Sunday, July 14, 2013

Where Have All the Lit Heroes Gone?

Many books give homage to movies, but the reverse is not true. If anything, there is silence in Hollywood concerning books and writers, although Hollywood (according to Writer's Digest) is in need of writers with new ideas. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal talked about Hollywood needing to improve its stories instead of just its special effects, which is why many summer blockbusters inspire yawns. It's not that there are few good writers around, it's that even mass market genre writers are low in the pecking order in Hollywood. So low that they are frequently replaced by inexperienced hacks or by screenwriters whose main expertise is action sequences. Their go-to strategy includes red-lining out character development in favor of quippy one-liners, as though all fictional heroes are moonlighting as stand-up comics. Attention spans drop as a result, and soon the effects become ridiculous in their intensity and exaggeration, just to keep people awake. Having interviewed dozens of bestselling writers over the past decade, I've heard everything from sighs to laughter on this subject. Most are perplexed by how Hollywood works. Perhaps this is because the model of writing novels more often requires years of plodding work, sharpening one's craft, and that modus operandi doesn't always apply in Tinsel Town. There, even people in line at game shows seem to think they are only one deal away from being a mogul or diva, paparazzi trailing their Porsche as they roar through the Hollywood Hills to another party or press conference. Hollywood is sick because our culture is too slick, and verse visa. We've been told we deserve it all, and right now. And we believe it. So Hollywood regurgitates parodies of itself, including remakes, sequels and prequels. Meanwhile, novels have largely lost their appeal to these same zero-attention-spanners, who barely bother to read their scripts, and often make things up as they go along. The smaller reading public is also fed the same books by the same writers year after year, often with the help of co-authors who do most of the work. This prompts some critics to say the novel is dying as an art form, and that Hollywood sold out long ago. Critic Roger Ebert, in my sole encounter with him, told me that "no one makes movies for adults anymore," and that "we live in desperate times." Desperate, I suppose, primarily because of our culture's obsession with fast fame, ego, bling, and "winning at all cost" in an age that portends great loss due to exploitation and inequity (to say nothing of integrity.) Where are our heroes, except in inane, cliché-riden comic book movies? Our soldiers are heroes, but they are also exploited by old men who hide behind flags in cushy war rooms, more worried about their pensions and future speaking engagements than in actually "winning" anything (like peace.) Where are the mavericks (instead of today's clones and lemmings) that James W. Hall talks about in his book HIT LIT--Cracking the Code of the 20th Century's Biggest Bestsellers? These days, our culture punishes mavericks, after only pretending to admire them. Whistleblowers in our nearly-here Orwellian society are labeled traitors. Corporate criminals lie and cheat with impunity. And our culture expects us to conform, to ape the same thoughts and values which our Facebook friends and our smart phones feed back to us at the automatic request of advertisers who are spying on us.

Recently I was in a local big box store, looking for a coffee maker, and was approached by a salesman asking about my cable subscription. When I told him I didn't own a TV, he looked at me as though I had just landed from Altair 9. We are expected and encouraged to watch television obsessively, as in Ray Bradbury's vision of Fahrenheit 451, in which owning books was a crime and watching TV paramount. (Note also that those memorizing books for posterity in Bradbury's 451 are not memorizing 50 Shades of Grey, Valley of the Dolls, or World War Z.) As Martin Lindstrom says in Brandwashed, we don't even realize how we're being influenced and analyzed, since mass media works by repetition on our subconscious, much like hypnotism. But it doesn't have to be this way. One can turn off the boob tube, and seek out new ideas instead of being fleeced while floating along on the latest trend inside their donut hole of convention. If a movie is a blockbuster or a book is a bestseller, that is not a good reason to buy it. Doing what everyone else is doing means zero progress as an individual and as a culture. It is the equivalent of burning other, better books and movies that might have helped you see the world from a different perspective. Better to be your own hero, your own maverick. To rebel against those who want you in their box, and are willing to do whatever it takes to keep you there.   --Jonathan Lowe   

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