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.

Mary’s Wedding – Simple Excellence

I recently had the opportunity to go and take in a little theater. The name of the show was Mary’s Wedding by Stephen Massicotte and I went in with very few expectations. I’d never heard of the play and the description didn’t tell me much beyond it being set around World War I and the two actors portrayed a young couple in love. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I had confidence in the group producing the show, all for One Productions doesn’t go for saccharine stories after all, but I sat down in the theater with some reservations. 

I needn’t have worried. 

Before we break down the story itself let me say a few words of praise for the production itself. First, the cast of Jessica Munsie (Mary, Flowers) and Cooper Beer (Charlie) did fantastic work. Their performances were sincere, emotive and engaging. They studied horseback riding to add authenticity to some of their scenes and it showed. They had great chemistry with each other and the audience. The set was also perfect, built in two layers and full of props used in surprising and interesting ways. From the use of wheeled railings as doors and horses to the upper level’s many duties as hills, bridges and the deck of a ship, the minimalist set did everything it needed to and more without ever straining belief. 

Many people say seeing how a trick is done makes one appreciate it less. Mary’s Wedding is the kind of show that convinces me that the opposite is true. I caught a dozen little flourishes, like the causal setting of a hat on a platform as an actor walks around behind the stage, that speak to the practice, dedication and proficiency both actors developed while preparing for the show. It made me enjoy the performance more and not less. Well done, one and all. 

Now for the story itself. Mary’s Wedding focuses on the titular Mary as she dreams on the eve of her wedding. We are introduced to this dream by one of its chief figures: her sweetheart, Charlie. He tells us we are seeing a dream, and as it is a dream we must understand it follows its own logic and its own sense of time. It’s a great opening soliloquy, drawing from concepts we often see in Shakespeare and intended to lull the audience into the theater of the mind. Many plays do this, in one way or another, because the sets and costumes may be great but we know, deep down, they’re not real and the illusion of the stage is not as powerful as, say, that of the movie screen. 

A good storyteller knows how to weave the spell that creates this illusion of reality for audience and sometimes that’s as simple as asking them to step into the narrative with us. It’s a bold approach, and Massicotte deserves props for taking it. I know it worked for me. 

From this simple introduction a clap of thunder snaps us into the narrative itself – Charlie, seeking shelter from a thunderstorm and Mary calling out to him. This ominous opening gives way to Mary and Charlie’s first meeting, as they both hide from the rain in a barn. Mary is recently arrived in Canada from England, Charlie is a longtime resident of the area so they’ve never had opportunity to meet before. Mary helps Charlie overcome his fear of the thunder by coaxing him to recite poetry. Charlie only knows The Charge of the Light Brigade so that is what he quotes. 

This is when I realized this story didn’t have a happy ending. 

The dire stanzas of Tennyson’s poem weave throughout the play, a simple foreshadowing for a simple man. Charlie is like the cavaliers Tennyson describes – fixated on his duties and carrying them out. He knows things could end badly for him, but he presses forward regardless. This is contrasted with the poem Mary cites as something she has no wish to live out: The Lady of Shalott.

Subtlety, thy name is Stephen. 

All joking aside, these simple allusions give Mary’s Wedding a chance to weave these grandiose and romantic notions of duty and heartbreak into a very simple romance story. Mary and Charlie are from different worlds and different social standings but they fall in love. We see their relationship as it struggles to survive awkward meetings in the town streets, flubbed meetings with families and ultimately Charlie’s decision to join up and fight in the Great War in 1914. Interspersed with stories of the growing romance are stories of Charlie’s time in Europe, told to Mary through letters he sends home from the front. 

Both aspects are told in a blunt and straightforward way. This is not a Hollywood romance or war movie. Much of the pretense of such stories are stripped away, with Massicotte focusing on very realistic dialog and motivations for his characters. Charlie’s letters home sound very much like those I’ve read in compilations of first-hand accounts from any number of wars from the present day back to the American Civil War. Mary and Charlie’s relationship is free of flowery promises or generic statements of affection. 

