There was a video clip circulating around the web of a young man in a plaid shirt being removed from the crowd at Trump’s rally, with various comments along the lines of, “if you don’t clap loud enough, Dear Leader has you taken care of.” Well, it appears that the true isn’t that far off: Meet The Trump Rally’s “Plaid Shirt Guy”. Turns he was a Billings High School student that had applied for tickets to the rally. He insists he wasn’t trying to make fun of the rally. But as the story notes, reporters saw staffers looking at pictures of the teens (who weren’t clapping very often) visible behind the Cadet Bonespur. They were pulled out of the crowd by staffers, taken to a back room where police checked their ID, and eventually escorted them out of the building.
I want to repeat that: police escorted three high school students out of the building because they weren’t clapping as enthusiastically as others in the crowd.
In their interviews, the kids insist they didn’t feel mistreated. I’m sorry, but being escorted out of a public event by police because you have a puzzled expression on your face in the video feed behind the president is mistreatment.
Also, I note that one of the teens says in the interview that as everyone was seated, they were all instructed that they needed to clap often and enthusiastically, and make sure that they smile a lot.
More than twenty years ago my first husband died. Shortly afterword, I got a call from an acquaintance, a former member of the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Chorus. For some context, I had been a founding member of the chorus and had served on the organization side in various aspects. At the time of Ray’s death, I happened to be the Chairperson of the Artistic Direction Committee. This former member supposedly was calling to offer condolences. However, scarcely seconds after the words “Sorry for your loss” left his lips—while I was still replying with some comment about his thoughtfulness—before he launched into a complaint about an incident that had happened two years previously in the chorus, specifically in the Artistic Direction Committee.
He had submitted a set of lyrics to the committee for a song that he hoped the chorus might sing in an upcoming Pride concert. In order for us to have performed the song, the chorus would have had to hire a composer to come up with music to accompany the lyrics, and an arranger to convert that melody into four-part harmony and some sort of accompaniment. As it happened, two years previously when those lyrics had been submitted, I had also been on the committee, serving as the secretary of the committee, and I remembered the meeting where we had evaluated music suggestions that had been submitted for consideration. And I remember reading the lyrics and being underwhelmed—it wasn’t just that it was rather trite poetry of the kind you might expect someone’s grandparent to stick up on the wall somewhere, but it had ended on a defeatist note about staying in the closet rather than being out.
So it had been one of the pieces eliminated early by the committee. We had a very limited budget to hire composers/arrangers, and we all agreed this thing wasn’t worth it.
I was a bit stunned to be sitting there, listening to this guy who had decided to use my recent bereavement as an excuse to bring out this ax to grind, and was trying to figure out how I could possibly respond, when he made the comment that crystalized the real problem. He said, “I don’t know if you know what it’s like when you just really, deeply, sincerely wish to have had your music published, but you never got to go to school to learn music theory or how to arrange music because your family couldn’t afford it. I don’t know if you know how much it hurts that someone who knows how to do that won’t turn the words you’ve written into a song for you.”
He didn’t say that he sincerely wished to make music. No, what he said was that he sincerely wished to have music that someone else made but that he could take credit for produced.
I understand the frustration of not being able to do the whole package. I’m not very good at the art side of things, so if I go the indy publishing route, I’m going to have a difficult (and expensive) time getting good cover art for my books. While arranging is a different skill set than writing music or creating lyrics, it’s something you can learn without having majored in music in university. And particularly when one is in their fifties (as this guy was) and had supposedly been trying to become a songwriter for decades, how can he think it’s okay not to have ever even learned how to read music (yes, he was the kind of chorus member who could only learn the part if someone who could read music sang the melody in his ear).
Some would say I don’t have proper sympathy because I took band and orchestra and various vocal classes in high school, and for one year my major in college was music education (I changed majors a lot: math ed, music ed, communications, journalism, then back to math without the ed part…). But the reason I was in so many different musical groups playing so many different instruments back in the day wasn’t because my family paid for lessons for each of those instruments. Public school teachers taught me to read music and how to almost play the viola and later to play the trumpet. But I taught myself how to play bassoon, ephonium, trombone, french horn, flute, bass clarinet and a bunch of others. And while I’ve only finished full arrangements of a few songs over the years, no one taught me arranging, I taught myself.
I’m not saying that finding teachers isn’t worth it, but I am saying that if you want to be good at something, you have to be willing to work for it. Yes, it is harder for those of us who come from working class families. There are many social, financial, and other systemic barriers to many opportunities in this world.
