Not Suffer the Suffering Artist: Elissa Bassist Interviews Michelle Orange

By Elissa BassistSeptember 17, 2013

Not Suffer the Suffering Artist: Elissa Bassist Interviews Michelle Orange

YEARS AGO, when I first read Michelle Orange’s essay “Have a Beautiful Corpse,” I spazzed out. If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.

Orange, a film critic, essayist, editor, and fiction writer, knows how to tell a story. She once had a teacher who gave “Holden-inspired assignments about voice and identity,” and when asked to create “a sort of personal crest — a motto accompanied by a representative sketch,” she drew “a gothic tableau of [herself] laid out in a coffin. […] [B]eneath it [she] inscribed the Dean mantra: Live fast, die young, have a beautiful corpse.” The teacher called her parents and suggested Michelle be put on suicide watch.

Orange updates and remixes “Have a Beautiful Corpse” for her new collection of essays, This Is Running for Your Life, in which she reports from Honolulu on the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association, and from her grandmother's retirement home in Canada — and other places where things break down, where life is at its limits. Backing up her opinions with research, enriching her research with bold, clever, tricked-out sentences (I often audibly gasped at the way she puts words together), and written with serious range and aplomb, her essays — complex, critical, intimate — are tools against stupidity, apathy, and zombification.


ELISSA BASSIST: Your first chapter, “The Uses of Nostalgia and Some Thoughts on Ethan Hawke’s Face,” sets up what the collection is about: time, death, social media, loneliness, boundaries of self, and film. It’s like you used an fMRI machine to look inside my brain to see what kind of book I wanted to read. How did you know what I wanted to read when there wasn’t an fMRI machine around?

MICHELLE ORANGE: I'd tell you but what fun would that be?

EB: No fun at all. Excellent point. We’re off to a good start. 

Let’s talk about fMRI machines. In “The San Diego of My Mind” you visit a place “relocating the movie industry’s creative command center into a lab like this one [called MindSign], where decisions about casting, character, plot, and style are determined according to a schema of diagnostic testing, a process ruled by what is referred to in neuroscience as activation.” That is bonkers. So when we think of movies as formulaic and derivative, we’re not wrong?

MO: I just read Lillian Ross's Picture, about the making of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage in 1950, and it documents a lot of the same art-versus-entertainment arguments we're having now. She describes how preview audience testing helped kill a movie initially believed to be a great success. It's filled with wonderful detail, like this Ruskin quotation on a bronze plaque hanging outside an MGM executive's office: “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey.

EB: That reminds me of a George Saunders quote from “The Braindead Megaphone”: “In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: ‘Tell us,’ we say in effect, ‘as much truth as you can, while still making money.’ This is not the same as asking: ‘Tell us the truth.’”

So, this is embarrassing and related, but I’m a grown woman and I recently started watching The Vampire Diaries. I grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I mention because I used to be more discerning; I used to ask, “Is this good?” and now I’m asking, “Does this stimulate?” To echo Saunders, I’ve met the enemy and she is me, yes, yes, but the fact that I have recognized myself as the enemy indicates I still have the ability to rise up and whip my own ass …

MO: It's crazy you say that, because Netflix keeps telling me I am halfway through an episode of The Vampire Diaries, and I have never even heard of the show. I mean, I've heard of it now —

EB: What if Netflix is becoming self-aware like Skynet in Terminator?

MO: I'll be more impressed when they figure out how to tailor, via individual user preferences, the same show for different viewers. And by "impressed" I mean "suicidal."

Your Vampire Diaries thing points to how difficult and rare it is to make something good. The Vampire Diaries is aiming for success. That's a tale at least as old as the MGM plaque. You could say MindSign and neuromarketing are well in line with what has always been a mysterious and unlikely creative process, bound to high financial stakes and therefore even the crudest reassurance of success.