Many stories could be fairly criticized for trying to characterize their protagonists using well know works of literature. But, while Massicotte is doing that in his script, he is also doing something a little more complicated than that. He is showing his characters use these poems to try and express themselves to each other. The Charge of the Light Brigade grapples with many philosophical questions that people think about but rarely try to articulate to each other. When forced to explain the horns of a dilemma like that which Tennyson describes, the average person will fail to put their thoughts into their own words. So, they turn to the poets. 

It is this, I think, that makes Mary’s Wedding work. It shows us simple, everyday people as they put their hand to every tool at their disposal to connect with each other and share their struggles. It’s an impressive achievement. 

The portrayal of Flowers, Charlie’s commanding officer during his time in Europe, is another fascinating device. Flowers is portrayed by the same actress who plays Mary. When Flowers and Charlie first meet Charlie is on the troop ship headed to Europe, smoking while watching the ocean at night. Flowers finds him and asks what he’s thinking about, to which Charlie admits he’s thinking about a girl back home. Flowers warns him not to do that, or soon enough he’ll be seeing her everywhere – which, of course, he already is. The close friendship the two develop is illuminating and powerful, and Jessica Munsie’s portrayal of Flowers was so excellent that I never confused her with Mary in my mind. It provides us a look at another side of Charlie, one we need to really appreciate before the story concludes or the conclusion will not be as powerful as it should be. 

Ultimately, Charlie never comes home. 

Charlie only lives in the dream, now, and soon enough Mary must wake up and continue on with her life. Her wedding day is coming. There is still a good life ahead of her, even with all the grief and regret that came from her parting with Charlie. That is the promise at the end of Mary’s Wedding. It’s a bittersweet ending, but the only ending their story could possibly have had. The thunder we heard at the beginning of the story is quiet now, and the rains have left poppies in their wake. And just like Mary, we must wake from the dream on that stage and leave Mary, Charlie and Flowers behind. 

As nearly as I can tell, while many of the events in Mary’s Wedding actually happened, Charlie and Mary were not real. Their story was a dream we shared for a moment. But we can carry that simple dream with us in our waking lives, a reminder that the peace we have was bought at great sacrifice. A reminder that after loss we can still carry on. Those simple messages are a powerful gift, and one I am grateful to have.  

Fire and Gold – Afterwords

Here we are, at the end of another Roy Harper tale. A little later than I hoped but well within the length that I predicted when I finished my outline. I am pretty satisfied with some aspects of where I am and a little disappointed with others. Late last year I had hoped to segue directly from Fire and Gold into my latest round of essays. Unfortunately I caught the Dreadful Virus in January and it put me way behind schedule on all fronts and particularly on writing projects.

So, I’m falling back on my normal format and taking a week off next week. After that we’ll be diving into the wolly world of writing and looking at whatever catches my fancy. There will be at least five weeks of essays before we dive into the next round of fiction, probably more. In addition to the usual topics, I’ll be talking about some of my own projects in the abstract. Particularly my upcoming novella Burning Bright, which, for the first time, I will not be publishing on this blog. More on that in due course.

I’ll also be discussing fiction I loved and hated in recent memory, what we can learn from the wonderful world of propaganda and taking a wider look at publishing as a whole. Hopefully at least one of those topics will interest you.

In the mean time, a recap of my thoughts on Fire and Gold after actually finishing the project. First and foremost, I feel this story is rougher than the previous Roy Harper tales because I didn’t have test readers for it. Due to some decisions I made last year I did not finish Fire and Gold a month before each chapter went live, unlike the other Harper stories I’ve done. I used that extra time to send the chapters out to two test readers who gave me useful feedback on things like tone, comprehensibility and characters. There wasn’t time for that in this story.

If I do choose to publish the Roy Harper adventures in a more permanent form I’ll have to go out and get that feedback before I publish Fire and Gold. I definitely felt its loss while writing this. I also felt less invested in this story as I wrote it because I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I was in previous installments. Hernando and Danica were nasty people who were set up to get knocked down. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But it definitely proved a barrier to digging into those characters and writing them with the same glee as I do when I write from the perspective of characters like Roy, Lang or others.

