What I Think about Chuck Palahniuk

Starting back in the 1980s, youth humor took a turn. I’m not saying a turn for the worse, but I am saying it took a different direction. Jokes about bathroom behavior and scatology became very much a part of the mainstream. Flatulence become funny and significant portions of a film became orchestrated around the flatulence of a protagonist, the same way that in the past a star might have burst into song or dance. In addition, films contained jokes about forbidden sexual acts created by the pornography industry to market their products. Talking about forbidden subjects became – not only OK – but funny. Keep in mind that none of this has made such behaviours appropriate for polite company, even among its fans, the same way that curse words had became acceptable by their overuse in the media. It was still forbidden, yet delivered in a very particular way it is supposed to symbolize a place where you laughed and claimed enjoyment, even liberation. But it was still rude and inappropriate and certainly not the sort of conversation or behaviour you would allow around your parents or grandmother. And it is in this world of jokes about flatulence and normalized pornography that Chuck Palahniuk is a pioneer.

Palahnuik is the authour of the story that led to the well-known Hollywood blockbuster Fight Club. The film stars Brad Pitt, Edward Albert Norton, and a host of others whose names Hollywood has taught us to recognize as excellence. I wrote a review of the film a while back. A number of comments left on the post urged me to find out more about the book it was based on and the controversy surrounding it. One of the things I found was that Chuck Palanhuik is the figurehead of a cult following of his writings. In addition to Fight Club, he has published a number of other controversial stories. He is also a very accessible celebrity and the Net has made available a large number of interviews and readings of his work at books stores and other authour events.

The work of Palahnuik is taken very seriously by its fans. It has inspired university-hosted conferences, university-level courses, fan-based websites, and on-the-street-level clubs of men who hit each other as an intellectual experience. I was moved by all the emotion being spilled out onto my blog and so, in homage of this fan effort to inform me of the missed brilliance, I went out and got the book Fight Club. I have posted here about my experience reading it. But in addition to reading the book and watching the film, something else happened along the way. I learned all about Chuck Palahnuik. It is very hard to understand what Fight Club is about without ending up immersed in a world dominated by Chuck Palahnuik. In fact, I would say that the fame of Fight Club or his other books is not about the stories per say. I doubt they would have attracted nearly as much attention if they were not all written by the same authour and that authour was not able to connect to his fans personally in the way that Palahnuik does. The phenomena is not Fight Club or any other book he has been involved with. The phenomena is Chuck Palanhuik himself.

And what do I think of Chuck? I think of him as that college professor we all wish we had. He’s hip and in touch with the minds of youth. He can effortlessly help you explore all those embarrassing things young people want to know but feel uncomfortable talking about in the highly middle-class world of their families. He’s edgy enough for you to expect a serial killer, but with his soft features and quite voice, he can spin this into the feeling of cool. I suspect young naive students find him very sexy. He’s the sort of college professor you’d expect to see at the center of a house party attended by professionals in a small working-class town where almost everyone is on welfare.

Certainly I can understand why some find Palahniuk enticing. He brings elements of pornography and other forms of marginal literature to the mainstream. This must seem incredibly daring, but I suspect those who find him daring are overwhelmingly young, naive and middle-class. His writing is very American. It is very young, very inexperienced, and – most of all – very, very White. It is not a coincidence that everyone associated with Palanhuik is White – absolutely everyone – in the audiences of lectures, book signings and authour events, or in fan videos commenting on his books – absolutely everyone is White. I have watched dozens of videos associated with Palahnuik lecturing in classes and videos of fans reading his books; while I have seen a few women, I have not seen even one person who is not White – not even one. The actors and actresses portraying his novels are almost all White. Understandably so; I can not see his writing generating much interest among cosmopolitan students from India or Europe or even in the black community of the USA. He is very much a phenomena among the young White men and women of America.

But it is not all White people to whom this world of normalized bathroom humour appeals. It is a special kind of person created by the modern world. It is that group I once referred to in conversation with the term ‘downwardly mobile middle-class’. While this is frequently used to describe Black Americans, it could also be used to accurately describe segments of White society. There is a whole class of White kids from successful working-class lineage whose parents toiled to send them to college. While they now have the literacy skills and qualification to enter the professional workplace, they lack that collection of skills sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as habitus. They’re that kind of person who just feels out of place in the world of suits and ties. They are that kid with a master’s degree working in a warehouse or as a waiter somewhere. It’s the guy who sits during break time reading his book and not talking with the other guys or who never joins in after work when everyone else goes for a beer. It is this group I suspect that finds cultivation in Chuck Palahnuik.

But don’t take my word for it. Dennis Widmyer, who runs http://www.chuckpalahniuk.net, has this to say on the topic,

The typical Cult member is a teenager…”They’re young, they’re naive, and their first dose of literature, real literature, is a guy like Chuck. And it’s very liberating for them, and almost turns into a religion.

Karen Valby, who writes for Entertainment Weekly and attended one of Palahnuik’s authour events, described them this way,

His fans — many of whom are young men, unemployed, or making do on minimum wage, tattooed and pierced, with black Sharpie pen on their nails and cut-off Dickies and red laces through their Chuck Taylors

Wikipedia, the source of all things true, tells us the film of the book Fight Club was viewed by an overwhelmingly young and male audience.

The gender mix of audiences for Fight Club, initially argued to be “the ultimate anti-date flick”, was 61% male and 39% female, with 58% of audiences below the age of 21.

