Interview: William Duryea of Misery Tourism
Misery Tourism is “the home of human suffering” — a multi-media site with a focus on transgressive and outsider literature. At first glance it may appear fraught with what Duryea jokingly called “edgelord posturing” in this interview, but a deeper dive will obliterate that notion — especially when interactions with him are often sincere, enlightening, and disarmingly polite. Yet, there's no deception here, no secret knocks nor contrarianism — just a guy who knows exactly what he is talking about. I'd fashion MT as a come-hither tentacle of a larger movement, aiming to facilitate writing which challenges our sensibilities and keeps us artfully honest. Their writing group, Misery Loves Company, gathers online every Friday night and it's a real engaging hoot, the writers serious about what they do without taking themselves too seriously.
MT is such a unique hybrid of formats. How would you break it down in your own words?
Misery Tourism is a joint project between myself and my longtime friend, Rudy Johnson, who co-founded the publication and collaborates with me on basically every facet of the site's day-to-day operations: reviewing and responding to submissions, creating illustrations to accompany the pieces we publish, editing, web design, and on and on. Rudy and I met on the playground during recess in second grade and have been offending the sensibilities of (and being a general nuisance to) those around us ever since.
MT began in 2012 as a place for him and I to share our weird, experimental, upsetting tabletop role-playing games. At that time there was a split in the indie RPG community that I think is reflective of one you see in the broader culture today. There were essentially two cliques: One faction had a sort of fundamentalist, "trad" perspective — believing RPGs were tactical combat strategy games where you roll dice, fight monsters, and speak to each other in funny voices. The other was very open to experimenting with form, creating games that dealt with serious content and themes yet was very ideologically rigid; insisting games should cater explicitly to the emotional comfort and "safety" of the players, that they should have unambiguous morals and serve a clear social good. Neither ethos really jived with the work Rudy and I wanted to create. We wanted to make games that would discomfort players, that would deal with reality's inherent and vicious ugliness and ambiguity, leaving them unsettled and uncomfortable without leaving them with clear answers or morals. So, since we really didn't feel we belonged anywhere, we sort of had to create our own space.
In the last couple of years, we began accepting submissions, broadening the scope of the site to include non-RPG content — especially works of outsider and transgressive literature. Since I'm an English lit grad school dropout, I've always had a passion for fiction and poetry, especially bleak existential shit, works that are playful and subversive in their approach to form and perspective. So this shift was really just a way to integrate another thing that I was passionate about into the site's mission. But, more than that, I really see Misery Tourism as an exercise in community building. I think there are a lot of artists and authors out there who are in the same place that Rudy and I were when we founded the site: They see a highly polarized, partisan culture that's intrinsically hostile to art that sets out to disorient and disturb or to be dark and bleak (and playful!) without cutely confirming anyone's entrenched worldview. They feel alienated. They're fucking lonely. And we're hoping to fight against that alienation and loneliness — this is a major reason we started the Misery Loves Company reading series—to give a home to authors and readers who feel this way,
When you hosted the online release hang for Damien Arc’s Fucked Up, there was a moment where we were all trying to define transgressive. I think I suggested “morally transcendent,” but it was tough because the book in question had redefined it through its sheer audacity, and then someone brought up the good point: the more the term is used, the wider its influence, the more it risks losing its power — as if through its normalization, it loses its definitive potency. Do you see it as an idea that must shape-shift to stay alive, like a virus so to speak?
Honestly, I don't think individual authors and artists have any real power to decide what qualifies as transgressive work. That power is exclusively held by the broader culture, and what is and isn't transgressive is constantly changing as social and political mores evolve (or devolve) and as artistic norms change. A lot of creative works that were transgressive at the time they were released seem tame or passé now, or simply seem crass without being incisive or disquieting. This is even true of relatively new content. I dare anyone older than 25 to go back and re-experience TV shows and albums from their teen years that were that target of outrage and moral panic—in my case stuff like the early seasons of South Park and The Slim Shady LP—and not just ... shrug. Transgression is ephemeral.
That's why I don't think it's wise for an artist to set out to be transgressive, first-and-foremost, and why — though maybe this is borderline hypocritical to say — I don't think there's much value in trying to build a brand or a creative movement on obscenity alone. Because when what's considered obscene inevitably changes in years or even weeks, you're going to be left with largely worthless art and an artist who feels old before their time.
That said, I think it's absolutely essential that artists be allowed — empowered, even — to transgress. Art has always been a means of interrogating and exposing the irrationality of taboos. Literature is only valuable — personally, politically, and culturally — insofar as it forces self-reflection and drives us to acknowledge the ways that reality differs from our preconceptions and complacent narratives. It's not obscenity that's interesting to me. It's the cognitive dissonance that follows. It's the struggle to square this upsetting (but real!) thing you've been exposed to through art or literature with all your self-serving and self-protecting biases. Good transgressive art does more than shock its audience; it shocks them out of dishonesty. It annihilates soothing lies.
A part two to the last question: I would imagine being an editor for an outsider literature site would be maddening, going through the submission stack and recognizing if something “fit” in an anti-genre whose content isn’t necessarily meant to fit in anywhere, really. How do you know when something falls in line with those loose guidelines? If it doesn’t fit, how do you know if it’s not foreshadowing a future shift?