But there is a point where you need to realize that before you can be a star, you have to learn how to make music (or how to write a story, or how to draw a picture…).
Some people never get that.
And some of them are people who seem to have successful careers in the arena which they aren’t really very good at. These folks have enough privilege to fail their way into middling success. Because of connections and so forth, these guys (it is most often a white guy from an upper middle-class or better background) get jobs where they have some responsibility to create (or direct the creation of) something, and they screw up in various ways, they make promises they can’t keep, but they have an assistant (almost always a woman) who cleans up for them. Anyone who has worked in a large office knows this woman: she may have a title like Executive Assistant or even rarely Office Manager, but the upper management people she reports to clearly think of her as a secretary; but she’s the one that actually makes everything happen. She knows how to work projects through finance. She “cleans up” the boss’s presentations. She smooths things over when morale is down or people are angered by things the boss said or did. She finds solutions to the contradictory instructions.
It doesn’t just happen in boring corporate locations. Lots of people in creative positions are just like those bosses. They make decisions that contradict other things they’ve said. They order people to do things that won’t actually work. They write scripts full of clunky dialog, if that’s part of their project. And other people “clean things up.”
That’s how you get someone who can’t direct an interesting movie to save his life being paid to make one loser after another. It’s how you get best-selling authors who throw temper tantrums when someone writes a critique of their work who are flabbergasted when someone holds the page in front of them and shows them that yes, that passage did come out of their work. That’s how you get senior partners at law firms who had an extensive and impressive record as a prosecutor, when deprived of their phalanx of assistants making blatantly incorrect declarations of the law and actually further incriminating their client in television interviews.
And sometimes, apparently, it’s how you get someone clueless enough to use a supposed condolence call to whine about why other people won’t compose and arrange music to accompany their mediocre poetry.
If you really want to be a rock star, you have to learn to rock and roll. Otherwise, you’re no different than a lip-synching puppet.
A few months back James Palmer posted A Message About Message Fiction that hit several of the points that I have tried making before about writing, including the notion that from one perspective, all fiction is message fiction. Which isn’t to say that every story is meant to convey an ideology or convince the reader to accept a particular thesis. Writers, just like all other people, perceive the world via minds that have been molded by a lifetime of experiences; they craft narratives in frameworks built from their beliefs, memories, hopes, fears, and a plethora of thoughts and ideas encountered throughout their lifetime.
A story cannot exist without such a framework.
But seeing the world through the writer’s eyes is not—or should not be—the same as being indoctrinated with an ideology. I’ve seen many people try to make the distinction between message fiction and fiction which happens to have a message. I never found their arguments persuasive, coming to the conclusion that they were talking about a difference without a distinction. I thought I was through talking about this, but then a friend asked a question about metaphors and how you craft them. At the time, I was too busy explaining that that isn’t how my process works (I never plan a metaphor on purpose; other people have to point them out to me in my story afterward) to notice that while he was talking about metaphors, he also expressed the desire to craft a story that didn’t beat a notion over the reader’s head, but rather left them thinking about things afterward. It didn’t leap out to me until I was re-reading our text exchange later, while looking for a link he’d sent me earlier.
That seemed like an important distinction: preachy message fictions delivers an answer, whereas good stories raise questions.
Yes, the way the author poses the question may tilt toward a particular answer, but that isn’t the same thing as insisting on that answer.
I’m a little embarrassed that this particular means of drawing a distinction didn’t occur to me before, because my own writing process has always been about looking for answers to questions. Sometimes the question is, who are these two characters jabbering away in the back of my head? but it’s always a question. If the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to have great luck, what about the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (or seventh son of seventh daughter, or seventh daughter of a seventh son)? What if a dragon sought redemption? What if a prophet/seer was always right–and she insists that freewill is real? What if a god retires? What if the foretold apocalypse literally can not be averted?
I start with questions like that and then write to try to find an answer. That’s my process, I really am writing to try to find out how the story ends. In longer stories, there is usually a point long before I reach the end where I realize what the ending will be, and then I spend time figuring out how I get from what I have to the end, but I almost never know how a story will end when I start it.
Just because that’s the way I work, I am not saying that that’s the way everyone else ought to write stories. A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite writers usually can’t start a story until he knows the ending. He spends a lot of time thinking about the situation until he figures out how everything will go. That process works for him and creates great tales. But when we’ve talked about his process, he doesn’t talk about metaphors or messages: he talks about actions and consequences, and whether the reader will enjoy the ride. So even then, the focus isn’t on trying to convince the reader to agree with something.
