Here at the A. Lee Martinez Action Force Clubhouse, I’m here to do more than rail against popular culture and extoll the virtues of dinobots. I’m also answer questions the general public might have about popular culture and the virtues of dinobots.
Today’s question comes from Jimmy via Facebook.
I’m a teacher at a classical school and one of the things the principal has said is “The difference between classical literacy and popular literacy is the inner struggle the hero must endure before the story’s end.” What are your thoughts on this claim?
When I asked for clarification, he followed up with this:
From what the principal stated, Classical literature (in the opinion of who I call the embracers of “high-brow” culture) does indeed imply this – an emotional depth that does not exist within popular literacy. For example, The illiad and the odessy vs Harry Potter.
It’s an old debate. What constitutes Literature versus what constitutes (for lack of a better term) a mere Book?
The most common measuring stick seems to be how well-respected and old the story is. Also, it helps if it’s kind of boring. From my personal experience, moon monsters and space squid supervillains eliminate a story from literature right off the bat. Basically, if you have to force a young adult to read the book and a dog is killed at some point, it’s literature. If it’s actually something people enjoy reading, it’s just a book.
This all goes back to that most basic precept of human nature: If it tastes good, it must be bad for us. Or at least not good for us.
As a guy who writes about space squids and slime monsters, it’s obvious how I feel about this assumption. I like writing fun books that are easy to digest, and I also think that just because they are enjoyable, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re empty of deeper content. I’ve never been a fan of the notion that unpleasant experiences are innately more meaningful than pleasant ones. Although this too is human nature.
Most psychology studies show that we innately place more value on negative experiences. We also are constantly told that reading something difficult shows intelligence, while reading something popular is akin to enjoying cotton candy. It’s nonsense, and it’s nonsense because it routinely dismisses the emotional depths, joys, and investments of “The Common People”.
And I get where that’s coming from. The lowest common denominator is a scary place to visit, and it’s difficult not to see the popularity of shows like Honey Boo Boo or Jersey Shore without cringing a little. There’s little doubt that a lot of people are kind of dumb, and not truly interested in depth or philosophical examination of themselves or their world. There’s also little point in denying that a lot of fiction is designed to be consumed and discarded without saying much of anything. I have no problem with that kind of fiction either, though I’ll admit it bugs me when my own books are dropped into that category. And it bugs me even more when things I enjoy and think are full of deeper ideas are dismissed as fluff.
I’m trying to dance around this idea a bit, but let’s stop wasting time. The fact is a lot of people seem to think that reading “smart” things makes them smart. This is just not true. You can read all the literature you like, but it doesn’t necessarily make you more intelligent or more fulfilled than someone who reads “books”. Books can have great characters, satisfying character arcs, larger questions to ponder, and even be fun. A story that reaches the masses is not innately stupid, less worthwhile.
Confession time: I am not a huge Harry Potter fan. I haven’t read all the books, and I have little interest in them. But when I hear people talk about the books, when I see their passion and their joy, I’m hard-pressed to dismiss this as merely fluff. It doesn’t matter if I get it or not because it isn’t about me. It’s about their experience, and I’ve heard enough people talk about the depths of Harry Potter to believe that there are depths to be found. That the books sold millions of copies doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. Just as if a book sells only three copies this doesn’t make it genius.
The ultimate question above though was the assumption that there is no character arcs or true emotional depths to be found in mainstream books. That is bull. Complete and utter bull, and it deserves to be met with a rebuttal. I have nothing against Shakespeare, and I absolutely love mythology in all its forms, but they didn’t stake the claim to artistic and emotional resonance. And, really, have you read some of that stuff? It’s pretty unsubtle at times. Shakespeare loves having his characters pause and tell the audience exactly what they’re feeling. Myths are full of characters doing dumb stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense simply because it’d make a better story.
I’m not saying Harry Potter will stand the test of time, but I’m also not saying it won’t. Only time will tell that. But most things don’t.
Also, it seems like too often we’re discussing the form of the story, not the actual merits of the story itself. It’s like calling Pacific Rim a “dumb giant robot movie”. That says nothing about the content of the story, its character arcs, its choices and execution, and instead only makes an assumption about it based on the subject matter. It doesn’t bother me when someone dislikes Pacific Rim, but it does annoy me when they dismiss it as shallow simply by existing.
Heck, I’ll admit to falling into that trap on myself occasionally. I reflexively dislike anything labeled as “literature” because I equate it with stuffy, boring stories. It’s a prejudice I’ve developed over the years, and one I don’t always conquer. I don’t like a lot of literature, but I love a lot of books. I’m willing to admit I’ve probably missed out on a lot of interesting books because of this reflex.
If we could be honest with ourselves, we’d admit that we all have our buttons and if a story manages to push those buttons, it works for us. If it doesn’t, we only end up seeing all of its flaws, flummoxed that others can’t. I’ve wasted enough blog entries on Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel to appreciate that, and while I do think those are two incredibly flawed films, I realize that it’s just one opinion. I doubt either will stand the test of time, but I don’t have a time machine, so my doubts are meaningless.
In my own stories, no matter how absurd or weird or silly they might be, I endeavor to give them depth. I know they’re about monsters and strange, funny tales, but I strive to make them have some emotional resonance. All of that won’t matter much to many, who will prefer their depth more somber or dull.
I get it. I really do. It’s innate to see something as hugely popular as somehow made for the masses. As an artist myself, I sometimes even convince myself that my obscurity is less about getting noticed (or lack thereof) and more about my level of genius, and that if I just “dumbed down” my books, I could be a bestselling writer too. But then I realize that this is mostly sour grapes on my part, and that while there are indeed a lot of dumb, popular books, there are a lot of smart, popular books too. And we all know this because nobody accuses The Road of being shallow, even though it is a popular story written by a popular writer that got made into a popular movie. (By the way, not a huge fan of that book either, but again, less about content and more about form.)
But I think when it comes to playing it safe, it’s always easy to claim classics are deeper than modern stories because few people are going to disagree with you, but has the human experience really changed all that much since the Odyssey was written? Certainly, we’ve changed as a species, but we still struggle with the same issues we always have. Love, Honor, Hate, Vengeance, Jealousy, Success, Failure, Indifference, etc., etc. And to say that a story has a better handle on those issues because it is older or more obscure is merely assumption, not a truth.
My ultimate goal as a novelologist has always been to create fun, lively stories with robots and slime monsters that also have emotional and philosophical depths, and like I said before, that can be a tough path to walk sometimes.
I’m probably the wrong guy to ask though. My favorite literary character is Tarzan, although he’s pretty old at this point so that probably means something, right? The fifth classic struggle is Man vs. Ape, Lions, and the Occasional Dinosaur, if I recall correctly.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,