I find myself unable to participate in popular literature anymore. Hunger Games? Hate it. Harry Potter? Please, go away. Rick Riordan? Yes, I used to love everything he ever did, but I cannot endure to read it anymore. And my distaste for work that’s considered popular extends beyond just literature. I listen to or watch most TV shows now and just shake my head at the fact that so many people can enjoy it. It is not good writing, nor is it good acting, but people seem content to settle on this that passes only for mediocrity at best. Before Spring break I saw that The Revenant was available to watch on HBO Go. I thought, people have said a lot of good things about this show and Leo won his Oscar for this, surely it has to be good, right? But no. The movie was really pretty awful, and if it were not for the directing skills of Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu, which captured some astonishingly beautiful and scenic shots, the entire movie would have been unwatchable.
Before I get into the rest of this, I feel I probably need to address the previous claim lest too many people get all up in arms. Leonardo Dicaprio won an Oscar and countless other awards for a movie wherein he hardly speaks more than five words (hyperbole, but still). There is an indian tribe in the film that serves, so far as the viewer can tell, zero purpose except to be an adversary. But they aren’t even an adversary, they’re just this odd insertion of people for Leo to sacrifice another man to because they will cause more pain than Leo is willing to inflict. Leo’s character makes an overly miraculous recovery from a bear attack to then seek ruthless revenge in what is a very shallow plot. He unrealistically survives falling down a waterfall, going in and out of water and avoiding any onset of hypothermia, and galloping off a cliff while on a horse. Here’s an excellent review by J. Olsen that says a lot of what I found wrong with the movie.
I cannot, for sure, identify what was the impetus for my revulsion towards what is so often popular in modern media consumption. I can, however, point to experiences in the last year that have quickened my revolt.
In my last semester at SUU, my creative writing professor made a habit of poking fun at the awful writing present in most of what is considered popular literature. He would read the first paragraph from the Hunger Games, after promising his classes he would read the entire book, point out that Suzanne Collins gave volition to a person’s fingers, and then proclaim that he was unable to suffer any more and chose instead to go and play golf. He loved to read from the Bobbsey Twins, where he would laugh and grin at the ridiculous dialogue tags that so many authors love to use. He would continually point out how unneeded or outright stupid many details in stories were, and he would repeatedly ask students why fantasy is so compelling to them.
The day before our last day of class, my professor brought a book that the students had recommended he read. It was an 800 page book and the text was probably a size seven or less in the publisher’s word processor. My professor, again, grinned when he posited the following challenge to each of the members of his class: He laughed about a quote from a book we read, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, and said he felt he fit her description of the men at the gym quite well.
“It’s always six in the A.M. when I go and the men at that hour are ninety-nine years old, they have minutes left to live, they’re alcoholics.” (Mary Robison)
My professor said he had minutes left to live and that for our final class period he wanted everyone to convince him why he should waste his precious time on the 800 page book. What followed, I felt, was troubling.
The next class period was filled with many of the same arguments, all of which revolved around one idea: escapism. The students talked about how they enjoyed Harry Potter because it allowed them to believe in a world different from the world in which they currently lived. They talked about how fantasy was a release. A chance to get away and slip through the wardrobe. My professor kept responding by asking why they would want to learn about these fake worlds when they could experience lifeness through stories based on reality and situated in the real, authentic, human existence. I was reminded of a spoken poem called Storm from the great Tim Minchin:
Isn’t this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable, natural world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
I struggle with reading popular fiction or fantasy nowadays. It pains me to open Netflix and see a new Marvel series every other week, and it flat out disgusts me that these are the things that the masses gobble up. It bothers me that people are so willing to dismiss the natural world. If we are unable to be sufficiently fascinated by the beautiful complexity of the life that surrounds us, to what danger must our surroundings stoop before we feel compelled to open our eyes and see the destruction we are causing? Literature is indeed capable of changing the world. It is a powerful tool. All we know are stories and it is stories that keep the world turning; that motivate us to continue living; that create novelty and satisfaction.
It is true that stories are meant to allow us to live vicariously and experience things we might not otherwise be able to. It is true too, that stories can carry us away from our current predicament and there, in that far away place, rattle us in order to reveal our imperfections. But the common culture, perhaps best articulated by the Marvel preoccupation, so rarely seeks to do this. Of the film The Revenant J. Olson writes:
As the film gradually reveals itself an empty, pretty thing, it becomes clear that it’s little more than a string of breathtaking vistas best suited for months of playback in the home theater section of your local Best Buy.
Indeed, the film seems to exist for little reason more than to precipitate a thrill, and a cheap one at that. The Marvel films are much the same: all action, little substance. Harry Potter, while perhaps possessing timeless themes, does little to help one grapple with her existence in the real world. In the end, they are meant to do scantly more than create some fake sense of happiness, and to provide an escape that dangerously steals us away from reality.
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief. (Franz Kafka)
The popular media consumption takes us to worlds so vastly different from reality that they can ultimately have little great affect on us. For what ultimate disasters do we face in the killing of Voldemort? What banishment befalls us when the superheroes implausibly triumph over their foes? What reality is congruous to any of these hyperbolic situations that stray from the ordinary magnificence of human existence? And what axes do they offer that could plausibly surpass those given us by Kafka, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Shakespeare, and the multitude of others who write on what it means to be human?
In a world where empathy is increasingly replaced by ignorance, we must turn back to these books and to these stories. We must vigorously pursue our own suicide. We must unmask our sense of self.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. (Franz Kafka)
We must stab and wound ourselves with the knowledge that these acts alone are capable of making us stronger.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
It is my hope that before we are able to ascertain the culminating danger that awaits us at the end of this pursuance of escape, we might recognise the inevitably grim consequence that is the ultimate destination of this path. Seek out the axe and hack away at the frozen seas within your heart and you may just discover that the beauty of reality is enough to excite, bewitch, and addle the attention of any human being for an eternity.