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,


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  1. Posted September 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Very insightful, Lee. When I read Monster, or should I say devoured it, I saw in it more than just a hugely entertaining story, but a Human story. One of the working man who doesn’t love his work, but accepts it as his place in society. I thought through the humor there were some very insightful messages. And beyond all that it was hugely entertaining!

    I especially liked the part in this article where you addressed personal taste vs art and I came to the conclusion 15 years ago, when it comes to art, someone will always love it and someone will always hate it, and the rest are simply filthy heathens!

  2. Waldo
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    The real question isn’t whether you were influenced; rather, the question remains were your writings influential? And in what manner have your writing influenced our culture? I mean, Douglas Adams’ writings had a significant impact on our culture; yet, it’s not dark. It’s a tongue-in-cheek space opera. Does your writing inspire the same effect?

  3. Waldo
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I’m not trying to say does you writing inspire the same effect as another writer’s writings. My question should be, does your writing have significant impact on the inspirations of others? To which your answer would be, I hope so, or how could I ever know, or…

    I doesn’t matter. You don’t have the answer. But if most of the critiques are saying “silly,” then you at least must consider if your message is getting through. Otherwise, your message is simply a masterbatorial fantasy.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      Great question, Waldo. I’d certainly never claim to be as influential as most other artists out there. I’m a small fish in a very large pond. But my point isn’t that I’m especially influential, but that we all are, and if one piece of media touches even one person, then it will continue to spread from there. Like dominoes.

      As to your second observation, the question isn’t whether or not I should change my writing to get more respect, but whether or not so many people who are ready to dismiss something as “silly” are in fact, missing an opportunity to expand their horizons. It’s the goal of media to influence people, but it should also be the goal of the audience to try and see something as more than just fluff.

      Being called “silly” only bothers me when someone really enjoys my work and still feels the need to dismiss or diminish it. If someone doesn’t like it, I’m cool with them saying all kinds of negative things about it, as they should.

      Thanks for the comments.

  4. Waldo
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    I never meant to suggest you should change your writing style. I doubt that is even possible. I am suggesting that your audience isn’t quite getting your message.You seem to be blaming the audience for their attitude. Their attitude has always been their attitude since the dawn of Aristophanes. Albeit, they gave Aristophanes more credit than your critics give you.

  5. Waldo
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Would you be happier if your critics said, A. Lee Martinez’s novels are clever but lack substance?

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted September 16, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

      Another great question.

      No, I would not. Because it’s the sentiment that bothers me. Silly often stands in for “Clever but shallow”.

      Again, I really don’t necessarily want this to be a discussion about my own work and reputation though. Because this is a problem that extends well beyond me. Even my own love of board games suffers from it, most notably that games that are fun and thematic tend to be considered less intellectual than games that are plodding and abstract.

      My point here is to avoid dismissal, regardless of the words used.

      • A. Lee Martinez
        Posted September 16, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

        And to follow up on that, I don’t need for people to say my work is “Deep” or “Meaningful”. I’m not looking for praise, especially if someone doesn’t feel it warranted. But it’s often frustrating to have someone enjoy a book I’ve written and yet assume that because it’s a strange story that it can’t possibly have anything deeper going on.

        In short, I’m less concerned with people who don’t like what I write than with people who do like it and seem to feel the need to apologize for liking it. And, bigger than myself, I’d like people to stop doing that to everything they enjoy. If this was just about my own books, it would hardly be worth discussing.

  6. Waldo
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Silly vs. Clever

  7. Waldo
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    “A man’s homeland is wherever he prospers.” –Aristophanes

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