I am interested in the broader implications of using fMRI to redefine subjectivity as a set of colored light patterns in the brain. Their rubric of “good” (lots of brain activation in the "fight or flight" section of the brain) and “bad” (no activation) reflects something we already know: that flash and spectacle and hyper-stimulation are now part of the formula for a very successful film. But using neuroscience to determine an "ideal" in art or entertainment assumes some troubling things about what can be known (or need be known) about the very complicated relationship between a subject and a work of art.

EB: Philip Carlsen, co-founder of MindSign, said to you, “Great art is always going to come through.” Do you think that’s true?

MO: I think it has been true. Auteur theory points out that the studio system fostered great art within great constraint; I could see a similar argument being made for data-driven creative systems.

Carlsen said what he said to put what he's offering — another tool for engineering a successful product — into a broader, more forgiving context. I wondered if he was making it more difficult for great art to come through, and if that isn't problem enough, i.e. that the assumption that great art will always come hurdling through means we shouldn't worry about creating impediments to a forward-moving culture.

But that is perhaps an insupportably broad concern. Just yesterday I told a neighbor that his door-slamming was working against the interest of great art and he doubted that very much. Maybe the better question is how great art will come through — i.e. how artists will be paid, how their art will be distributed — and the size and shape of the audience (and therefore the greatness) they can hope to attain.

EB: Do you think there is a connection between how formulaic our entertainment is and how complicated our lives are?

MO: Steven Soderbergh said something to that effect in his recent "rant" about the movie industry —

EB: I appreciate you comparing me to Steven Soderbergh, the hero who directed Magic Mike, please continue …

MO: He thinks American moviegoers in particular seek an ultra-escapist cinema because they’re still suffering from post-9/11 trauma. I’m not sure about that. In the 1960s there was a great hunger for tumult and experiment at the movies that matched the times. I often wonder about A.O. Scott's line on The Avengers: "The price of entertainment is obedience.” When did it happen that instead of gathering to dream together, we trudged to the movies to get the shit entertained out of us? Robert Stone has a great line: “The way people go crazy is that they cease to have narratives, and the way a culture goes crazy is that it ceases to be able to tell stories.” In American culture you find a mania for stories — the internet, social media, the news cycle, endless cable channels. But I wonder if being fed in constant junk-nutrition fragments only intensifies that appetite, because what it really wants is something huge and coherent, some structuring context.

EB: Right. “[T]o give addicts more of the drug [isn’t] to cure them,” as D. T. Max wrote of David Foster Wallace’s opinion of Mark Leyner’s fiction (Wallace believed it entertained but lacked further moral purpose).

Tangentially related: you write, “The idea of the artist as exemplary sufferer, as Susan Sontag pointed out, was a modern creation, one derived from an essentially Christian sensibility, where suffering puts the pilgrim in touch with this true self. If a suffering soul is considered more authentic, and we look to artists to seek out the truth, on some level the more an artist suffers the more truthful we believe her to be.” This launched a phenomenon, you explain, where “aspiring artists began to seek out opportunities to suffer, sacrifice, live ascetically.”

As an artist, do you seek out such opportunities?

MO: Nah. I may have sacrificed to do the kind of work I want to do, or at least made choices others might see as sacrifices, but it's not like I wouldn't have it any other way. It’s just the way it is. I don't get a wife to raise my kids and fix my meals and decorate our summer home and let me brood and smoke opium in my art-making chamber for weeks at a time. I did my time as a tortured person; it was miserable and I couldn't get anything done. The whole idea was to be less fucked up and actually accomplish something. So I don't have much patience for the suffering artist stuff. I'm not sure many women do. I'd rather have a laugh. The rest is work, you just fucking get on with it like everybody else.

EB: Anyone who’s done time as a tortured person will appreciate your thorough research on mental illness, psychiatry, and antidepressants in “War and Well-Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W.” You describe the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), specifically the evolution of DSM-5 and the expansion of mental disorders, which presents a lot of challenges: “The first would be dodging a diagnosis myself. […] Introducing shades of gray has created a future scenario in which half of us will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder by age thirty-two. […] The resulting diagnostic creep, some say and studies suggest, will ultimately land on one spectrum or another anyone who has ever gone on a bender, had a bad month, or drifted through the day transfixed by cat videos.”

