How about a special Friday post?
One of the reasons I don’t like being considered a silly writer is that it lowers the bar. Silly is fine, but it’s just a trifling thing. It will always be considered unimportant. And to some degree that’s to my advantage. If someone reads a story of mine with no other expectation than to be entertained by some strange humor or weird situations, then it’s a standard I can usually meet. If I was purely out to make a buck, then I’d be perfectly happy with that standard. It’s not especially challenging, and others have built a career out of this kind of escapist fiction. Writers I even admire.
But I have to admit, it bugs me to be thought of as slight and hollow. I’m not writing the most meaningful fiction in the universe, and I’m certainly not out to change the world with my stories. But they aren’t just stupid stories. Not to me, at least.
What’s often frustrating to me isn’t my own writing and its reception, but the reception and excuse-making of other writings. It annoys me to no end when someone excuses bad writing because a story is dumb and I shouldn’t expect it to be good. It bugs me even more when a writer makes the same excuse. In my last post, I mentioned my disappointment that DC Comics took the previously established short and stout Amanda Waller and turned her into another supermodel. I’ve heard more than one comment on other sites that people are making too big deal about this, that comic book superheroes are “escapism” and who really cares if every single character is traditionally thin and good-looking?
I care. And so do other people.
The notion that comic books are a lesser form of media and as such, are given free reign to avoid diversity is a false one. I’m not saying I want comic book superheroes to go out of their way to be relevant and important, but just because they’re stories about people in funny costumes fighting aliens and evil clowns, that doesn’t excuse an outright hostility toward non-traditional character types.
The thing about escapism, about silliness, is that it actually matters a whole hell of a lot. Because as much as we want to believe there’s a separation between meaningful media and silly media, there isn’t. Both have tremendous influence on us as a culture and how we perceive things. In fact, I sometimes think silly, escapist media is even more influential. Because meaningful media is stuff we’re supposed to like, but escapist media is stuff we seek out.
This is why I’ve never bought in the idea that something like Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives as being meaningless candy. More people have probably watched these shows than the latest academy award winning movie. And regardless of how much we might pretend to laugh at the people who star in those shows, there’s no denying their influence. You can bet there are plenty of folks who model their personalities after the morons of Jersey Shore. And why should that be surprising? People lined up in droves to get “The Rachel” haircut while Friends was popular. And Marlon Brando made leather jackets cool. We are influenced by our media, whether we admit it or not, and escapist, entertaining media is what we most often seek out and imitate.
All artists have a responsibility, even if they deny it. When I wrote Gil’s All Fright Diner it wasn’t my intention to insult anyone with the fat jokes at Loretta’s expense. I still stand by the book and think she’s a great character. But it doesn’t change the fact that some people were put off by it, and I can certainly see why. More importantly, if my response to their anger was a dismissive “Well, it’s just a silly story so get over it” I’d be guilty of ducking the responsibility. After all, Gil’s is probably still my most popular novel. It won several prominent bits of recognition. So it’s hypocritical to say that it’s “silly, inconsequential” when it suits me, and “smart, clever” at other times.
It’s a paradox of sorts. Shows like Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, etc. are popular and make a lot of money. And they make a lot of money because people watch them. But if confronted with their influence, producers and stars will often say they’re just TV shows and they don’t matter. So apparently they matter enough that they earn millions of dollars but not enough that they actually have any influence on our culture.
In Bruce Campbell’s great autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, he observed that he once got a letter from someone who said his television show, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., had saved their life. Campbell was deeply flattered, but also reluctant to accept this. He understood that if you take credit for saving someone’s life, you have to also be ready to take credit for the opposite, Yet media is quick to do exactly that.
Even if I am just a silly writer, I refuse to embrace the label because it would mean that my work, my art, would be ultimately meaningless. But I don’t write meaningless stories. I write from a certain point of view, and I have influence, whether I want it or not. Even the stupidest story means something to someone. Even the most mindless piece of art can affect someone in profound ways. And the artist can’t deny that responsibility when it suits him.
But this isn’t just about art and media. This is about all of us. We are all tremendously influential, whether we realize it or not. Our kind words can make all the difference in the world. Our bad moods can spread like wildfire. Our fears, our loves, our compassion, our disgust, these things aren’t self-contained. They reach out and touch everyone around us.
Sure, as a novelologist, I have a larger reach than most people. And if my career continues to grow, that influence will grow with it. The more money I make, the more fame I gather, the less comfortable I am with the idea that I’m merely a silly writer of insubstantial stories. And as I ponder the nature of media in this day and age, too many people try to avoid their obvious affect on our society even as they cash the huge checks that come with that influence.
There are no silly stories, no meaningless cotton candy entertainment. It all goes into the cultural mix, and while that doesn’t mean every story has to be conscientious, uplifting, or insightful, it does mean that we can’t dismiss any of it as unimportant just because it’s about superheroes, robots, or egotistical chumps from New Jersey. Because it all matters.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little light entertainment, a little frivolity and silly escapism. But escapist does not equal meaningless. And while not every story can (or even should) be culturally enlightening, every story that reaches the world shapes it somehow.
We are who we admire, who we pretend to be. We model ourselves and our world after our art. Art imitates life, but life imitates art. And if you’re confident on which has more influence on which, congratulations on that. I’m not so sure.
All I know is that if being taken seriously as a writer means taking lumps for intended and unintended influence, it’s a burden I bear gladly compared to the alternative. Although really, I don’t have any other choice.
None of us do.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,