Tag Archives: stories

Link: Marvel movies avoid character growth

This piece by Sady Doyle describes a problem she sees in too many Marvel films: a willingness to nearly forego characters in service of fights and set-pieces.

Character arcs aren’t negotiable. They’re not highbrow or pretentious or complicated. Character arcs are essential to the success of any story in any genre. To understand why all this matters, look at the Hulk’s arc in the first Avengers, which many people consider to be the most successful part of that movie. I would argue that it’s actually the most successful element of any Marvel movie to date. In the first Avengers, the Hulk (1) hates being the Hulk, (2) encounters a situation that can only be resolved by becoming the Hulk, and (3) embraces being the Hulk. Simple, right? Stupid simple. Yet it landed like a ton of bricks in the theater, because that’s what stories are. Stories use cause and effect to dramatize a process whereby a person is forced to change.

Hulk’s arc, simple as it might be, was a cause-and-effect process that dramatized a universal human problem: You might not always like yourself, so you can identify with someone who doesn’t like himself, and therefore,you will experience catharsis when a story gives the both of you permission to love yourselves. When he goes on that final rampage and slams Loki into the floor, that’s not just a cartoon causing some corporate-mandated violence: That’s you, loving your body despite being the “wrong” size, or making feminist points in a conversation without worrying that someone will call you a buzzkill, or being proud of your art despite the fact that it’s been rejected, or deciding that you can leave your abusive relationship because you are worthy of respect. Hulk smash inner self-loathing, and thereby becomes the most powerful force in the universe.

So finally, our hero, a suicidal man who has spent the whole movie telling himself he’s worthless and intrinsically inferior to other people, encounters Loki, an arrogant, sneering, hyper-critical, hyper-verbal character — a character who mysteriously chooses that very moment to begin a monologue about how worthless the Avengers are, and how inferior they are to him — and suddenly, Loki hits the floor. Hard. And every time Loki hits that floor, all over the world, the theater erupts with screams of joy. There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.

Speaking of heroes, here’s Joseph Campbell: “Atonement consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster — the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id).” When the superego’s judgment is no longer powerful enough to annihilate us (puny God) and the id is accepted by the ego without fear (I’m always angry), our wholeness is restored, our place in the cosmos is found, and we are free. It hits us so hard, all we can do is scream.

Don’t let anyone tell you that silly popcorn movies don’t matter, or that they can’t be smart or beautiful or profound. A silly popcorn movie can change your life. All it has to do is create characters with identifiable, human problems, and let them work out those problems over the course of the story. Stories are about change, and about people, because ultimately, they are about you, the person sitting in a dark theater, working out your baggage by projecting it onto CGI cartoons of overly handsome actors.

Here’s another way to put it: The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.

So when Age of Ultron doesn’t invest — when it goes by the assumption that the formula, and the formula alone, is enough to appease the popcorn-eaters — it says something pretty bad.

And Doyle describes how short-cutting a story means the story relies on cliches and stereotypes:

But when the character-based screenwriting breaks down, so does the feminism. Black Widow is just as ill-served as every other character in that story, but because she’s a woman, it’s politically offensive as well as aesthetically offensive.

Let’s take a moment to recognize that, given the paucity of time for character work in Age of Ultron, nearly all of the character development is done with shortcuts. I’m talking real hack stuff, like “each character has a hallucination establishing his inner conflicts and backstory,” or “we know this character is old-fashioned because he doesn’t like swearing” (brought up so many times that I get the sense it was meant to pay off, in the same way the constant questions about Banner’s “secret” paid off last time — was there a climactic F-bomb from Steve that got cut for the rating?) or even “the circle of life is established by naming a baby after the dead guy.” (This, aside from giving me flashbacks to the infamously terrible ending of Harry Potter, is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!) Jokes get underlined by characters explaining them and noting that they were humorous. Some characters just walk into a room, announce their backstory, and leave. (“How are you, Sam?” “I AM HAPPY PURSUING OUR MISSING PERSONS CASE IN DC.”) Nothing ever really gets written, or earned, just vaguely outlined. It’s a whole script made of placeholders.

But when you’re doing all your character work with shortcuts, and you have to write a shortcut for your female character, what do you come up with?She’s that one dude’s girlfriend, obviously, is a time-honored shortcut, used or teased by every Marvel writer who’s put Black Widow in a movie — as a woman, she’s an Other, and a sexual object, and therefore must be deployed as a potential or actual sexual reward for a male viewpoint character, rather than being a viewpoint herself. But that’s the same problem you find with every woman in every Marvel movie (Gamora, Agent Carter, Pepper, whatever Natalie Portman’s name is supposed to be) except for Maria Hill, who is clearly saving herself for her one true love, Exposition. If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!

