I’ve knocked around in my corner of the entertainment business for a quarter of a century now. Over the years, I’ve seen and heard a lot of snide talk and snobbery among authors and critics that belittles books, films and TV shows for their lack of . . . shall we say importance?
Snottery knows no bounds, it seems. Self-published authors take in on the chin quite a lot, but so do romance authors and those who write cozy mysteries and horror. When speaking a few years ago to a group of students in an MFA program, the professor who introduced me warned the assembled body to have an open mind even though I was “content to write nothing more important than commercial fiction.” If you’ve attended any of my seminars since then, you might remember that I now introduce myself as a writer of commercial fiction, whose work will likely never be taught in the classroom. I consider that to be something of a badge of honor.
I write and I consume the creative works of others for one primary purpose: to entertain or be entertained. Hard stop. If the material I’m consuming also educates, informs or instructs me at the same time, that’s terrific, but it’s not a requirement.
That said, I’m not an easy audience. The classics that I’m supposed to say I love because I make my living as an author–Hemingway, Marquez, Joyce, Fitzgerald, et. al.–for the most part put me to sleep. And Michener. Good God, James Michener. I stipulate that these authors are all brilliant, and that they have changed people’s lives, but I am unable to plow through their stories from beginning to end. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader.
Or perhaps I prefer to read great stories well told in voices that resonate in my head. Give me a Stephen King or Stephen Hunter or Tess Gerritsen or James Scott Bell, put me in a quiet room with a wee dram of smoky scotch, and I will be transported to wherever they take me.
What they write–what we write–may not be important (remember, that’s the word we agreed on), but the works inspire. Powerfully drawn good guys bring justice to powerfully drawn bad guys. Some leave more blood on the ceiling and walls than others, some present more moral ambiguity than others, but after the last page turns, right and wrong are sharply defined.
Last week, my fellow bloggers here at TKZ wrote of old television shows and old comedians. As I read those posts and the responses, it occurred to me that the common trait shared by writers, actors and comedians is a commitment to telling stories that move their respective audiences in some way. That’s what entertainment is, isn’t it?
And it works best when it surprises us. M*A*S*H was primarily a comedy, but who among us didn’t choke up the first time we learned of Henry Blake’s final plane trip? To this day, even though I’ve seen the episode a dozen times or more, the room still gets dusty every time I watch Andy Taylor open the window and tell Opie to listen to those birds that will never see their mama again.
Which brings us to the topic of courage (or lack thereof). Every week, my DVR records episodes of “12 O’Clock High”, starring Robert Lansing as General Frank Savage. I remember watching it as a kid, but all I remember are the scenes of aerial battle. The stories are really very complex and often quite moving. When you consider that the series aired when World War 2 wasn’t yet 20 years in the past, and that more pilots died in the 8th Air Force out of England than did all of the Marines in the Pacific theater, the story lines are particularly courageous. Battle fatigue (PTSD), cowardice, reckless bravery, loss of friends and the futility of war are all addressed in those episodes. They entertain because they resonate, and they resonate because we care about these young men who are forced to take exceptional risks for the benefit of others. We see courage in action. And it’s inspiring.
Fictional courage–whether on the page or on any size screen–starts with the writer, not with the characters. I tell myself that there are places I won’t go in my work, but that’s really a lie. I’ve harmed children and animals in my books, but never gratuitously. Still, I get hate mail whenever I do, and that’s fine. I figure that I moved that reader, and therefore I did my job. Sure, I moved them in a direction I didn’t intend, but at least they cared enough to write a note.
Plain vanilla stories are always safe, and they’re certainly not important. But if they’re not even inspiring, doesn’t that just make them irrelevant?
So what about you, TKZ family? What risks are you willing to take in your reading and your writing?