What Do You Talk About In Class? Art. Obsession. Tom Bissell. Power Structures.

by Salvatore Pane

I’m not sure if this is of interest to anyone on the entire planet, but I’ve been thinking about composition a lot recently and figured I’d post something in-between editing my ever-expanding rant about 1998’s stealth game classic Metal Gear Solid. This post is going to be about teaching, bitches.


My boy, RR, looking all fly and shit.


For those unaware, I was pretty much terrified of entering the classroom this fall. I spent the weeks leading up to the first day pacing my room a lot and imagining myself standing at a podium, droning on about something like Kanye West, and a student standing up and screaming at me. Telling me to go fuck myself. That I didn’t know anything and his parents hadn’t scrimped and saved for 20 years to have their child listen to some skinny nerd in a striped cardigan rant about George Saunders.

Luckily, that hasn’t happened (yet). In fact, I’ve discovered that I really, really like teaching. Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I can’t shut up. Put a cup of coffee in me and I will ramble for hours. Teaching college is a job where I’m expected to talk. A lot. And guess what? These kids have to listen. In fact, they’re paying to listen! That’s awesome.

The first half of the semester has gone pretty well, but I think I hit my stride during a recent unit in my comp class on art/obsession. I thought I’d share some of it with you. Obviously, class discussion is a HUGE component of this course, and there’s no way I could share that. But I think sharing course materials and assignments is really valuable. I spent a few hours this summer just looking through old syllabi and it really helped refine my thinking on fiction workshops and comp classes. So, without further nonsense on my part, here’s what my comp class read for the art/obsession portion of the course. Keep in mind, this was over maybe two weeks. We discussed each piece pretty heavily.

1. “Can a Woman Be a ‘Great American Novelist'” by Meghan O’ Rourke

2. Kellee Santiago’s Video Games Are Already Art Presentation at USC

3. “Video Games Can Never Be Art” by Roger Ebert

4. “Grand Thefts” by Tom Bissell

Here’s the assignment after two weeks of discussion:

Essay #4

Unlike previous essay assignments in this course, this time you will have a choice. Below, are three options for Essay #4. There is no bonus or penalty for choosing one of them over the other two. All three will be graded exactly the same way.

Option A (4-5 Pages)

“I woke up this morning at 8am fully intending to write this article. Instead, I played Left 4 Dead until 5pm. The rest of the day went up in a blaze of intermittent catnaps. It is now 10pm and I have only just started to work. I know how I will spend the late, frayed moments before I go to sleep tonight, because they are how I spent last night and the night before that: walking the perimeter of my empty bed and carpet-bombing the equally empty bedroom with promises that tomorrow will not be squandered. I will fall asleep in a futureless, strangely peaceful panic, not really knowing what I will do the next morning and having no firm memory of who, or what, I once was.”

–Tom Bissell in “Grand Thefts” culled from the essay collection Extra Lives

The nature of obsession is laid bare in Tom Bissell’s essay “Grand Thefts” originally published in The Guardian. In the span of a few years, Bissell went from being one of the most promising writers of his generation to snorting cocaine in Las Vegas before 30 hour Grand Theft Auto binges. But throughout his essay, Bissell never condemns or praises his dual obsessions: video games and drugs. Bissell writes, “There are times when I think GTA IV is the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, times when I think of it as an unsurpassable example of what games can do, and times when I think of it as misguided and a failure. No matter what I think about GTA IV, or however I am currently regarding it, my throat gets a little drier, my head a little heavier, and I know I am also thinking about cocaine.” He takes a more complex view. He sees how games and even drugs have altered his reality in a pleasurable and even desirable way, yet Bissell also becomes aware of the danger he’s in, of how precariously he dangles over the edge.

For this essay, write about an obsession in your own life. Obviously, we do not expect you to be addicted to cocaine or Grand Theft Auto, but has there been a time in your own life when you felt the majority of your time and even thinking taken up by something other than yourself—say a sport, lover, TV show, video game, family member, getting into college, etc. etc.? Like Bissell, lay bare this obsession on the page. Also like Bissell, do not come to a simple conclusion. We’re not looking for, “I was obsessed with playing football, and my grades suffered. Therefore, football is bad.” Tom Bissell takes a complicated view on his subject. He sees that there are immeasurable pros AND cons regarding his obsession. You must find these pros and cons too. You must look inside of yourself, inside of your obsessions, and yank out that complexity.

Option B (4-5 Pages)

“I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say ‘never,’ because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”

–Roger Ebert in “Video Games Can Never Be Art”

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about what exactly constitutes art and who gets the right to proclaim that something isn’t art. Meghan O’ Rourke, in her article “Can a Woman Be a ‘Great American Novelist’”, made the claim that only white males are allowed to have their books considered art because of an unconscious bias on the part of the mostly white male book reviewers. O’ Rourke argues that writers like J.K Rowling and Jodi Picoult are not considered artists in the same way that author Jonathan Franzen is because they are women and not because of the quality of their work. Similarly, Kellee Santiago claims in her YouTube video presentation that Roger Ebert is wrong, that video games can be art, and in fact, already are art. Ebert’s response essay, “Video Games Can Never Be Art” very much defends his position. And of course, in class we discussed how there are some critics in the art field who believe that EVERYTHING is art. Take, for example, Pittsburgh-native Andy Warhol’s beloved 1964 project Brillo Boxes.

For this essay, you must come up with your own definition of art and argue for its validity using examples and logic just like O’ Rourke, Santiago and Ebert. In our society, what constitutes art? Do you take the hard-line view that only so-called “great works”—the classic novels and poems and paintings and operas—should be classified as art, or do you feel that everything—a sock, Transformers 2, the New York Knicks, a double cheeseburger—should be considered art? What is your stance? Prove it. Where do you draw the line?

Secondly, do you think that the specific people who have the ability to declare things art or not—Roger Ebert and the other critics who love Jonathan Frazen for example—in any way mimics the social power structure that governs our lives? Who in this society has power, and how do arguments about what and what is not art reflect that struggle?

Option C (1200 Words)

Pick Option A or Option B, and instead of writing your response in Microsoft Word, instead write your response on a WordPress blog. However, we’re not looking for an essay that simply exists on the internet. If you’re going to use a blog, you must embed its unique aesthetic features into your essay. You must use links, videos, and pictures in an organic way. If you choose this Option, there has to be compelling reasons throughout the text for why you’ve chosen to do a blog entry over a more traditional paper.