The Truth and Beauty – Manic Philosophy

A while ago I read Andrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing. It was a fascinating recounting of the life of a man who struggled with his family, his place in the world and his fundamental beliefs, a man who did not fully find his place in the world until the eve of his fiftieth birthday. As a result I was very interested to read Klavan’s insights into the intersection between faith and art, which he has committed to paper in his latest book, The Truth and Beauty. In the introduction to this book, Klavan states that his wife (who reads his books first) found the book interesting but wasn’t sure if it was good. He reports that his answer was, “Of course it’s a good book. I just have to cut out all the bad parts.” 

In this endeavor, he succeeded. There isn’t a bad section to this book. Unfortunately, it feels like the book itself would be stronger if he had polished up some of those bad parts to the standard of the rest and left them in, because I feel like it could really use some connective tissue in there. 

This book is divided into three general sections. First, the introduction and statement of purpose. Second, an examination of the life and times of England’s great poets. Third, a meditation on the Gospels, with occasional reference to said poets to illustrate a point. 

The core idea of this book is something I think is on point. By which I mean I agree with it 100%. Klavan is trying to grapple with the dichotomy of authenticity and performance. Human beings are not entirely authentic creatures nor are we entirely performative. We are both people pleasers and self-indulgent narcissists, we are both mold breakers and creatures of habit, we are creatures of thought and creatures of impulse. Our societies are structured to maximize natural roles and yet the iconoclast is a natural and vital role. 

There’s several solid lines of reasoning to argue Jesus Christ harmonizes these two seemingly conflicting states into a single superposition. Klavan explores a couple of them in his book and I don’t have any problem with his reasoning. 

Klavan also argues that the life and times of the English Romantic poets forced them to try and resolve this conflict as well. They had to sort out their own radical beliefs, the demands of human nature and the bedrock nature of reality. Klavan walks us through the time period and important events in the lives of the poets to make his case. I’m not an expert on these poets or the era. I can only take what Klavan presents at face value and, if it is all true, he does make an argument that the poets did find their ideas in conflict with their pursuit of art. It’s certainly compelling stuff to read. 

Finally, Klavan expounds on the beauty of the Gospels, the way they show us many people, but Christ in particular, balancing the roles of performer and authentic person. We see that only Christ balances these two things perfectly, and this is what made people react to him so strongly. 

What I find missing from all of this is a direct correlation between the Romantics and the Gospels. I understand that Wordsworth et al failed to balance the conflicts between authenticity and performance. The problem is that’s not a unique failing on their part, it is the human condition in general. Klavan speculates that their excellent art has stood the test of time because it points towards universal truths and does so beautifully, even if those artists didn’t live up to those truths and were not, themselves, beautiful. Fair enough, many such artists exist. 

I just don’t see how the two sets of observations connect. Perhaps it is best to just read The Truth and Beauty as another memoir, a recounting of the facts, ideas and poetry that passed through Klavan’s mind as he was struggling his way to deeper understanding of the Gospels. It certainly works well that way. Perhaps others will have the flash of genius moment Klavan did as they read this. I didn’t have such a moment, nor was the direction Klavan’s thoughts moved during that revelation clear to me. That was what I hoped to get from the book, but didn’t. Perhaps the fact that I’ve been enamored with a similar idea for over a decade – I did a presentation on the Parables of Jesus, Chinese wisdom literature and the unity of character and applied morals in college – has clouded my ability to take in new thoughts on the matter. That can happen to creative minds. Once we have an approach to a topic in mind taking on a new one can be difficult. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Truth and Beauty a great deal. It was interesting, humorous, informative and grappled with big ideas. But I didn’t get the insight into how two very deep subjects connect that I had hoped and if that’s what you’re really hoping for I’m not sure you will, either. If you’re okay with that, or if you’re just looking for a high level overview of the English Romantics, you may enjoy this book. And, of course, you may be able to pick up on parts of this book that I could not. But I’m not entirely sure I can recommend this book to people trying to pick up a deeper understanding of truth and beauty vis a vie the Gospels, because I didn’t find it here. It’s hard for me to parse the worth of the book in that respect, however, because I have also been caught up in the questions Klavan wrestles with for most of my life. Your mileage may vary. I would recommend reading the sample or checking your library before buying. 

I’ve been kind of hard on Klavan’s writing here. But I do think this is a good book and I hope to see more nonfiction from Klavan in the future.  

