Newspaper article International New York Times

Who's a Bad Boy?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Who's a Bad Boy?

Article excerpt

Certain traits associated with literary bad-boy-ness are just trussed-up versions of an unfortunate norm.

Rivka Galchen

In the seventh grade I admired a charismatic, witty girl who had a particular way of writing her lowercase a's. After some practice, I took to writing my lowercase a's in the same fashion. Sometimes we find ourselves emulating a trait that's merely proximate to something wonderful -- you can wear a white suit every day, but it won't get you any closer to revolutionizing American journalism. Emulating that girl's charisma or wit would have involved much more work, and trying to think and write like the best of the "literary bad boys" can be near on impossible. The handwriting, or the suit, are manageable.

And I would argue that certain traits we associate with the "literary bad boy" -- traits we spend the most time excoriating or lauding, with excoriation and laudation amounting to almost the same thing -- are more like the handwriting or the suit than the essential substance. They have little to do with the genuinely countercultural thinking or the intelligently transgressive prose.

Instead they are, upon inspection, just the fairly straightforward qualities of persons with more financial or cultural or physical power who exercise that power over people with less.

There's nothing "counter" about that, of course; overpowering in that way implicitly validates things as they are, and implies that this is how they ought to be. So I presume that when we value literary bad-boy-ness -- and there is a lot to value there -- those traits wouldn't be, if we thought about it, the essence of bad-boy- ness; those traits aren't even distinctive. They're just trussed-up versions of an unfortunate norm.

Even William Burroughs mocked that idea of a literary bad boy. In his oft quoted short story, "The Lemon Kid," he wrote: "As a young child Audrey Carsons wanted to be writers because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. …

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