One of the TikTok idioms that the youths say these days is that so-and-so has “main-character energy.” Or they used to say it about a month ago or so. I don’t know if it’s still a thing. I can’t keep up. But it means, apparently, that so-and-so is living their life as if they were the protagonist of a novel or movie: they are the center of the narrative, the hero, the star.
Reader, I do not have main-character energy. I have more of what I would call coconut-music energy. Are you familiar? Think specifically of reality TV. It’s the way editors want you to know which characters to take seriously and which are simply there for comedic relief. Reality TV lets you know exactly who not to take seriously by playing silly, nonsensical sounds and songs in the background of certain people’s scenes. Coconut music. If you’re on a reality TV show and your scenes are scored with a goofy “ga-dunk ba-boop doop-de-doo,” then condolences, friend, you’ve been set to coconut music. You might be Kim Richards talking about how much you love to spend time with your kids. Or maybe Karen Huger sharing the pride you feel at representing your hometown. You could even be Sonja Morgan trying to articulate your new identity after a rough divorce. (Yes, my references are exclusively from The Real Housewives, and no, I will not be taking questions on that at this time.) But no matter how seriously you are taking yourself and what you are saying, that coconut music playing behind you ensures that no one else is going to do the same.
So anyway, I have coconut-music energy, professionally speaking. I walk into an academic conference with a steady loop of quirky minor to major lifts playing. I sit in a faculty meeting and the rhythms of a judgmental marimba begin vibrating through the floor. I am inordinately quiet when a main character is speaking. It takes all I have in me not to preface myself with statements like “this may be a silly question, but.” I am overcome with sweaty nerves when eyes turn to me and I am forced to share my thoughts while trying at the same time to assess who all in the room can hear the coconuts.
I remember exactly when it started. I was in an upper-level English course my senior year of college, the kind that also had some graduate students in it. We were reading Plato’s Phaedrus that week, and the professor asked us to discuss the chariot allegory. While I’m by nature a quiet person, I wasn’t averse to class participation, so I raised my hand and began to offer an interpretation of the “noble” and “ignoble” horses. It was at the word “ignoble” that I noticed my professor’s raised eyebrows, and the eager smirk of one know-it-all graduate student who often sought to mirror the professor’s responses. I continued my answer, but inwardly I panicked that I must’ve done something wrong. Had I mispronounced “ignoble”? It was a word I had only encountered in reading. Had I misremembered the passage? Was I, even worse, talking about some other text entirely? I finally trailed off, defeated by my professor’s expression, and asked, “Am I not making sense?”
And there was the coconut music.
The professor laughed, the know-it-all grad student laughed, others in the room smiled with a mixture of kindness and pity, and I was told by my professor that my word choice of noble and ignoble was “just unusual, that’s all.” The conversation moved on without me, some main characters finally having their chance to shine while I sat in a hideously embarrassing cloud of pizzicato strings echoing my failure.
It was an eternity, but really only about twenty minutes later, when my professor was reading aloud from the text that he suddenly looked up with a casual chuckle and said, “Oh! This translation does use ‘noble’ and ‘ignoble!’” He shrugged and went back to reading a passage. The moment did nothing to undo my embarrassment; it was already too far set in. And besides, no one else in the room reacted to the professor’s comment. It was totally unremarkable to them that I had not, in fact, been an idiot twenty minutes earlier. They continued to take me unseriously. What a discovery it was that there would be no vindication, that the coconut music was still playing.
What even is the chariot allegory? I don’t remember anymore. I don’t remember what it was I was saying that day, or nearly anything at all about Phaedrus. I just remember my professor’s eyebrows. I remember the grad student grinning. I remember the laughter. “Just unusual, that’s all.”
Are you still here? Is anyone still reading this? Doubtful. But just in case, I looked up the chariot allegory just now and the short version is that one horse is obstinate and the other is temperate, and the charioteer is trying to reach absolute knowledge and truth despite how utterly incompatible his horses are. The closer the charioteer can get to truth before his chariot inevitably falters, the lesser his fall will be. It’s funny, in an obnoxious sort of way, that the obstinate horse is the one that causes problems, because it was in describing this horse as “ignoble” that my problems began. Except my fall was played not as tragedy but as comedy, like Vicki Gunvalson being rushed to the hospital during a cast trip to Iceland. She’d be fine, the music seemed to say, and besides, doesn’t she look funny right now? Yes, mine was the comic misstep of a hapless, unusual student who we needn’t take seriously. Couldn’t you tell by the way the shakers rattled their percussive disdain after I spoke, mocking me in the awkward silence that followed my question? The professor’s response, with his main-character energy, was scored with a rimshot so you knew it was OK to laugh.
