Monday, September 27, 2010

"Professor Nabokov, may I be excused?"

I've spent almost 55 years writing about various forms of popular culture, and thinking and at times arguing vehemntly about how that useful work should be done. This is spite of an almost complete inability to come up with any strikingly new ideas on the subject. Instead, I circle back again and again to the same short list of truisms.

One obvious chestnut is that all forms of culture that aspire to be widely popular (rather than good in some more imponderable and elite way) are always, to that extent, wish-fullfillment fantasies. They describe the world and human life not as they are but as many of us wish they were.

This seems to me to be a fact so obviously, universally true as to be almost useless as a tool of criticism, much of which is about drawing distinctions. It does nothing more than name the realm we're pottering around in. And yes, of course, there are differences of degree -- such as placing the classic male loner P.I. knight in realistically depicted situations.

Is it possible to do this knowingly, or are all the really great popular writers to some extent delusional? Should Ian Fleming have taken the giggles of his wife and her friends to heart and modified the personality of James Bond to make him less preposterous? Should Stieg Larsson have combed through the Dragoon Tattoo books expunging any element likely to make squemish readers "uncomfortable"?

The questions answer themselves. Most of us love being given permission to believe for a few hours in something preposterous. I've also heard it said (can't recall by whom) that things only really start to get interesting in a work of fiction when discomfort sets in. The element that causes discomfort is the real subject of the story beginning to emerge.

UPDATE: One random example from a writer named Christopher Ransom: "If I was to give one piece of advice it would be don’t play it safe because that thing you are terrified of writing about, the one thing you cannot imagine your parents or spouse ever reading? You should write that."


David Chute said...

A couple of timely observations in Tim Appelo's TOH update on "Boardwalk Empire 102":

"Darmody unwisely blows his heist money on bling for his wife and stripper mom (in a nicely uncomfortable scene, we first mistake Gretchen Mol for Darmody’s moll – how weird that she’s his ma!)."

"The Sopranos hit big because it felt innovative and true, a distinct variation on gangster drama traditions. True Blood and Twilight hit because they updated vampire legends. To make it big, you have to make it seem new, yet rooted in genre."

Tulkinghorn said...

More people watched "Two and a Half Men" last week than watched the final episode of "The Sopranos".

Define your terms: If your definition of "making it big" means "making it seem new enough to entrance the chattering classes", then sure enough, you can't make it big without making it seem new enough to entrance the chattering classes.

If you want popularity, try watching the top ten scripted television series some week. I dare you.

(BTW, the first episode of Boardwalk was so terrible I'm resisting watching the second.... "Make it new": surely you jest. A mobster falls in love with an innocent woman and reveals the hidden man within? That's a lot of things, but 'new' isn't the word that comes to mind.)