Socioeconomic, national, or class distinctions based on race, accent, dress, bearing, the location of meeting, or other considerations have long been a hallmark of poor Western judgment. Jane Austen’s legend thrives on a world where these distinctions are accurately made. Her leads may misassume that a gentleman has a mere three thousand pound income, rather than the fifteen they were hoping for, but they can still place said gentleman in a certain class based on the right easily-observable qualities. His skill at dancing, dressing, choosing friends, and verbally parrying insults reveals all. Only a real princess can tell if she’s sleeping on a pea beneath those fifteen mattresses, and, only a real gentleman can offer insight on the classics. Landed men worthy of marriage to overfed bucolic partygirls in white nightgowns always indicate the presence of their holdings by how tidily they step to the violins.
Very rarely, Jane Austen’s characters made misjudgments: either that someone was kind (when that person was in fact unkind), or that someone was already married (as opposed to not). Their judgments, however, about socioeconomic status, national or class distinctions were always accurate.
How could Jane Austen’s characters always be right when reading people? Easy—because Jane Austen’s characters were not actually characters, but facets of Jane Austen’s message. Austen did not build a setting, instill it with real characters, then release it into the wild and chronicle its course. Instead, every component of her tales, even the most important characters, was a tool with a specific purpose. Her characters had no agency, taking actions for the purpose of furthering the plot rather than because of their own deliberations on the subject. To her novels, then, Austen was a divine clockmaker; the authoritarian goddess of a cold, formulaic life—never the joyful mediator of a living world.
Badness is Possible
“Bad” storytelling is neither relative nor subjective. Someone may prefer the taste of strawberries to raspberries, executing a subjective, personal judgment that we might call an opinion. The postmodern age has seen the strengthening of the idea that all taste, including appreciation of art, is relative, ergo the equal artistic validity of an impressionist’s watercolors and the CIA’s smeared oils.
Here, reductio ad absurdum gives rise to the question of whether sample illustrations for a mass-printed traffic safety coloring book are “just as good,” artwise, as, say, a Gradeanu (or, if you absolutely must, a da Vinci).
The popular vote has long taken formal control of the debate. The deluge of Shakespeare’s cheap situation comedies and sitrags degenerated, eventually, into Harry Potter holding several congratulatory cups for committing the greatest literary acts of all time.
Like slavery, the election of Nixon, or a Dan Brown novel, however, popular acceptance cannot be a moral standard. The many and variegated reasons necessitating a quality curve in all things that stands apart from democracy may be discussed elsewhere; here, we’ll accept that badness can be possible, and focus on how the distinction may be noted in narratives.
Bad Storytelling Creates Quick Judgment
Bad narratives are narratives from the top-down. They run contrary to existence, positing worlds, places and people that are defined not by their own qualities, but by the (already understood) original vision of their creator. Like Austen’s worlds, they are formulaic, providing no more than a venue for the detailed making of points (themes, morals, et cetera). Arguments for divine absolutism, deference to authority, and the un-critical acceptance of elite screeds are bolstered, in ways profoundly subtle and quietly numerous, by training people to accept narratives based around the will of the author.
These narratives deaden critical thinking, because gaining an understanding of something by being told it is easier than gaining an understanding of something by figuring it out on your own. Bad narratives lecture the reader directly about the narratives' own internal realities, putting the mind in a plush recliner, metaphorically turning muscle to fat, and deadening its faculties for dynamically figuring out new situations. The reader accustomed to being narrated to by someone with a purpose grows weak, losing the ability to discern truth in the outside world. These are the sheeple; the happy consumers; the non-revolutionary masses around us: creatures who look to a narrative authority, rather than their own critical thinking ability, for meaning.
How do we train participants to be lazy using mere stories? It seems laughable (particularly inside an argumentative essay), in a world that encourages “creation,” to contest that “created” narratives, designed to fulfill a purpose or express a viewpoint, are dangerous--moreso that they are not good narratives. We turn here to specifics.
Stage One Character Creation
The easiest way for bad writing to mirror/create/bolster stereotype is for the author, who occupies the role of god of the universe being written about, to simply tell the reader exactly who a new character is. This is Stage One character creation: anyone stepping into the reader’s view is defined by the narrator's introduction, rather than by that character’s actions.
In the first book, first page of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer provides a standard “info dump” on her main character. We are informed (told directly by the author, through the use of a third-person omniscient viewpoint) that the main character prefers Arizona to Washington for reasons X, Y and Z; that she doesn’t want to leave behind her friends; and, that she is a girl of particular age and characteristics. For a few pages, Meyer instructs the reader on exactly what book the reader is supposed to be reading, providing unassailable facts about her female lead.
It is faster and easier for a reader to feel “engaged” by watching the actions of someone whom they already know. They don’t need to go through any of the troublesome effort of getting to know the character through situational & interactional observation. Who would want to waste time doing that? Just tell me the answer, already! Authors who do this prepare readers for cultures where accurate information comes from the top down, whether it be from presidents, special subcommittees, intelligence agencies, or talking pieces of facial makeup on TV. Their hands and minds are bound by the requirement that reality be dictated by whoever occupies the narrator’s seat in any given scene. America’s legions of fawning, suck-up retail employees, office employees, and academics; its heartless, obedient engineers and scientists; its hierarchical churches and “echo chamber” media: all these people are reading the real world in the way they’ve been taught through their stories. In an environment where the narrator tells you who people are, and all about their backgrounds and preferences, you don’t need to question those people, or learn how to figure things out on your own.
