David Sedaris, Blues Traveler, and Artistic Iconoclasm

You may think of David Sedaris as the smart, funny, gay writer that everyone seems to love. But he’s also something else entirely and it is *this* identity that holds the key to his phenomenal success. (How does the writer know this? Can it be quantified?) David Sedaris is an iconoclast.

What is an iconoclast, anyway? Mr. Wikipedia sez: “People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied figuratively to any individual who challenges “cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious”. Conversely, one who reveres or venerates religious images is called (by iconoclasts) an iconolater; in a Byzantine context, such a person is called an iconodule or iconophile.”

It’s interesting that since the dawn of time, civilizations eventually generate cultures which end up building institutions to support those cultures (big-time over-generalization alert.) The vast majority of the citizens then love those cultural institutions…until an iconoclast appears to attack them. (Citation of data would be nice here.) This iconoclast, then, can gain a large following of “anti-” people. People who are against certain aspects of the culture and their institutions. I think of Socrates undermining the fabric of ancient Greek society with his dialogues and endless questioning, of Martin Luther and his 99 problems, and of counter-culture figures of modern times like Hunter S. Thompson, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock, David Foster Wallace, and especially David Sedaris.

The Austin Writing Workshop discussed this iconoclasm idea as it relates to irony in literature last Friday night. I recorded it, and you can listen to the discussion via podcast by clicking this link.

But this idea of iconoclasm also got me thinking about artists and “identity” in general. In the world of music artists work hard to craft a unique identity to go along with their talents. I was watching a documentary about Eminem’s label, Shady Records, and that’s essentially what they look for before signing an artist to the label. While thinking about this I engaged with the band Blues Traveler on Twitter (natch) about a news article labeling them as a “jam band,” and their band’s historical identity.

Their attitude was that if you get recognized in any way as an artist, you will then become defined and confined in a certain role. They didn’t mind it so much, but they’re one of the few successful musical acts in a sea of failed artists. I thought, too, of Hemingway’s reputation as a “tough guy” writer, David Foster Wallace as a “people’s academic,” and Stephen King as a horror writing machine who can churn out multiple books per year.

Human beings seem to need (hyperbole alert) to label, and to taxonify everything so they can keep things sorted in their minds. It seems that there’s an evolutionary need for this kind of sorting, in order to quickly assess threats and come up with a way to deal with them (citation of academic research would probably help this assertion.)

In a sense, all innovators and inventors — people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Google dudes, the founders of Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, etc. — are iconoclasts. There’s even a new company called “Creative Destructors” that celebrates this need to break apart the old and raise up something new. And when these new technologies start threatening traditional businesses, the trad-bizzes get scared. And when they get scared, they can resort to any means necessary to snuff out those who are making them scared. (Again, citations to data would be helpful here.)

Of course, it sounds cool to be the rebel, the iconoclast, the lone ranger. But there’s a reason why most people don’t go that way. It’s dangerous. It’s much safer to stay with the pack, do what everyone else is doing, and just go with the flow. It’s much harder to, say, publish a book of literary fiction stories with no academic credentials, no big publisher or literary agent on board to help with promotion, no advance review copies, no blurb from Jonathan Franzen or Richard Ford. But who would be crazy enough to do that? (Hint: me. Alert: self-promotion just occurred. Prepare tar and feathers.)

Because that’s the rub, isn’t it? Either you have the *kind* of iconoclasm that resonates with enough people to make you successful, or you don’t, and you just wind up being that weird guy who tried that weird thing that time. (This essay might be a bit rambly and lack coherence and data to back the assertions, but otherwise it has some interesting ideas in it. The self-promotion we could all do without, I think.)

Literary theory and practice.