All that said, I am satisfied with the way Fire and Gold came out and I think it’s a good look at the kind of thing Roy does day by day, and why he chooses to do it the way he does. Hopefully you enjoyed it as well. See you in two weeks.

The Chappelle Solution

There’s really nothing I can say in praise of Dave Chappelle that hasn’t already been said. 

He’s funny, at least most of the time. He’s abrasive but if you can get past that there’s a lot to like about what he does. There’s definitely plenty to dislike, but there’s nothing wrong with him as a comedian. I will leave praise of Chappelle to others more qualified than I. Suffice it to say, I think he’s a good comedian. Unfortunately he’s part of a dying breed. As is my want for this latest series of essays, I’m less concerned with why this is and more concerned with what it means. So I’m not going to walk you through the long, slow, tortured death of comedy. Jerry Seinfeld gave a pretty good summary when he swore off performing on college campuses and there are certainly in depth examinations of the subject out there. To be frank, this is a subject I am by no means well versed in, so I will direct you to the work of Adam Carolla, who often comments on the subject. 

What I think is interesting is that, in his latest special The Closer, Chappelle actually offers us the solution to the problem. Then, sadly, he walks away from certain parts of comedy until such a time as people choose to employ it. For those who haven’t seen The Closer, the high points are this – Chappelle has often been accused of hatred for transexuals because he makes jokes about them. Chappelle met a transexual comic named Daphne, who enjoyed his work and wanted to emulate it. When Chappelle put out his special Sticks and Stones he made jokes about transexual people and got heat for it. Daphne chose to defend him. A widespread outcry on Twitter attacked Daphne as a traitor and a suck up for six days. 

At the end of that time, Daphne committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a building. 

The Closer is Chappelle’s carefully crafted, somewhat funny and viciously pointed response to the people who were so hard on his friend. Through the whole special he acknowledges that he is part of a tribe, namely black people, while Daphne was part of the tribe of transexuals, and they are very different groups. But empathy, he points out, has to go both ways. It’s when we reach the end that Chappelle plays his final card. 

“I’m claiming Daphne for my tribe,” he announces. “Comedians.” 

This is the essence of the Chappelle Solution. 

There are tribes we belong to by birth. Family is the first and greatest of these, and the tribe we owe the most to. But there are also tribes we choose. Dave Chappelle and Daphne both chose comedy, and in this they found comradery. Truth be told, all friendship is this principle writ small. After all, what are best friends if not a tribe of two people, forged through shared experience and an abnormally high tolerance for one another’s quirks? And this is a principle that can extend to the most difficult circumstances in life. 

Daryl Davis deradicalized hundreds of Klansmen, in spite of the color of his skin, because he found them where they were and made them his own tribe. Christianity conquered Europe by creating a new tribe that all Europeans could belong to. The key to all three of these approaches are compassion. Chappelle repeatedly stressed that he connected with Daphne by acknowledging that they were both dealing with profoundly human situations that were difficult to share but still worthy of sympathy and understanding. In this he reminds us of a profound lesson about how communities are held together. 

Jokes are a way to state hard truths and lesson the sting. They are a way to illuminate dark times and lighten the load. And yes, sometimes they are a way to tear down others in the most brutal and efficient fashion we can imagine. But that last class of comedy comes from – and here’s that word again – contempt. Many comedians today tell their jokes from that perspective, holding their fellow humans in contempt for decisions they see as foolish, backwards or just plain ignorant. There’s some room for that. But the thing that always made comedy so valuable was the compassionate comedy, that helps us grapple with hard truths and lights our way through dark paths. In The Closer Chappelle reminded us of that. Then he walked away, and comedy inched a little bit closer to the grave. 

Not before he left us with the solution, however. It’s up to us to decide how to use it. So once more I return to my premise for this series: If we wish for great art to thrive and grow once again we must set aside contempt and embrace compassion. Art elevates the human experience towards eternity. We cannot do that while we look down on humanity from the debased self righteousness. Climb upwards my friends. 

