Sunday, January 23, 2011
‘When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.’
--Enrique Jardiel Poncela, Spanish playwright and novelist, 1901-1952
There is a difference between being able to adequately assess whether or not the writing behind a project is good, and dismissing an entire sub-genre out of hand. Why is it that those projects which avail themselves of the rich trove of archetypal characterizations and plotlines and those which garner critical acclaim often congregate at opposite ends of the continuum?
To put it another way, why are the pocketbooks of the masses open for the presumably inferior devices of ‘commercial’ writing while the more refined eye of the intellectual elite appears to delight— if in a muted, ironic fashion— only in stories which regularly eschew the time-honored hero’s journey altogether?
Put yet another way, why is it that the Katherine Heigl vehicles and the Nancy Meyers projects consistently rake in the bucks while the depressing— arguably demoralizing— films and genres of literature mostly concerned with meeting Waterloo are often leagues ahead in racking up the ‘serious art’ brownie points? Why is there a disconnect between what the average heart races to consume— again and again— and what the above-average intelligence scrambles to approve of? And— perhaps most importantly— can we, as writers, heal the breach?
Is it tone? Is it execution? Or is it subject matter? Is it the difference between tying up all the loose bits at the end with a tidy bow and leaving the characters flailing in a vat of angst and lack of resolution that determines the credibility conferred upon a work? Is it all of these things? Is it any of them?
Perhaps it’s compression, the sense that if the writing is swiftly and methodically touching all of the mile markers— the call, the reluctance to answer, the introduction of allies, obstacles, heightened stakes, the turning point, the moment of grace with— on celluloid— the gratuitous close-up, the dark moment which more often than not smacks of contrivance at the end of act two chased by the scene with a manufactured sense of urgency as it barrels toward resolution— that leaves certain readers/viewers cold with the awareness that attempts at emotional manipulation are underway. Well, naturally, all experience of art is an exercise in emotional manipulation. The question then becomes is the manipulation seamless or do the seams show? And my question to you— as the writers responsible for many of these journeys— is why do the seams show more consistently in the stuff that sells?
I recently watched a Katherine Heigl film with the express purpose of dismantling the experience in order to study it. There was a row of women behind me in the theatre who laughed a lot. They peppered my viewing experience with exclamations of, ‘Oh, snap!’ and— in the moment that the boy does in fact return to the girl at the end of act three— ‘I knew it!’ When the lights went up, they cheered.
In other words, these women were moved enough by unapologetically formulaic premise, plot and execution to grow noisy and applaud— though it must be said that, personally, I gave Heigl herself a fair amount of the credit. In any event, the consumers got what they paid for. And as I sat there in my movie bucket seat next to a fellow scribe along for the experimental ride, a jumble of thoughts rushed through both mind and heart— the most salient of which were, for whom am I writing? And why?
Is my writing trying to be an artful interpretation of human experience? A commentary that is ethical in nature? Moralistic? Subversive? Sublime? Is it trying to emerge as something which pulls a more visceral punch or something that—perhaps, finally, by unabashed design— simply goes down easy? I know I want my readers to feel, but how do I want them to feel? Do I want them to laugh? Cry? Both— often? Or do I want them to think? Do I want to rout expectation or do I want to take them where they’re paying me to lead— straight through the reliable climb of escalating emotion and down a safe descent into surprising inevitability? Can I even decide— with authority— and, if so, do I have the chops to carry out any intentions with excellence?
Though a novelist, the bulk of my night stand material— say, 85%?— is non-fiction. When it comes to story, you might call me immoderately particular. I like a smart read, but not one that is too heavy. I’m partial to sharp banter between expertly-drawn voices but not too many graphic scenarios (or any, really.) I like to read characters stripped of their complacency but not of their dignity and— if at all possible— with a light touch. I favor subtlety but not authorial conceit. I like to laugh but not at the expense of substance and I like to grow but not at the (total) expense of levity. But perhaps most of all, I like to be left on an auspicious— but not hackneyed— note.
Which leads me to wonder, is it possible to write a book that can translate to a two-hour capsule— easily consumed with a side of popcorn and Junior Mints— which at the same time does not inspire the roll of a more discriminating eye? Because to imagine that a description like ‘bubble-gum pink’ covers the scope of the contemporary female living— largely through accident of birth— in an industrialized society as she grapples with vocation, love and progeny is both an indignation and a challenge.
So— in the end— does the onus of responsibility land on us as writers to execute these reputedly bromidic arcs in such a way that the dismissal of the erudite is not a foregone conclusion? Forgive me, as I seem to be all questions, today— and with precious little in the way of answers— but I’m stumped, and have been so for a rather annoyingly long time.
Perhaps you can shine some light along the way?
Until next time, dear reader.