Regardless of how they’ll answer poll questions, Americans feel inside that Saddam Hussein is the random baddie that he’s been presented--they’re unprepared for the complexity and nuance of his background in various intelligence communities; the relationships he had with Iraqi factions and foreign governments, and the decisions he made at various points in his pre-death game. Same story Martin Luther King; Bradley Manning; Osama bin Laden; whoever you like. The media serves in the role of author to humans' real lives, introducing characters in a way that leaves an indelible image scrubbed across even the minds of sentencing colonels (who might otherwise be intelligent people, but find themselves unable to operate outside the constrictions of the story they believe in).
The early “info dump” for character building, like the one Bella undergoes at the very beginning of Twilight, is painfully present in almost all American narratives, now, and has been for decades. American audiences, when forced to watch a movie or read a book where they’re not instantly told something they understand about the characters they’re experiencing, tend to rebel by severing the experience. Watching an American try to watch a "difficult" movie is like watching them curtly dismiss a "third party" candidate--even if they can talk for an hour or fill out a quiz about how their policy positions are far more closely aligned with the third party candidate, the mental block of narration prevents them from allowing onstage a character that hasn't been properly introduced.
That same effect occurs vis–à–vis single-issue politics, too. Supermajorities of Americans are occasionally caught approving of single-payer healthcare, but when the time comes to vote, they're like robots, unable to pull any levers but those belonging to the previously introduced main characters--no matter how disgusted they are with said characters.
Western movies thrive on voice-over narrations at the beginning, where audiences with short attention spans are instantly given an introduction to the main character’s life--see, e.g., Kick Ass, Spiderman, or Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, or almost anything else. The narrator--either the lead actor; a disembodied woman with a stern British accent; a disembodied but gruff man who should instead be reading auto financing terms over small-town TV commercials; or, possibly, Morgan Freeman--tells us all about what we’re watching and whom to root for.
If the director really has patience, or if the franchise has pre-prepped the audience, we may skip the vocalized introduction. In that case, a quick, action-oriented introductory scene will reveal that our hero is a dashing secret agent; a nerdy computer genius beset by robots; the last man left alive after space dinosaurs take over the world, or something similar.
Those fans lucky enough to have witnessed the movie’s preview or read the book’s “reviews” generally already know all they need to know, anyway, about who the hero and villain are, and what conflict they will be driven toward for our delight. This is the poisonous result of the Introduction, Rising Tension, Climax, Conclusion pictographical business model of “how to write.” Movies don’t always have to do this; the virtues of computer-generated action sequences, advanced fight choreography and, occasionally, naked people, provide enough instant visceral interest to keep people entertained until the info dump begins (see Stage Two, forthcoming).
(Sequels that have been marketed heavily enough also sometimes allow the mass producers to dive straight into action, because their Stage One character creation already happened repeatedly over the course of predecessor movies/books. Pre-loaded cultural knowledge, available in cases where the story is about military life, police or firefighter service, or professional sports, has the same benefit: it speaks to an audience who already knows everything the author knows, so some of the info dump can be skipped.)
The Power of Visions
But stories aren’t that powerful? Who gets read to the most in America? That’s right: middle-class and upper-class kids. And who is most docile and respectful of authority? That’s right: the same groups. Academic toadies and brown-nosing cubicle workers, with their higher literary skills, have even more training in accepting truths they've been told by narrators, ergo they are less likely to punch a State official than illiterate inner city gang members. A lot of other factors figure into that equation, but the early narratives we’re read, or fed via mass media, structure the way we approach society and the world. A few acts of child abuse can subconsciously drive an adult’s behavior for life; so, too, do our earliest and later stories, the examples and foundations for all other critical thought, possess the power to control the way we approach the “non-fictional” worlds we encounter.
Narratives that force us to confront characters without an introduction are narratives that prepare us for meeting real people. Real people do not come with voice-overs, and when they do come with voice-overs, those will be unreliable propaganda, and we’ll want to learn how to see through them. When we meet new people, either in our personal lives or by hearing about them through the media, our ability to draw independent judgments about them--their motivations, histories, and human worth--is crippled if we’ve been taught to rely on narrators.
Those of us who know how to, “Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear,” are often able to pierce the ridiculous illusions of corporate and government propaganda. As we grapple with our mentally crippled siblings on this planet, attempting to teach them how to recognize the lies and respond accordingly, we need to realize that the struggle is not primarily about political facts or grand sociological theories (however fun those are; admitted), but about teaching them something as seemingly simple as how to read; how to watch movies; how to think in the most basic, fantastic, imaginative way. Crap like Fifty Shades of Grey is among the most subversive pieces of elite propaganda, whether they know it or not. The battle against Transformers, Justin Bieber, and Lil Wayne is, in many aspects, the battle to save the world.
They might think they've got a pretty jump shot or a pretty good flow, but our kids can’t all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers...My rap palate has greatly improved. Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated, but now I've got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff...”
James Reston, via C. Wright Mills:
George Washington in 1783 relaxed with Voltaire's 'letters' and Locke's 'On Human Understanding'; Eisenhower read cowboy tales and detective stories.
Continued in Part 4.