Joe Rogan and the Half-Truth Cult

The half-truth cult is everywhere these days and I did not choose Joe Rogan as its villain so much as he volunteered for the role. But before we dive into that topic, a disclaimer. Long time readers know I studied journalism once. I’ve been embarrassed of those who claim that career for the last decade or so, although not as embarrassed as they would be of me, I’m sure. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve long espoused the point of view that studying and writing nonfiction is important for the fiction writer. It sharpens and hones your prose in ways the average fiction writer rarely focuses on. 

But the modern journalist goes in the opposite direction. Many modern schools of communication focus on the importance of building a narrative as the most important task for a communicator. That makes a great deal of sense, as narrative is what most sticks with the audience. People can forget dozens of little details but still hold on to the core ideas and direction of a story. Ask anyone to tell you the plot of their favorite movie. If you record what they tell you and compare it to the movie itself you’re going to get two different stories. The person will inevitably invent things that weren’t in the film. The movie will include details the person left out. And the order of events is probably going to be different than what you were told as well. 

And that’s before we touch on any of the misquotes and flubbed names they make. 

But the core direction and theme of the story is going to come through loud and clear. That is the power of narrative. If you want to communicate something to your audience narrative is the best way to do it and journalism is a medium that is inherently concerned with narrative, so it would seem to be a match made in heaven. The problem is, journalists are dealing with the narrative of reality, which is a huge, sprawling mess of overlapping ideas, themes, directions and characters which resist most attempts to boil them down to something simple and easily digested.

Modern communication theory demands it be done anyway. 

The problem is, when handed to a human being, reality tends to get distilled down to what is most convenient rather than what is the most true. If you doubt that, try finding the drivers of the vehicles in a two car collision and ask them what happened. You’re going to get two very selectively edited stories. In theory, journalists are taught a number of methods to avoid falling into the trap of self-interest. In practice, we see these techniques in use very rarely. 

The recent reporting on Joe Rogan’s brief bout with coronavirus is a great example of this, which brings us back to the beginning. For those who missed this tempest in a teapot, Joe Rogan, the English speaking world’s biggest podcast host, posted a brief video to his Instagram reporting that he’d caught Covid. He recapped the treatments his doctor had recommended and reported they’d tried them all. Among them was the antiparasitic drug Ivermectin. 

Now, Ivermectin is a proven medicine devised for very specific purposes among the human population but which some doctors have experimented with using in a wide variety of other circumstances. Respiratory infections like the common cold being one of them. Since Covid-19 is a close relative of the coronavirus which causes the common cold, these experimentally minded doctors also experimented with using Ivermectin to treat the 2019 strain of Covid. 

There is also a blend of Ivermectin that can be used to treat horses for intestinal worms. 

As both Rogan and Covid are topics of some interest to the public, CNN chose to report on Rogan’s illness and mentioned that, among other things, he’d been prescribed the horse dewormer Ivermectin. Rogan has since considered legal action against CNN and vocally denied taking the veterinary blend of Ivermectin. Amid this controversy, CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta went on Rogan’s show to promote his book on the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Rogan was understandably hard on CNN’s reporting and grilled Gupta in person wanting to know why his network lied. CNN has since defended itself through correspondent Don Lemon by pointing out that Rogan did take Ivermectin and it can be used as a horse dewormer, so they didn’t really lie. But I haven’t met anyone that really takes this defense seriously or views this as anything other than a deliberate attack on Rogan’s intelligence. The only question discussed is whether Rogan deserved the attack. 

This is more than an academic discussion of the eroding state of public journalism. It’s a clear indication of the dangers of half-truth. It’s very easy for someone crafting a narrative to fall into the trap of thinking they have control of all the variables and anyone bringing a different interpretation to the table must be wrong or even working against them. This temptation is doubly strong for a person crafting a fictional narrative. There’s a strong belief in the modern day and age that “fiction” means “divorced from reality.” That isn’t remotely true. 