I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting. But if you look around, all of this is disgusting, because all of the characters are exactly this vapid, because [“Avengers: Age of Ultron” writer and director Joss] Whedon can’t get more than five or ten minutes to establish or complicate their motivations, because Marvel is mandating that he not waste screen time on things like the characters’ motivations when he could be shooting ads for their other movies, because Marvel doesn’t care about men, women, or anything except getting you to show up in a few years for the next installment of Avengers.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person who believed that a crime against feminism was less important than a crime against storytelling, but in this case, they’re so interconnected that it’s hard to tell the difference. When you can’t write, you can’t write women.

And Doyle is concerned that maybe there’s a more depressing reason for the poor character development:

There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.

It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.

So there’s your other interpretation, the thing I think is at the core of Marvel’s contempt for people: Punching is better than talking. Doing is better than thinking. Instinct is better than intellect; big is better than smart. We don’t need to understand the Stormtroopers; we don’t need to talk to them. That’s thinking, which is boring. We just need to kill: They don’t have names or histories or families or feelings, and by slaughtering them, thousands of them, we prove that we can do.

The audience doesn’t need dialogue or character or psychological growth. The audience needs explosions, because they’re animals, and all they want is blood on the floor. The audience doesn’t need to be surprised or challenged with a new story. The audience wants the old story, because they’ve bought it ten times already, and at the end of the day, we just convinced these f*cking yahoos to wait three years and pay us twenty dollars so we could tell them to come back in four years and pay us $40. Now you think they want personal growth? Give me a break. They’re barely even people.

I mean: You pump this message out into the atmosphere, and then you’resurprised when the biggest fans are ready to send death threats to a director to save the Almighty Brand? Punching is better than talking, rage is better than understanding, conflicts are resolved by annihilating the other person without feeling bad about it: You just told them that. Over and over, and made them pay for the privilege of hearing it. You can’t possibly be surprised that they believe it’s true.

It kills me that I am so bothered by this. I understand that these movies are power fantasies for nine-year-olds: At the end of the day, accepting that they’re stupid is probably smarter than wishing for them to be smart. But this is the epicenter of pop culture. Everyone is expected to share power fantasies with nine-year-olds now, and worse than that, to take them seriously; to make them into a lifestyle. The Marvel virus has already overtaken movies; now, it’s infiltrated a new host, TV, and is hollowing it out from within.

The aim is not one or two bad movies a year, it’s a total lifestyle regimen of bad pop culture: In order to keep up with the Avengers, you need to keep up with Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and in order to keep up with those, you should probably be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which will really help you keep up with Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, andGuardians of the Galaxy, and in order to make sure you’re on top of these nine essential movie franchises and able to make sense of their plots, you’ll need to keep a constant stream of Marvel product in your life, so make sure to tune in for Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and, of course, the forthcoming Hulu triumphs, Ant-Man’s One Weird Friend Gary and Guy Running Away From Explosion In Panel 17.

The problems with Marvel’s storytelling will be the problems of narrative storytelling for the foreseeable future. Once this is over, we’ll be dealing with a generation raised on this stuff, who believes it’s how storytelling ought to work: Harry Potter came out when I was in high school. I’m in my thirties, and I still haven’t seen the end of the “serialized YA fantasy” onslaught. Something this big sticks around.

I love stupid popcorn movies. I do. I believe they can be emotionally resonant, mythic, that they can do the same thing all stories are meant to do — speak to the soul; challenge us to be more and better than we were — and can use big, fantastic elements to tell big, human truths. I also believe that Marvel has no investment in doing so; that, even if they manage to grab a director who is capable of doing those things, the prioritization of the brand and the formula over individual creators will ultimately sabotage the attempt.

Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t just bad. It was, to me, proof that Marvel movies, even at their best, can only be bad. And that they are going to get worse. The human mission has been lost: these are faceless Stormtrooper movies, unleashed in waves upon the presumed-to-be-faceless Stormtrooper audience. Stories are an affirmation of our human value; they teach us what life means, make and keep us human. Marvel, by removing the human from its storytelling, may be bringing about the end of story altogether. F*ck Ultron: Marvel Comics has built the army of machines that might really end the world.

Living outside of stories, or When does Lennie poop?

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value there.

There is symbolic value in this photo only if you want there to be symbolic value.

Where do literary characters go when they’re not on the page?

When I watch outtakes from a movie, I can see the actors stop being the characters and return to being actors. Of course, they never stopped being the actors; the characters they play are just ideas.

