Bathroom Reading for English Majors: The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz

           The humor sections of The New Yorker aren’t funny. Whether it’s the pictures or those bullshit tongue-in-cheek mini-essays they have in there. Pretentious humor can be funny, but these jokes are a six out of ten at best. You rightly deserved to get strangled to death with your watch chain if your snooty ass tries to pull out New Yorker ‘jokes’ in front of anyone who makes less than six figures a year. If anything, them murdering you should be an act of public service. Anything to prevent you ruining another dinner party full of hard working, patriotic Americans. I get The New Yorker every week, so I can talk all the shit I want. Every Shouts & Murmurs section I’ve read is one page long and feels like four. They’re too long winded and the jokes aren’t funny enough to deserve all the set-up they get.

            If The New Yorker in this scenario represents the staid, old-fashioned establishment style of humor, apps like Twitter and Vine (RIP) represent an up and coming comedic style. Watching old Vine videos on YouTube or cruising comedy accounts on Twitter can occupy you for hours, partly do the accessibility of their form (they’re short), and also due to the sheer volume and variety of content this form allows (there are no other rules besides ‘they’re short’). Tweets and Vines aren’t meant to be long-winded. Vine gave you six seconds to be funny, early Twitter gave you 140 characters to make a joke. It requires brevity and inventiveness that are lost when stuffy writers at their literary ‘institutions’ aren’t given a goddamn editor. Twitter in particular offers a unique opportunity for observational humor, some of the best of which has come from accounts that invent a ‘character’ who the owner of the account then tweets as. @80sDonDraper imagines Don Draper from Mad Men transported to the 80’s, applying his philosophical musing to all the dumbest products of a frivolous era (“People want a dance that will make them feel safe. They’ll do anything for it, even leave their friends behind”). @coffee_dad takes on the role of a coffee obsessed baby boomer with a minimal understanding of new technology. He will tweet multiple times a day solely about coffee. Getting coffee, drinking coffee, misusing hashtags involving coffee (‘having an # coffee’). Then once every few dozen tweets he sends a cryptic message of a being in deep despair: ‘Death is only the beginning. Soon.’

            Another example of character based Twitter humor is the handle @GuyInYourMFA run by Dana Schwartz. The account takes on the persona of that stereotypical English major that, as an English major, I can assure you exists for a fucking reason. This is the person that styles himself as a writer despite not actually writing anything or more likely, writing crap that sucks. He drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes to excess not to get through the day, but because it looks writer-ly. They talk about books all the time, but refuse to engage in literature that doesn’t fit into their narrow view of what ‘literature’ is. This character is further armored in privilege. He’s obviously male, obviously white and frequently makes reference to rich parents that bankroll his bohemian nonsense. The tweets drip with upper class pretension and sexism. Heavy-handed yes, but accurate enough for anyone who had to share an undergrad English course with a bearded know-it-all. The book version of this account represents a shot at transitioning content from Twitter to a more established form of media. Can the quick punchiness of Tweets be translated well into book form? The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz seeks to answer that very question.

The Story:

            This section will be short mostly because there’s no story for this book to tell. It’s essentially a series of short introductory essays to famous white, male writers written in the character of the MFA student from Schwartz’s Twitter handle. Kafka, Thoreau, Roth, Emerson, Hemingway and every other white guy that wrote a major novel gets a shout out. Each essay consists of a brief biography of the writer in question, as well as a ‘greatest hits’ list of each writers’ major works peppered with jokes. The jokes almost universally revolve around the imaginary writers’ own insecurities. He gripes constantly about rejections from literary journals and his unacknowledged genius. He looks down on culture he deems below his own artistic tastes. The more disrespectful to women and generally horrible an author was, the more the “guy in your MFA” respects them. A lot of the jokes are actually quite funny and the entries contain enough cool trivia about each writer to keep book nerds entertained by things other than just the jokes.

            For the record, the title of this review isn’t a dig at the book itself. It’s more about the mistakes I made in how I read it. I read the whole thing in about a day and half (these were workdays, btw). It’s a quick, fun read that doesn’t need to be digested slowly or dissected too much. It’s the kind of thing you read a little at a time, short commutes, bathroom breaks, etc. If you read too much in one sitting, the one-dimensional nature of the “guy in your MFA” can get pretty old. Being sexist and cursing all the editors that reject your poetry only gets laughs for so long. Better to ingest it in small bites over the course of a few days to keep the humor fresh. This book is like candy, I ate too much at once and got a stomach ache.

Quote of the Story:

            “Why only white men in this book? Simple: they’re the most important ones. They are the most widely read, the most celebrated, the most influential, and, if I’m going to be blunt, the most talented. I mean, sure, there are some ladies who have had a pretty good go at the whole “writing thing,” but how could a woman ever capture my experience? And by “my experience,” I mean my experience as a white man.” –Dana Schwartz as “@GuyInYourMFA”

Keep or Donate?:

            I really enjoyed this book, but it only has a niche appeal. I doubt I’ll reread it, so to the donation box it goes. Fans of writers or recovering MFA students will likely find this hilarious and want to keep it. Everyone else might get some chuckles, but this book will likely go in the donate pile when it comes time to thin down the bookshelf.

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