My 1980s and Other Essays
The retro cover, featuring an anonymous blonde beauty striking a seductive pose, consolidates the impression that this book is nothing but a hipster’s wet dream. One imagines it being purchased at Urban Outfitters by a ’trendy’ twenty-something, and then being deliberately left out on a $12 thrift store coffee table. Subsequently, Wayne Koestenbaum’s latest critical offering, "My 1980s & Other Essays," really is a testament to that tired cliché: "Never judge a book by its cover."
Koestenbaum is a renowned poet and cultural critic, and his latest, highly engaging book offers a compilation of short essays that are academic, professional, and yet profoundly personal all at once. His opening and titular piece, "My 1980s," is arguably his best.
The essay is an exploration of his emotional, sexual and academic growth in that troubled American decade, haunted by Reaganism and the emergence of AIDS. Koestenbaum writes "This morning I asked my boyfriend, an architect, about the 1980s. I said, ’Let’s make a list of salient features of our eighties.’ We came up with just two items: cocaine, AIDS." The fragmented narrative style (he writes in bullet points) and random recollections attest to the fluidity of memory. The essay is also a meditation on the notion that certain cultural moments, events and productions combine to constitute the contemporary self. Indeed, in this essay, Koestenbaum pays homage to the numerous writers and individuals that contributed to his emotional and intellectual maturation -- novelists such as Proust, and queer academic heavyweights such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Elaine Showalter, and Michel Foucault (although he wasn’t overly moved by him).
The rest of the compilation extends this common theme -- the intersection of the literary and the personal. One essay is entitled "Advice to the Young," and It attempts to offer just that. However, it often feels overly contrived and somewhat pretentious. To put it bluntly, Koestenbaum’s ’advice’ for the young often reads more like self-indulgent rambling. For example, he writes "Giving advice makes me melancholy: Is anyone listening? Will anyone be improved, or moved, by my admissions?" Certainly, a select few individuals will be moved, but therein lies my biggest critique of this essay, and certainly the compilation as a whole: It isn’t particularly accessible. It speaks to a specific group of people, namely middle and upper class intellectuals with an interest in Western literature and queer theory. Without that baseline, it might be difficult to understand and appreciate Koestenbaum’s musings on the writings of Susan Sontag, or his open letter to Sigmund Freud.
Criticism aside, I enjoyed Koestenbaum’s original style, and nuanced readings of diverse cultural and literary productions (you’d think I was a middle-class gay guy with a Lit degree -- oh, wait...). It is certainly worth a read if you want to exercise your brain a little. However, as discussed, if you have little or no prior knowledge of literature and critical theory, then you’ll undoubtedly be spending a lot of time on Wikipedia in an attempt to keep up. In other words, if you want something light to read on a Sunday afternoon, then you should probably look elsewhere.
by Wayne Koestenbaum
"My 1980s and Other Essays," by Wayne Koestenbaum