There’s a scene in Martin Amis’s novel The Information, where the narrator, a hitherto unsuccessful novelist named Richard Tull, has a meeting with a high-powered literary agent who’s considering adding him to her client list. She says:
“‘Now. Writers need definition. The public can only keep in mind one thing per writer. Like a signature. Drunk, young, mad, fat, sick: you know. It’s better if you pick it rather than letting them pick it. Ever thought about the young-fogey thing? The young fart. You wear a bowtie and a waistcoat. Do you smoke a pipe?’”
When I first read this, I groaned at the pitiless accuracy. In an era when no one has time to make judicious assessments, the thumbnail literary sketch rules. “Oh, yeah, W., he’s the fat queen bee pornographer, isn’t he?” “Oh, right, X, he’s the retro-traditional guy, I’ve heard of him.” “Oh, sure, Y, he’s the radical politico, yeah.” “Ah yes, Z, she’s the Frenchified poet, isn’t she?” “Oh, A., he’s the adultery guy, right?” “Oh, B., absolutely, she’s the doyenne of the ghost and vampire cult.” “Oh, C., sure, he’s the infectious illness bard.”
Is it just me, or do other people see this sort of typecasting as ludicrous? William Shakespeare: “Oh, you know, the toadying monarchist.” “No, the revolutionary.” “No, the sly agnostic.” “No, the crypto-Catholic.” “No, the misogynist.” “No, the feminist.” “No, the ‘Life is a dream-play’ guy.” “No, the first realist playwright.” “No, the comedic-romance wizard.” And so on.
Why does the public need to pigeonhole? Because it’s a way to avoid having to make a close and accurate assessment of a body of work. It’s a way of not coming to terms with internal variety and even contradiction. It’s a way to hold off any strong impression works or art in their entirety might make, in effect, to disempower them. While we're on pigeonholes, let's turn to its counterpart, the columbarium (from Latin columba, "dove"). Ashes of deceased relatives or friends are often placed in a columbarium, metaphorically, a dovecote. And pigeons have their counterpart to these man-made communal nests. In the realm of metaphor, pigeonholing is an act of murder, the imposition of a narrow, even stereotypical identity on something much more fluid and diverse.
Nor is this merely a literary phenomenon. I didn’t see Madonna’s recent Wembley show, but apparently one number in it stages four or five of her earlier incarnations (schematically represented), to which she sings a wail of dismay, protesting “That’s not me now!” In other words, she realizes she’s been thumbnailed, trapped in an iconic image her fans formed a long time ago. Not even one of the most famous performers on the planet has the power to crack the shorthand version of herself that’s current. But then, could believers in the Greek or Roman pantheon ever have allowed Venus to become Minerva, or Vulcan to become Apollo? The popular mind needs fixed, stable icons.
Of course there are those that can’t wait to get pigeonholed. Why? Because it’s good market strategy, as the passage from Amis suggests. Product recognition is very, very important for sales. Once I’ve got my little formula down, I can do it to death, and people will always know anything I put out there is a work by Moi. Market, market, everything is the market. Sincerity is such a mistake.
So how do we fit that strategy in with this week’s stock market meltdown? Maybe the market approach to existence is ultimately doomed to failure, what if? The strangest fact of all is that our current right-wing Republican government has gone into the business of nationalizing financial institutions: Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac, and now AIG. We were wrong, then, to thumbnail the Republicans as rabid, free-market tigers. They are benevolent Socialists—at least where the finance industry is concerned.