While working on earlier drafts of this blog post, I went back and re-read a lot of the articles and blog posts about message fiction that I had read when wrestling with this question previously. When I examined the specific examples cited in each one, I found that most of those articles that tried to draw a distinction between message fiction and fiction with a message really were just constructing rationalizations to commend messages they agreed with and condemn the messages with which they disagreed. So my earlier conclusion, that it was a difference without a distinction was completely wrong. There was a distinction, but it wasn’t being explicitly (or honestly) delineated.
Some of my favorite stories (whether novels, short stories, or movies) have been tales that blew my mind by making me see something I had never seen before. They made me question my own assumptions. And the ones that did that didn’t just push forward an agenda, they problematized assumptions. What I mean is, they took a set of assumptions—whether the author’s or those held by a significant proportion of society—and examined problematic implications of said assumptions. They created a situation where I could see more than one side of the issue; in other words, they made more than own perspective on the problem appear reasonable.
In other words, they are stories where, at some point in the process, the author was exploring. Which is, in my not-so-humble opinion, an essential part of art. Message fiction doesn’t explore, it dictates. And that isn’t art, at all.
I’ve had several partially drafted blog posts about protagonists and heroes and characters I love reading/watching and characters I love to hate and characters that disappoint and how my feelings as a writer are sometimes different than my reactions as a reader. Which I never seem to be able to finish.
One reason I have trouble finishing any of them is that in many ways it’s one great big nuanced topic in my head, which is impossible to condense into a thousands words, but is just as difficult to break up into meaningful sub-parts without wanting to cross-reference all the other sub-parts. And while the crazy info architect inside me thinks it would be awesome to compose a dozen blog posts each with a dozen footnotes and cross-references to the other, the practical side of me knows that way lies madness.
And then Watts Martin quoted Glen Weldon from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, and this quote covers one of the big concepts in my nuanced ball in far less than a thousand words:
“We tell ourselves we embrace the antihero because we think it’s more sophisticated. We recognize that the world isn’t black and white, and that moral ambiguity and ambivalence is ‘more real.’ We tell ourselves that, and we’re awfully smug about it, but the real reason we’re doing that—that we embrace the antihero—is because we just don’t have the guts to embrace the hero. We’re too cowardly, we’re too cynical to believe in heroes. We distrust ideals because they’re too hopeful and sincere. If we believed in the heroes that embodied them, it means we’d actually have to risk something, put ourselves out there, be hopeful and sincere and look hokey and uncool. The default reflexive cynicism risks nothing.”
Weldon is talking about anti-heroes, which is a protagonist with the opposite of the usual attributes of a hero (idealism, courage, selflessness), but that doesn’t mean that there are only two types of protagonist possible: hero and anti-hero. An anti-hero is different than an imperfect person being heroic. People rationalize the reflexive cynicism Weldon describes by pointing out that no one is perfect, therefore heroes don’t exist. While it is true that no one is perfect, a person doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect in order to be good.
As a reader, I love rooting for a character who isn’t perfect but is trying to do the right thing, any way. Dan Savage likes to say that a successful relationship is a myth two people build together. You each pretend that the other person is their best self—that best-foot-forward version of yourself you presented on your first date. As time goes on, you each try to do a better job of being that better self. It’s not simply a matter of overlooking imperfections, there is also a process of real change, of transforming yourself into someone who deserves the love of the person you love.
That isn’t just true of romantic relationship. A successful friendship is a similar jointly-created myth. And yes, a good relationship between a reader and a beloved character has some elements of that as well.
As a writer, I want readers to identify with my characters. I want them to root for the characters when the characters struggle. I want them to be disappointed when a character makes a mistake. But just as in real life when a good friend disappoints us, I want my reader to still cheer the character on when the character struggles to make amends. I want my character to be that kind of a hero: an imperfect person striving to be their better self.
It’s sincere and it’s hokey and it’s uncool, yes. But that doesn’t make it unrealistic.
So, in the latest edition of the official comic book adventures of the original Captain America, Steve Rogers, the writers (and editors and surely a few other powers that be at the comic book subsidiary of the massive Marvel/Disney conglomerate) decided to publish the shocking plot twist that Steve Rogers has been an evil double agent all along! And by the initial reactions they have had to the less-than-happy reaction of at least some of the public, they seem to be taking great glee in this “amazing” and “clever” twist which they had to take in order to keep the story “fresh” and “relevant.”
