If the New Sincerity is anything real or coherent (and I wrote that post last Monday because I, like others, am trying to figure out whether that’s so, or will be so), then we should be able to identify the devices or moves that define it—that arguably make a piece read as being “New Sincere.” The “New” implies they produce that sincere effect right now, in the current literary landscape; whether the techniques or devices are entirely new doesn’t matter (they could be older techniques, fallen out of prominence, now returned). Similarly, it’s irrelevant whether the author using them is “really” being sincere. What matters instead is that
- Those devices exist;
- People think they “feel sincere” (as opposed to other devices, which don’t);
- “Being sincere” has some value at the present moment.
Why sincerity? What is its present value? My broad and still developing belief is that “sincere” writing is one means of breaking with the aesthetics of postmodernism and self-referentiality: invocation of Continental Theory, metatextuality, excessive cleverness, hyper-allusion, &c. What makes writing “sincerely” even more delicious when perceived against postmodernism 1960–2000 is that it proposes to offer precisely what pomo said didn’t matter or couldn’t exist: direct communion with another coherent, expressive self, even truth by means of language. (Don’t tell Chris Higgs!)
One of my first impressions of the NS came when I started noticing artists and authors using longer titles—in particular, long rambly ones with strong emotional resonances. My thought then and I think now was that both the length and the ramble, as well as the emotive quality, signaled non-mediation: a desire to appear uncensored, unrevised. Those titles stood out (defamiliarized the title) because they failed to comply with what a “proper,” “edited,” “thoughtful” title should be.
Is this a sensible thing to argue? Have I had too many G&Ts? Let’s pursue …
So I’ve gathered a bunch of long titles (in reverse chronological order) but this isn’t any definitive list. And I’m not drinking gin (I love lying) but I am writing fairly extemporaneously, recording my thoughts in a semi-casual manner. Like I said, I’m still trying to figure all this out, and will appreciate hearing your thoughts (and other long titles!) by way of Facebook / Twitter / in the comments section.
I also wish to make crystal clear that
- I don’t think that all long rambly titles are New Sincerist, or are affixed to NS works;
- I don’t think that New Sincerist works have to have long rambly titles;
- Rather, I think that a certain kind of long rambly title is one thing a New Sincerist work can do—it is one current strategy among many for communicating “sincerity.”
In fact, as we’ll see, the titles that I think are New Sincere are accomplishing that in diverse ways—projecting sincerity from different angles. (And we’re talking only titles here, not the books themselves.)
selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee (2011, Megan Boyle, Muumuu House)
This is very specific, but there’s also a certain preciousness at work—a naivety that “unpublished blog posts” (selected ones, even) of someone working in the service industry is worthy of said specificity. Is it therefore ironic? I wouldn’t call that ironic myself; I think naive or precious is better. (Other than the “Mexican” part, the book appears to be what its title claims—leaving us to wonder how to read that word—literally? metaphorically?—and even whether it modifies “employee” or “panda express.”) Is it “sincere”? … Perhaps? There’s a confessional quality to it that matches the book’s contents—pieces like “everyone i’ve had sex with,” “i am kind of a disgusting person,” and “i want to fall in love or something” (those titles strike me as very NS). Note also the use of all lowercase.
When All Our Days Are Numbered Marching Bands Will Fill the Streets & We Will Not Hear Them Because We Will Be Upstairs in the Clouds (2010, Sasha Fletcher, Mudluscious Press)
This title is more exuberant, carrying a triumphant, emotional tone. It also has a certain preciousness, too. It’s most definitely not ironic. Is it sincere? Yeah, I think so—emotional exuberance (getting carried away) is one way of being genuine (you lose yourself in your unmediated emotions). This title also reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, certainly a nakedly emotional / sincere-sounding album.
during my nervous breakdown i want to have a biographer present (2009, Brandon Scott Gorrell, Muumuu House)
This title is a good example of how the ironic/sincere angle is a dead end. Is this a sincere statement, or an ironic one? I can’t tell from just the title alone (I haven’t read the book). It does seem clever in a way none of the other titles have been so far. But note how it is saying that it is during the author’s nervous breakdown that the biographer should be present—i.e., an uncontrollably emotive period of the author’s life is what should be recorded (documented, even) in/as literature. + the lowercases
sometimes my heart pushes my ribs (2009, Ellen Kennedy, Muumuu House)
This is, I’d argue, classic New Sincerity. There’s the qualifier “sometimes,” and the whole tone of the title is unguarded, emotive, sincere. I don’t get the sense that the title is being used in any ironic or kitsch way; there’s a genuine embrace of this way of being. For the heart to push the rubs, the heart must be beating very hard, or be very swollen—extreme emotion. + more the lowercases (a definite muumuu h thing)
This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (2008, Marnie Stern)
Now we’re at an album title. There’s a mania we haven’t yet seen, but also an overt rhythmic pattern. (The title matches well the way that Marnie Stern plays.) So the mania is harnessed by—overridden and controlled by, even—a metrical form. Is it ironic? No. Is it “sincere”? No, I don’t think so. It’s abstract, geometrical.
Brief Weather & I Guess a Sort of Vision (2007, Anthony Robinson, Pilot Books)
Robinson’s an actual New Sincerist! So his title has to qualify, right? Two things that leap right out are the ampersand and the “I Guess a Sort of,” which conveys a very casual, confessional, unrevised tone—an uncertainty that Robinson is willing to confess to. It’s hubris—an unwillingness to call his vision a Vision.