There’s more to reality than narratives and an author who tries to write while ignoring this fact is going to lose his audience very quickly. Whether it’s a highly technical field like medicine or a very nuanced and subjective field like psychology, you need to put in work to get it right. Do a lot of research. Develop connections in the field and draw on them. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money to get the opinion of a reliable expert where appropriate. Above all, seek feedback. And make sure it’s something you can trust and take into account, or else people will quickly see that you’re either ignorant or deliberately ignoring reality to make your narrative. 

You can’t condescend to your audience like that – they’ll stop listening to you. If you can’t put in the work or you don’t want to listen to the advice you receive on a subject, you probably shouldn’t write it. But if you do, have care. It’s not far from there to the half-truth cult. There’s no saying you’ll draw the ire of an irritable podcast host of the stature of Joe Rogan but there’s no way to be sure. And from all I’ve seen, the experience is not a fun one. Better to avoid it all together. 

Why Critics and Writers Hate Archetypes 

A disclaimer before we dive in: This is not a universal law. Many critics and writers love archetypes, use or analyze them effectively and appreciate how they enrich stories. But a majority of them – not necessarily a large one but a majority nonetheless – seem to despise them. 

To oversimplify things, I believe this is because they see them as some kind of shackle. The curse of creativity is that it drives creators to try and do everything from scratch over and over again – assuming, of course, that creativity is your driving force. And I believe that many writers today are driven by creativity, not a desire to entertain or tell a story. The upshot of this is that writers seem to feel a need to not just ignore but actively reject all things that point to any aspect of the story than that which they desire. 

I keep coming back to this notion but it’s important. A storyteller is trying to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of their audience without the audience noticing them doing it. It’s something like a magic trick. Everyone knows a trick is being played but no one cares because the wonder and mystery is the whole reason you’re there in the first place. In this analogy, archetypes are like the documentaries that explain how magicians do their tricks. Once a magician’s trick is revealed it doesn’t have the same impact. 

Or so it appears at first glance. In truth, a well-executed archetype is more like a well-executed sports play or well told joke. Well versed audiences can appreciate the execution even if it isn’t quite as mysterious as it would appear to someone seeing the archetype for their first time. However many writers seem to feel a need to distance themselves from the archetypes instead. Rather than demonstrate their skills by executing on an archetype, they instead seek to subvert it. They will cut against it, diverting its natural story beats into other paths. 

Now there’s nothing wrong with subversion per se. However, in the modern age so many writers are subverting archetypes that this kind of behavior has become predictable. Worse, it hasn’t even moved into the realm of archetype itself, but rather remains a very shallow, surface level way to engage with archetypes. Heroes prove to be actually cowardly or performative. Thieves turn out to be motivated entirely by circumstance. Villains are just the heroes of their own stories. None of these subversions is ever explored with the depth or breadth of their counterparts because the point isn’t the exploration, it’s the subversion itself. Archetypes can become a crutch in the hands of a lazy writer but subversion in the modern era is just as bad. In some ways it’s worse. After all, in order to subvert an archetype you are still reliant on the archetype existing. The slow subversion of all archetypes has driven them out of the public consciousness to the point where they no longer exists to support the story. This would be fine if these stories had any other point than the subversion but for the most part they don’t. That leaves us with an empty shell of a storytelling landscape we really need to move past. 

Yet writers still languish in it. 

Critics are on the opposite end of this spectrum, they desire to understand what a storyteller has put forward. They are interested in the nuts and bolts of a story, with execution for its own sake, and typically evaluate archetypes through one of two lenses. First, as a layer of metatextual information the author shouldn’t be constrained by. Second, as something the author must outwit. Both attitudes seem to find their origin in the same place as the writer’s disdain for archetypes – the creator must be free to create, and archetypes are a constraint they must overcome in order to accomplish this. 

Like the writer, the critic is looking at the archetype as something that cripples the potential of a story. I’ve always found this perspective strange. But over the last five years or so I’ve slowly formed a theory as to why I think that it’s so common. 

