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Everyone needs new ways to dream...
“Sunset Boulevard,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest musical masterpiece aside from “The Phantom of the Opera,” contains a beautiful song describing early Hollywood as a place which “gave the world new ways to dream – everyone needs new ways to dream.” This is an incredible lyric which to me defines not just film, but all modes of art. The creative artist can, via a largely unconscious process, transform the world so much that it unlocks new corners of the mind, and new modes of understanding reality, ie new ways to dream. “Sunset Boulevard,” is, of course, the story of a woman who becomes so enmeshed in the unreal world of movies that she can no longer separate reality from fiction by the end, with tragic consequences, and it serves as a warning for the dangers of blurring those boundaries. It’s also a spectacular show that I had the great good fortune to see in the West End, starring the incomparable Glenn Close in possibly the greatest performance of any actor I’ve ever seen on stage, and that’s quite a claim coming from me! Do check it out if you can.
An accusation often leveled at me is that I care passionately about things that don’t matter, and this is fair. The things I get worked up over generally are the portrayal of fictional characters, and the adaptation of fictional works, rather than economic inequality or social ills. But we don’t always understand why something grips us, and I think it’s dishonest to pretend to care about something that you actually don’t, or that doesn’t affect you. I’m honest enough to admit that I don’t care about abstract concepts that I can do little to change, and in fact, I think caring too much about things you can’t change is largely responsible for the mental health crisis, particularly among the youth. We feed people with underdeveloped brains these massive causes, the literal destruction of the planet, for instance, and then tell them they’re responsible for saving it. We give them the burdens of gods, when they’re not even grown up enough to shoulder the burdens of adults. It’s far more mentally healthy to focus on changing what you can, and focusing your energy on what you can control.
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I recognize that I can largely do nothing to change economic inequality or the state of the climate, but I can effect some change in fiction through my writing of the characters that I love. And people tell me I’m pretty good at it, and I feel good while doing it, so I devote my time to the arena where I believe I can do the most good. So I often get worked up over people putting limits on my creativity, which is an aspect of the current culture war I find particularly troubling. I see the culture war, not as a battle of good vs. evil, as it is often portrayed, but in people who believe in the freedom to dream versus the people who want to put limits on imagination. This latter I describe as the curse of the literal-minded, which is rife in our society. Apparently there are a large number of people who don’t understand what fiction is, nor how to interpret it, and simply take everything literally. I don’t know if these people never had a childhood, or if their imagination was somehow removed as they got older, but there are more of them out there than I could ever have imagined.
The culture war is often painted as a distraction, and indeed some of it probably is – get the people mad about something supposedly trivial so they don’t pay attention to the legislation being planned, or another politician getting away with corruption. But there’s actually very little regular people can do about legislation or corrupt politicians, aside from voting, and even that seems futile most of the time when one side seems as bad as the other. (This was exemplified at a recent meeting at the university where I work, where we discussed proposed state legislation, and the largely left-wing, and one explicitly Marxist, faculty member’s best response was to see if anyone knew any billionaires or powerful corporate interests to lobby on their behalf. Because that’s what the left has always stood for!) People recognize that only the powerful can make huge, sweeping legislative changes. But ordinary people can do something about the so-called trivial things. They can boycott or write rants or make videos on social media. These are trivial responses in the grand scheme of things, but they give people something to do, and while sometimes ignoring the problem is more effective than platforming it, I can’t blame people for trying to control what they can. Besides, the reason people get mad about things that seem trivial doesn’t actually mean that these things are trivial, or that the people getting mad about them are stupid. You’ll find that many people object to putting conditions on their dreaming.
As mentioned in previous posts, storytelling is incredibly important, since I believe most people see the world through stories, as Jordan Peterson claims. This is certainly true in my case, and I have seen the world through fiction from a very young age – I was introduced early into so many ways to dream, I have probably spent most of my life doing it. As a child, your imagination for storytelling is literally limitless, which is why kids can spend all day playing with a cardboard box – because to them, it’s a spaceship, a car, a pirate’s cave with buried treasure, etc. Part of growing up is placing certain limits on imagination – we learn there is time to play and time to work, and the dream is always to have more time with the former than the latter. But it’s not obligatory as an adult to lose your imagination, even though it seems that way today. People who write for children are, after all, adults – people who make movies and TV and theatre are all adults. They’re just lucky enough to be able to use their imagination to make a living, and to me, this is the ultimate dream.
But even creativity, by definition, has to have limits. A painting can only be a painting if it’s an image comprised of paint. A book is only a book if it’s got words between the covers, ideally put into some form of grammatical order, or it’s very difficult to read. There does have to be some limits on imagination, or you can’t actually create anything – limitless choice leads to stagnation, not freedom. The only way I can write a story is by following a beginning, middle, and end structure, but anything between those limits is my playground, and it’s important that it’s an expansive one. Creativity is play, and play shouldn’t be inhibited any more than necessary. Which is why we should be very careful to set any more limits than necessary on creative people. And this is my concern for art in the modern age. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” are setting limits on creativity, for instance, by telling people of one race that they can only write from their race’s experience. Leaving aside what that nonsensical statement even means, as if all people belonging to a race only have one experience, it’s terrible to tell a creative person that an entire avenue of exploration is closed to them by virtue of something they can’t control. It’s tyrannical and authoritarian, and that is the death of creativity.
