Quote: Wiser Sons
Time for another one of my quotation posters. In case you don’t visit often or haven’t figured it out, I love quotes. My current quotes word processing document is up to 97 pages. And that doesn’t include the notebooks I used to fill with them before the days of word processing.
This quote got me thinking a little bit about how short-sighted we can sometimes be, thinking we’ve “got it all figured out.” As a fiction author, I think this is especially tempting, since we get to control everything that goes on in our little invented worlds, down to what people think. And that’s where we really need to take a deep breath and consider just what our purpose, our true purpose, in writing should be.
Authors, to one degree or another, are forced to sit outside of society to do their work. We are the silent observers of culture. The misfits. The square pegs in a round whole. We try to take in all this mad, dizzying rush which we call life and make sense of it all, distill it down to it’s essence, to what really matters.
I think it was Tom Clancy who said that fiction isn’t like reality because fiction has to make sense.
But getting it to “make sense” inside fiction doesn’t mean we’re to be Pollyannas, spouting whatever wild lies we can come up with about the nature of the universe. We’re supposed to be an honest voice for readers, that echo of the truth which everyone else is too busy to stop and notice. A kind of cultural custodian. At least that has been our function classically. These days…not so much.
Something rotten in the state of Penmark
(sorry about that…I couldn’t resist)
Looking at the current literary landscape you see a lot of writers making pretty good livings selling things not written so much as outside observers or cultural commentators, but more as societal cheerleaders. While to some degree we are all inescapably products of our culture, authors (and artists in general) have gone all in with their contemporaries lately.
For many modern writers, caught in the tyrannical now, the cultural moment is all that ever was, is, or will be. And where the prevailing zeitgeist is not dominate, it must spread. All must be assimilated. Writers of the kind I’m speaking of no longer see themselves as reflecting on the culture around them. They see themselves as creators of it or at the very least propagators of it.
Big doors swing on small hinges
Before I delve into the problems with this approach, let me back up. You might be scratching your head at this point, thinking, don’t all writers create and propagate culture to one degree or the other? Isn’t that the point of art or at least one of its functions?
It is in a sense, but how a writer approaches it makes a very big difference.
For instance, a writer can play into what a certain segment of society wants by churning out debased, immoral content (all too common these days). We see this in the use of profanity in books like The Martian and Wool. We see it even more starkly in the shallow, animalistic relationships depicted in certain genres which claim to be about “romance”. Writers appeal to our baser natures and we, like the animals they take us for, eagerly lap it up.
We even defend it with euphemisms like “Adult” or “Mature Content”. As if debauchery were some sort of sign that we’re mature. Others defend such books with an argument ad populum. “That’s the way the world is, so grow up and fall down with the rest of us.” or they play the subjective card, “It doesn’t really bother me. It’s not as bad as those other books.” As if the definition of what is good depended on the five and a half inches of gray matter between their two ears.
This is the creation of culture in the same sense that compost is the production of viable food. Yes, it is edible, we may have acquired a taste for it, it may even be our favorite treat, but it’s not what our digestive tract needs. We’ve settled for less. We’ve traded the sacred for the profane. And sadly, like large swaths of readers, we no longer care about the good, the true, or the beautiful.
Or take the opposite tactic. A writer could decide that what society really needs is to change. Nothing wrong with that, per se. But sometimes writers take the “Brave New World” approach and attempt to redefine what the culture needs to be based on present conceptions of what is good. We see this in some literary fiction and in revisionist historical fiction and in a lot of young adult fiction.
Books written based on such principles are the creation of culture in the same sense that Pravda was a mouthpiece for the Soviet Union and its communist ideals during the Cold War. It is an effective tactic, but rather than building up its readers, it seeks to manipulate and brainwash them. Human dignity is swept aside in favor of the grand ideals of the social movement.
C.S. Lewis called this obsession with the ideas and values currently in vogue, without any regard for what came before, “chronological snobbery.” It’s the essence of what Alexander Pope is saying. And in a subtle way, I wrote about this in my series, The Chronotrace Sequence.
The Chronotrace is the key which unravels the technological utopia of Oasis because it lets people see into the past in an unfiltered way. In the books the scientist’s only concern with the past is to suppress it. It has no use for them. For this reason they have no pangs of conscious about erasing people’s memories. All that matters is the future and, to a lesser degree, the present.
Such is the age we live in. Many writers are either parrots (blindly mimicking culture) or pedantics (attempting to push culture in some predetermined direction). It’s progress at any cost, even if that progress takes the cultural over a cliff.
Obviously, we do readers a disservice when we write this way. Our function is not primarily to entertain (the parrots’ specialty) or teach (the goal of the pedantic), but to observe and report on the nature of reality honestly. At least that is what fiction does when it’s done well.
Having our cake and eating it too
And here’s the ironic truth: when we do that, we both produce and influence the culture. Because the truth is more powerful than our myopic philosophy and our undulating impulses.
Good writing, real writing requires a broader perspective than the one our present culture can give us. We must step outside of what people are saying is right today and write from an eternal perspective. We must listen to the wisdom of the ages, as much or perhaps even more than to our own voices. For in seeing their strengths and weaknesses, we may, if we pay attention, learn to recognize our own.
So let us take heed to the words of Alexander Pope, recognizing that today’s cultural imperatives will be tomorrow’s ridiculed mistakes.
We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow. Our wiser sons, no doubt will think us so.