Does Fiction Matter? Fiction, Fantasy & Social Change
We had a very lively and interesting debate over the 50 Shades cultural “phenomena” on Friday. I’m deeply grateful for all those commenters who posted such thoughtful opinions, even those who didn’t agree with me. I actually am not afraid of people disagreeing with me and I have zero interest in my blog simply being an ideological echo chamber.
Yet, there are a few things I’ve “heard” in the comments or even on Facebook which leave me flummoxed and I believe these assertions call for a closer examination.
It’s ONLY a Story. It is FICTION. JUST a FANTASY.
One argument that baffled me was this idea that 50 Shades is just a book and only fantasy. I do not begrudge James her success nor am I lambasting anyone who likes the books. To each, his or her own. I never called for banning, burning or censoring.
Since I never read the book in totality, I never left a review. I also didn’t review the film because I am not a reviewer. I never commented on the quality of the prose, film, actors etc. etc. only the message.
And, as an abuse survivor and someone who has spent years working with battered women? I feel my opinion is more educated than, perhaps, many who finished the books. Grey exhibits all signs of a sociopath by Chapter Three (which is right about when I quit reading). More on sociopathy HERE.
I didn’t want to go there. Lived it. Don’t need to read it. I’ve also read many novels and watched many movies I would not recommend because I had to put down the book thirty pages in or walk out of the film in the first half hour.
In my opinion, that is as viable of an opinion as someone who gutted through all 90 minutes of Showgirls to know it was crap.
***If I were a reviewer then it would be my professional duty to formulate an opinion based on the entire body of work…because that would be my JOB.
Yet, the reason I did feel a need to discuss this work is because it has gone beyond being a book and has become a cultural force. With over 100 million legitimate copies in circulation (not counting for borrowed copies from friends and libraries, pirated copies or used purchases) that many books will make a societal impact by sheer volume.
It’s the equivalent of a literary comet strike.
Add in a possible hit movie? Could be an extinction event.
THIS was when I felt it necessary to step in and state my analysis and at least posit the hard questions.
Fiction is NEVER JUST a Story
To assert that any book that’s sold that many copies is just a story, in my POV, is naive and ignores almost all of human history. Societies have always been defined and redefined by its stories. Fiction IS NOT INERT. Why do you think dictators shoot the writers and burn the books first?
To claim that fiction is mere fantasy is to ignore the impact of every transformative work ever written. “A Christmas Carol” was not merely a sweet tale of a redeemed miser at Christmas.
It was a scathing piece of literature that eventually led to the establishment of children’s rights advocacy organizations and protection for children in the legal system (and also impacted the treatment of the poor and infirm).
During the time Dickens wrote this, children were considered property. The government regularly imprisoned and hanged small children, many of whom were orphans, for relatively small offenses from vagrancy to begging to petty theft.
Neil Postman, in his book “The Disappearance of Childhood” cites one of the first legal cases where an adult was censured for hurting a child. It was a woman who gathered orphans and fed them, but put out their eyes with knitting needles then planted them on the street to beg. Apparently, blind kids made more money.
When the woman was finally brought to court, she was not punished for cruelty, rather fined for “destruction of property.” In fact, animal rights organizations had been established a good ten years before anyone thought children might require similar protection.
A Christmas Carol was one of the many literary works that led to society establishing legal protection for children, which didn’t exist until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Oops, Did I Do THAT?
Sometimes the author even misses the mark. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to highlight wage slavery and the horrific treatment of immigrants in the Chicago meat-packing industry. The story, however, had a very different impact than the author intended.
Readers were horrified about the conditions of the FOOD. Public outrage and political pressure led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906; the latter established the Bureau of Chemistry, which was renamed the Food and Drug Administration in 1930.
Sinclair later bemoaned that his work had ended up helping the very institutions he’d rightly demonized and issued that famous quote in the October, 1906 Cosmopolitan Magazine—“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Thus for us to say that fiction is only fantasy is to say that “Red Badge of Courage,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and others are equally fantastical and benign.
And before anyone says, “Well, E.L. James is certainly NOT a literary master and no one will hail this work as a classic” we are wise to appreciate a couple factors.
First, what we today view as a classic was often mass market pop fiction of its time. It’s often only in retrospect that we can witness how a novel, a play, a movie, a whatever, shifted the trajectory of a culture. Secondly, “literary classics” aren’t the only transformative works.
Star Trek only ran three seasons before being canceled in 1969, and yet I feel it did more to impact race relations and redefine women’s roles than any piece of legislation. Though as Trekkie, I FEEL Star Trek a classic, I have yet to see it on any syllabus at a university.