The Hyperions – Visuals and Story

I’ve gotten very invested in the methods of visual storytelling in the last couple of months. This isn’t just because I love comics and the methods of telling a story there, although that’s a part of it, but also because I’m trying to develop a better understanding of integrating descriptions into prose. I’ve repeatedly received feedback in the last few months from people wanting a better idea of what things look like. I’m not the best at describing the worlds my characters inhabit or what they look like and that’s a weakness I’m trying to overcome. Part of my approach to that is analyzing the visual storytelling of others. Putting things that work into words helps me put my own thoughts into words better, and that’s a big part of why I write essays like this. Hopefully reading them helps you folks, too. 

The most visually creative film I’ve watched in recent memory is The Hyperions, directed by Jon MacDonald. The Hyperions exists in a carefully recreated world of the late 1970s and features the retired scions of a superhero program. The titular Hyperions are an interesting combination of the traditional superhero and the Power Rangers. They wear spandex costumes with capes, like Superman. But their powers come from a bulky, wrist mounted device that relies on badges and tweaks their physiology rather than genetic mutations or magic. This blending of narrative and visuals from two very different sources is common throughout The Hyperions. 

The clearest example comes through the eyes of Professor Mandelbaum. 

The Professor is a classic emotionally distant, absentminded genius who never quite connected with the kids he gave superpowers to. His focus is very much on the future and the things he hopes to create. When he’s alone with his thoughts the world around Mandelbaum becomes animated – as in, it changes from what we see to actual, hand drawn animation. MacDonald apparently did this animation himself. It’s a brilliant touch to show just how much the Professor lapses into his own thoughts and his own world when he’s alone with his thoughts. It also helps us understand why he never quite connects with any of the people he cares about. They’re literally living in different worlds. 

While Mandlebaum is clearly based on Professor Xavier, the legendary leader of the X-Men, he has a large touch of the Power Rangers and tokusatsu as well. He has a mechanically augmented parrot with enhanced intelligence, much like the sidekicks of Power Ranger team founders. He’s out of touch with the modern world, which is more like a tokusatsu leader and less like Xavier. It’s an interesting balancing act, telegraphed by a number if visual design choices in his appearance and the things he creates.

The buildings the story takes place in also offer differing insights into the characters and how they’re related. Professor Mandlebaum’s mansion is a big building that manages to be both cluttered and empty at the same time. Outside of the Professor’s rooms, the mansion is a pretty impersonal place. There’s very few human touches. Instead there’s a lot of stuff scattered about, snacks or books or whatever else the Professor thinks will hold the interest of the youngsters he’s taken in. The Professor’s rooms, on the other hand, are very snug. His favorite chairs and books are there, in a space clearly optimized to be as close to the fantasies in his head as possible. It’s a place perfect for him, but difficult for others to make sense of at first. 

In contrast, the museum where Vista and Ansel spend most of the running time is very impersonal. It chronicles the lives of the Mandelbaums through a pane of glass, as if the people it immortalizes were bugs under a lens or actors on a stage. It reinforces the sense that Vista and Ansel are long removed from their lives as superheroes whether they like it or not. The mayhem unleashed there at the end of the film is a nice touch, emphasizing how that chapter of their lives is over. 

There are other little visual touches that are quite nice. Maya’s teleportation effect is animated, rather than some kind of 3D, computer generation effect, which makes the visual feel like a touch of Professor Mandlebaum’s world made real. This emphasizes the closeness between the two on top of being a perfect visual representation of what the Professor is hoping to accomplish. The talking bird character manages to look completely organic to the world it lives in, even though it’s also clearly a puppet effect lovingly brought to life by a dedicated member of the film crew. 

On top of that, painstaking care is taken in creating a world made entirely of parts from the late 1970s (outside of the obvious additions added by the nature of the story). This added touch of realism makes the more fantastical elements feel like they could be right out of that era, as if MacDonald is simply documenting a part of the era we were unaware of until The Hyperions was released. A lot of care went into making the visuals all feel organic. 

