By Joshua Madden
Why is it that we encourage everyone to be artists when such a small percentage of Americans will actually make their living as artists?
This is one of the many real questions that Maddox (who’s real name is George Ozounian) seeks to answer in his hilarious book “I Am Better Than Your Kids.” The book consists of Maddox mocking children’s artwork and essays in a hilarious (and offensive) way for a full 320 pages.
The introduction to the book says it all, with Maddox explaining that Mozart’s obsession with fecal matter — that’s the best description I can put in the paper; Maddox uses slightly more colorful language — shows that no artists should be immune from criticism. If Mozart might have been better with criticism, why wouldn’t young children benefit from being told once in a while they are wrong?
This is Maddox’s second book, following the New York Times’ bestseller “The Alphabet of Manliness,” but it is definitely his crowning achievement. Fans of his website (“The Best Page in the Universe”) will be excited to see that “I Am Better Than Your Kids” has captured every bit of the brazenness that made the site so much fun to read.
I have never laughed as hard at a book as I did when reading “I Am Better Than Your Kids.” There were multiple times when reading that I found myself having to stop because my throat hurt from laughing so hard. I’ve never had to do that because of a book before.
The interesting thing, however, is that Maddox doesn’t just focus on getting cheap laughs. Although he does do plenty of that — there’s an entire section of the book titled “My Favorite Mouth” where Maddox does very little except make fun of spelling errors and another titled “Sexism, Drugs, AIDS and Crib Death” that I probably can’t even go into detail about — there’s a surprising poignancy to his criticism.
Don’t get me wrong — the main point of reading this book is to laugh at truly mean-spirited jokes, but there’s an element of criticism directed at our culture as well. Perhaps we value the wrong things and we focus too much on making people feel good about things, whether they have talent or not, Maddox suggests. Maddox points out that his site and his books exist not because of the encouragement he received, but actually despite the fact that people had told him to stop at every point in his life.
He mocks a former teacher who threw away his art — art that will now, probably to that teacher’s dismay, appear in a book likely to wind up on a New York Times best-seller list — and the point isn’t so much to get cheap laughs, but it’s to show us that Maddox’s success has come from talent and effort, not meaningless encouragement.
Wouldn’t the world be a little better off if people actually were honest about their criticism and the recipients took it seriously? Think back to high school and ask yourself if you ever saw a circumstance in which the grading scale seemed relative. We all know those kids who turned in remarkably different work — one of whom was brilliant and turned in a well-polished essay and another who turned in a poorly written, but perhaps well-intentioned essay — only to both receive A’s because the teacher did not have the courage to tell one of the students that his or her work simply wasn’t as good as the other’s.
It is this very situation that makes getting an A meaningless and yet it happens all the time. Not everyone will become a CEO or start the next Facebook or become president, but for some reason we all need to act like everyone will.
No one likes to say that it takes effort to start something like Facebook. It takes a lot of nights sitting in front of computer learning how to run a PERL script instead of sitting down on the couch and watching an episode of “The Daily Show.” One may make you feel smugly better because you can laugh at others’ supposedly foolish mistakes, but the other helps to develop something like Facebook. One is worthwhile; the other is not.
Perhaps Maddox’s book could not have come at a better time than in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street movement in which a great deal of people are upset about the way things are going. They don’t really know what to do and they don’t really know what they even want. A society develops like this only when adults are afraid to tell their children to stop being idiots and to start putting effort into things once in a while.
We live in an entitled society and yet no one wants to do anything about it. Perhaps it’s good that Maddox showed up to show us that we are all still children.