And so are the characters in a fiction or nonfiction narrative. They’re just ideas, which is to say, they aren’t physically real at all. You can’t touch Sherlock Holmes in “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” you can’t touch Abraham Lincoln in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” and neither you nor I can touch the person who, according to my journal today, got a cavity filled yesterday. Yesterday-me is not who I am now.

When we tell stories, we turn real (nonfiction) or imagined (fiction) experiences into ideas. What one sees as a real person with particular traits (this height, that eye color, a certain laugh, a tone of voice) becomes just “Jim” or “a tall man with blue-green eyes,” etc. We give up particulars, abstracting the experience so we can communicate it. And while we can give in-depth descriptions of particular things, we are at best only specifying an idea, not really conveying the experience itself. To tell a reasonably compact story, we limit our descriptions to just what we think are the most-important things (and, I suggest, choosing what was most-important may not be a conscious, intentional process).

As we tell our own stories and take in others’, we get more efficient at turning experience into stories, so that not only does the process start to seem automatic but we may even start making our stories interesting in themselves, as entertaining abstractions. For instance, if we decide to tell an experience as a comic narrative, we may choose funny words, reveal things in order to create tension or suspense, and even exaggerate certain aspects of the story, all in service of making the story itself into a work of art. Two people who witness the same event may turn it into very different stories.

The broader concept here is that when we turn our experiences into stories (and even as we store our experiences as remembered narratives), we are no longer dealing with physical reality but with ideas. Particularly when we read or listen to others’ stories, we are getting not the experiences that they had but their  interpretations of those experiences into abstractions. This can lead us astray if we take the stories as somehow more real than reality. It has taken me years to learn this.

One issue with making stories is editing — what to leave in and what to crop out. A story is usually organized around around a central theme — say, all the times I went to the E.R. — or around a plot that shows how characters’ actions result in a logical or likely consequence — for instance, in “Of Mice and Men,” how George and Lennie’s choices result in two deaths. The storyteller must include the parts needed to tell a satisfying narrative, and exclude parts would be off-topic or digressive. When information is organized thematically, around a topic or plot, it is not necessarily complete chronologically (or in other ways). (On the other hand, texts that are organized chronologically, like my daily journals, describe all the things in the order they happened (more or less), but these things may not have any connection to each other and may be thematically ordered into several different themes or plots.)

We live chronologically, where a bunch of unrelated stuff happens in one day, but we mostly tell stories thematically, skipping around in time.

When we read a story such as “Of Mice and Men,” which tells about decisions and deaths across three days in the lives of characters George and Lennie in less than 120 pages, chronological time will be skipped. We don’t know what the characters are doing in each moment of the day — for instance, we never see Lennie poop. Not that we need to see Lennie poop — that’s not the organizing theme of the story! But the story we’re told includes only those aspects that lead up to, that contribute to, the murders at the end of the book. It’s a story about murders; it’s a story where the plot is central (more than, say, the characters).

But, back to the original question in this post, where are George and Lennie when they’re not on the page? Perhaps they are occupying entirely different novels, essays, or poems — George’s travel memoir, “Me and Lennie,” Lennie’s Montaigne-style ponderings, “Why I Like to Touch Soft Things,” or Curley’s poem, “Ode to Things I Hate about Guys Bigger Than Me.” And if these characters were real people, they would surely have done things like wiping the sweat off their brows as they did fieldwork, and maybe stopping to appreciate the summer flowers.

In other words, the characters, if they lived like real people, would not have known that they were in a plot at all. They saw things, met people, had various and disparate experiences, and only at what constitutes the end of the story did George decide that he had to kill Lennie. Up until what occupies the last minutes (in story-time) of the book, none of the characters in the book would have had any idea of what the plot was — in our own lives, we can see things like plot (causal relationships) only in retrospect. There’s no such thing as foreshadowing until after the fact (as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20). And in fact, there are no such organizing principles as theme or plot in our lives as we live them. This is to say, theme and plot are aspects only of stories, and not of real life. Of course, if we are interviewed and asked something like, “What was the most important moment in your life,” we may be able to come up with an answer, but of course, this would be an arbitrary choice and an abstraction. One person could write about her own life experiences in many different ways, say, as comedy, as tragedy, etc. — and there’s no one correct story of her life. Perhaps all meaning that is derived from our experiences is exactly that — derived, a result of our interpretation — and there’s no meaning that’s inherent in our experiences.

In a story like “Of Mice and Men,” we see characters on what will probably (hopefully, for their sake) be the worst day of their lives. I feel bad for them — I wouldn’t want to be judged by how I acted on the worst day of my life. I wonder what these characters would’ve been like in other contexts — say, if they were paid for their labor and took the afternoon off to go on a picnic, say. (Or these other possibilities.)

