Episode 217: Who So Belongs Only To His Age

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
illustrations of david foster wallace and kurt vonnegut
Illustrations by Kathryn Rathke

Satirist Dana Schwartz skewers the white male western canon. Plus, stand-up comedian Gary Gulman shines a new light on depression. And, musician Joe Henry gets personal on his album “The Gospel According to Water.”

Featured in this Show

  • Author Dana Schwartz Skewers Western Canon Of White Male Writers

    Dana Schwartz is host of the history podcast, “Noble Blood,” and one of the funniest people on Twitter.

    Besides her very funny personal Twitter account, Schwartz also has two parody Twitter accounts — @DystopianYA and @GuyInYourMFA. Now Schwartz has turned her @GuyinYourMFA account into a book called “The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon.”

    “The truth is that I really didn’t think that I was going to write a ‘GuyInYourMFA’ book,” Schwartz told WPR’s “BETA.” “I started that parody Twitter account when I was a senior in college. And it was just sort of this cathartic way to get out my frustrations with sort of the condescension of the lit majors at my undergrad university and to just put jokes out into the world on Twitter, which was not something I had any experience with it.”

    “And I had thought at the time about turning it into a book but it turned out to be really hard to take sort of that, not to say it’s one joke, but definitely one-note character, and expand his voice over an entire book. It got just genuinely tiresome,” Schwartz continued.

    @GuyInYourMFA is Schwartz’s satirical take on the cocky, arrogant guy in a Master of Fine Arts writing class who is more than happy to mansplain the most important white male writers.

    Schwartz attended Brown University from 2011 to 2015. She was originally on a pre-med and public policy track, but she decided to become a writer.

    She said that over the years, she was nagged by the suspicion that she could take the @GuyInYourMFA character and use his voice to make jokes about various literary figures.

    “And once I had that idea about sort of using him as your tour guide to white male writers, I just couldn’t let go of it,” she said. “I was like how fun to have like a CliffsNotes version of all the high-art, literary writers and then have this horrible, infuriating tour guide. And I also became friends with this incredible illustrator, Jason Katzenstein, who did cartoons throughout the book. And I think once we joined up and had this idea, it just became too fun not to do.”

    So can Schwartz fill us in on @GuyInYourMFA’s backstory — his name, his education and his worldview?

    “Well, he doesn’t have a name particularly. I think because he’s sort of the everyman. He’s both the guy in your writing workshop, maybe the professor, probably the barista at your local Starbucks, almost certainly the internet at the literary magazine you submitted your story to,” she said. “But if he had to have a name, it would probably be Jonathan for semi-obvious reasons. It just feels right. He went to an Ivy League undergraduate liberal arts school. May or may not have been the one I attended. And he attended a prestigious MFA for Creative Writing, whether it’s Iowa or Cornell or Brown. Fill in the blanks for whichever one intimidates you the most.”

    “I think (I) sort of took all of my feelings of insecurity and gave them a face. And Guy is that face,” Schwartz continued. “I think every writer has a little bit of ‘GuyinyourMFA’ on the inside. Like he’s also, you know, a bit of me. He’s all of my pretentious, terrible ideas when I’m like, ‘Ooh, what if I did a modern-day retelling of ‘Hamlet,’ but gritty?’ And then I have to take a step back and be like, ‘Nope, that’s not a good idea, Dana.’ You know, he’s a lot of bluster but it comes from a place of vulnerability.”

    We asked Schwartz about some of the writers she profiles in the book, including David Foster Wallace.

    “I think he’s an incredible writer, and I think the legacy of his early death definitely sort of exalted him to this high status of sort of underground hero,” Schwartz said. “I was less interested in writing a legitimate analysis or criticism of his work. And I was more interested in gently poking fun at the people who see his name as synonymous with high art. You know, the people who use his name to prove that they’re well-read or sophisticated.

    “Because the truth is if you’ve ever opened ‘Infinite Jest,’ that is a tome of a book¹,” she continued. “And so I think that the people who read it like to wear it as a badge of honor. And so that’s sort of what I like to poke fun at: this idea that just by reading a certain book, you’re better than other people, which that’s just not a good way to live life.”

    “One of the funny things about writing this book is people assume that because I’m making fun of white male writers that I don’t like them which isn’t true at all,” Schwartz said. “I would hope anyone who reads the book realizes very quickly that it comes from a place of love. And there’s a ton of white male writers that I really love. You know, some of my closest friends are white male writers.”

    Schwartz recently participated in an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit. There was one question from the AMA that she thought was important, and so she posted it on Twitter:

    “The thing is, yes, I am a white person making fun of white male writers. But if I can’t make fun of white male writers, then who can I make fun of?” Schwartz said. “If I can’t make fun of Shakespeare and Faulkner and the pretentious bro from Brooklyn who loves them, then what is left for me to mock and make gentle jokes about? Anyone who reads this book knows that it is a pretty gentle satire that both celebrates these writers at the same time I’m making fun slightly of like the pretentious person who dismisses everyone else.”

    “It’s worth pointing out that the people who defined the Western canon or the high literary canon decades ago were all white men who chose and exalted books that celebrate their own perspective and point of view,” she said. “And whether they did that consciously or unconsciously, the books they chose are ones that resonated with them probably because they related to their experiences. And I think it shouldn’t be considered a crazy political or subversive act to say, ‘Hey, maybe now that it’s 2019, we can point that out and make jokes about it.’”

    Since “BETA” is a big fan of thought experiments, we came up with a literary thought experiment for Schwartz: What if her book becomes a huge best-seller, has a lot of cultural influence and were to lead to her being put in charge of the American Library Association or some such governing body that would give her the power to create a new Western canon of literature? What would this new Dana Schwarz Western canon look like?