My coconut music plays on and off to this day. It is deafening whenever Reviewer 1’s notes come in. It hums in my ears when I discuss tenure review with my mentor. It is blaring, shaking the floor boards even, whenever someone tries to talk to me about Laurence Sterne. Look, I think that Tristram Shandy is funny? I’m just not always entirely sure I know why. But I should, shouldn’t I? It’s my job to teach eighteenth-century literature. Shouldn’t I know why Tristram Shandy is funny? I was always more interested in the visual elements: the marbling, the squiggly lines, the blank page for drawing your own version of a beauty. I mentioned this once in a reading group in grad school, but nobody really seemed interested. We spent an hour and half discussing Uncle Toby’s war reenactments, and I still do not really know why those are funny.
It always has me thinking, accompanied by a pathetic trombone slide, that I seem to keep missing the point of things. My interests seem always and ludicrously wrong. I was stunned to find, for example, in my preliminary exams the following question: “Most of the texts you added to your prelims list are considered garbage. What is the value of studying bad literature?” Well, it was news to me that these were garbage books. Why hadn’t I known that? It was hard to answer the exam question when I wasn’t even aware of its premise. I looked around at everyone else typing away and wondered if their questions had been similarly undermining. Or was it just me and my sad trombone?
There was the time I wanted to write a chapter of my dissertation on Jane Barker, and a professor of mine laughed and said, “No one works on her anymore.” Or the time I pitched to my old advisor an article about chapter epigraphs in gothic novels and she stared at me blankly and only responded, “Why?” It’s not that these things happened frequently. The music dies down enough for even me to realize these moments are not the entirety of my career. But they are the loudest. It actually makes it hard to remember the good moments sometimes. Suffice to say I haven’t surrounded myself with discouraging party-poopers. They are great people. Still, these are the memories that sit on the surface and that I punish myself with whenever the faintest note of a new song begins to play.
The new song might be more coconut music, and I remember these embarrassing moments to hurry it along. I turn the volume up, wallow in my unseriousness, get it over with. But sometimes, curiously, it’s a song with main-character energy—something heroic, something admirable––and still I turn to these memories. It seems like the coconuts have become so familiar, I’m unwilling to leave them behind. I drown out whatever new song was just coming on the playlist to go back to the hokey kazoo riff that I somehow think better represents my life’s work. Have I been conditioned to think I deserve the kazoo, or am I just doing that to myself? Is it really all that bad of an instrument, honestly? Maybe it’s just unusual, that’s all. But as uncomfortable as I feel with not being taken seriously, the thought of actually being taken seriously feels uncomfortable too. I mean, just now, for instance. Do I actually want you to take this paragraph seriously and consider the symbolism of an effing kazoo? Like, that’s what I do with your time and attention? I present you with a kazoo metaphor? Are you even buying it?!
You know what, yeah. It’s done and you’re here, so take the kazoo metaphor. I may not have main-character energy, but you’ve read this far, so we’re doing this.
When I sense an impending moment of professional success, I sabotage any potential celebration of it by playing that kazoo so loudly that there’s no room for seriousness. It seems I cannot take myself seriously, because if I do, well… this part I haven’t entirely figured out. If I do, maybe my failures won’t be the silly misstep of the offbeat comic relief. They’ll be more tragic somehow, like tragedy is the cost of seriousness. But then I hear myself say that and I think, “Isn’t that a bit much? Tragic to not get tenure? Tragic to get another article rejected? It’s serious but it’s not that serious!” So now I’m on the cusp of thinking rationally, see? And I’m just no good at that. My wheelhouse is coconuts and self-deprecation. Not the charming kind of self-deprecation, either: the defensive kind that assumes it’s just beaten you to the punch.
So if I’m taken seriously by myself, by you, by the people in meetings and conferences who make me so nervous that the music shifts into doubletime––if I’m taken seriously and then I fail and it’s not comic and it’s not tragic, it just is and then it’s done and I move on and try again, then…
Wow, that was a close one, huh? That’s not how it works, obviously. Could you imagine? I was really on the road to la-la-land there for a second. So anyway, like I said at the start of this mess, it’s really very simple: there are people with main-character energy (you, for instance) and people with coconut-music energy (me, clearly). Your task is to thrive in the spotlight and my task is to see how long I can last before people figure out that the coconuts are mine. But listen, since you’ve made it this far—you read to the end for some reason—maybe you could do me a favor and just come clean. Put me out of my misery and just admit it: you’ve heard the music this whole time. I didn’t need to explain it; you already knew that this is who I am. You heard those coconuts from the moment I started, I bet. And you hear them now too, don’t you?
Katie Lanning is an assistant professor of English at Wichita State University, where she teaches eighteenth-century British literature and the history of the book. When not watching The Real Housewives, she writes on text technologies and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reprinting. She has also been known, on occasion, to find Tristram Shandy funny.