I’ve spend more than two decades of my life doing theater in various forms and one thing I’ve learned from that experience is the importance of being in tune with your audience. If the audience laughs, you have to wait for them. Otherwise you will train them not to laugh when you make a joke. If the theater gets loud for some reason, you have to adapt to that. I once had to crank up the volume of a line with important exposition in it because a child in the audience started crying. As soon as their parents got them out of the room I had to reduce back to normal, so as not to break the illusion. And so on and so forth. This ongoing dialog between performer and audience is a vital part of delivering a good story. 

This dialog exists at a very abstract level in mediums where the audience and entertainer aren’t in direct contact. As media has expanded in scope and immediacy, and it’s gotten easier and easier for authors (or, in the case of movies and music, musicians and actors) to get more and broader feedback from their audience, to the point where it’s almost on the same level that a live performer gets from a live audience. With one exception. 

Even the largest venues accommodate only a few tens of thousands of audience at any one time. The Internet allows for an audience of billions. That’s far more feedback than anyone is really equipped to handle, delivered in a way that is both more immediate and more impersonal than comes during a live performance. I think that’s somehow poisoned the healthy feedback loop that exists in a good audience-performer dynamic. The unfiltered exposure to an artist’s personal life on social media certainly hasn’t helped. The forces at play in that situation are interesting but not really the point of this discussion. I’m more interested in the way all this mass exposure galvanizes creators against their audiences. 

This isn’t unique to traditional forms of entertainment or expression. YouTube and Twitch have created whole new mediums with their own massive celebrities and success stories, many of which have suffered incredibly damaging fallouts with their own audiences. The Spoony One, DarkSydePhil and Wings of Redemption are all cases of this that long time netizens are familiar with. By the same token, traditional forms of art and entertainment have produced many individuals that seem downright hostile to their own audiences. A list of comic book writers working at Marvel or DC in 2020 would be a great set of examples for that. 

And yet in mainstream entertainment, and Hollywood in particular, this kind of hostility seems particularly strong. You might say the writers and directors there hold their mainstream audiences… in contempt. And that brings me to my thesis this week. 

I think the modern rejection of archetypes is a rebellion against audience feedback. Audiences do not ingest stories in the way writers or critics do. They do not look at them in a vacuum and try and nuance out all the little details and dynamics the author was trying for, they add them to the vast library of existing culture already in their brains and see where they stack up. And, to stretch the analogy a little further, archetypes are how they catalog these stories. When audiences offer feedback on stories they often couch it in terms of these archetypes and the ways they didn’t get the aspects of the story they expected and desired. 

Now, it’s true that you can replace one aspect of a story with another and get an equally good and enjoyable story. The thing is, when that’s done successfully, audiences still tend to appreciate that. Look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for example. That story subverted the whole dynamic of a typical horror story but still stands as a classic, beloved by critics and casual horror fans alike. But, as I’ve already said, I don’t think that’s what is happening right now. Now, we have stories subverting archetypes not out of a desire to tell a different story, but out of a desire to break free from the audience. 

Again, I think writers – and to a lesser extent critics – dislike archetypes because they see them as a kind of shackle. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, just the one they make. As a result of the sudden deluge of audience feedback writers have experienced since the dawn of the Internet, authors have become more and more hostile to the feedback they receive. And the fact that said feedback often comes couched in terms of archetypes – which are primarily created by audiences to help them process stories – makes the natural hostility of the modern writer towards archetypes increase. The further the writer strays from normal archetypes with no clear direction in mind, the more he gets feedback on it. And the loop continues forever. 

The unfortunate reality underpinning this loop is simple. Entertainers cannot entertain without an audience. A creation that no one but the creator sees is not art, it is practice at best and indulgence at worst. The audience is a vital part of storytelling and artistic creation. But these are collaborative acts and as long as there is antagonism – whether born out of contempt or some other emotion – between the creator and audience then the arts will degrade, not grow. Perhaps our methods of feedback are inherently flawed. Perhaps both audience and artist need to seek a new way to reach this synthesis. But until both sides are willing to actually engage in a discussion with good will that’s going to be impossible. 

And to get there, I think hatred for archetypes is one thing that has to go.