The Hyperions isn’t the best superhero film ever created but all the attention to detail in the way it tells the story lets MacDonald reach a conclusion that is particularly poignant. The film ends on a long shot of Vista going into her father’s office, a place that has been entirely for the Professor until now, and she sees it with new eyes. At first I thought this was a strange shot to end the film on. But as I ruminated on the film I came to realize this shot shows Vista becoming a part of her adopted father’s life in a way she wasn’t before. She understands parts of him she was too young and immature to appreciate when they parted ways but which she’s come to see more clearly now that she’s a mother herself. So she can enter her father’s place and feel at ease now, where she was clearly out of place before. A well done use of visual storytelling subtle enough that I might have missed it. 

You can’t make a perfect story entirely through visuals. You need good storytelling on other fronts to round it out. By the same token, good visual storytelling is an integral part of building a well-rounded story that speaks to the audience on all levels. I can’t point to any single story, film, comic or novel, that handles all of them perfectly. We have to examine stories that handle particular aspects of story well and The Hyperions handles the visual aspects quite well. If it’s a subject that has troubled you I would recommend giving it a look.

Brandon Sanderson Solved the Attention Economy

For those unfamiliar with the lingo, saying a situation is “solved” usually means someone has found the best way to approach it.

By the same token, the Attention Economy is a way of looking at marketing that revolves more around whether you can get your product in front of people’s eyes than convincing them that your product is worth spending money on. The Attention Economy acknowledges that the plethora of things vying for attention in the smart phone driven social media obsessed modern era are the biggest hurdle to selling something, not value for money. In all fairness, this theory may be reaching its end. The prosperous era of the late 1990s to early 2010s gave rise to the Attention Economy and that prosperity was really squandered over the last decade or so. Without that level of prosperity that kind of marketing won’t be as relevant. 

But the Attention Economy was and, for the moment, still is a thing. Brandon Sanderson recently provided a master class in taking full advantage of it. Sanderson has spent years cultivating a highly invested audience. He has a decent social media presence, two weekly podcasts and recently started a YouTube channel where he publishes weekly writing updates. My own use of the platform for similar updates was inspired by this in no small part. A year or so ago he ran a ten year anniversary Kickstarter to crowdfund a highly collectable, leatherbound edition of one of his most popular novels. 

All of these things have built a large number of eyes on Sanderson’s work and a large number of ways for him to communicate with that audience. Put this on top of his already remarkable popularity in the science fiction and fantasy community and Sanderson was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the attention economy. Then, at the beginning of this month, Sanderson took to YouTube to make a confession to his audience. It’s so masterfully executed that I’ll include it for your enjoyment: 

Okay, if you didn’t watch it for whatever reason the basics are like this: Sanderson begins by telling his audience he’s not been entirely honest with them. He found the lockdown and travel restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic disrupted his travel and promotion schedules and left him with a great deal of free time on his hands and he had to cope with it as best he could. 

So he wrote five new novels to share with his family. After some thought, he decided four of them were already in a form he could also share them with his audience so he announced that his company was starting a Kickstarter to fund their publication outside the normal publishing house system. This Kickstarter has already raised some $33,000,000. 

First things first – well done, Brandon Sanderson. A masterful use of existing platform and an incredibly successful outcome for a very skilled and deserving author. 

Second, this is a very interesting case study in the attention economy. For at least a week, no one in a field even remotely related to science fiction could talk about anything else. People I follow who had never commented on Sanderson before were suddenly picking through his campaign looking for insights. Everyone from comic book geeks to hardboiled noir authors were talking about a man who writes 1,000 page epics well outside of their wheelhouse. It was a total social media whiteout. 

It was like trying to discuss something other than Elden Ring in video game circles during the same period. You just couldn’t get a word in sideways. 

Almost as quickly as it came, it faded. It gets mentioned in passing as a great example of how to get stories to your audience in new and inventive ways but the buzz is nowhere nearly as intense. What a wild ride. But this wasn’t something that just came and went – over 100,000 people have bought a year’s worth of stories from an author they love and Brandon Sanderson has shattered crowdfunding records. He did it by using a wide platform and a clever video to draw in an invested audience to the profit of all involved. It’s a method well worth studying. It was a lot of work to set up but, with all the funding now in hand, Sanderson doesn’t have to constantly travel and promote his latest books. Instead he can save travel time and focus on writing even more stories which he can then bring back to his audience in the same way. I really do feel this is an innovation in how to connect with audiences while still producing creative work. 

A long running trickle of information through various routes followed by one large offensive designed to play out over a couple of years has positioned Sanderson well to continue his work far into the future. It’s a good model and one well worth studying for all of us who want to share our creative work. I know I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.