By Jon Cogburn
Professional wrestling fans measure one another's level of sophistication in terms of the extent to which they are able to differentiate the wrestler-qua-character from the wrestler-qua-performer. So-called "smart marks" cherish the performers who play convincing heels. This being said, wrestling is interesting in part because smart marks by common agreement have a holy duty (part of "kayfabe") not to ruin the fun for the actual marks (children and so-called "Southern fans"). The biggest villain in professional wrestling isn't Ric Flair, but the smart mark who shouts "sell the leg" to a performer who is acting out difficulty climbing to the top of the ladder to get the briefcase.
Musical fandom provides a good contrast. Smart fans know that Johny Cash did not really kill someone in Reno just to watch him die. But I think the health of the artform does not require the existence of genuine marks who don't make the distinction. Maybe I'm wrong here. I very much doubt that the genre of love songs would survive widespread audience awareness of what's really going on in the heads of the performers. At least for music aimed at kids. But I still think that the adult Backstreet Boys fan who has no realization that the whole thing is a scam is aesthetically blameworthy in a way that the Southern fan is not. Could there really be smart marks among boy band fans? Unlike with professional wrestling, there isn't enough left over once the artifice is removed.
Clearly the Larkin take-down is still a thing. Salon's David J. Krajicek tries to do it to Jack Kerouac (here) on the basis of one offensive postcard Kerouac mailed to Lucien Carr, a letter written by Kerouac not long before his alcoholism finally killed him (last words "I'm hemorrhaging!"). Among other things, anyone whose ever known an alcoholic of Kerouac's level of decline in their last year or so also knows how unfair it is to judge an entire life by the horrifyingly depressing crap they get up to at that point.
Also, we need to stop judging people's whole lives by the worst things they do in those lives. This should be standard wisdom. We're all proud creatures, we all focus on the faults of others to blind ourselves to our own. But pride goes before a fall.
Krajicek's portrayal of Kerouac is uniquely unjust, because it involves an egregious misreading of On the Road, e.g.:
Kerouac’s “On the Road” generally treats women as cardboard cutouts with vaginas. The point of view of male characters is not merely a gaze; it is a drooling leer. Women are limned based upon a handful of hollow adjectives. (“Beautiful” is the author’s go-to descriptor.) They are inventoried by breast size and hair tint, like sex bots.
Lee Ann is “a fetching hunk, a honey-colored creature.” There is “a beautiful blonde called Babe – a tennis-playing, surf-riding doll of the west.” And then there is Terry, “the cutest little Mexican girl… Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside.”
There are many similar examples, including this snippet of dizzying dialogue by Dean Moriarty, a character based on Kerouac’s buddy Neal Cassady:
“Oh I love, love, love women! I think women are wonderful! I love women!” He spat out the window; he groaned; he clutched his head. Great beads of sweat fell from his forehead from pure excitement and exhaustion.”
Self-regarding the Beats may have been. Self-aware they were not.
This is just bizarre. One of the key scenes in the book is when Moriarity's girlfriends talk about how destructive he is. Paradise initially disagrees with them and defends Moriarity, but everything after that in the novel leads up to Sal Paradise recapitulating their rejection by by abandoning Moriarity himself! To the extent that it makes sense to think of the novel as an argument, Moriarity's girlfriends emphatically win it.
Yes Paradise is not self-aware throughout the novel, because the whole point of the novel is supposed to be him slowly gaining the self-awareness and wisdom implicit in the claim that God is Pooh Bear in the last paragraph/sentence. Kerouac in fact very skillfully portrays the narrator as being an ignorant fool and his friends as being often ridiculous: Carlo Marx's doing his bad Whitman impersonation, the friend who won't shut up about how great France is and how "they" are everywhere (except France), Marx and Moriarity psychoanalyzing one another in between the midget car races, Sal acting like an idiot around Remi Broncoeur's parents, etc. etc. etc. It's a remarkable feat because the narrator often has no idea, but the author is satirizing all of them without sacrificing his love for them. The "real" Dean Moriarity (Neal Cassady), for all his faults, got this and he and Kerouac never got past it. So did the "real" Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), though he recognized that the book was fiction, and much better for the distance between author and narrator.
Part of why Kerouac is a natural target for spleen such as Krajicek's is that in his alcoholic decline he started having false beliefs about his own art, beliefs that led to a remarkable degradation of that art. The story of On the Road as being written in a few day period on benzedrine was something Kerouac really did come to believe, though it was false. He'd written up the material multiple times before the benzedrine manuscript (one of these was published as Visions of Cody later on). The organization and in fact many of the sentences were not at all spontaneous. And the book was edited and rewritten multiple times over a multi-year period.
After J.R.R. Tolkien presented his press with the Silmarillion his editor reputedly said something along the lines of, "We'd like something with more hobbits, please," which led him to write Lord of the Rings. When On the Road became a cultural phenomena, Kerouac had a similar experience. Rather than printing his book of Buddhist prayers, meditations, and poems, the press wanted more beatnik kicks please. Instead of doing an analogue to what Tolkien did, he gave them Dharma Bums, which is the first of many steps down from the achievement of On the Road. Kerouac then convinced himself that writing was like jazz improvisation and so you couldn't rewrite (as if jazzers don't do multiple takes!) and forgot how much rewriting he himself had done to his texts prior to the success of On the Road. He also confused himself with his own narrators and it led to an incredible lack of self-reflection, apexing in boring and transparently dishonest books such Satori in Paris.
I've read enough literary biographies to know that the absolute worst thing a talented writer can do is to decide that if they write a certain number of words in the morning they can then drink as much as they want for the rest of the day. Kerouac's own late period beliefs about not doing rewrites and the lack of distance between narrator and writer were pretty convenient in this regard. They allowed him to get to the serious business of drinking, and dying, much earlier in the day. But Krajicek doesn't have that excuse. He's unconsciously aping Kerouac's own worst views to then beat up on the one work of art by Kerouac that unmistakably succeeds.
Weirdly, Kerouac changed the names of the characters based on his real friends after On the Road, but then kept them uniform from that point on. I think at some level he knew what was going on, but just wasn't able to do anything about it.