This twist is neither fresh, clever, nor amazing. The most polite way to describe it would be as click-bait. And as Jessica Plummer pointed out in a post on Panels.Net (ON STEVE ROGERS #1, ANTISEMITISM, AND PUBLICITY STUNTS), it’s not just ordinary click-bait, it’s using the deaths of the 11 million victims of the Nazi Holocaust as click-bait, which means that it is a bigoted publicity stunt, at that.
I’m not saying that the writers intentionally set out the make an anti-semitic (not to mention homophobic and white supremacist) statement. What I’m talking about is the thoughtless bigotry of people who don’t recognize their own privilege nor the inherent unconscious bigotry that permeates our culture at large. The only people who think that someone who is admired as a hero being revealed to actually be a villain is a surprise are people who have never personally experience systemic prejudice. As Sashayed pointed out in a blog post a few days ago:
There is a particular kind of shock that comes with discovering that someone you care about holds a belief or set of beliefs that is dehumanizing to you personally, if not actually – LOL!! – inimical to your existence. Many if not most women have suffered and weathered this shock. Many people of color have. Many LGBT people have. Relevantly to this specific discussion, MANY Jewish people have. It is not Shocking to anyone in an unprivileged cultural position that someone you like, someone you care about, someone who is a “hero,” even someone you thought cared about YOU, can be revealed to have been metaphorically Working Against You All Along. Nobody thinks it’s fucking SURPRISING that you CAN’T TRUST ANYBODY to be on your side! Of course you can’t! You just adjust to that and try to get through your life in spite of it. No shit, white dudes.
From my own personal experience, I would amend “Many LGBT people have” to “nearly every single LGBT person ever.” As Solarbird commented, elaborating on Sashayed’s observations:
I’ve had three people – three people – that I thought were various degrees of friend start posting things from anti-queer groups just this spring. This “ha ha really evil” thing is fucking routine. One of them was even one of the tiny, tiny number of Christians I’ve always brought up to myself whenever I’ve tried to tell myself, “they’re not all like this, they’re not all like this, remember, there’s X and Y and Z” and SURPRISE! X IS TOTALLY WILLING TO POST ANTI-QUEER MEMES AND DEFEND THAT! so I’ve just been through this again recently.
Hell, I’ve been through this so many times it almost – almost – doesn’t even faze me anymore. (Well, okay, X did, and I have now learned that lesson.) It’s more a matter of, “okay, move this one to “Surprise Explicit Enemy” category, and two more to add to the absolutely do not trust list.“
If you’re queer in this society, you have to keep lists like that, you see. It sucks.
So yeah, this is not new to my life, and more of it is the opposite of shocking. It’s more just…
…one more goddamned disappointment. Of which I have had enough.
One of my experiences along this line was a friend who had been arguing emphatically on a particular public forum for a law that would “quarantine” all gay men in “medical camps” (this was back in the late 90s or early 00s); when other people pointed out she was being homophobic, she actually named me as one of her gay friends whose existence proved that she wasn’t a bigot! She didn’t hate me, she just firmly believed that every single gay, lesbian, and bisexual person was deeply and incurably mentally ill, and that we needed to be locked up for our own good. But she wasn’t a bigot.
Or the many times my aunt who regularly posts articles and memes and so forth saying that god is going to destroy america because of marriage equality or queer rights or trans people using public bathrooms, and then sends disappointed messages wondering why I and my husband don’t visit more often. And how can I say she’s bigoted? She loves me and all of her gay and lesbian friends, and has said so many times.
So, yes, don’t color me surprised by this shocking and tone-deaf development.
And there’s more. I reblogged some observations on Tumblr that it is very telling that the producers of Captain America are quite willing to make him a Nazi or Hydra double agent, but remain adamant that the character couldn’t possibly be bisexual. Equally telling is that the same fanboys who come out in angry droves when someone posts fan art or fic that depicts Cap as bisexual, have remained completely silent at this revelation that Cap has been secretly a Nazi all along. Someone felt the need to admonish me about that, because “making this about queer representation is dismissive of the persecution of Jewish people.”
No. No it is not. First of all, we can be upset about more than one aspect of an egregiously bad storytelling decision. We can point out that it is both anti-semitic and racist towards various people of color. We can point out that a situation is anti-semitic, racist, homophobic, and sexist all at the same time. Mentioning one or more of the problematic aspects doesn’t erase or diminish any of the others.
