-Ism vs. -Esque: Mini Style Essay

The work of any artist that rises to being an -esque has some element of humor in it.


Somewhere, in great art (at least great narrative art), the lines of horror and humor cross … no great art is dead-serious all the time (except maybe Cormac McCarthy’s). Art that achieves the state of -esque (Pynchon-esque, Pinter-esque, Kafka-eque … Lynchian, Cronenbergian, and Beckettian as honorary -esques) describes the world as only it can, granting those who come in contact with it a portal into a place they recognize as real but could not have accessed on their own.


Work on this level is morally neutral: it’s describing reality as the artist encounters it, as if he or she were a highly articulate alien visiting earth, not arguing for how it should or shouldn’t be. This encounter, for its disarming combination of surprise and recognition, is funny.


Art that becomes an -Ism, on the other hand — like David Foster Wallace’s in its later years, or George Saunders’ some of the time — contains a plea for change, an ideological, almost Evangelical dimension demanding that readers become better, strive for more, lift themselves up … which, for me, much as I appreciate the sincerity of the sentiment, keeps it short of greatness because it refuses to take on the world as it actually is. To insist instead on a better world feels like a failure of attention on the artist’s part.


And this isn’t funny — it’s grim, no matter how much humor it strives for.


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