Keep in mind, this is specifically not how the Palahnuik crowd views themselves. Their self-image describes someone edgy, daring, walking in the shadows of the truly dangerous. To quote Amy Dalton, the organizer of a Palahniuk conference at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania,

I’m a little bit afraid of some of these people [that would come to the conference]. I try to think that they’re just like me, and they’re interested in this writer. But they’re people on this other [online] message board who are really ‘fight clubbing’ it.

The reality of the conference was a little different, however. As Salon.com pointed out when they covered the event.

Among the attendees, mostly in their 20s, are obvious devotees of the self-destructive heroine of “Fight Club,” Marla Singer — goth girls in faded prom dresses, black boots or pink hair…mixed in with the Tylers and Marlas are people who look more like graduate students, as well as writers and literature buffs who’ve driven and flown from as far away as Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan and Long Island, N.Y…there is a certain degree of geekishness that can’t be ignored…Most of the men in attendance look like they haven’t been in a fight since the schoolyard bully called their mother a bitch in the hall after science class.

Watching the fans talk about his work and listening to his readings, you can sense the feeling of young adventure out there trying to make sense of the pleasures they’re tempted by without really putting themselves in danger. Palahnuik is entertainment for inexperienced kids grown numb on video games and cinema that depict torture and suffering as a spectacle. Palanhuik is a roller coaster. He’s a zoo. He’s the pretentious pornography of Annabel Chong that he cites in this talk about his novel Snuff.

While writing, I was reminded of a party I once attended that was hosted by graduates of an elite East Coast liberal arts college. This was the crowd from the school rugby team and were supposed to be the edgy crowd. But their interpretation of edgy was pretty tame and generally limited to playing heavy rock and drinking far too much. In fact, they acted much like the high schools kids that I grew up with in – what was then – a very blue-collar logging town. But they weren’t. They were rich kids headed for a life of power and influence. There was no part of their life that would ever be blue-collar unless they pretended it to be. And that’s what all this Chuck Palahnuik stuff makes me think of; it’s a bunch of undergraduates from comfortable middle-class backgrounds pretending to be rough and edgy. It’s blue-collar humour dressed up as a book reading. It’s the sort of stuff that if you talked about without the trappings of high culture, your friends would tell you to shut up. It’s Bevis and Butthead read with the cadence reserved for poetry.

But the more I looked into this Chuck Palahuik phenomena, the more I came to think I’d seen this all before. In this interview, Palahniuk tells us that fiction is read almost exclusively by middle-aged women.

I was told that 85% of all fiction sells to older middle-age woman. 85%, my God! I just felt like I was really cutting my throat to write a book that wasn’t about an older middle-age woman to fall in love. Somehow I knew there wouldn’t be a market for it, but what else am I going to write. I think it’s more important to write something that brings men back to reading than it is to write for people who already read. There’s a reason men don’t read, and it’s because books don’t serve men. It’s time we produce books that serve men.

Could this possibly be true? Certainly it was one of the points that bothered me the most as I was researching this post. If it’s true, then no matter what else is, Palahniuk truly has been a revolution in reading.  But then I stumbled upon this page from the official Chuck Palahniuk site http://www.chuckpalahniuk.net. The site features reviews of books linking Palanhuik to ‘grindhouse‘ and ‘exploitation’ as a genre of fiction. Now if this is the fiction that Palanhuik is referring to that men don’t read anymore, then he is very much wrong. In fact, this page mentions reviews by the magazine Fangoria. Fangoria was around when I was in high school and Wikipedia, the source of all things true, tells us it was founded in 1979.

But let’s take a step back. Fangoria is only one example of a whole series of printed materials that deal with subjects almost exclusively read by men. This would include Conan and other superhero comic books, the books that these comics are based on, sports fiction, etc. In fact, I was a huge consumer of these when I was in high school. If this is to be considered the reading of fiction, then Palahniuk is simply wrong that fiction is consumed by middle-aged women. What I think he means to say is that books in bookstores are bought primarily by middle-aged women.

And if this is the case, then the Palahnuik phenomena is a whole different thing. The big scoop on Chuck Palahnuik is then that he has helped the commercial print industry bring the comic book market back into the bookstore. One of gravest crises that Capitalism faces in our time is the saturation of markets. In this battle, Chuck Palahnuik is a hero. He’s helped legitimize genre of print and forms of entertainment that previously were marginal and bring them into the same market as your mother and grandmother. He’s not a sell-out. He sincerely seems to believe what he’s saying and that he’s educating people about the evils of consumerism. I don’t doubt he means well. But he isn’t some revolutionary thinker. He’s not the Anti-Christ of literature. He’s a cog in a corporate machine being used to handle a crises of Capitalism. When he does battle with the big-time critics that newspapers and magazines tell you to read, it’s just a show put on to make you feel like there’s conflict. It’s a scam that big-money culture runs to make the rebellious buy their stuff. It’s no more a culture battle about principles than the cage matches of the UFC are duels over personal honour.

One of the great things about modern Capitalism is that ideology is so complex it’s hard to figure out where you really are. I have no doubt Palahnuik and his fans can continue to tell themselves stories about mixing it up with the forces of mainstream culture. But the truth hurts. And the truth here is that they’re all a bunch of dupes.

What I Think about the Movie ‘Fight Club’

What I Think about the Book ‘Fight Club

I also highly recommend this piece from the film review blog Bright Lights.


One Response

  1. Good god, you have summarized why three years ago, a small but malicious part of 13-year-old female, black me knew Fight Club was full of shit. And seriously, what self-respecting female can like this man’s literature? There is nothing edgy about reviving 18th century ideals for the 2000’s.

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