Our editorial decisions are arbitrary, full stop. We're two semi-literate weirdos groping around blindly, making choices about what we do and don't want to publish based on our own personal tastes and a vague sense of whether a piece fits the tone and/or aesthetic of Misery Tourism, a website that already only exists as an expression of our irrational tastes and masturbatory artistic compulsions. It's circular. It's silly. It's indulgent. I don't think we'd know the zeitgeist if we caught it, and, if we did recognize it, we'd probably let it go and run to wash its stink off our hands.
As far as the "outsider" label is concerned, it's intentionally vague. I see it, broadly, as a rejection of cultural institutions (big publishers, universities, mass media) and an elevation of the many, many creators who have been left artistically homeless by the nepotism, rigidity, myopia, insularity, risk aversion, and brutalizing conformity of those institutions. It's a refusal to be socialized into quiet despair.
Speaking of shifts, since we are about to move into a post-Trump world, does it appear to be a more liberating future for transgressive and outsider literature? Do you foresee culture relaxing at all? Should transgressive lit even be liberated or does it require friction to survive?
The last four years have been demoralizing and exhausting. I'm not one of those "art has become too political!" types. I know that many great artistic and literary movements have been inseparably linked with political movements, and that many great artists and writers were raging against political and social conditions they thought were inhumane or oppressive—and this is especially true when you're talking about transgressive art and literature. The creation of art is often an inherently political, even revolutionary, act.
That said, the interpretation of art during the Trump administration has become suffocatingly partisan and ideological in a way that I think is openly hostile to artists who value ambiguity and who are striving to challenge, rather than confirm, their audience's priors. And I think this climate is doubly hostile to transgressive writers, whose work necessarily offends the reader's sense of propriety, and to outsider writers, who by definition are already at odds with institutional ideas and widely accepted social standards.
As far as the future is concerned, I vacillate between hope and fear. On the one hand, I think the Biden administration could bring about some "cooling" of the political climate and, with it, possibly growing disinterest in partisan politics as the primary lens for judging the acceptability or unacceptability of art. There's certainly an odd kind of liberation in people suddenly no longer giving a fuck. A less obviously urgent political situation might lead to a more broadly permissive attitude toward art.
On the other hand, I'm legitimately afraid that we could be on the cusp of more widespread social and political unrest, which I worry could lead to greater restrictions on freedom of expression, which, obviously, would not be beneficial for transgressive art — or any art. Honestly, if the last four years have taught me anything, it's to never attempt to confidently predict the future.
You host the weekly reading series Misery Loves Company — a zoom group where scheduled writers read their work capped off by an open mic portion. Is it difficult to be such an engaging host, the way you give detailed feedback after each piece? Is it possible a piece can “bomb” in such a candid environment, especially how vocal and interactive the other writers seem to be?
This may seem weird, given our edgelord posturing, but I want the Misery Loves Company readings above all to be a friendly, encouraging, and (ugh) positive experience for everyone who participates. I've struggled with severe social anxiety and a fear of embarrassment and rejection basically my entire life, and it has caused me to miss out on a lot of opportunities. Frankly, it stunted my growth as a writer and a human being. And, so, the last thing I want is to create a creative space that feels hypercritical or encourages a lot of scathing critique or other social viciousness. I don't think any of that shit makes someone a better author or provides a sustainable incentive to keep writing. The pursuit of art is demoralizing enough without some snarky asshole reinforcing your insecurities. I want the authors who read to feel like, at the very least, I'm making a good faith effort to understand their creative goals and to appreciate their hard work. I try to listen and, when possible, to read along. And I try to be sincere when I share my impressions.
I think "bombing" is mostly a phenomenon that exists inside the mind of an insecure performer, and you can do a lot to help prevent an author from feeling like they've bombed just by creating a welcome environment where the stakes feel reasonably low. I think the fact that we have a group of regulars who enjoy each other's company, are dedicated to artistry over social jockeying, and sincerely want to see the readers succeed is hugely important too. It's not something the host alone can control. I'm very lucky to have found this community.
It’s fascinating that you’re able to combine the RPG thing with literature when some might assume the gamer scene is antithesis of applying intellect. Are you actively having one be the gateway to the other, or at least trying to break those misconceptions?
I think there's some value is separating games as a medium (whether tabletop games or video games) from the cultural discourse around gaming, which is often banal and obnoxious and indicative of all of our worst social trends, ranging from fanatical identification with products and brands to culture warz nonsense to faux-political sensationalistic clickbait anti-journalism to social media mob "justice."
Games taken purely as a medium, on the other hand, fascinate me, because they integrate the audience into the experience in a way that's largely unique outside of something like performance art which is often confined to a gallery space (or at least limited to those who happen to be in the right place at the right time). Tabletop games and RPGs, in particular, do a lot to annihilate the distinction between creator and audience, and even between the media itself and the person experiencing it, since the experience isn't confined to a page or a screen but rather exists entirely in the social space and the minds of the players. Even the "material" parts of the game — the rules, the board or pieces or dice — only function through interpretation. There's no true outside arbiter of the correctness of the player's actions or experiences. It destroys a lot of the pretenses (and pretensions) we have about the sacredness of the artist or the art object and the illusion that the audience is secondary to the work.
Rudy and I are also particularly interested in work that can't be easily classified as either art or a game, like web-based interactive fiction and poetry and role-playing "games" that exist to be read rather than played or that are fundamentally unplayable because the conditions necessary to play them don't or can't exist. This is a sort of transgression — to end where we started — that I think is underappreciated in all the focus on sensationalism and scandal: the transgression of forms, the complete disregard for rigid ideas of what art or literature is or isn't, can or cannot be.
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