Additionally, Horror was once an extremely popular genre, giving us such classic tales as Frankenstein (which greatly impacted science) and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau where Moreau crafts humanoid-animal chimeras via vivisection. Yet, The Island of Dr. Moreau also addressed deeper issues of pain, cruelty, moral responsibility and scientific tampering with nature. It was instrumental in forming our modern scientific standards of ethics.
But, one movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre redefined what the public viewed as “horror” and almost single-handedly laid waste to the genre.
Granted, there were probably slasher flicks like this before TSM, much like there were rape fantasy books before FSoG. But THIS one was the one that HIT and served to alter the genre.
Soon, there were no longer “Horror” sections in bookstores because the silver screen gore porn (and public demand for these movies) had tainted the genre.
Horror stories then had to be hidden under such categories as Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Thriller, Suspense, etc. so that these works could distance from the stain left from the plethora of slasher films that became so popular after Vietnam. Horror, as a genre, has never fully recovered since “horror stories” are too often held up next to Saw Part 15 or Friday the 13th Part 26.
How did this happen?
Follow the Money
If no one bothered with the early slasher flicks, Hollywood would have never bothered making more. They also wouldn’t have felt the need to keep upping the ante with every movie. More blood, guts, and shock. Soon we were anesthetized to suffering because it became all too common.
And, before anyone laughs, remember those early bad 50s horror movies scared the bejeezus out of people. Now? We laugh at giant spider puppets that, at one time, had people fleeing from the theater to calm down.
Tarzan was criticized because Tarzan and Jane were living in the jungle together without being married 😉 . Today, audiences would laugh at such a puritanical notion. Just watch HBO for an hour and tell me times haven’t changed.
But It’s So PRETTY, How Can it Be BAD?
How could it be harmful? Often some of the most dangerous substances don’t show consequences until later. It reminds me of the Radium Girls who painted watch dials with radioactive paint during WWI. The glowing paint was pretty and harmless and “cool.” Their employer told them they could just lick the end of their brushes as they worked, so surely it was harmless.
The women, thinking radium was safe, painted their nails and faces so they could glow in dark for their men at home. And they all died slow horrible deaths years later.
Ideas (books) can act similarly. They can seem no big deal until they are. AGAIN, I am NOT for censorship, only critical thinking. Appreciate and RESPECT the power of art. Handle with care 😉 .
The Coming Generation
As I stated in the last post, my concern is less for the older reader and more for the youth who will go see the movie. I am a social media expert and we have an entirely new generation that is completely immersed in multimedia.
Young people have all the impulses, hormones and emotions of an adult, but lack maturity, experience and a fully developed frontal cortex that governs critical thinking and discernment. They have a far more difficult time separating fantasy and reality.
Young people do a LOT of dumb stuff. Hey, I did. And as a teen I argued with my mother that Me So Horny was “just a song” and now as an adult, I can see why she sat down and had a LONG talk with me.
Teens or even tweens don’t see that sexting can come back to bite or that pic in lingerie on Tumblr might affect them getting into college.
My bigger concern is that, when we package sociopathy as “romance”? Sadists as Alpha male heroes? That is a confusing message (and a dangerous one) for everyone, but most especially for those still forming opinions and identities. In fact, I probably would have had NO problem with FSoG had it been in the genre of psychological thriller or horror. But slap “ROMANCE” on it? Whole ‘notha’ ballgame.
The Bottom Line
Read what you want to. Watch what you want to. I have an opinion, you have one. I’m never for censorship, EVER. But, I feel we have to at least own what we are doing as consumers, but most especially as writers. We cannot be Janus-faced over this. Either fiction is vital and transformative and matters…or it doesn’t.
History has proven we have almost no control over what will shape culture or even how it will shape it as The Jungle illustrates. We also have almost zero control over what will be considered a classic in fifty or a hundred years.
And if fiction is ONLY a story and has no power, then why should we care about literacy, libraries and freedom of speech? If fiction is only fantasy and doesn’t impact the world? Why bother? Why does it matter?
Food for thought 😉 .
What do you guys think? And again, I have no problem if anyone disagrees so long as we remain polite. Do you feel we can have our cake and eat it too? That as a culture we can contain the genie? Or do we have to choose? Either fiction is powerful or it isn’t? And if fiction doesn’t change the world, then why are we even doing this job?
Do you hope your characters and stories will create a better world? Challenge ideas? Reinforce what you think is good and noble? Topple what should be done away with? Do you think (as I do) that many people are unaware how powerful writers and artists actually are? That maybe even some writers fail to appreciate the influence they could one day wield?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.