Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Book is Like a Toy

In the spirit of Christmas, I’ve decided to talk about an idea that I’ve been keeping on the back burner: books are toys, stories are playthings, and we use novels to replace games as we grow too embarrassed to be talking to ourselves in public.

However, the analogy that a story is like a toy is not entirely just an analogy. A toy and a book are of the same family; maybe even identical twins. We pick them up for the same reasonwith the hope to solve the same problem of boredom and fugue of fantasy.

That being said:

-If they think they can make it, they’re not going to buy it.

The most common critique of abstract art is, “My five-year-old could make this.” We look at these paint splotches selling for thousands of dollars and we wonder, who does this scam artist think he’s fooling?

While there is no concrete “qualities” of writing, this idea comes pretty close. When reading a book that we consider poorly written, one of the more common reasons is that it is an idea or execution worse than anything the reader thinks he could make.

A self-pandering fantasy that is clearly just some daydream the author decided to put on paper, a continuity breaking, unconvincing scheme that only fits into the theme of “look how great I am,” will not fair very well. It is the job of the writer to do things a layman can’t, to be more clever, to be more consistent, to punish the beloved characters, and to refuse to give up the good parts until the audience is so frustrated they’re about to burst. If a book doesn’t seem like it took more thought out than what an average person could blitz out, they’re not going to buy into it.

The operative word, of course, being seems. People do buy these 10,000 dollar paintings. The reason being that it isn’t something they could make. If we take it with a judgmental view of the art world, then it is just because saying, “I painted that,” and “That's a Monet” isn’t the same thing. If we take it with a positive view, some of these geometric shapes are impossibly difficult to create. When I was told, as a child, that a man took six months painting a line, I couldn’t even conceive as to how—until I did it for myself.

It’s important to remember that as many parents stare at a rag doll falling apart in the department store, they will often think they can make it. Then they go home and realize it’s a hell of a lot harder than they believed it was going to be. Most of your audience will be under the impression that they are of “professional average,” because professional and published books are what they are exposed to. That means that they won’t be aware of exactly how hard it is, especially when you did it well.

-It is used to create tangibility of fantasies by creating boundaries, not removing them.

I work in theatre, so the comment of, “It’s about what you want it to be,” is more common than the other writing mediums.

Many artists will have no idea what their work is about, and there’s nothing wrong with that. How an author wants to work is his own damn business, and if he wants to make a statement for something, solidify a story with a unifying idea, or just explore his subconscious with no specific theme at all, it lends to a diversity of stories in our culture. Insisting that a writer must teach something, and something specific for that matter, just homogenizes our work and opens up more space for meaningless gibberish to take the stage, in the way Absurdist theatre was able to thrive in the mid 20th century.

However, there still is a difference between not knowing what it’s about and bullshitting what it’s about. If we wanted to let our imagination flow free we wouldn’t want to use a doll or read a book; we’d pretend on our own. Part of the reason why we read—and even write—is to make those free forming ideas more concrete, more real. Our imagination is limited by its fluidity and its abrasion to rules which makes the things we make up fake. When we have a doll or a book, it creates boundaries, like a bucket holding water, and that allows it to take shape, to seem more real.

For an author trying to write a “good” book, which no matter how innocent and pure an artist pretends to be, he is always trying to write a “good” book, he must keep in mind what the reader hopes to get from him. They want the most tangible world he can give them, and he gives it to them by concrete decisions.

Of course there are places for “not showing the monster,” and not answering questions, but it still needs to look as if he knows what the answers are. The descriptions of the off screen beast should have a consistency; it should appear as though the creator knows exactly what the creature is and chooses not to show it. Not that he is being cheap or uncreative enough to think of anything interesting.

It’s important that we believe in the monster, and we can’t do that if we think “he’s whatever we want it to be.”

-The prime goal is not realism but appeal.

Barbie cannot exist. She wouldn’t be able to stand, for one thing, and not just because her feet are shaped for high heels. And even if her anatomy could be replicated, if someone was to look like that in real life, it would be creepy.

Every time I get a new group of theatre kids we always have the same discussion: “No one speaks that loud.”

The problem is that if an actor talks in a normal conversational voice on stage, the audience won’t be able to hear him, and the students always find it weird to be projecting. But at least in that circumstance they can understand why they need to speak louder, even if they think it sounds stupid. Yet the conversation bleeds onto other similar subjects in which explaining to a group of children always proves difficult (at least for me.) They believe that the best acting is realistic acting.

There is a place for it, of course. There is a place for any choice really. But aiming for realism is a decision that needs to be made with commitment and reason, not something that we should fixate on as a default. We could make Edward Cullen sleep with a bunch of women over his 100 year existence, we could make Buffy one of a million vampire slayers, and we could have Harry Potter die on his first conflict with a wizard whose butchered hundreds of the greatest wizards in history, but who’s reading that book?

Putting what we believe versus what we want to happen is the most common issue the author has to deal with. It, of course, requires balance, and a good balance, because people need to believe it to be happy about it. But readers are more inclined to have faith in fiction than they are in real life—for obvious reasons—and, to that point, will often not be convinced by reality when they see it, such as the sound of real gunshot sound in a movie. They want the dramatized fake stuff.

People want to see love that transcends time and space, that is worth overcoming the most impossible obstacles. No one wants to read a book about a guy who liked a girl because she liked him but when he found out she was moving away to go to school he was like, well, there’s more fish in the sea, and then they broke up.

Reflecting reality is a powerful tool for the writer, but it is not a necessary requirement, or a benefit, to a good book.

No matter how serious, dramatic, or pompous a story strives to be, it is still about entertaining ourselves. We use it to imagine things and to play, to relive the possibilities that we knew in childhood, and to be able to escape from our world as best we can. When remembering that motivation, the author creates boundaries for himself and thereby makes it easier to know what goals he is trying to achieve.