A Paper Movie
Monday, 4 January 2010
I read more classic literature than popular contemporary fiction. Classics are more intellectually stimulating, involving, and interesting. I’ve always been prejudiced, though I’m not exactly sure why. If I want to study, I’ll read Hemmingway, if I want to feel like James Bond, I’ll read Clancy.
Recently, my attempts to understand my prejudices have become more involved. I’m trying to consciously analyze and appraise the contemporary fiction I’m reading. Trying to figure out why it’s not quite as ‘good’ as older works. I think I’ve come to some conclusions.
Of course, the few novels I’ve read from under the great umbrella of ‘popular fiction’ hardly qualify me to draw overarching conclusions. I’ve read a fair amount, but not enough to thematically and stylistically appraise a broad genre of production. However, I have read enough to have some general thoughts on the subject.
As with anything in the world, the minutest parts of a whole are indicative of the whole’s entirety. For example, Greek sculptors could construct an entire statue of a man given just the dimensions of his thumb. Therefore, I may safely appraise ‘popular contemporary’ fiction through my smallest realizations. The smaller realizations give way to the greatest ones.
To make this post as concise and short and relatable as possible, I’ve produced one problem that plagues all of popular contemporary fiction. Popular fiction is too obvious.
Within the last week or so, I’ve read two popular works of fiction with which I will illustrate my point. Stephen King’s Misery, and Nelson DeMille’s Up Country. I’ve picked these books because they each were successful, they are not extremely new, and they are each typical examples fiction.
I enjoyed both stories very much. However, I didn’t find much to be excited about beyond the overt plots. The books were just too obvious. This obviousness presented itself in the plots, characters, and settings of the novels.
Up Country coddled me into the plot rather than throwing me into it. DeMille’s overemphasis of Vietnam’s idiosyncrasies beats the reader into the setting. The book almost screams, ‘GET IT?! YOU’RE IN VIETNAM, AND IT’S NOTHING LIKE AMERICA’. The setting was vibrant and real but over-obvious, and that marred the potency of the plot.
Up Country’s plot was decent, but predictable. There were three central characters to the story, each an archetype. Colonel Mang is the villain, screwing the protagonist’s mission. Paul Brenner is the protagonist, a blandly honest guy on the mission. Susan Weber is his love interest who is in the middle of the mission.
The plot goes like this: Paul goes to ‘Nam to solve a murder, each character alters the plot in an obvious way, then Paul solves the murder. Nothing surprised me; the mission ended how I expected.
Also, the plot read like a James Bond movie. At one point during our protagonist’s escape, a car flips over and explodes. Seriously? How often do cars do that outside of Hollywood? A few more moments like that had me doubting the plot’s sincerity all together.
Up Country’s characters are its greatest flaw. Paul was the most obvious; he’s haunted by the war, and never lets the reader forget it.He never says more than 10 different things; 8 of the 10 consist of “yeah, I’ve been here”. Col. Mang was far too obviously evil, though in an idiotic way. He could easily imprison Paul at any point during the story, but doesn’t. Even Ms. Weber is predictably unpredictable.
Misery is different, but not necessarily better. The setting is fairly obvious for a ‘horror’ book. I wasn’t really surprised by much. However, the narration carries a fair amount of strength. The opening lines are particularly good; you can feel Annie’s rank breath easing down Paul’s esophagus as she breathes life into him.
The characters are painfully obvious, and weaken the poignancy of narration. The protagonist of Misery, also named Paul, is single-minded in his aspirations. Of course, anyone would want to escape the clutches of a crazy woman, but there’s not a whole lot else going on. That type of cat-and-mouse dynamic only excites for so long. Annie, the antagonist, is crazy. That’s about it.
Now you may disagree, or think the two examples don’t justify my claims. You may be right. However, the conclusion I drew from these novels is applicable to almost any modern fiction. There’s nothing beyond or behind the story. These books exist simply to entertain.
Now there’s nothing wrong with simple entertainment. That’s how literature has worked for hundreds of years. However, only recently has literature become the equivalent to a paper movie, giving the reader nothing to think about but action; explosions, battles, capture and escape.
The greatest American writers entertained, but also informed and educated. As a mainstay of classic American fiction, Fitzgerald’s Gastby is wildly entertaining. More importantly, it’s a biting depiction of the wasted opulence, shallow splendor, and undeserved power of the rich.
As a mainstay of contemporary American fiction, DeMille’s Up Country is a cool story that is exciting at some points and predictable at others. There’s nothing else to it. It doesn’t illuminate or provoke, but simply presents a story in a capsule, irrelevant and detached from reality.
That’s where I take issue with contemporary fiction. Art (and writing as a subsection of art) is meant not just for entertainment and excitement, but is also meant to cast light on our confusing and unpredictable world through creative production and portrayal. Contemporary fiction falls short here consistently.
God Save the Books,
P.S. I understand a lot of the problem lies in audience. Kings and DeMilles sell, while illuminating exposés do not. Unless they’re about Tiger Woods.