Furthermore, reducing a comment about homophobia (and the linkage between it and other bigotry) to the phrase “representation” is a form of erasure. It’s playing oppression olympics, saying that one group is more oppressed than another. It’s saying we can’t talk about homophobia until all other “more important” issues have been utterly solved.
And that’s pure B.S.
Besides, I hate to have to be the one to point this out, dear anonymous Tumblr commenter, but those 11 million victims of the Nazis you mentioned? That included between 5,000 and 15,000 gay men. In fact, homosexuals were among the very first groups targeted for internment in the camps by the Nazis in 1933. Even worse, when the allies liberated the camps, while prisoners who had been locked up because they were Jewish or Roma or biracial and so forth were set free? The homos were transferred to regular prisons.
The death toll of the Nazi camps also included nearly a quarter million Roma (who were targeted as an ethnic group), tens of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses (the denomination was identified as an enemy of the Aryan race relatively early because of its public resistance to the racist policies of the Nazis), biracial people, and pretty much every ethnic group the Nazis didn’t consider Aryan. They also locked up a lot of white folks for the horrific crime of being married to someone that wasn’t Aryan, having had children with someone who wasn’t Aryan, and so on. This gets to the real reason I made the link between the refusal to consider that Steve Rogers might be bi and anti-semitism:
The bigotries tend to go hand in hand. If someone is homophobic, that’s a very good indicator they are also sympathetic to misogynist ideas, racist notions, and yes, anti-semitic assumptions, too. If supposedly heroic people being bigots comes of no surprise to many of us, the fact that people who are homophobic are bigoted toward a lot of other groups should come as even less of a surprise.
I understand this is a comic book, and that comics have a long tradition of rescinding storylines or retroactively changing continuity whether it be telling us in a few issues it was all a clever plot to trick some of the bad guys, or that it is really a Skrull shapeshifter pretending to be Captain America, or some other hand-waving. If that’s what they had in mind all along, that makes it even more of a cheap trick. It’s a publicity stunt that tramples on the history of a character that was created by two Jewish men: Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon) and Jack Kirby (birth name Jacob Kurtzberg) explicitly as not merely an anti-Nazi symbol, but as the embodiment of what they thought were some of the most noble aspirations of the human heart.
I’m not saying the writers don’t have a right to tell this story. I’m not arguing for censorship. I’m simply pointing out what it was a bad choice. I’ve tried to explain why it isn’t a clever or creative plot twist, but rather a dickish stunt. It’s disrespectful of the audience. It is using the horrible murders of 11,000,000 humans as clickbait. And it is a bad choice artistically. As Pablo Picasso said:
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.
This is trampling the hopes of some people in the dust of mockery in order to try to make yourself look clever. That isn’t art at all.
A couple months ago I had to read a bunch of “stories” which were actually just sermons. Which was extremely ironic since the author of most of those stories (and the people who put those and similar stories onto a ballot we’ve already discussed to death) all claimed that they had taken the actions they had because they were tired of reading stories with messages1.
Over dinner last night, my husband pointed out2 that C.S. Lewis, even when writing stories that were meant to be Biblical allegory, remembered that the stories had to be stories first: fully-rounded characters that you care about facing obstacles that seem insurmountable which they overcome through their own actions. And that made me realize that even Lewis’s Christian apologetic novel, The Screwtape Letters was less preachy than some of the other stories we were discussing—because even while discoursing on the nature of human imperfection in the form of letters from a senior demon to his nephew (who is a Junior Tempter), Lewis created a demon who was, as a character, sympathetic and relatable.
I’ve written about this before, during which I quoted (and disagreed with) a Christian filmmaker’s argument that all fiction has a message. The same argument has been being repeated by a lot of people in the discussions specifically about sci fi/fantasy writing, with a new variant: maybe none of us (of any political opinion) notice the messages we agree with because we are so passionate about the things we believe.
I think this is just as wrong as the earlier version. All fiction tells stories, yes, and those stories will embody the values of the author in many ways. I’ve given the example that part of my fundamental temperament is a refusal to accept a no-win situation4, and therefore even when I write grim stories with unhappy endings5, there winds up being at least some hint of a glimmer of hope somewhere in the tone of the story.
But the C.S. Lewis example belies that notion that all fiction is message fic. Yes, some people find the allegory of the Narnia books not to their liking, but I haven’t met anyone who’s read them who can’t explain the plot. Yet, I read scores of reviews of “Parliament of Beast and Birds” earlier this summer (by some very smart people) who couldn’t find a plot6.
