, but in the end you’re just like, “Well, some people have terrible lives, but we mustn’t spend too much time worrying about them, or our own lives will be ruined!”

On a sidenote, I read this book in The New York Review of Books Classics edition. I’ve really started to notice this line of books. They have beautiful covers, and they’re super fun. I don’t know about you, but I am obsessed with Penguin Classics. But the Penguins I like best are the funky ones that I’ve never head of, books like The Letters of Heloise and Abelard or Sanshiro or As I Crossed The Bridge Of Dreams. However, most of their books are pretty standard fair: Pride and Prejudice and David Copperfield and the like.

Well, the NYRBC line eschews the standard stuff and just serves of up weird, funky books that’ve become culty classics. For instance, my most favorite book of last year was Stonerwhich was re-released by the NYRB after being out of print for years upon years.

Furthermore, there’s a definite aesthetic to the NYRB line. It’s hard to explain, but Stoner and Skylark both exemplify it: tight, small-scale, high-concept novels. Exactly the sort of thing that I love.