Why Franz Kafka is the A$AP Rocky of 20th Century Literature

SAMUEL HYLAND

Franz Kafka is the A$AP Rocky of classic literature. 

Allow me to explain.

One of the most surreal experiences I remember ever having consists of me sitting on a ten-hour flight, thirty-six thousand feet in the air, surrounded by snoozing middle-aged briefcase toters, completely entranced – albeit completely stumped – by a Kafka story about a guy who runs away from his best friend only to find himself captivated by a nude, overtly spiritual, fat man being carried via palanquin into the sea by loyal servants who eventually drown. 

I didn’t know what the absolute fuck was going on. 

I kind of liked it. 

For just about all of his career with a pen, Franz Kafka used his talent to craft similarly bizarre stories for readers who often met them with confusion. He was a sojourner of ideas. Flip through any rendition of his Complete Works, and you’d find tales of first-time time travelers facing life-changing decisions sitting within mere pages of men waking up as giant insect-creatures – the very essence of the “ahead of his time” recognition he enjoys today. Most 20th Century readers, however, weren’t digging it nearly as much. 

So much enthusiastic devotion has been lavished on Franz Kafka by our intelligentsia,” reads one 1948 article, “that by now not only the issues of his writings are thoroughly shrouded and confused, but even some of the basic facts have been left in the shuffle.” 

Another German column merely stated, following his death, “He belonged to the Prague literary circle of Max Brod. A number of stories have appeared by him.”     

That’s the thing about Franz Kafka, though: you weren’t supposed to understand him.

Grasp this: Franz Kafka could have easily been the classic, archetypal, Ernest Hemingway figure of his era. His storytelling ability could have given him a legacy of Mark Twain proportions. His exceptional skill could have made his name unignorable in conversations of Century number 20’s greatest authors.

But it didn’t.

Rather than appease the trend of tranquil, domestic plot matter that dominated the 1900s, he channeled his abilities to spew out tales regarding all kinds of crazy, screwed-up shit previously unknown to mankind – and he didn’t give a damn about how you felt.    

It was this daring approach to the industry that created a sentiment of “wasted creativity” in his case – and despite the nonsensical tune of the idea some eleven decades later, I have no choice but to understand it. If you’re in the early 1900s, do you really want to read about a man and his magnificent torture machine? Think about it. You’re living in 20th Century Europe – no, screw it, 20th Century Germany to be specific, where your fellow citizens are starving to death because of a World War One blockade, and all the country-wide agony is just a precursor to the hell that’ll soon be broken loose by the Treaty of Versailles. Is a hunger artist who claims that “to starve is the easiest thing in the world” really what you want to read about?      

Mid-World-War or not, if you’re alive during the early stages of literature, you don’t want to read about stuff that doesn’t exist. You want to read about forbidden working-class lovers, cul-de-sacs, and 9 to 5’s.

You want to stay in your comfort zone.

…And, for the most part, that isn’t problematic – it only becomes an issue when your conservatism becomes the rationale for a creative being deemed talentless.

So, how does a 20th Century Chzechoslovakian novelist compare in any fashion to a modern-day Harlem rapper? Don’t worry, I didn’t forget.

When I first read DJ Booth’s controversial 2019 article on the fifteen most disappointing legacies in hip-hop, I was shocked to see A$AP Rocky’s name come up at all — let alone as high as number 5 on the list. Naturally, I sought the reasoning for this evaluation. 

Written in bold directly underneath the ranking was: “Rocky’s Ceiling: Best MC of his era; top-25 MC ever”. 

What witchcraft could have taken him from this to “5th-most disappointing legacy in rap”?

Granted, A$AP Rocky doesn’t have a legitimate excuse for failing to live up to his potential, (and) (…) Unfortunately for hip-hop heads, Rocky decided to step away at his peak,” the article reads.

He could’ve been the jigga (Jay-Z) of his generation. Instead, A$AP is more comparable to Kanye: a rapper who latched onto his next hobby (Fashion) en route to forgetting his true potential.”