So I remain firm in believing that if your story is a message, you’re dong it wrong. That isn’t how you make good art.
I agree that messages are to be found in stories. But they ought to be more like that one alluded to in the Neal Gaiman quote, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” They are meanings that can be inferred by the reader. They are meanings that different readers will interpret in different ways. The interpretations of some readers can contradict the interpretations of other readers and can contradict the interpretation of the author.
Some readers will come away from the story knowing that dragons can be beaten. Others will come away convinced that wizards always find loopholes. Others will say that kings always find ways to take credit for other people’s work. Others may say the message is never to underestimate the damsel. And some, of course, will say the message is humans would rather kill an endangered species than learn how to live with them.
If the story is art, if the storyteller has done their job, the world of the story should be vivid enough and rich enough for readers to find and see all of those sorts of things in the tale. Which is what you want. You want the reader to be transported into a world that they will experience and interpret themselves. You want the reader to share your vision, yes, but you want that vision to take on a life of its own and for the reader to find visions of their own.
That is the opposite of a sermon, whose goal is to bring a person around to thinking the “right” way. To adhere to the truth as defined by the speaker.
I want my readers to run through the imaginary world and find new things that I never dreamed of.
2. We were on the subject because he had been reading one of his favorite sci fi zine sites and had gotten pulled into the comments section of a book review, if I recall correctly3.
3. I was into my second glass of my favorite wine at my favorite restaurant, so I am probably getting the details wrong.
4. Intellectually, I know that lots of situations are no-win, but there’s always that one voice in the back of my head arguing that we should just spend a little more time and try something else…
5. And despite the fact that more than one reader has accused me of being a hopeless optimist who writes everything through rose-colored glasses, I actually have written more than a few tragedies.
6. Or figure out what the story was supposed to be about7.
7. Quick sum-up: imagine an idiot savant has read some Aesop’s Fables and then binge-read the entire Christian apocalyptic snuff-porn series, Left Behind8, and then attempts to write fanfic of it.
8. To be fair, much of the New Testament’s Book of Revelations is treated as snuff-porn by a lot of Xtians I knew growing up. One of them was me. It was my grandfather who pointed out to me that I was spending all my time and energy focusing on the end of the word, when god put us here to build each other up and make the world a better place.
Sometimes it feels as if my whole life consists of defending why I like something. When I was a kid, I was frequently called up to justify why I preferred reading books to playing with other kids my age. Even the notion that reading was educational wasn’t enough to satisfy some people (many of them teachers). And heaven forfend that I should mention how many times “playing” with kids my age actually meant being bullied, harassed, and ridiculed non-stop! As I got older, the kind of books I liked became the issue. “Reading too much make-believe is unhealthy!1” or “Aren’t you a little old to believe in all the space hooey?2”
Of course, it wasn’t just the science fiction and fantasy that set people off. If I was caught reading a book about science fact, or the hardcover of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House my grandma bought me at a library sale, or my well-worn paperback of Homer’s The Iliad, it was more proof that I was an “over-educated freak4.”
When I finally escaped to college and met people who valued reading over sports, I thought that I had left all of that behind. Oh, how naive I was! According to these literati wannabes, my tastes were quite low brow. How could I possible understand the meaning of serious art and literature if I actually enjoyed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or The White Dragon or Harpist in the Wind or Midnight at the Well of Souls? Or even worse, I watched television!?
It’s easy to dismiss those latter examples as either snobbery or hipster-ism. Except I can be just as guilty of judging other people for liking things that I don’t.
Who am I kidding? I have been incredibly worse about this. When I think a particular book or series or movie or what-have-you is not just unlikeable, but very badly made, it will completely boggle my mind when someone I know actually likes it. And I seem to be absolutely incapable of hiding my incredulity. I frequently have to remind myself that sometimes what I think of as one of a particular work’s mediocre-but-not-awful parts might be someone else’s fiction kink. And by fiction kink I mean, it’s something they like or identify with so much that it can be a redeeming quality. Such a redeeming quality makes the parts some of us see as glaring shortcomings, merely a small price to pay to get the other thing.
Goodness knows I have my own favorite books, series, and movies that I know are flawed, but I enjoy them anyway because they contain a particular character dynamic, or a type of plot line, or use a particular combination of mythic tropes which appeal to me. I try to make the distinction between something that I don’t like for reasons of taste as opposed to something I don’t like for reasons of actual quality. It is a subjective judgement, but not an impossible one.