Do you think we’re facing a world where Facebook will provoke a mental disorder and an email ban will be a prescription? What I’m asking is nuts, but let’s agree Facebook et al. are making most of us nuts.

MO: The DSM-5 task force considered internet addiction under a new category called behavioral addictions — it didn't make it in this time, though I think it made the appendix. With enough studies it could become a diagnosis. There are already internet rehab camps in places like South Korea, which I believe is considered the most wired country in the world. We're in the midst of a massive shift toward a more technologically guided and interconnected, information-saturated way of life, and it seems like the behavioral issues coming out of it and even the mood problems associated with it are a symptom, or a new expression, of essential human problems — loneliness, alienation. I'm not sure Twitter or Facebook can create a problem for a person that wasn't already there. That's not to say they're not potent enablers, or that they don't trigger certain responses. But I think the science will leave us with something we already know: that becoming a person is hard, that staying a person is harder, that loneliness is ever-present, that short-term solutions are just that.

EB: I love that answer so much I want to take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant. (That’s a joke from 30 Rock about cornbread that I’ve always wanted to steal when I found a worthy opportunity.)

So you think more than enabling behaviors — like loneliness — social media reflects (and enlarges) what’s already there, like side-view mirrors on cars where objects are closer than they appear?

MO: It does that, but things like the DSM and MindSign and even social media are also giving new shape to the 20th century pursuit of an existence explained and perfected by science and algorithm. Part of that is about treating consciousness as a problem that has to be solved, somehow.

Sometimes I think of the internet itself as an extension of that idea. On some level problem solving is a natural response to consciousness — which is fragmented and chaotic and just a ceaseless barrage of stimuli and information. There is an instinct to make sense of being alive. It's also impossible to master the chaos completely — that's the nature of the struggle.

But the idea that consciousness is a problem that can be explained or solved changes that dynamic entirely. Neuroscience enacts a desire to stand outside the brain, and assumes the possibility of an objective vantage on subjectivity; I see the internet much the same way. Like we've created, out of a similar desire, this giant exoconsciousness, and within it we've found different ways of doing what we've always done: seeking story, community, identity, continuum, etc. But in fact its chaos reflects our chaos, and then some. We can't quite stand apart from it, and it's resistant to order. Loneliness is a kind of chaos. Internet loneliness strikes me as that same chaos compounded. Not that it has to be that way. I don't disagree with the possibility of a more perfect synthesis between the individual and the exoconsciousness. But it feels like a distinctly confused moment for the self.

EB: There’s a trend in writing and consciousness I’ve noticed: A televised event like the Oscars takes place; people tweet their reactions in real time; bloggers recap the televised event the following day; bloggers rehash the recaps, reiterating arguments and rejecting others, essentially cannibalizing yesterday’s “news” with eternal repetitions the ensuing week.

You explain: “We race to consume and regurgitate the hour’s large and small events for each other like patricians in a postmodern vomitorium — to know them first, translate them into bitter capsule form fastest, and be shocked or stirred or perceived as in any way less than totally savvy about these things the least.”

Some writers enjoy the dialogue, the creative checks and balances (e.g. Seth MacFarlane can't talk about celebrity books outside of an echo chamber), and as you say in “Pixelation Nation,” “that was kind of the point of communication and broadcast technologies — bringing us together, eliminating obstacles of access, equalizing an experience or event.” But as a critic, do you think we’re veering too far from criticism, headed toward too much criticizing?

MO: The recap thing is strange. Do you read recaps?