 

A$AP Rocky puts his “next hobby” on display in a 2019 Prada photoshoot.

There’s a lot to unpack here.   

First off, today, with the multi-faceted cultural omnipresence that art has grown to own, these comments are absolutely unbased. 2020 isn’t Medieval Europe, nor is it early 20th Century Czechoslovakia, wherein artists are expected to remain voluntarily confined to one medium to which they exert all of their creative energy — 2020 is a time that sees rappers as designers, politicians as movie stars, and athletes as Oscar-winning producers. 

So, when DJ Booth claims that Rocky (Kanye, too) “wasted his potential” by seeking several outlets of creativity at once, the site speaks for a generation that sees rappers as only rappers. Politicians as only politicians. Athletes as only athletes. 

Which brings me to my next point: 

It’s time we started seeing artists as artists.

When a renowned music figure releases a record that steps away from the norms of his/her respective genre, an outcry often follows amidst the dismissive label of “experimental”.

Take A$AP Rocky’s TESTING for example. 

When the Harlem rapper released his 2018 effort, it was immediately met with nationwide incertitude. He even said to Rolling Stone, “I felt that the masses didn’t get it at the start. (…) I was like, Man, did my crowd, did my cult following forget how to mosh?”

Crowd-moshing is highly encouraged at A$AP Rocky concerts.

While in some ways Testing is more musical than anything we’ve heard from A$AP Rocky before,” one Metacritic review stated, “it’s also more confused, with ideas and musical shifts colliding at times to the point of randomness.

Another wrote: “Instead of creating a new wave, A$AP Rocky has drowned himself in his own ambitions and lost his identity along the way.” 

When a 20th Century painter, though, dumps haphazard splotches of paint, scrawls of smashed brushstroke endings, and a randomized assortment of unpleasant hues onto a larger-than-life canvas, we don’t call it a selfish waste of expressive energy. 

We gaze at it from behind a barricade, awestruck, in whatever renowned museum we happen to be visiting that day, and think to ourselves: This, right here, is culture.

The problem with that? Jackson Pollock died 64 years ago. 

Final point: Artists don’t deserve to die before their work becomes valuable.

In the same conversation that sees A$AP Rocky tell Rolling Stone of his disappointment with TE$TING’s reception, he also states: “I kind of forgot that’s the same thing that happened with my album prior: I put it out, people fucked with it, and then throughout time people are, ‘Oh my God, this is a masterpiece’”.  

Reading the quote, I was made to think: Why is it that we’re always so late to recognize quality? It goes for albums, books, films and all. When we don’t get it on the first listen, the first read, the first watch, typically only when it’s the work of a favorite influencer of ours do we re-consume it as many times as it takes to finally be able to tweet: ‘This (album/book/film) really grew on me’ to followers we hope will someday admire personal heroes the way we do.

But, there’s an entire demographic of consumers that aren’t willing to take that second listen, that second read, that second look. And if it doesn’t please them on the first try, the album’s legacy is encapsulated by ignorant outcries of “trash”. The book lives on as “boring”. The movie fades into black as a “waste of time”

And Unfortunately, sometimes we wait too late to recognize quality.

Three fourths of the Ramones’ original lineup died before the band was given a Grammy for lifetime  achievement. 

Emily Dickinson died of Bright’s disease centuries before tens of thousands of her poems became cherished by the public that once isolated her.

Franz Kafka died decades before his stories influenced the direction of an entire genre.

A$AP Rocky is still alive. And yes, to answer your question as explicitly as possible, Franz Kafka is the A$AP Rocky of classic literature in that his creativity became the very thing used to cast an unjust shadow over his talent.

But, just like A$AP Rocky, millions of other artists are still alive to create the art that they were put on this Earth to create. Don’t get me wrong – art isn’t something you must understand all the time, but the fact that you don’t never means that it is any less worthy of your respect.

We should at least let our artists feel some of this respect while they’re alive to appreciate it.