I got tired of finding myself having to defend my preferred reading material. Eventually, I was saved by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy, the Russian author of such great classic novels as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I have to confess that I tried to read War and Peace at least a couple of times, and just failed to plough all the way through it. And failing to get through it was one of the things that made me wonder if those people who said my tastes were too low brow to understand great works of art were correct. But then, when a similar sort of discussion happened in one of my college literature classes, the instructor5 quoted a bit from Tolstoy’s nonfiction book, What is Art? I think it was this passage:
The assertion that art may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art itself…it is the same as saying some kind of food is good but most people can’t eat it.
Not long after that, I found a copy of the book in the library, which I wound up checking out and reading. There are a lot of Tolstoy’s arguments in the book which I don’t agree with. He had adopted, by the time he wrote it, a rather radical form of Christian anarchy. So he critiqued a lot of specific examples of art as being immoral in content—more often because he thought it promoted capitalism and classism than the sorts of things that get the modern religious right up in arms. He dissed Shakespeare and Dickens, for instance (though with a lot of caveats in Dickens’ case, since much of Dickens’ later work was critical of the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution).
Despite those parts of his thesis with which I still disagree, his arguments in favor of accessibility and sincerity in art helped me figure out that those literati wannabes had mistaken obscurity for superiority. They’ve fallen victim to the notion that if “ordinary” people enjoy something, it cannot possibly be high quality. If you define art by its difficulty to be comprehended, you’ve completely misunderstood what art is. That doesn’t mean that art can’t be challenging, but there is a difference between a piece that requires thought, afterthought, and re-visiting to tease out all the layers of meaning and something which hides its meaninglessness under layers of pretension.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
The way I usually try to sum up Tolstoy’s notion is: Art happens when the heart of the artist touches the heart of the audience, and the audience responds. The audience doesn’t have to like it; a piece of art that evokes intense dislike must be doing something right, or you wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. But art should never leave you unmoved.
1. The exact words said both to me (and later to my parents at a parent-teacher conference) by my seventh grade social studies teacher. He was not that only one who said things to that general effect.
2. The exact words said to me by a minister3 of another church who caught me reading during afternoon free time on a rainy day at Bible camp. Again, he was not the only person by any means to make similar comments about my penchant for both science fiction and science fact, particularly NASA.
3. Of course, this was the same preacher who thought it was funny, when teasing or disagreeing with a boy (he never would do such a thing to a girl, oh no!), to grab your pinkie, twist it into a stress position, and keep you there not only until you agreed with whatever he was trying to make you say, but that you cried sufficiently that he thought you had learned your lesson.
4. The favorite phrase one of my uncles like to use to describe me.
5. Several instructors quoted Tolstoy at me around this time. Another literature profession quoted the famous line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” but he completely misunderstood it. On the other hand, one of my mathematics professors quoted the exact same line, and then explained how the line was the perfect example of an important statistics concept. The concept is sometimes referred to as the Anna Karenina principle in honor of the Tolstoy novel from which the line comes. One way to think of the principle is this: in any system, there are a large number of ways that a given process can fail, and the only way to achieve success is to avoid every single possible failure. A successful outcome depends on every single requirement being met, whereas a single shortcoming in only one requirement can cause failure of the entire endeavor.
My uncle Joe was a metal-smoothing wizard. Most of the men on Mom’s side of the family were car mechanics of one sort or another, and Joe was good at troubleshooting engines and fast at replacing various engine components, but where he really shined was body work. He took it as a personal affront if someone suggested filling in mangled, crumpled fender with Bond-o. Joe didn’t just believe in pounding a metal fender out, he wanted to take the time to smooth the metal back into the shape it had been. He rolled and tapped it until you couldn’t tell there had ever been anything amiss, before saying it was ready for primer and painting. Watching him work on a car’s quarter panel was like watching true magic.
Joe is my mom’s baby brother and only four years older than me. As a teen-ager working in a body shop, he did a better job coaxing the crumpled car body parts back into shape than men who had been doing the job for decades. But people outside the body shop didn’t seem to value it as a talent. It was something he had a knack for, they might say. Or it was a skill you could make a decent living at. But it wasn’t really talent.
A lot of those same people insisted that I had Talent, with a capital-t. Because I was clever with words. I could think quickly on my feet, recalls enormous amount of data, construct compelling arguments, and paint vivid pictures with words. They were certain that god had given me these gifts and intended me for great things.