At least, on a picnic, they would’ve been eating not abstractions but particular foods — not “an apple,” but this apple, with its particular shape and spots and taste. I too like to return to particulars, to draw my attention away from the abstractions of words and ideas and toward the particulars around me: this bite of sandwich, this smooth pen, this slanted sidewalk — and all the other things that seem physically real and thus don’t need my (and our) names for them. When my attention is directed toward real, particular, physical things, I am able to live outside of labels and principles and stories myself. I can be undefined, as can everything around me. It’s not a feeling that lasts long, but it’s kinda wonderful to not have to live as if I were a character myself, trapped in some plot, some theme, my life always having to mean something — how tedious that would be!

All Satisfying Stories Have Morals: A Reader’s Critical Perspective

Simple stories for children, like the Brothers Grimm’s “Cinderella,” seem to have obvious themes that are also morals, instructions on how one should and should not behave. I have used these fairy tales as fictions that are easy for my high school students to analyze critically. We have looked at the stories and decided which characters are winners, those who end the story in better position than they started it, and which characters are losers who end up worse off.

This approach seemed too simple to use for more modern, psychologically complex stories. But as I’ve been thinking about how to best teach my students to analyze Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (see also here and here), it occurred to me the other day that most traditional stories also can be analyzed by making a distinction between the morally good characters — those who get rewarded — and the morally bad characters, who get punished.

By traditional stories, I mean those stories that have a consistent point of view and tone (so it’s clear to readers what’s “really” happening in the story and how we readers are supposed to feel about it) to convey a sequence of events that can be causally explained by reference to the characters’ given traits and chosen actions.

For example, “Of Mice and Men” is a traditional story. Not that we can predict the outcome from the beginning (though there are strong hints that things will not end well for George and Lennie — and without these mood-hints, the dramatic ending may seem unbelievably abrupt), but once we get to the resolution, we can trace back the causes. Everything that happens has a cause based in the characters’ natures and their actions. George shoots Lennie because Lennie killed Curley’s wife. Lennie killed her because he thought she would get him in trouble, as he has gotten in trouble before. If he got in trouble, he wouldn’t be able to get the rabbits he hoped to tend. He wants rabbits because he seemed to have an obsession with soft things, which obsession also leads to his conflict with and killing of Curley’s wife.

Everything is explainable. There are no random acts in this story. (Stories that do have random acts are not the traditional type of stories I’m talking about.) If Lennie had gotten killed by a rattlesnake after killing Curley’s wife, that would not be directly caused by a character’s choice, and so this wouldn’t feel like a satisfying ending to readers.

And I want to suggest that satisfying endings are those that grow out of human causes — human decisions. Characters had to be free to choose their actions, so that they deserve their consequences. This is what makes stories satisfying — consequences are direct result of human choices. We readers can ask what choices the characters made, or could have made, and this can help reveal the behaviors that earn consequences. The metaphysical implication here is that we are in control of our lives, our fates.

But, of course, in real life, it does not seem that we are not in control of all aspects of our lives. Sometimes things happen to us. Perhaps we read traditional stories so as to, for a time, enjoy the feeling that events can make sense. Traditional stories are appealing because random things do not happen, and because fairness and justice are served, unlike in real life, where sometimes bad deeds go unpunished, innocent people get killed by drunk drivers, and people disappear without a trace. Hell, in real life, we don’t always even know what the right decision is.

And so these traditional stories can be satisfying. Sometimes, though, these stories may seem artificial, false — altogether too tidy, not life-like. And so there are other stories — stories told from multiple points of view, stories that end ambiguously, stories where random things happen, stories where the good guys lose. Though these stories may better resemble what really seems to happen in life, these stories tend to not be satisfying. I often get frustrated by the predictability of traditional stories, but I also wonder what is the point of reading a nontraditional story that is just as messy as real life.

A story that isn’t traditional won’t have a clear meaning, because it’s more like life and life doesn’t have clear meanings — because meaning doesn’t reside in physical things, but only in consciousnesses.

(Perhaps I cannot be satisfied by reading fiction. My friends who enjoy fiction more than I do tell me they appreciate the journey of the reading experience — they enjoy being absorbed into the story, spending time with the author’s voice, perhaps, or seeing how the narrator makes variations on the usual storytelling conventions to avoid being too predictable. Maybe I just read too much for theme to enjoy these other aspects of fiction. But if an author’s gonna ask me to read a couple hundred pages and pretend that these characters are real people, it better be worth my time. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote about giving readers a plot by which he can make his ideas more palatable, but sometimes I wonder why Vonnegut doesn’t just give us his ideas without the machinery of characters and plot.)

