Friday, April 1, 2011

The Gregory Brothers and Who’s Doing the Work

The Gregory Brothers and Who’s Doing the Work

Let’s say there’s a chart that looks like a horizon. Something like the figure at the right.

Let’s say it gauges who is doing work (author or reader) in an essay. A pull from the left side represents the author’s effort to make meaning or show thinking or whatever the goal is. The right side represents how much the reader has to struggle to make sense of that meaning or thinking.

When the line (red block) is buried to the left, the author is doing all the work. This is a bad essay because the author tells us exactly what they are discussing. There is no real work for the reader to do, and without work there is no thinking. This seems to be the problem with hyper-confessional memoir or any piece of writing with an obvious agenda.

This seems to be the problem with Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag.” It looks and sounds nice, but there isn’t enough to wrestle with—the essayist knew everything already.

When the line is buried to the right, then the reader has to do all the work. The author has put so little information out that the reader does not know what to make of it. An example of this could be lots of things, but I jump to abstract physical art. The point is that the author hasn’t provided enough textual purchase for the reader to understand what is being presented.

This model should represent the perfect blend of work. The author has presented plenty of information and the reader has strived to understand that information. This is an equal amount of effort, but I contend that’s not what we want. My problem with Bucak’s piece has a lot to do with the neatness of her ending. She presents the information in such a way that the reader too clearly understands her feelings about Turkishness. The definitive understanding leaves no room interpretive inquiry.

This represents, in my mind, a more beneficial approach. Although still close to shared, the reader is doing more interpretive work without being pandered to by the author. In some ways, this was how Jennifer Boully’s essay might have been working for me. I had to struggle to find her thinking in the essay, but she certainly is presenting various and thoughtful ideas in her work

This last figure represents what I consider to be the problem with The Gregory Brother’s “Bed Intruder Song.” I feel like I’m doing too much of the interpretive work, and I don't think they have given enough effort for me to understand my interpretation is grounded. While I listen to “Bed Intruder Song” I think about any number of things, but I can’t always attribute that thought to the efforts of The Gregory Brothers. After watching the video, I think about the presence of sexual assault and how people deal with it. However, that is something that is present in the original newscast, so to what degree can I give credit to the Gregory Brother’s for their reimagining of it? How much work have they done to make me think about that? I feel like only a little bit. Their effort to highlight the issue seems secondary and less convincing than their obvious impulse to entertain. And intentionality matters, especially when the source material was provocative enough.

Likewise, the video does lead the reader into this corridor of related information. In addition to the original newscast and the song, there are many remixes, and each one poses questions about treatment of the source material and about meaning in new and exotic contexts. That corridor represents hypertextuality, which is a fascinating and relevant issue, one worth thinking about. But “Bed Intruder Song” is not the corridor, it is only a door, albeit a crucial one, in that corridor. This brings me back to the charts. How much work are The Gregory Brothers really doing to pro the readers hustles a lot more in the attempt to make sense of other information—that which is not wholly “Bed Intruder Song.”

Many people will like “Bed Intruder Song,” and will therefore dismiss my windshield-wiper-of-work diagrams. That’s fine. Maybe I’m asking too much from the authors, by way of me asking them “to know what they are saying” too exactly. Some may think a piece of art could lead to valuable thought even if the author had not intended it. Still, I think that I would like to reward artists who have more mastery over their ideas than I believe The Gregory Brothers indicate with “Bed Intruder Song.” Perhaps, a compromise is to skip the singular author on the nomination and give the award for a bigger scope, whatever that means. I know this will never happen because it is absurd—I imagine us giving the award to the Internet for it’s “essay” on hypertextuality. This alteration seems to break the rules, too. But that’s the only way I feel we could appropriately give credit for the thinking that is done with “Bed Intruder Song.”

To close, I should say what work I think The Gregory Brothers are doing. I think they are making a good song. I’m sure filtering through the news to find provocative and useable clips to make songs takes awhile. The auto-tune itself takes a lot of time. Making a good song takes time, and that is, primarily, what they’ve done. I applaud them for that, but I really think I should stop clapping after that.


  1. Is this spectrum of how much the author works/knows & how much the reader has to work/know a zero-sum game (so that if the writer does more work/knowing in an essay, the reader must necessarily do less)?

  2. This might fall out of the realm of talking about essays and more into teaching them, but this idea has come up a lot in my nonfiction class this semester: students of mine will give up on a class reading because it's too "dense" or "boring."

    We talk a lot about this (that there can be more value to literature than purely entertainment, that less work for the reader =/= a better essay), but it seems like a big hangup for a lot of writers. It's hard for me to articulate to my students since I get a lot of enjoyment out of putting in a lot of "reader's work" as presented on this review's gauge. And I understand their argument to a point, but it's surprising how resistant they can be to a piece of work that can't be absorbed via speedreading half an hour before class.

    Maybe this is a different post entirely, but how do you all who teach deal with this?