"[The writing sample] does, though, have to be the strongest work that the student has written up to that point. Prospective applicants should place most of their efforts into writing as many good stories, poems, or novel chapters as they can (in the months leading up to the applications). Then, they should seek feedback from friends who are either writers or who are particularly enthusiastic literary fiction readers. Then, writers simply send in the best sample that they have produced to that point. By simple, I mean it actually is simple, though not necessarily easy. Read a lot; write a lot. Edit well. Get feedback. Finish the writing sample and send it in. In this way, potential students are not only focusing on the most important element of the application, they are actually using the application process to improve as a writer."
Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction
I wrote a very long thing about Tom Robbins, an author I’ve never even read.
While I’ve never read any of Tom Robbins’ books, I did read this review of his memoir Tibetan Peach Pie when it first came out. Earlier today I saw on my dashboard a quote from one of Robbins’ earlier works which made me curious so I searched his name on Tumblr to see what quotes would come up and the one above stood out to me, which sparked my interest in revisiting his book review. In the article by Keith Pille, he asks “What happens when a 20 year old constructs his personality completely out of reading Tom Robbins novels?”
As an avid Robbins fan growing up, Pille can now objectively analyze the ideals that he so deeply ingrained into himself as a young adult, something most 20 year olds are wont to do when they encounter someone older and wiser who appears to just get it in a way no one else they know ever has. An analysis that someone like me, who is very much in that 20 year old demographic of idolizing others and has so far been kind of wary of reading any of Tom Robbins’ work (albeit for mostly stupid reasons & the fact that his work has been described to me as science fiction and fantasy—two genres I tend to stay far away from) can benefit from greatly.
Pille boils down Robbins’ novels into these essentials:
There’s a primary character who has the potential to be very cool but buys into society’s BS and, as a result, is just a little too square and uptight. There’s a sardonic, experienced, enlightened figure who’ll go through some series of adventures with the first character, slowly delivering enlightenment along the way (often via sex). There’s some psychedelic MacGuffin that everyone’s chasing. There will be info dumps about religions, science, and the nature of reality. Someone will drop acid or eat mushrooms. There will be witty prose and wild similes. And there will be boning—frequent, frequent boning. Build a personality out of these bricks, then, and you’ll get a very specific kind of guy.
When explained like that, Robbins’ work sounds appealing, if a bit unoriginal and reliant on what I like to call the Garden State complex (even though yes I am aware that his novels came way before the movie). The type of guy that Pille turned out to be isn’t necessarily a bad one, his love of Robbins left him “suspicious of consumer society, skeptical of authority (particularly governmental authority), and completely uninterested in participating in any organized religion.”
These aren’t bad qualities per se, but I think everyone has encountered that guy in college that takes these characteristics too far. Pille nails it by stating “Buying too much of Robbins’ program can make you a smug jerk.” The problem with the works is that the hero is not trying to enlighten and wake up the masses to their banal life, the hero is only interested in waking up one person—and sleep with them too. These “heroes” aren’t interested in the betterment of mankind; they are interested in the betterment of themselves.
But can we really pin the blame on Robbins? Is it his fault that his readers identify so closely with his characters that they try to embody them in their own lives? Directly, no. Of course not. Robbins is not explicitly stating “Here. This is how the world works. This is how you need to act.” But indirectly? Is it plausible that Robbins is writing in such a way to intentionally influence his readers’ into adapting his own life philosophy? Is that, in some aspect, what all authors are trying to do?
Pille seems to agree with the notion that Robbins is just out to convert people to his own agenda by comparing Robbins to one of the most polarizing authors out there— Ayn Rand:
Both writers use their novels to push a philosophical program, putting their ideas into the mouths of viewpoint characters who go around outarguing unbelieving fools. Both engender a sense that the reader, by choosing to read this book, is one of the enlightened elect in a sea of idiots.
Tom Robbins wants his readers to feel about themselves the way Robbins feels about himself, which frankly seems to be of someone with an inflated ego that knows all. What makes Tom Robbins worse is how self-congratulating he is, something that permeates his work according to Pille—a self identified fan.
The thing that really puts me off about Robbins is his assertion that his work is so unique and profound, that even his editors don’t want to mess with such genius. That the writing/editing process is so easy to him. I don’t know; I’ve always believed that those writers who struggle with their work, those that are constantly doubting their abilities, are the good ones. And those that are so overly confident to the point of pompousness, are the writers that really need to put in the work when it comes to revision. This isn’t to say that Robbins is not talented—why else would he have a cult following of readers? But I don’t think talent always needs praise.
The quote above that I mentioned at the beginning of this mess is what I believe to be a perfect example of Robbins’ work. It comes off as insightful and complimentary. It is written so the reader will identify themselves as the “weird” (i.e. better) person that not just anyone can tap into. It’s meant as a compliment, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it didn’t appeal to me like all of the other quotes of his work I read.
Pille ends his review of Tibetan Peach Pie on a positive note by stating that indeed Tom Robbins is “kind of annoying”, but that’s just what we have to accept in order to have “creative weirdos” like him producing great works and if that in turn produces some smug jerks in the process then so be it. But I can’t really sit with that logic. To me, it’s some flimsy excuse to allow shitty ideals and behavior to manifest. I’m not saying Robbins himself is a shitty person, but the naive young adultswho buy into his seemingly alluring philosophy of them v.s. us could (and according to Pille, do) turn into smug jerks. And who needs more of those in this world?
But who knows, if I was so inclined to write 1,000+ words on Tom Robbins, maybe I’m already a smug jerk and should just read his books.
I was so bored that I baked (with the help of my ex roomie on the phone foux) a nectarine/peach cobbler.
Pitchfork Festival 2014: Portraits and Candids
Photo by Tom Spray
“I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of the throat and I’d cry for a week.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar