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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

 

People should read more widely

Have you ever watched a series on television or a set of movies that took a saddening decline? Probably you have, fictional entropy being what it is, but there's a particular phenomenon I'm thinking about at the moment: a story that was always great fun and not very deep suddenly becoming full of 'emotional' moments between characters, 'poignant' reflections on the difficulties of life and generally speaking pumped-up stuff that has nothing to do with what made it good.

And then you read an Internet review or discussion and find that everyone is saying how great it is that it's becoming more touching.

Obviously I'm always right, unlike everybody else, which is why I feel free to say this, but I really think that this is cock-eyed. There's nothing wrong with light entertainment: if it's done well, it can be beautiful. But if something is conceived as light entertainment, then making it heavy drama is not going to work.

Take the comic genius P.G. Wodehouse, for example. His books have pretty much nothing to say about the important questions of the world, and it doesn't matter: they're all joy of living rather than introspection about Life, which is entirely legitimate. But supposing he, or someone else, decided that it was time to make the stories more poignant. Suddenly the comedy and plotting is being crowded out by reflections on why Bertie finds the idea of love so difficult, why Jeeves seems so resolute on keeping his own life concealed from his closest friend while manipulating him, why nobody takes Madeleine Basset's imagination seriously... Well, the very idea does bring home to me a sense of profound sadness, but only because it would be messing with something that should be left alone. For one thing, this stuff would be getting in the way of what made Wodehouse's books so brilliant in the first place, and for another, it just wouldn't work. Bertie and Jeeves are not real people whose emotions can be explored in depth: they're fictional characters, works of art. Characters are essentially functional creations, and specialist ones at that: they're designed to do certain things better than others. Wodehouse's characters are specifically designed to be weightless. They're sculptures made of feathers and spun sugar: they're beautiful to contemplate, perfect in their airy lightness, but will not support anything heavy. There just isn't enough there; it's like expecting a kitten to explain Schopenhauer.

Yet somehow, some people - and I've seen this on numerous works of art - seem to feel that, because they've gotten fond of, say, Bertie and Jeeves, that means they should get their emotional lives looked at seriously. (I'm using them as examples because I haven't actually seen anybody doing this to the Wodehouse books, so I'm not insulting anybody directly. If anybody has, please don't tell me about it, please, it would be too painful to see perfection spoiled.) Write an unfunny Wodehouse pastiche where poignancy replaces comedy, and you'll see notional Wodehouse fans pleased at the 'development'.

This is bizarre and puzzling. I do not think that Internet discussions infallibly represent the majority of readers or viewers - the majority of consumers of any successful work of art are probably just going to consume it and not bother to weigh in on public discussions, which can give a very skewed perspective to such discussions, which is why feedback should always be listened to with a small pinch of salt. But I fear that there's a simple explanation for this trend: it's a desire for stories to be seriously dramatic by people who don't like serious drama.

This is kind of silly. If you want serious drama, there is a wealth of drama to choose from. Watch Hedda Gabler or King Lear. There is plenty of drama that's created to be drama, meaning that the characters are designed to bear the weight of serious questions. Suicides and existential questions don't belong in Wodehouse, but if you want to watch them happen, there are places where they're well handled.

But I can't help suspecting that many people are under the impression that serious drama is basically boring. So they stick to consuming light stuff - except that buried underneath the serious-is-boring conviction is a natural human desire to see a wide range of emotions. Rather than getting it by widening the range of fiction they consume, some people instead want the lighter stuff to get more serious - I think this is connected to my peeve about 'darker is better', which you'll see me griping about a few posts ago.

But it doesn't work. A light piece suddenly having to do the work of King Lear doesn't take on the good qualities of both kinds, it takes on the bad ones: the shallowness of light work combined with the funlessness of heavy work. It becomes, in short, a bad light work rather than a good serious one. Or possibly just a mess that doesn't know what it's trying to be.

It's not a dishonourable intention. Possibly - you can never tell the ages of people on the Net - it's the reaction of people in their teens, who are starting to develop a taste for mature emotions but a) don't quite yet know what those are, and b) haven't quite got it together to tackle older works; there's a stage where you reject childlike stuff because you're still frightened of being mistaken for a child, and where the sophistication that goes into creating innocent fun passes over your head. Comedy is a serious accomplishment, but it takes a degree of experience to grasp that. Or possibly it's the reaction of older people whose reading and/or viewing habits got set in their ways at too young an age, who have the nagging sense that there's more to life than just adventurous romping. But it isn't good for art if it's followed. Blue Kitten the Wonderpuss is not the best vehicle for a psycho-sexual deconstruction of marriage; she's better off just being a really good blue kitten. Life can always do with blue kittens; it can be a sane, sad place, and things that cheer people up make it a better world. But trying to make something that's essentially simple fun into an emotional drama doesn't make for a mature work; it makes for a work that is, at base, a child teetering around on her mother's high heels.

