Have you noticed how much bloggers and media people like naming their work after Raymond Carver's excellent 1981 short story collection "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?" They do. And they should please stop right now, please
Last week, two of the best blogs in the whole Internet—Videogum, and our sister site Jezebel—had posts titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About [x]". Videogum's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Jeff Dunham" was a trenchant analysis of a NYT Magazine profile of the racist comedian Jeff Dunham; Jezebel's "What We Talk About When We Talk About 'Precious'" was a trenchant analysis of the buzz surrounding "Precious," an important film about themes and issues. So far, so what.
However: Every journalist knows that two makes a trend, and I began to wonder exactly how widespread the "What We Talk About When We Talk About [X]" (WWTAWWTAX) construction is in the media, and what it might say about How We Blog Now. Turns out, it is very common. For example, in the past week alone the San Francisco Chronicle talked about What We Talk About When We Talk About TV and a food blog talked about our collective talking about green chile. With the help of Google I made a hideous chart which shows just how often certain media outlets use the WWTAWWTAX construction, and what it is they are talking about what we are talking about:
We're number 2. How embarrassing!
There are, I think, two things driving the Carverization of headlines: The most obvious is that it's funny: The banality of the things usually referred to in these headlines contrast in a humorous way with the super seriousness of Carver's work. The juxtaposition of unlike things = comedy gold.
But the joke is only funny if you have some knowledge about the minimalist short story writer Raymond Carver. And this is the crux of the second, probably bigger reason why so many writers find themselves talking about what we talk about when we talk about things: it's showing off. It's pandering—signaling to a certain preferred reader : "This one's for you, you brilliant appreciator of contemporary short fiction!" and to another reader: "Stay away, cretin!"
Which is understandable. The majority of these publications' readers probably do occupy that demographic and temporal hot spot for which Carver is sort of an unofficial poet laureate. Most of the people reading this do. I definitely do. (In fact the first time I spotted a WWTAWWTAX headline I was so amused/pleased with myself for getting the reference, that I tweeted about it.)
But a Carver shout-out in a piece that has nothing to do with Carver is a lot like the kid who walked around your college campus with his tattered copy of Atlas Shrugged—cover out—displaying it like a flag to passersby in the hopes of being recognized by one of his own. It's a little desperate, don't you think?
So it is with great pleasure and humility that I am calling for a moratorium on all "What We Talk About When We Talk About [X]" headlines. We get it, you've read Carver. Join the club.
This essay is adapted from my 2004 memoir, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Blog