So it had never occurred to me until recently how must stories that we enjoy reading serve an ancient, eye-for-an-eye sort of morality. I should be careful not to overextend my analysis to all traditional stories, but I suspect this would be a critical perspective that might work. I hadn’t thought that so many stories could be analyzed from a punishment/reward perspective, but maybe traditional stories are that simple, and are satisfying for — but are also limited by — that simplicity.

Afterthoughts: Here are some related ideas I want to convey, but didn’t want to clutter up the above discussion.

* Traditional stories have human characters, or characters with human-like consciousness. They tend not to have, say, animals-qua-animals, or trees, or shoes, as main characters. I suspect that this is because satisfying stories really require choices to be made. Narratives where a character is just acted upon might not seem so satisfying. Morality only involves human choices; nature is amoral, beyond moral, because animals and trees can’t make moral choices. They live not by choice but by their natures, their instincts.

* I mentioned above an “eye-for-an-eye” morality, which implies an Old Testament idea; this prompts the question what a New Testament, “turn the other cheek” story would be like. Would that be dull, because the point is to avoid conflict?

* Characters: There’s a weird dual nature to fictional characters. They are just ideas, of course, but in that way, they are not so different from those real people we know but who aren’t currently in our presence. Characters must be real-seeming enough for us to care about them, particularly in a drama that doesn’t want to be laughed at — and yet, some of my students may have reacted to George shooting Lennie with (perhaps nervous) laughter. We readers of fiction books and viewers of fiction movies can’t feel too strongly about characters, or we’d feel too strongly to watch people get killed in action or horror movies. At some level, we know characters are merely ideas and not real, but we need to see them as real if we are to take the work seriously. There’s a duality here to our understanding of characters.

* So much of fiction requires conflict, and so it sets mutually hostile characters into revealing situations. This can feel artificial at times. It’s not unlike what reality shows like “Big Brother” do — “let’s put a bunch of terrible people into an enclosed space and watch them do terrible things to each other,” as the producers might say.

* The meanings that stories often present — what choices and behaviors are good and should be rewarded, and which are bad and should be punished — these can sometimes seem arbitrary. The meanings I find even in my own experiences may change over time.

* It’s easy for us to see some traits — mutual respect, kindness, fairness, for example — as generally good, and other traits — greed, selfishness, disregard — as bad. But beyond these, I wonder how many qualities seen as good are simply cultural or situational. For example, I wonder if the resource waste and pollution that I take for granted in my life — or, I feel a little bad about it but I figure that it’s too hard for me to live without fossil fuels, say — will come later to be seen as terribly bad qualities.

* Steinbeck makes Curley’s wife seem like a bad character. The other characters complain about her, and when she talks, she says terrible things (like threatening Crooks with lynching). But somehow this makes her seem like she was partly to blame for her own murder, and I’m not comfortable with “blame the victim” mentality. One wonders how she would tell this story from her point of view. She certainly wouldn’t have lived to see Lennie killed.

* We know the main conflict is resolved when the story ends — this is partly how we know that “Of Mice and Men” is the story of Lennie’s demise. George keeps living after, but Lennie does not. This is the end of their relationship. In a way, the resolution is George choosing to shoot Lennie, and yet, this is the resolution to a much earlier problem — why George brought Lennie to this ranch in the first place. Readers want to see how the set-up, how the main conflict, turns out. A story that sets up a situation but does not resolve it is not going to be satisfying.

* Sometimes a story doesn’t end. For example, the TV version of “Game of Thrones,” which story kills off important characters, and so then I feel like this must not have been Ned’s story, or Rob’s story — I must not have understood whose story this really is, who the main chars are. When a story goes on and on, it’s tediously unsatisfying — again, it starts to seem like real life, and yet real history has at least the ending of the present moment.  If one reads English history from a thousand years ago, there’s a lot of it, yet you know that it stops at the present moment. With “Game of Thrones,” it’s not clear that it will ever end. The books that would end the story haven’t even been written yet, and once a story goes on for so long, it seems it would be difficult to have an ending that is meaningful enough to justify the duration of the story. (See also “Lost.”)

* Steinbeck says he based Lennie on a person who killed someone, but did not get killed and instead went to an asylum. So I wonder why Steinbeck decided to have a story where it seems OK for the George character to make the decision to take Lennie’s life instead? Why did Steinbeck change the story in this way — because it provides a better sense of “divide justice” than if Lennie just gets locked up?