    “Oh my God! That’s a great question,” she said. “I mean, the truth is I would definitely have some of these same writers in it. I would have, you know, William Shakespeare obviously, Kurt Vonnegut, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy. But then I would also want to include some women who’ve been maybe overlooked or forgotten obviously — Jane Austen, the Brontes who aren’t overlooked, but then authors like Muriel Spark, Patricia Highsmith, Zadie Smith.

    “I think everyone should read ‘White Teeth.’ It’s one of my absolute favorite books. And then there are some really great books that came out recently that I would add to the canon. I would add ‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff, which came out within the decade. I’m calling my shot and saying that that should be a canonical book. She’s an incredible writer.”

    ¹ “That is a dense book with a lot of footnotes and endnotes and it is an undertaking”

  • Comedian Gary Gulman Shines A New Light On Mental Health

    There’s a wrenching scene that opens comedian Gary Gulman’s HBO special, “Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh.” It features the comic at a small Boston, MA comedy club in 2017 quietly admitting to the crowd he suffers from mental illness. There’s a few uncomfortable chuckles from the audience as they anticipate a bit that doesn’t come. Gulman concludes sadly from the stage that this moment “is like a cosmic bottom” for him.

    It’s a powerful and apt entry point into a fascinating special that is part live stand-up and part documentary.

    Gulman spoke with WPR’s “BETA” about the journey from that low point to the brave and hilarious performance featured in “The Great Depresh.”

    Gulman recalls that he’s suffered from depression and mental health issues from as far back as his childhood.

    “I didn’t have a name for it back then. I was just constantly in fear and anxious about my schoolwork and my teacher and classmates and future. I would become very sad and isolated,” he said. “My self-esteem was not very strong.”

    The title of Gulman’s special is the name he would eventually settle on for his mental illness. Throughout his set on suffering from and treating depression, Gulman and director Michael Bonfiglio weave in candid vignettes of Gulman sharing and discussing his struggles with his wife, fellow comedians and even his mother.

    “Like most Americans, my mom was pretty ignorant about the signs and symptoms and I felt a little bit bad about exposing her obliviousness in the special, but at the same time I thought she was such a great surrogate for America and people of that generation,” Gulman said.

    Gulman would grow into a large and athletic teen and became strongly encouraged to play sports. He would find a love for basketball because, as he jokes in the special, it “is the only sport you can practice by yourself.” However, the pressure of performance would only contribute to Gulman’s severe anxiety.

    “I put so much into my basketball accomplishments and achievements that when I had an off-game, when I missed shots, I would get so down on myself and it became an indictment of my character and my person,” Gulman said. “I would just take losses and bad games so seriously.”

    Gulman’s size and ability would eventually earn him a football scholarship to Boston College. He considers this development to be the birthplace of his awareness of depression. Gulman suffered through his first semester on the team, almost immediately understanding he wasn’t cut out for the aggressive mentality of collegiate-level athletics.

    “Within the first few weeks, I decided that I was either going to quit the football team or take my own life or do something,” Gulman said. “I was just in such a bad place.”

    Fortunately, a liaison for student athletes recommended Gulman speak with a therapist and he began his formal treatment of depression. It’s become a crucial part of Gulman’s recovery throughout his life and provided a much needed judgement-free arena to voice his anxieties and fears.

    “This was a man who I quickly understood would not judge me or chastise me or make me feel guilty or embarrassed or shamed,” Gulman said. “He just listened, and he made observations and perceived things I wasn’t even aware of. Just these insights that I never would’ve made on my own.”

    It’s perhaps because of his firsthand experience with the toxic masculinity surrounding sports that Gulman scoffs at and rejects blanket statements about millennials and the concept of participation trophies as a negative. Gulman, whose wife Sade (“not THE Sade, but my Sade,” he jokes in the special) is a millennial, spends a big chunk of his set openly promoting and praising a more positive perspective of the generation and their inclusive nature and their repulsion to bullying.

    I feel I would’ve been better served by a community that had the same values as millennials. That were as aware of mental illness, as aware of the damage that bullying and teasing and being undermining and being selfish causes,” Gulman said.

    Gulman also exposes the myth of the sad clown paradox.

    In a passage from the special, Gulman and longtime friend and fellow comedian Robert Kelly discuss a common belief among comedians and artists that if you remove the depressive tendency of your psyche, you will give up the inspiration of your comedy or art.

    “To the people who think they’ll lose their edge, give it a try. You can always go back to your misery and your discomfort if it doesn’t work out. I think that most of us have enough experience with pain and suffering to write about it from a safe spot far away from it,” Gulman said.

    Gulman also appears this year in the comic book film “Joker” which premiered the same weekend as “The Great Depresh.”

    In the movie, which itself comments on mental health in society, Joaquin Phoenix plays comic Arthur Fleck whose primetime failure turns him into the titular crime boss. Gulman, who cites that weekend as the most exciting of his career, finds that particular origin story tragically comedic and familiar.

    “I know how frustrating and discouraging it can be in standup and some nights you just want to turn to a life of crime rather than have to deal with difficult audiences and uninspired bookers and just the struggle of a young comedian,” Gulman quipped.

    It’s fitting the special ends with a scene so diametrically opposed to the one that opens it.

    After wrapping his standup with a touching and encouraging passage on living with mental health, Gulman is framed from behind with the glow of the spotlight and receiving a standing ovation from the sold out theater. An image of a career highpoint.

    If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Dana Schwartz Guest
  • Gary Gulman Guest
  • Joe Henry Guest

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