This fallacy cuts both ways. Have you ever sat through one of those movies that combines an arthouse style with some schlocky-fun type scenes, and felt kind of bored? Now don't get me wrong. I like arthouse. I like good schlocky fun as well. I just don't think the two tend to combine very well. If I want arthouse, I'll watch something that doesn't have overblown action scenes that mar the delicate mood; if I want schlock, I'll watch schlock done by someone who specialises in it and can actually do it really well, because arthouse action scenes tend not to be as good as action scenes directed by, y'know, action directors. I have a DVD player, and there's no law that says I can't watch Raise the Red Lantern on Monday, followed by The Terminator on Tuesday, followed by The Double Life of Veronique on Wednesday, followed by Enter the Dragon on Thursday, and then actually go out and have a social life on Friday before my eyes go completely square. Because, the thing is, a good action scene is a joy to watch. They're fun. And they're not stupid either: you try making five men fight each other in a room full of falling objects and see if you can line up the shots so the audience can even follow what's going on, never mind get excited about it. Watching a good action scene is like watching a good athlete: you get to see something that's very difficult to do performed well, and that's a fine thing to see.

But some people, who probably share my ultimate preference for things like dialogue and cinematography, don't watch to watch action movies. They've heard they're mindless. So the simple enjoyment of watching a big dramatic scene is something they don't get very often - but put one in a movie that, because it has an arthouse presentation, is something they're actually likely to see, and you get a huge overreaction, even if, as action scenes go, you can probably see better ones in more mass-market movies. Some people say this is because such viewers are snobbish and only feel they're allowed to like action if it's in an arthouse, but that's insulting and patronising, and feels pretty close to the standard argument that people only ever say they like arthouse to impress other arthouse snobs because nobody could possibly really like that stuff. And as I do actually like that stuff, I know that's wrong. What I think may be more likely is that if you show a mostly arthouse audience a medium-quality action movie, you've got a whole auditorium full of virgin minds. Rather than judging critically, as experienced action fans might, you get a primal, visceral 'Oooohh!', much like the noise George Lucas got out of audiences with the famous opening shot of Star Wars (a big spaceship going over your head for ages, I'm sure you've seen it): a wide-eyed wonder from people who've simply never seen anything like it. There's actually plenty like it around, but they haven't been watching those kinds of movies, because they don't know they'd enjoy them.

Which is silly. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a good spectacle. You can even justify it intellectually if you want to: cinema is a medium that naturally lends itself to the overwhelming, to sound and sight rather than to ratiocination, to the primal impact rather than the obscure and the intellectual. What other medium engages so many of your senses at once? You have to meet a book halfway, but a movie reaches out and pins you to your seat. It's not the only thing a film can do, but one of the things it does better than any other medium is to stun your rational mind with sensory overload. Kubrick does it in most of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and he was pretty darn clever.

And come to that, you can justify it intellectually if you want good simple fun with books as well. But frankly, I don't think you have to. Who are you justifying yourself to? It's your bookshelf, it's your brain, you can fill both of them with whatever you like. I always go on the assumption that if I like something, there must be something good about it, even if it's just good at being mildly diverting and undemanding. You try to write an undemanding book that holds people's attention and see how much intelligence it takes. Easy reading is damned hard writing, as the saying goes, and I have profound respect for anyone who can pull it off.

But people who are primarily used to stuff being intellectually demanding, who like intellectually demanding, can forget that there are other equally valid kinds of art, and get all worked up over not-particularly-good spectacle or fun because they just aren't used to it, much as people who aren't used to drama can get worked up over poor dramatic writing because they don't have experience of the real stuff.

What we have, in short, is people with overly limited tastes expecting one kind of fiction to satisfy every artistic desire. This is bad for art, because it forces it to try to be all things to all men. Which we don't need. We can have lots of art rather than just one kind. We can have good examples of every kind of artistic pleasure everyone can think of! A multiplicity of good is better than a homogenous mishmash of mediocre.

So read around, everyone! If anyone reading this is holding out for a more dramatic and serious side to their favourite sitcom or adventure series, please take my advice: the fact that you want stuff to be serious and dramatic is probably a sign that you won't find serious drama nearly as boring as you think you will. It's a sign that you'd enjoy it. And if you really rather liked the new sensation of watching something spectacular, it's fine to enjoy that stuff for its own sake, and if you can do that, there's a shedload of things out there you'll have fun with. Really, there's a lot of good stuff out there, and you should try it. Let the light be light and the serious be serious, and you'll be getting the best of both worlds.

Comments:
My best friend writes light romance. I write SF. Neither of us is going to change the world with our words. Other people sometimes (okay, often) look down on us for writing such "fluff."

However, light, entertaining books can be a joy and a comfort in tough times. How many times have I come home after a hard day and just loved curling up with a good book? If I can give that pleasure to someone else, then I have done good in the world.
 
I asked the kitten to explain Schopenhauer and she just looked at me with those big eyes. I guess she's still reading Nietzche.
 
Right on. Good art is art that achieves what it's set out to achieve, and does it well. If your aim is to provide a nice curl-up book that makes a hard day a little nicer, then that's entirely honourable.
 
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