* Though a published narrative is fixed and unchanging, I think it is a valid critical technique to ask what options the characters had each time they made a decision. Even if George and Lennie didn’t have good options, they had options. They had to, if they are to be held responsible for their actions. And in a way, “Of Mice and Men” seems like the story is told, seemingly from George’s point of view (the narration is third person, but George is the only character we see from the beginning of the story to the end), as if it were George’s justification for his decision to shoot Lennie (though the story offers George a self-defense claim when Carlson suggests that George took the gun from Lennie, and George, knowing this is false, agrees). This entire story, then, can be seen as an argument for when a person might be justified in taking another person’s life out of love for that person. I’m still not sure this argument works, however. The story seems to draw a parallel between George shooting Lennie and Carlson shooting Candy’s dog — but of course, Lennie is a person, not a dog.

* We readers find happy endings satisfying when the characters have earned them by some means (even if that means is just by suffering, as Cinderella seems to). But an unearned happy ending isn’t satisfying. If someone struggling with poverty suddenly wins the lottery, that would be a “deus ex machina” and would feel like the author is too heavy-handedly forcing things. That’s not satisfying. A traditional story could be satisfying if it would have an unpredictable thing — lottery winnings, earthquake — happen at the beginning of the story, and then it could show how the characters react to these things.

* Another example of how we like to find control in our lives is when we hear that someone got a diagnosis of cancer, and we think of reasons that person did something to cause that disease.  We might say or think, “well, he WAS a smoker” — as if we’re looking for ways to protect ourselves — ” I won’t get lung cancer bec. I’m not a smoker,” when that’s not always true, of course. This is a terrible, petty thing to think, but we sometimes want to understand the world and feel we’re in control — it’s disturbing to our human consciousnesses to realize how much we do not control (our genes, our environments, other people who might hurt us, etc.).

* Simplistic stories sometimes make the bad characters simply, evilly bad — bad without an understandably human motivation. I prefer to think of most bad characters as not just evil but merely self-interested — more mafioso than demon. Cinderella’s stepmom doesn’t mistreat her out of pure meanness, but because she wants to advance her own daughters’ fortunes over Cinderella’s. I once had a student who said, somewhat plaintively, “But my stepmom is nice,” and I said, yes, in real life, lots of stepmoms are nice. But as characters whose interests may be suspect anyway, stepmoms can play that role of antagonist (as opposed to, say, making a mother herself opposed to her children, as was the mother in early versions of “Hansel and Gretel.” That’s just too monstrous to consider). My wife pointed out that conflicts over resources remain a significant fact for a lot of people in the world — it’s the stability of our American political/industrial/military power that allows so many of us in this country to take so many of our basic needs for granted. (As I mentioned above, this “taking for granted” may turn out to be a bad trait on our part.)

* And what IS good? Lots of modern fictional shows have anti-heroes — “Breaking Bad,” “Sopranos” — why do people watch those? (I choose not to. For entertainment, I usually watch comedy, shows that imply the world isn’t so bad.  I don’t want to spend my time and attention on grim stuff when I see so much of that in the news and in my students’ lives.) Do we come to have some respect for these anti-heroes, even if we disagree with their goals? Do we respect their code of conduct — efficiency, effectiveness, loyalty — even if their goals are selling drugs. But I’ve heard some drug gangs’ operations are similar to those of legitimate businesses, and some businesses do morally questionable things as a matter of normal actions.  We don’t really know whether we’re good — until we get judged in Heaven? Is that all we really wanna know, if we’re good or not? We know we’ve done bad things but we want redemption? — are these the reasons we find traditional stories satisfying — we can compare ourselves against these bad characters to feel OK about ourselves?

Addendum:

* Stories that are not traditional — those stories with multiple narrators, or random events, or ambiguous endings — do not contain meaning about theme and character so much as they present meanings about story structure itself. Update 16 Feb.: In the 10 Feb. 2014 New Yorker magazine (paywalled, but here), James Woods describes as “the full, familiar postmodern quiz-kit” these “metafictional questions” in a fiction work: “truth-telling, the veracity of representation, the coherence of the self, language’s relation to silence, and what we mean by innocently talking about fictional ‘characters’ as if they were real people.” These, Woods seems to say, are the markers of stories that aren’t really about characters and events but are about the philosophy and practice of storytelling itself.

Links: Be present grieving, diaries, story, etc.

