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The Kitsch Conundrum

Here’s the link to a great post by Matt Pearce, over at the Missouri Review Blog. He takes on the recent criticism of “kitsch culture”–and suggests what feels like the rub: “at points it’s going to be hard to tell if all the opprobrium is legit lit criticism or just thinly veiled ageism.” For a quick catch up, let’s generalize:

Kitsch (or Quirk)

Jonathan Safran Foer
Ira Glass
Miranda July
Wes Anderson
Dave Eggers

The Atlantic Monthly article that Pearce references holds this excerpt as both a working definition and indictment:

Quirk, loosed from its moorings, quickly becomes exhausting. It’s easy for David Cross’s character on Arrested Development to cover himself in paint for a Blue Man Group audition, or for the New Zealand duo on Flight of the Conchords to make a spectacularly cheesy sci-fi video about the future while wearing low-rent robot costumes. But the pleasures are passing. Like the proliferation of meta-humor that followed David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s, quirk is everywhere because quirkiness is so easy to achieve: Just be odd “ but endearing. It becomes a kind of psychographic marker, like wearing laceless Chuck Taylors or ironic facial hair–a self-satisfied pose that stands for nothing and doesn’t require you to take creative responsibility. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Is it that easy to achieve? I think both articles (“Wonderbread” by Melvin Jules Bukiet, and “Quirked Around” by Michael Hirschorn) that claim the fallacy of cheap wonder misread the aesthetic they cartoonishly describe. What is at stake for work that operates in the “quirk mode” is the tension between the mutually exclusive poles of irony and the earnest gesture. The best examples achieve both in the same moment. That’s not cheap–it is art. Irony, or sincerity, alone (and often taken to the extreme) are cheap. Examples abound, and both can be mass-produced ad infinitum. And there are lots of low-level attempts at the “quirk aesthetic” that do feel cheap and easy–I’ve got no beef with that. I just think most of the work by the authors, filmmakers, and artists in the kitsch column above often achieve more. Steve Zissou is by and large a flop, granted–but when they see the tiger shark, in that goofy peapod of a submarine, and the shark with all its cheap computer animated affect, there’s some bizarre, magical pleasure. Maybe Sigur Ros’ dramatic attending music has something to do with it.

So are the articles of Bukiet and Hirschorn legit cultural criticism, or something else?

Maybe it isn’t ageism, but to these eyes it missed the broad side of the barn.

About the Program

The Kenyon Review Associates Program provides Kenyon students with valuable experience in literary editing, publishing, and programming. KR Associates work closely with Kenyon Review staff, gaining valuable experience in a number of editing, publishing, and programming areas including manuscript evaluation, publicity and marketing, copy editing, developing web site and social media content, outreach programming, event planning and promotion, and other creative and editorial projects

KR Associates attend regular seminars conducted by Kenyon Review editorial staff, visiting readers, and publishing industry professionals. These seminars cover a wide range of topics including editorial philosophy, evaluation of submissions, print and electronic production, marketing, and design.

KR Associates enjoy also enjoy exclusive access to visiting writers and speakers, free issues of The Kenyon Review, and valuable work experience and employment references.

This program is made possible through an initiative of the Kenyon Review, part of the mission of which is to contribute to the enrichment of the academic, cultural, and artistic life of the Kenyon College community.

Requirements and Expectations

  • Submission Evaluation: All Associates are required to read and evaluate eight Kenyon Review submissions per week. Associates who are not able to complete their weekly submission assignments for more than two weeks in a row may not be allowed to continue in the program.
  • Trainings and Seminars: In-person attendance is mandatory at all trainings and seminars. We plan on scheduling six to eight seminars per semester, and most will take place on Thursdays during common hour.
  • Literary Engagement: Associates are expected to participate in literary events on campus and throughout the local community.

Application Details

The application deadline for the 2023-24 program has passed. Applications for the 2024-25 program will open in the fall of 2024. Please check back then for more details.

Questions? Please contact Tory Weber for more information.