This well-wrought appreciation of the in-store music at CVS by Mitch Therieau makes an interesting point about how the “existential emptiness” of chain stores “allows the music to sound with a special liveliness.” He notes that “the store’s music produces its effects by way of contrast: earnest voices singing about tenderness lost or gained over sparkly guitars, piped into an impersonal, overlit, understocked place where absolutely nobody wants to be.” The contrived emotionality in pop songs is especially likely to “ambush” you there, he suggests, when your guard has been lowered by consumerism’s more demoralizing exigencies. The songs seem to be trying harder amid a retail environment that seems to flaunt its indifference.
Most of the times I go into CVS, I am wearing headphones, tuning out the shared soundscape like Morvern Callar at the supermarket. I used to like to hear the random tracks that would be on in the store, to see if I’d be able to identify them or interpret them oracularly, as though they offered obscure advice or coded commentary on the course of my day. But I find it harder to impress myself with those sorts of tricks anymore; I am more likely to feel like it’s a sign of a life wasted when I can differentiate between an Edie Brickell and a Lisa Loeb song, when I find myself remembering the words. I know that the music has been selected according to some rationalized process meant to lower shoppers’ resistance and that if I think I am generally vigilant enough to counteract it, I’m that much more under its spell. I’m too tired to do battle with the schema of mass culture.
Therieau mentions a Spotify playlist of “CVS Bangers,” but I was surprised he didn’t mention artist Jayson Musson’s CVS Bangers mixtapes from the past decade or so, which occasionally overlay the Cutting Crew and the Paula Cole etc. with jarring sound effects and a cliched DJ voice offering commentary. These aim for a deliberate estrangement of whatever complacent feelings the songs are engineered to evoke, holding them up for alienated scrutiny. The mixtapes seem to turn the overly familiar, borderline nostalgic songs into jokes I’ve never been in on.
In the resuscitated Bookforum, Ryan Ruby wrote about the recent work of essayist Brian Dillon and his conception of criticism as something independent from argument — more like a series of descriptions, affirmations, and “affinities,” to reference the title of his latest collection. For Ruby, this is hermetic noncriticism that ultimately shies away from the objects it celebrates and fails to make them available to other people, to give them mutual stakes. “The reason that pursuing an argument is a cornerstone of critical practice is because arguments are at least intersubjectively available to readers, who may be persuaded by them or not,” Ruby argues, whereas “Dillon seems perfectly indifferent to whether his reader shares his” investments in his subjects, “and the essays in Affinities, which are at best informative, provide little encouragement to do so.”
Presumably Dillion expects his sheer eloquence will carry readers along as he attempts to persuade them of nothing else but that eloquence — as if in order for eloquence to be kept pure it needs to be insulated from rhetoric. I don’t really know though. I can’t offer an argued opinion about this because I haven’t read much of Dillon — I read Essayism a few years ago and retain no memory of it at all, positive or negative — and can only draw on my own experiences as a strictly dilettantish crafter of observational vignettes. When I am tempted toward adopting that mode, it’s usually because I’m driven by a belief that there may be something universal in some experience of mine precisely because it strikes me as highly personal and deeply specific to what I think of as my peculiar way of thinking about the world. I’m often most inspired to write by topics that I can’t imagine anyone else being interested in; I want to work out in language, live on the page, why I see potential in them, why they are sufficient to draw me out of myself when typically I am content to let the endless litany of half-baked ideas in my inner monologue speak for themselves.
I agree with Ruby’s view of argumentative criticism “as something that, by risking disagreement and difference of opinion, makes one’s thoughts and one’s moods available to others for further discussion.” I tend to take it to the extreme of thinking it is the only way of being available to others, that I can only accord respect through nitpicking disagreement, that all praise is faint damnation. (I’m resisting here the strong impulse to find some nits to pick with Ruby’s essay.) Yet thinking of my own work, such as it is, I also felt vaguely attacked by the idea of owing the audience an argument, knowing how often I start writing something without any destination or even a direction in mind, and how sulky I feel when I force myself to go back and ret-con one in. I can’t help feeling I had gotten a hold of myself somehow when I was just writing whatever, and now I was going back to efface it like I always do.
"The marketplace gave the writer his voice"
On a similar note, I felt both inspired and defeated by reading this newsletter post by Elif Batuman about her relation to writing for an audience on Substack. She explains that “Substack has been destabilizing some of my long-held assumptions about ‘writing’ and ‘readership’ and ‘publishing,’ in a brain-scrambling way,” mainly because digital self-publishing eliminates some of the discipline and oversight that comes with print publication.
In order to get anything published on machines like this [printing presses], you had to be able to persuade the people who ran the machines that someone was eventually going to pay money to read what you wrote. Nobody could be sure in advance what anyone would pay for (a big mystery of capitalism), but there was a lot of received wisdom about it. For example, I was often told that, if I wanted to write about something as boring and unappealing as “literature,” readers would need assurance that they were reading something “timely” (“Russian novels are more relevant now than ever before”), or applicable to “real-world” problems (“and so Montaigne’s essays helped me come to terms with my leaky basement”). Even though I found this advice depressing to the point of unactionability, I worked hard to try to triangulate between what I thought was interesting and what I took to be “readers’” requirements.
I find that advice depressing too and am still basically paralyzed by it. I’ve written millions of words online, and probably only a few thousand of them have ever been physically printed on paper. The idea of “making a living as a writer” seems totally preposterous, as does the idea of deliberately catering to other people’s interests, even as I ask readers to subscribe to this newsletter. Where do I get the nerve?
Batuman describes the experience of reaching an audience on social media without the imprimatur of a magazine or publishing house as being liberating, as a confirmation that writers don’t really need editors as “advocates for the reader.” This leads her to ask “what if I can actually use the weekly Substack as a way to access some of the freeness that I trained out of myself in the past?” — a buildup to the familiar Substacker plea for readers to become paying customers, the sort of plea I should be making more earnestly, more insistently, buoyed by the idea that I too have managed to find some readers over the years largely without the aid of editorial advocacy on either side. I even have the advantage of never having lost whatever “freeness” I have in my voice, because I’ve never really ventured to see what it’s worth to anyone. It seems less free to me than hollow.
I’m grateful that anyone (you right now, for instance) reads these emails, and I wish I could convey that more gracefully; sometimes it seems more graceful and honest when I read the same sentiment in another writer’s sales pitch. They can seem so unaffectedly convinced that they will make it worth my while to subscribe, while all I can think to do is stammer awkwardly about it, make ironic references, and hide my stats on the Substack dashboard as much as possible.
See what I mean? Sorry!