Sunday, February 3, 2013

Scary Pictures of Dennis Rodman

Dennis Rodman wrote a children’s book. Since that sentence is disturbing enough to warrant a repetition, let me say it again: Dennis Rodman wrote a children’s book. It is called Dennis the Wild Bull.

Shockingly, it’s about himself.

Neil Gaiman also wrote a children’s book. It was called The Graveyard Book, and earned him the Carnegie Award, Newbery Medal, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

It was not about himself.

While Rodman is not the first celebrity to appropriate the humanistic field of creative writing for his own purposes, he is certainly one of the most unlikely. Since he has chosen to engage with the humanities, however, let’s take a serious look at his project. (I confess I haven’t read the book, so what I will really be looking at is the January 30th article that was posted by, and the implications of Rodman’s work for humanistic study).

            First, the book’s purpose. The trend in celebrity children’s book publishing is to write a moralizing or educational story, and tell it through anthropomorphized plants or animals, or very often through characters that are barely-concealed metaphors for the celebrity author.  Rodman’s avowed purpose is as follows: "More than anything, I just want little kids today just to understand, ain't no matter what you do in life, be different, rich or poor man, guess what, it's OK to be who you are pretty much and you'll be accepted." For the sake of NYDailyNews' journalistic standards, I'm going to assume that's a direct and accurate quote. Aside from the fact that his premise contradicts the constant waves of bullying that occur when kids think they'll be accepted even though they're different, what is the message here? That kids should be different like Dennis Rodman, a man notorious for his on- and off-court violence? That grammatical rules are more like weak suggestions?
Remember, kids: never split an infinitive.
            Second, the book's audience. Though this is, ostensibly, a children's book, the article says that "fans will immediately recognize Rodman's influence" in the image of the bovine protagonist, to which Rodman replies, "'They'll see me, literally see me. They'll say, 'Wow, this is just like him'." According to the article, Rodman is more interested in his fans recognizing his likeness in the book than in properly articulating the message it is supposedly imparting to its readership. This is apparently less of a children's book and more of a vanity project whose function is to amuse a celebrity's adult fans.

           Of course, these issues aren't particularly heinous when placed in the context of the rest of celebrity children's books. Most of them are vanity projects, and very few of them have any kind of literary merit. The worst part of all of these projects is that no one seems to question whether wealth and fame qualify a person to be a creative writer. Did you notice that Dennis the Wild Bull was "co-written" by Dustin Warburton, a guy who has been writing successfully since he was in high school, studied writing in college, and who has published several "co-written" celebrity children's books? The fact that very few people will likely remember anything except that Dennis Rodman wrote a children's book is a pathetically accurate representation of how humanistic study is consistently devalued. There are countless B.A., M.F.A., and M.A. programs in this country that train poets and novelists and the like to craft their works with both passion and intense effort, but instead of focusing on the underappreciated wealth of new minds and talents in those fields, we think "Ooh, Dennis the Wild Bull."
He is a gentleman and a scholar.
           This blog is about what the humanities can do, so I guess my main point is this: the humanities can occasionally (or often) be misappropriated and used in a way that devalues humanistic potential. If this problem is ever solved, it will probably be by the proliferation of people like Neil Gaiman, who, after coming up with the idea for The Graveyard Book in the early 1980s, refused to complete it until he had become a better writer. Unlike Dennis Rodman, who is known for domestic abuse, headbutting referees, and using a children's book to indulge in wanton self-promotion, Neil Gaiman's work reflects a belief in the ability of his young readership to grapple with tough questions and in the value of the humanistic project that asks them.

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