1. What to say to those who are grieving? Maybe say nothing.

2. Bad Lip Reading in the NFL. Sounds almost like random-word poetry.

3. A history of computation.

4. Five published diaries, from which this quote: “I like them because although people can fake diaries I tend to feel that they don’t. And I like the perspective of a diary, in that people don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

5. Story rather than science, to explain lived experience.

The Old Man and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’: All stories are bullshit

The book mentioned in the title bugs me. I should probably just let it go, but for some reason it sticks in my head that I ought to write about this, and I’m paying attention to that “ought.”

So, it’s been a while since I read “The Old Man and the Sea” and I don’t really want to read it again. As far as I remember, it’s about, well, an old man and the sea. And he catches a fish, but the sharks eat it, and he returns to his life. And if I were to really do a criticism of this book, I’d have to reread it, but an in-depth criticism isn’t what I want to do, anyway. I’m not sure what I want to do, but I think I want to talk about fiction. (This is the vein of thought that seems the most compelling, anyway.)

So, yeah — the idea came to mind the other day that when we write about a work of fiction, we’re writing nonfiction. For my writing students, I define nonfiction as any writing done when the writer is writing as him/herself (when the narrator is the author), and when the writer is not lying. That’s about as good a definition as I can get.

The common cultural definition of nonfiction, at least when one looks at a typical bookstore, is that nonfiction books are the biographies, memoirs, histories, and how-to books. I guess I’d prefer to call these genres “Informational” books, and by “nonfiction,” I want to focus on a process rather than a product. When I have my creative writers do nonfiction, we start out by going out to a central hallway in our school, sitting down, recording the time, date, and location, and writing down whatever we observe and think while we’re there. Real-time writing. And the texts produced thereby may not be fancy literary stuff, but they are real — they are a record of what came to their minds at that time and place (though of course what gets onto the paper may not be exactly what went through their minds). The students have made texts, have put experiences into words, where words and ideas did not exist before.

So what does this have to do with Hemingway? I don’t know yet. Maybe something will come to me as I write — something usually does. Maybe I mean to contrast the bullshit of fiction to the humble honesty of nonfiction. But that, too, is just another distinction, an easy analysis of minor value.

But it seems weird that we can have nonfiction analyses of fictional works. Maybe this shows the commonality of (and the arbitrary distinction between) fiction and nonfiction — both are just labels on ideas. Works of fiction and nonfiction are both just made of words and ideas, which words and ideas are animated (figuratively) only by human consciousness (that is, if humans disappeared, our books and symbols become just objects and ink stains — though even applying those labels would require a conscious mind).

I don’t want to say Hemingway was doing anything better or worse than any other fiction writer, in any of his books. But why does fiction seem to bother me so? Here is my own bias; I don’t read much fiction these days. I don’t choose to get absorbed into a story. As a kid, I read a lot of fiction, but not so much since my early 20s. I feel a little guilty about this when talking to those who appreciate fiction, but not guilty enough to read it.

Maybe what bugs me is the storytelling machinery, the rules and conventions. I may just have read and watched too many stories, so that for most stories, I can anticipate what’s coming, and that bores me. I’d love to see an action movie where the hero doesn’t win, or maybe the story is told from a character who dies early on. Those aren’t as “emotionally satisfying” as the classic tale of victory and redemption (whatever that is), but I don’t find story-by-numbers very satisfying anyway.

And perhaps I don’t want to characterize — to judge simplistically — my life or the lives of my friends and family. I don’t want to see these real people as simple successes, or as simple failures. My dad died suddenly, with many aspects of his life unsettled — he didn’t get a character “arc,” and he didn’t get to complete his life’s story in a satisfying way. I prefer seeing people and lives as complex, as beyond simple description, and so fiction doesn’t often present a worldview I find useful.

But maybe my issue with fiction is a bit more basic and philosophical — I think it bugs me to have to pay attention to story at all. Stories are interpretations of what happens. Stories skip the boring parts — stories lie to us about how much of our lives should be boring. After reading Kerouac’s “On the Road,” I wanted to have my own road adventures, but I didn’t pick up a hitchhiker I saw one day — it just seemed dumb to do that. And for as much fun as he made hitchhiking seem to be, Kerouac wrote in “Big Sur” (if memory holds, and it might not) that he wouldn’t have hitchhiked at all if he could’ve afforded to take the train. So there.

I was looking today at some comic strips I had saved from a couple years ago — one was a “Peanuts” strip where I cut out the dialog balloons, and one was a “Hagar the Horrible” in which I replaced their modern English speech with Old English lines from “Beowulf.” Looking at these today, I enjoyed the ones where there was no dialogue (or where I couldn’t understand it). I was glad that my attention didn’t have to be bothered with some stupid joke. I loved the idea that there didn’t have to be an idea that I was supposed to get. Nothing had to be communicated — I could just appreciate the drawings instead of merely glancing over those to pay attention to the dialogue.