Brandon Ambrosino, writing for Vox, asks, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” He’s writing specifically about the recently released movie, “Old Fashioned,” though he mentions a few other recent examples. The full article is worth a read, but I want to focus on a couple of points:
As Daniel Siedell, Art Historian in Residence at The King’s College in New York City, notes, “For [Evangelical Christians], culture is a tool, a more effective way of getting at political realities, or winning the battle of ideas in the public arena.”
Siedell uses the following analogy with his students to explain what he means.
Imagine a gorgeously wrapped gift sitting under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The presentation of the package, while pretty, is nowhere near as valuable as what’s inside.
Now, he says, extend that idea to Christian art. The artistic qualities of a work become the unnecessary wrapping paper. As such, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad they are.
That’s why it doesn’t matter that Old Fashioned is often very boring. It doesn’t matter that the script bursts at the seams with overwrought dialogue, or that the actors (outside of lead actress Elizabeth Roberts) offer phoned-in performances.
Ambrosino eventually disagrees with this point, but I don’t think he does so as vehemently as he should. Quality is not just the packaging. Quality is an inherent property of the entire work of art. When you think you can make a work of art and treat the artistic qualities of the work as superfluous, you are not making art. Period. I understand the mind set of the evangelicals, believe me! I was raised in that sub-culture, and once people noticed I had what they considered Talent, everything I wrote and did was evaluated through that lens of whether they felt it was proclaiming the message of Christ.
I tried to make one of Ambrosino’s points at the time: if the quality of what we produce is a turn-off, it doesn’t matter how important the message is. People will never listen to your message if they are bored by your story/movie/what have you. But it always fell on deaf ears.
Part of the problem with both my argument then and Ambrosino’s now is that we’re conceding something that we know is wrong. In order to try to make the argument that they should try to be better at making art in order to get their message across, we are buying into the fallacy that art is merely a means to deliver a message. It’s their argument:
Brian Godawa, Christian screenwriter, thinks it’s important to note that Christian films aren’t the only ones that are explicitly preachy. All films, says Godawa, “have messages to some degree or another, and writers and directors know full well they’re embodying those messages in their storytelling.”
I’ve written before that it is impossible to create art that is true to yourself without your values informing the work. That’s not the same thing as a message. I know that I’m a big believer in hope, so my stories, even when I write things I considered very dark, always have some hint of a glimmer of hope. But that isn’t the same as a message. I don’t write a story because I wish it will make other people feel the same way about hope as I do. I write stories because the stories want to be told. My own perspective will always be to look for that glimmer of hope, so I see the stories that way.
But each reader will have his or her own perspective, as well. And even though I am the storyteller, it’s their story, too. Their interpretation of what the story means (to them) is just as valid as mine.
And while I often have very strong opinions about the stories, art, and music I love; I understand that they are my opinions. I may think that your opinion about that particular piece of art is utterly wrong, but I will defend your right to express it. I may debate you about it, but I expect you to argue back.
That’s the difference between trying to send a message and letting your belief inform your artistic endeavors. I don’t consider it a failure if a reader doesn’t agree with me at the end. I don’t even consider it a failure if some readers don’t like the story at all. I especially don’t consider it a failure if a reader feels compelled to tell me just how much they hated one of the characters, or that they are angry at me about how the story ended.
Because in order to hate a character, you have to believe in the character. In order to be angry about how the story ended, you have to become invested in how it ends.
Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing from readers who tell me they liked something, or that they found a particular character adorable. Someone told me that recently about a pair of characters in one of my stories, and I just about died from pure happiness. But you know what? A few years ago when one reader wrote to tell me, in regards to a particularly ruthless character I had written about, “I don’t trust him at all!” and others wrote to tell me how much they loved the same character, I just about died from glee.
The people who are delivering messages want one and only one reaction to their story. You must agree with them. If you don’t agree with them, you have failed to learn the lesson they are so desperate to teach you.
And that’s completely backwards from how it ought to me.
“Nothing is created without passion.” I’ve read it in interviews, read it in writing books, or heard it in panel discussions dozens of times: the successful artists or writers are the ones who feel an overwhelming passion to create this piece or tell this story. Google “passion to create” and you’ll turn up hundreds of articles and blog posts about finding your passion and channelling it. Also scores of articles about how passion alone isn’t enough.
It must be the truth, because so many people are saying it, right?