Everything is relative. Humans do not measure in terms of absolutes. Instead, we measure by comparison. Probably my favorite example of this is found in the wonderful book Predictably Irrational by Daniel Ariely. People were asked the following question:
You go to a store to buy a suit for $300. When you arrive at the store, you discover the suit is actually priced $312 dollars. Do you buy it here, or go to the store inconveniently across town that has it cheaper?
Most people buy the more expensive suit. Then comes the next question:
You go to a store to buy a special pen for $5. When you arrive at the store, you discover the pen is actually priced at $17. Do you buy it here, or go to the store inconveniently across town that has it cheaper?
Most people decide the inconvenience is worth saving a few extra bucks.
But here’s the thing. Both cases are entirely identical in terms of the amount of extra money being spent. In either case, it’s a question of whether you want to spend $12 more for a little convenience or not. Yet there is something innately distasteful about spending $17 dollars when we planned on spending $5 and only mildly annoying when we were planning on spending $300.
That’s how humans think, and it isn’t limited to money.
Having been a published author for about a decade now, I have seen the shift in cultural perceptions. While shifts are natural, even expected, they have not been in my favor. While I don’t mind the grimdarking of our culture because things change and that’s the way it works, I do admit that it’s put my own books in a strange place. I’ve always struggled a bit to be accepted by an adult audience, but as we’ve moved toward a world where our definition of sophisticated content is found in books like A Song of Fire and Ice (or A Game of Thrones, as you non-hipsters like to call it) and TV shows like, well, A Game of Thrones, the stories I want to write are considered more and more fluff.
I’m not making excuses. There are a lot of other factors at work, and no doubt, my lack of a series is one of those factors. Another is that while I don’t consider myself a humor fantasy writer, I’m undeniably writing funny stuff nonetheless. That means that for a lot of people my books are either too silly and not silly enough, and it can be confusing to a lot of potential readers. But the grimdarking of our culture is also a big factor, and it’s the one I think I have the hardest time overcoming.
I can write sillier books. I can write more serious books. But the elements of sophistication as they stand at the moment are sex, violence, brutality, despicable characters, and generally unpleasant situations. As I’ve said before, I can’t get into A Song of Fire and Ice for exactly the reasons everyone else seems to love it. I find it gruesome and off-putting, and I could probably get around that if there were more dragons and wizards, but those things are noticeably spare intentionally. Nothing wrong with that. I’m all for variety in our media, and if someone finds satisfaction in stories about serial killers and drug dealers, good on them. That’s their thing, and I find nothing wrong with people indulging those emotional needs in the media they consume.
Yet I have no interest in writing a rape scene. I don’t want to write a fantasy novel where people randomly die in terrible ways to shock the reader. And I like happy endings. Not syrupy, everyone lives happily ever after happy endings. But honest happy endings where the characters have learned from their experience and come out the other side, if not perfectly content, better people for the journey. I want heroes I can look up to, and villains I can admire because they have sensible goals and are only a little bit overzealous in achieving those goals. I want to explore what it means to be human, but not just the most extreme elements of humanity. The quiet moments. The times when the world isn’t exploding, but we’re still trying to determine who we are and how can we make this thing called life work. And I want to do it while writing about space squids and moon-eating monster gods.
It’s easy to feel frustrated by this shift, and I know I’ve spent a lot of time bemoaning this change of late. I still haven’t gotten over the grimdarking of Superman. That’s still an open wound I will be carrying with me for a very, very long time. But it’s not all negative.
I enjoyed the heck out of The Winter Soldier, and a big reason I did is just how apologetically old-fashioned it is in a lot of ways. Captain America is an admirable hero who believes in fighting for what’s right. The bad guys are certainly bad, but they also have a consistent logic behind their plans. And The Falcon . . .
Holy heck, the Falcon was awesome.
I’ve also found encouragement in all-ages entertainment. The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody & Sherman were both thoughtful, fun films that had a lot of interesting things to say while also being absurd fantasy romps. Yet I’ve never intended to write YA fiction. Rather, I’ve never sought to limit my audience to young adults. I’m perfectly happy if young adults (or anyone of any age) reads my books, and I’ve grown increasingly fond of all-ages media because of its ability to tell sophisticated stories while avoiding the pitfalls of grimdark for grimdark’s sake.
Perhaps that’s the real lesson to learn from this. While I started out in adult fantasy, perhaps the genre and I have become incompatible. That’s not such a bad thing, though I don’t relish the idea of starting out in a new sub-genre. Then again, I’ve always kind of been there, so maybe I’m second guessing myself for no other reason than human nature.
Just some stuff on my mind, Action Force. Thanks for listening.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,