EB: Sometimes. If I’m upset, for example, about an episode of The Newsroom, I’ll check the internet to see if there’s a community of outrage. It’s sort of the equivalent of, “Did anyone else just see what I saw?!” Like when you ask, regarding bad movies, “How did this astonishingly stupid thing I’m watching even happen? Is this really happening? Wait — what just happened?”

But usually I want to watch TV without a peanut gallery chugging Haterade laced with irony. How many days/months/years did it take to create [whatever I’m watching] and how many minutes to take (or tear) it apart in a recap? Mary-Louise Parker recently said in an interview with News Corp Australia that she’s quitting acting because: “The world has gotten too mean for me, it's just too bitchy. All the websites and all the blogging and all the people giving their opinion and their hatred … it's all so mean-spirited, it's all so critical.”

MO: You could see recaps as a form of imposing ownership — this thing is a little bit mine now, because I have reframed it as having happened to me.

EB: Yes. It can launch new conversations.

MO: Some recaps veer closer to criticism, and engage with the thing they're describing. The alternative is more of a pretense for a comments section, which maybe describes a lot of what happens on the internet. I can't say we're doing too much of any one thing on the internet and keep a straight face. It's hard to say where the balance will fall, but I think what's true now will remain true: you can find whatever it is you want online, from provocative, stylish criticism to wall-to-wall shit talk. So what is it you're looking for?

EB: Homemade videos of animal friends. 

Now feels like a good time to talk about your grandmother. In “One Senior, Please,” a visit to your grandmother becomes a meditation on mortality, mental illness, and film.

Your grandmother went to weekly matinees and saved each ticket stub, “filling each one with longhand impressions of the according film.” My favorite is her impression of Brokeback Mountain: “Excellent portrayal of Homosexuality in the 60’s. Now let the Gays + L. live in peace (over) + marry each other + not spoil other lives. Great scenery.” These stubs reminded me of the filmography of James O. Incandenza in Infinite Jest. What would you say if I compared you to David Foster Wallace? Like, one wants to see Wallace’s type on a cruise ship and you in a retirement home or at The Tomb of the Unknown Solider. You must be getting this a lot lately.

MO: What I would say, the undeserved comparison having flattened me where I stood with anvil-like force, is: Please don't do that.

EB: Even that response is Wallace-like. But I’ll move on. “Pixelation Nation” offers a nice history of photography and how far we’ve deviated/fallen (e.g. we now mistake snapping photos as a social activity). And yet, “some claim digital celibacy.” You include yourself: “[T]oday when a flash is set off within thirty feet of me my instinct is to enumerate every available exit.” I’d put myself in the same category — I swear to god, if one more friend tries to take a photo of me/us eating brunch and expecting me to freeze and pose mid-sip, I am just going to snap. But we’re weird to hate it, as you explicate, “In the new social reality, to refuse to be photographed is not only to be antisocial but in some sense to negate one’s own existence.” If we don’t take a picture of it, is it still a good time?

MO: Right, like the act of documenting now enhances or even completes the good time. Knowing that your bellini and eggs benedict will be available for others to see enhances your experience of the brunch, and others then observing your good time completes it. Cameras are becoming an integral part of what a good time is — like champagne, or puppies. I think the question becomes, If we don't take a picture of it, did it happen?

EB: I suggest Instagram adopt that question as its tagline.

My final question is a request: will you repeat what you said during the toast at your book party about running in graveyards and print supposedly being dead?

MO: I wanted to toast the people still taking risks in publishing, since I had the good fortune to work with two of them. And then I believe I invited everyone there, the next time they hear the usual talk about the death of literature, or the death of print, or the death of film criticism, or the death of etc., to remember the words that come to me whenever I'm running through my favorite cemetery (Mt. Pleasant) at home in Toronto: Not yet, motherfuckers!

EB: I cheers-ed so hard to that.


Elissa Bassist edits the "Funny Women" column on The Rumpus.

LARB Contributor

Elissa Bassist edits the "Funny Women" column on The Rumpus. Visit or @ElissaBassist for literary, feminist, and personal criticism. 


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