There’s a fight/discussion/kerfluffle in the sci-fi/fantasy world about “nerds” vs. “cool kids.” And there are a lot of people rushing to declare their nerdiness and decry any charges of being a “cool kid.” This is dumb for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that we’re not in high school anymore and a bunch of adults still letting the standards of children dictate whether they think they have cultural value and, if so, what kind, is dumb as fuck. Thirteen year olds are fucking idiots. It’s a miserable time and they’re miserable people. Our efforts should be to help them live through it with as much grace as possible, not to empower them to dictate how we feel about our adult lives.
But second, and just as important in many other ways, I want to stick up for cool, because cool is at its core a response to oppression. That most of sci-fi/fantasy doesn’t get this just shows how very white the genre is and how very much a lot of us need to read Donnell Alexander’s “Cool Like Me” and sit with it a long, long time.
Let me repeat, cool is at its core a response to oppression.
Cool was born when the first plantation nigga figured out how to make animal innards-massa’s garbage, hog maws and chitlins-taste good enough to eat. That inclination to make something out of nothing and then to make that something special articulated itself first in the work chants that slaves sang in the field and then in the hymns that rose out of their churches. It would later reveal itself in the music made from cast-off Civil War marching-band instruments (jazz); physical exercise turned to public spectacle (sports); and street life styling, from pimps’ silky handshakes to the comer crack dealer’s baggy pants. Cool is all about trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. It’s about living on the cusp, on the periphery, diving for scraps. Essential to cool is being outside looking in.
Cool is making something out of nothing and then making it special. If that’s not what a writer aspires to, then fuck that writer.
Alexander rightly identifies “cool” as an idea black people brought to U.S. culture. Misunderstanding “cool” is stupid. Publicly repudiating and rejecting “cool” is a mixture of accepting the definition of cool some pre-teen gave you when you were a pre-teen, which is dumb as fuck, and replicating the same old erasures of black contributions to culture that so many of the very people rejecting being called “cool” claim to be against.
Most of the people who don’t want to be called cool aren’t cool. Not by the fucked-up-child definition they’re using, not in the sense of cool being a response to oppression.
But they could be. Again, back to Alexander:
Humans put cool on a pedestal because life at large is a challenge, and in that challenge we’re trying to cram in as much as we can-as much fine loving, fat eating, dope sleeping, mellow walking, and substantive working as possible. We need spiritual assistance in the matter. That’s where cool comes in. At its core, cool is useful. Cool gave bass to 20th-century American culture, but I think that if the culture had needed more on the high end, cool would have given that, because cool closely resembles the human spirit. It’s about completing the task of living with enough spontaneity to splurge some of it on bystanders, to share with others working through their own travails a little of your bonus life. Cool is about turning desire into deed with a surplus of ease. Some white people are cool in their own varied ways. I married a white girl who was cooler than she ever knew.
Fine loving, fat eating, dope sleeping, mellow walking, and substantive working. Fuck yes. This is it folks. And, no, most of the people who are saying “Well, I’m not one of the cool kid,” aren’t doing these things. But I know at least they aspire to be doing substantive work. So, what’s wrong with being cool? Or aspiring to be cool? Or finding value in being cool?
Cool is a response to oppression that enabled people to survive that oppression. At its worst, which is not very bad, cool is a coopting of the posture that enables survival. Why would we throw that out or turn our backs on it?
I’m not cool, but I damn well strive to complete “the task of living with enough spontaneity to splurge some of it on bystanders, to share with others working through their own travails a little of [my] bonus life.”
That’s why I write. That’s why I write here. That’s why I write at Pith. That’s why I write the stories I write. That’s why I sit down and write novels I can’t sell, or haven’t sold, or whatever. Substantive working. And sharing a little of my bonus life.
If someone called me cool, they’d be wrong, but I’d be honored. Still a nerd, but honored.