The Sunday Salon: Urtexting

At least once a week, I tell people that I was raised by wolves (French wolves, mind you), because that phrase is so much succinct than stepping back and explaining the circumstances that have led to me, a grown woman, having never seen The Wizard of Oz. You see, I was essentially pop culture immune until the age of fourteen, the year I learned television shows come on weekly. (Not a joke.) Being French and French-American, respectively, my mother and father weren’t all that engaged with American pop culture, and my brother and I are almost a decade apart in age, so there was no trickle-down there. A few things came through (most notably, I Love the 80s), but otherwise, nothing. As an adult, however, I can now catch up on what I’ve missed (everything pre-2001), which is one of my favorite things to do, to be honest. But sometimes approaching a seminal text as a modern viewer can leave you, surprisingly, cold. I call this phenomenon “urtexting”.

Michael Chabon apparently calls this “deja entendu”, but either we’re not talking about the same thing or it evokes a very different emotion in me than it does him. (I haven’t got access to the essay where he mentions it, so I can’t be sure, but I wanted to address it anyway.) “Deja entendu” is merely French for “already heard”, but this merely implies you’ve seen it been done before. It’s just familiar. Urtexting, in contrast, is approaching a influential text for the first time and coming away unmoved or disappointed. A similar feeling to “I’ve already seen this done”, but with a small, important change—”I’ve seen this done, and I’ve seen it done better”, especially when it comes to the texts that did it first. 

For example, in 1971, William Friedkin’s The French Connection boasted an astonishing car chase between a car and a train. It’s considered one of the best car chases in cinema. But when I watched it this summer, I was left completely cold. After the excess of Live Free or Die Hard, a film where the line “You just killed a helicopter with a car!” is actually uttered, I found myself wholly unmoved. (Well, not wholly unmoved—definitely creeped out, especially as the end credits rolled in an empty house during a petsitting gig. I let the cat sleep in my bed that night, allergies be damned.)

But urtexting isn’t simply a case of audiences requiring newer and more innovative stimulation as time goes on. Rather, urtexting is what happens when our personal responses to texts fall short of the supposedly correct cultural response to a text, especially if you feel you know so much about it via pop cultural osmosis. I was left feeling cold because I felt a little guilty and stupid for not getting it and preferring something else, on top of the fact that I already had to catch up in the first place. But that’s something you have to push through when you find you’ve urtexted. Your response is your response to a text; nobody (and no free-floating cultural expectations, which I conceptualize as judgmental jellyfish) has to validate it for you. It is hard, of course, when you find yourself unresponsive to texts everyone thinks you ought to enjoy, but your readings are your readings. Recognize that you’ve urtexted and move on.

Thanksgiving is finally upon us! I’ve finally talked my mother into letting me make Thanksgiving dinner, so I can’t wait to get home and get started. This week, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; it’s my first encounter with Wolfe, and I quite enjoyed it.

The giveaways bit is under construction; sorry!

Have you ever urtexted?

15 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Urtexting

      • The Book of the New Sun. There are four books and a coda novel, but the main four usually come in two omnibus editions with Neil Gaiman quotes on the cover (“The best science fiction novel of the 20th Century”).

      • While The Book of the New Sun is a towering achievement, and the first novel by Wolfe I read, some might be put off by the unpleasantness of the main character–who is an assistant torturer, after all. The Wizard-Knight is a more traditional fantasy except that it’s far better than any plot synopsis could lead you to believe. However, to start out, Pirate Freedom, Wolfe’s take on the traditional pirate adventure novel, might be best. Because the pirate also time-travels. And you can never go wrong with a time-travelling pirate.

  1. For me, the biggest example of urtexting this year is THE AVENGERS. I’ve seen X-MEN movies and comics, and I’ve seen SERENITY. Between those, I’ve seen everything in The Avengers done better. Except for Mark Ruffalo’s version of Banner/Hulk, which is amazing.

    As far as books go, I think fantasy falls into two groups at the moment. Books that are trying too hard to be LORD OF THE RINGS and books that are trying to be A GAME OF THRONES.

    I think there is a solution. I’m stealing this from one of my biology professors, but I think he makes a good point. Dare to be wrong. From the look of things, urtexting occurs when people try to be safe in storytelling and hope to use explosions to make it different. Honestly, if they’d just be willing to screw up (Dare to be wrong), I think story quality would improve greatly.

    That’s just my thought.

    • Exactly! I’ve been pondering that with languages and tourism recently—a lot of people, Americans especially, are afraid of looking stupid while learning something new, and you have to be stupid at a language for a long time before you can really understand it.

  2. I felt this somewhat with Rebecca. It was a very good book and I liked it, but my liking was marred a bit by the fact I’d read a newer book that had combined Rebecca and Jane Eyre and done it better. I feel bad saying that because of course Rebecca is older, but I did reach the end of it wondering where the interest was supposed to have been in the last plot thread (leaving out spoilers).

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