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007, Miranda July, Scribner)
Miranda July is New Sincere, I’d argue, because her work continuously promises direct communication with an extremely emotive person—a little girl playing dress up make believe. July is also precious and Twee and many other things as well, yes, but I’d argue that a large part of her appeal is the promise of direct, raw emotion, which is often presented through the promise that July is speaking directly to you and no one else (which this title of course does). This emotional force was a large part of what attracted me to her work when I first encountered it in the late 1990s: she was emotionally intense in a way I saw few other literary artists being. She gave the impression of being completely out of control—and of course she must have worked very hard indeed to craft precisely that impression.
you are a little bit happier than i am (2006, Tao Lin, Action Books)
Like in the July title, there’s the sense Lin is speaking directly to you, no one else. The sole topic of conversation of course is our relative emotional states. Note the imprecision of the “little bit.”
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006, Sacha Baron Cohen & Larry Charles)
The effect here is one of mistranslation—the wacky way non-native speakers speak! Both the the title and the film are satirical, put-ons. I’m going to call ironic. This is one of the kinds of things that the New Sincerity is not, and is defining itself against.
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005, Miranda July)
Again, there’s that direct address, that promise of special inclusion. A shared personal space you can enter into. The conjunctions also create a breathless effect; July’s work is often breathless (literally!).
Looking Is Better Than Feeling You (2002, Astria Suparak)
Astria’s a friend of mine and a friend of July’s and it was in her festival programs that I first encountered this kind of title. At the time I thought it sounded “very art school” and “very hip” (Astria was then attending the Pratt Institute). It’s precious and Twee, perhaps, but that also doesn’t rule out it possibly being New Sincerist. (I think of Twee/preciousness and the New Childishness and the New Sincerity as being fellow travelers, aesthetic strategies very capable of enabling one another even while they have their own salient qualities.) (If I get any drunker, I might even try to argue/suggest that they collectively form a kind of neo-romanticism.) This title seems confessional and even addressed to a lover; it’s also kind of diminutive / shy. I’d lump it in with a broad New Sincere aesthetic, leaning toward the precious art school side. (Jimmy Chen, I need you to make a matrix.)
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000, Godspeed You! Black Emperor)
This is not unlike Fletcher’s title, above; the effect is exuberant, triumphant. (Lifting your fists is anthemic.) We have direct address again, and of a very specific kind—the speaker somehow knows that I am a weakling. Perhaps I’m young? That kind of exuberance would fit with my being prepubescent and constantly at risk of being blown away by the world. The suggestion here (phrased as a command or challenge—an invocation) is that performing this anthemic gesture will enable me to receive a divine transmission. So while it’s certainly precious, I’m not registering any irony whatsoever. GY!BE means to deliver on their promise.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997, David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown and Co.)
Note the emphasis on I, not you. There’s a confessional quality, but it’s a very guarded vulnerability: fool me once, shame on me, but also note how cleverly I can recover. That cleverness defines all or most of Wallace’s writing, which always feels hyper-articulate and thought out, as opposed to, say, Lin’s quieter, less guarded title above.
This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About (1996, Modest Mouse)
This title is for someone, but not necessarily for you. So its intimacy is blunted. There’s a diminutive and confessional quality, and I don’t think Isaac Brock is being ironic. But what’s lacking, perhaps, is some of the more emotionally intense/exuberant/intimate/confessional qualities the New Sincerists would pick up on and amplify…? Styles come from places, after all—techniques develop when people refine what others have done, bringing out sharper/other qualities.
The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995, Maria Maggenti)
This is a calculatedly ironic title. The point is that lesbianism in 1995 had to be presented as something extraordinary or spectacular (because it was shocking!) when it was “truly” an ordinary thing. The everyday second half of the title (“Two Girls in Love”) completely undercuts the spectacular nature of the first half.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984, W. D. Richter)
This title works differently than the one immediately above. It’s similarly spectacular, but it’s spectacular all the way through. It’s genuine about what it’s selling, and has a silly/childish/comic quality to it. It’s not ironic (nor is the film). But, despite the fact that it inspired Wes Anderson, it lacks the preciousness we’d associate with Twee / the New Childishness / the New Sincerity—and it’s not at all intimate, or revealing/confessing anything.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981, Raymond Carver, Knopf)
The we promises intimacy and there’s a focus on emotion. There’s also a sense that we’re going to really get at something we usually avoid even when talking about something as intimate as love. It’s not New Sincerist, but I think we can see one possible origin for the aesthetic. (Dirty realism seems a definite influence on Lin if no one else.)
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976, Raymond Carver, McGraw-Hill)
The effect of repeating the please is to imply that the speaker is speaking purely emotionally—unguardedly. It’s also addressed to a you that the speaker is having an argument with. Notice though that Carver always feels very grown up in comparison to NS stuff; it’s always adults who are doing the speaking (and not young adults). There are appreciable differences between the New Childishness and the New Sincerity (Dorothea Lasky, for instance, is NS bbut not I think NC), but they hold hands in many places (hold many hands?).
The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1963, Peter Weiss)
This is hyper-specificity, hyper-precision. It’s not ironic and it’s not sincere; it’s purely literal, to the point of anal retention / obsessiveness. Almost bureaucratic—which makes sense, given the work’s interest in juxtaposing control with the controlled, and madness with reason.
now you & i and our cat will grow older and die, but come dawn we will float through boulevards made kaleidoscopic with our blood to reunite as ghosts in the comments, i sometimes allow myself to think.