And maybe that’s what bugs me about fiction. At least nonfiction can admit it doesn’t know what’s going on. (Nonfiction that pretends to have all the answers, like histories and memoirs, also might fit my criticisms of fiction.) Maybe I really like art that doesn’t try to mean anything, that doesn’t try to teach me anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald was just 29 when he wrote “The Great Gatsby” — what the hell did he have to say, in some grand thematic way, about wealth or society? (And why should we readers look at the character Gatsby as some failure, some cautionary tale? Surely a real person who had lived a life like Gatsby wouldn’t have called himself a failure.)

Maybe I’d like “The Old Man and The Sea” better if nothing happened. If it truly WAS just the old man and the sea, and we didn’t have to bring fish and sharks into it.

I mean, I live my life without knowing what things mean most of the time. Maybe later, days or years later, I’ll have an insight into what someone meant by doing or saying X, or whatever, but even those insights I know might be superseded.  I don’t have symbols in my life whose meanings are anything but the meanings I myself have assigned them. No meaning is necessarily attached to any particular object. When I think about how I didn’t enjoy my experiences in 7th grade basketball, I don’t need to draw any bigger theme from that. And frankly, I’m talking about stuff that happened years ago, things that I remember perhaps only because they were so unpleasant.

My journal is nonfiction, and I write down everyday some of the things that happened the day before, and what I’m thinking about that morning, and I also like about blogging that I can write and publish today — nothing I’m saying needs to have any kind of permanence. Maybe that sense of telling a permanent truth is what bugs me the most about fiction. Maybe I’d like fiction more if every story was told from multiple viewpoints so that it was never clear what had actually happened — indeed, so it became clear that nobody knew what actually happened (what “Rashomon,” and that “Magnum P.I.” that stole the “Rashomon” multiple-narrators technique, did).

And since any and every story, fiction or nonfiction, is just an idea, a fabrication — not a lie, but a construction from interpreted experiences — maybe story itself just isn’t enough to hold my attention. Maybe I want reality, or at least an acknowledgment of it.

POSTSCRIPT (the next night after writing the above): I’d like to summarize the insight of the previous post as every narrator is an unreliable narrator.

The narrator of “The Iliad,” which we’re reading in another class I teach, omnisciently depicts what happens to both Hector and Achilles when they are apart, and of course, this too is bullshit. That story is from no particular person’s or character’s perspective, and so that story must be from an impossible, unreal perspective — it must be a fabrication.

Of course, someone may say that fabrication is the essence and beauty of fiction. I get that, and at times I’ve been seduced into believing that life could be as simple and profound as stories set in Troy, in Middle Earth, or in Whoville have presented it. And yet, I’ve felt misled, betrayed, by these stories. It hasn’t felt helpful to me to be presented with ideas of perfect worlds, as if life really could be that simple and powerful and meaningful and etc. For a long time, I wanted my life to seem as thrilling and meaningful as it seemed in some fictions. It took me years to wake up from that idea and learn to accept my life as I found it, in its unedited reality. Attempting to get to that reality has always seemed less depressing than believing in a world that cannot be. Maybe there’s something passive (passively accepting these fictional worlds?) about reading, too, that I had to grow out of — and of course, maybe reading fiction and then growing out of it was a developmental stage that I had to go through. Whether I had to or not, I did read fiction and now I don’t, in general. The fiction that I do read now tends to be short fiction that presents new perspectives, new forms, and new ideas — fiction that seems to be more interested in discovering than in fabricating. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of  Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme, and David Markson.

So I’ve created a post that followed a feeling to the discovery of an idea, a theory, and now in trying to explain why I like this theory, I’ve come back to a feeling. Perhaps people’s ideas are justified by feelings more often than we like to admit — but, not being omniscient, I don’t know about the mental habits of other people. I’m talking here just about myself, at least, as well as I understand (at this point in time) my mind and how it operates.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

$6 for story, $10 for good story

Idea: What if a book — say, “Of Mice and Men” — was sold for different prices based on the quality of the story?

The paperback of “Of Mice and Men” costing, say, $6, ends with a meteor blast that kills everyone.

At the $10 level, George shoots Lennie in the head, but from the front, so Lennie sees George pull the trigger.

The $12 version has Lennie beating Curley’s wife, but they get interrupted before she dies and Lennie goes to prison and eventually gets the social work help he needs to re-enter society as a contributing, nonmenacing member.

For $14, George and Lennie are bankers who struck it rich in a Florida land scheme and don’t have to work as laborers.

And for $20, the book is hardcover and it’s “Anna Karenina.”