There’s also a lot of talk of how important “representation” is in the media landscape, but this again strikes me as the curse of the literal-minded. First of all, you are never going to exactly see yourself accurately represented in fiction unless you write your autobiography, and then it wouldn’t be fiction. And second of all, to posit that you can only identify with characters who share your outward physical characteristics is shallow beyond belief. It’s also limiting to tell people that, for instance, because they’re a woman, they must identify with the female character (particularly since modern female characters are written as perfect beings with no flaws, which is no woman I’ve ever met!) Imagination means you can literally identify with anything, an animal, an alien, an elf, as long as that character is well written. Seeing your superficial characteristics represented, your skin color or sex, and claiming that’s the only way you can identify with someone makes you literal-minded, and misses the point of fiction entirely. Fiction allows us to identify with characters and experiences well beyond our own, otherwise it would be a terribly dull medium. And otherwise fantasy fiction wouldn’t work, since none of us are wizards or hobbits. The idea that these characters, already alien to us by definition, would need to exactly represent our outward characteristics is incredibly limiting. It’s trapping people in the world of the literal-minded.
I had someone rail against one of my Joker stories because “the Joker is a bad guy, so you can’t love him!” Well, I do, because he’s not real, you see. Adult, grown-up people should, please God, be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality. But increasingly, in the age of the literal-minded, we can’t. A movie which contains a female villain, Gone Girl, for example, is castigated in the mainstream press as being anti-woman, as if this particular character was a stand-in for all women. But when you demand that fiction accurately and literally represents you, you are encouraged to read all characters who share your superficial characteristics as being exactly like you. And then why wouldn’t you be offended when you’re portrayed as the villain? This trend of “accurate representation” encourages narcissism, by demanding that fiction conforms to your outlook, rather than reading the fictional experiences of others in order to broaden your outlook. It is limiting the mind, rather than expanding it.
This leads to a very odd modern confusion between a writer writing a character and a writer writing down their own beliefs. Personally, I blame English departments for this confusion, as people are often taught, in English degrees, to try and read between the lines of what the author actually wrote to somehow tease out their “true meaning.” What these students tease out is often psychological projection on their part – an author writes a horrible, sexist character, so therefore the author is sexist. The author writes a mass murderer, and therefore the author is condoning mass murder. But fiction isn’t a manifesto – it’s fiction. Again, this confusion is evidence of the literal-mindedness rife in our society, and I don’t fully understand why. It’s baffling to me that people can’t tell the difference between a work of fiction, a work of a writer’s imagination, and something that people might actually think. It’s also why people are giving comedians so much flak lately, because they take comedic routines literally. This is, of course, the death of both art and comedy, unless we push back against the literal-minded philistines who seem to control every aspect of our public discourse.
Too much reality, in my view, ruins fiction. Part of creativity is recognizing that it takes place in a fictional space, and all fiction requires some suspension of disbelief. A 100% realistic movie or story would be a very boring thing, since it would probably involve a detailed description of the eight hour office workday, including coffee breaks and bathroom trips. Our day to day lives aren’t particularly stimulating in great detail – fiction takes the highlights of the human experience and dramatizes them, so we’re interested in it. It’s by definition selective of reality, and hence cannot be fully realistic. This is why I personally get so annoyed by things which are explicitly unreal trying to mimic reality – the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy is a good example. If you put too much realism in the Batman story, it’s actually quite disturbing. In reality, he’s a mentally unstable billionaire who puts on a costume and beats up other mentally ill people. This would be horrifying if someone like Elon Musk tried this in the real world, for example. But because Batman is unreal, because you accept Gotham is fictional, you can have fun playing around in that universe. You can enjoy playing with the villains, since they don’t actually hurt real people, while if they existed in reality, they would be very difficult to love. They would lose their theatricality, which is mostly why I love them, because the real world isn’t very theatrical. But because we have this line between reality and fiction, we can enjoy things that would be horrible in reality through the safe environment of fiction. I’d argue that it’s necessary for us to play out our dark fantasies, which we all have, in fictional spaces, rather than allowing them to be unleashed in the real world. This is my defense of both violent video games and horror films – rather than inspire acts of violence, they allow us to find catharsis for these dark tendencies in places where no one really gets hurt.
As I’ve said before, just because something is unreal doesn’t mean it’s not true, and good fiction reveals truth without it being bogged down by the quagmire of reality. Fiction is meaningful despite it being fiction, and I would argue, because of it. Even stories which purport to be true only affect us when there’s a narrative being told – we can’t fully conceive of the suffering of millions, but we can relate to the individual story of suffering. It’s good storytelling to focus on a limited number of characters, because we can only empathize with so many. Advertisers know this, and journalists know this, which is why individual examples of racism are often blown up as exemplifying “the state of race in America,” as if one story is the whole story. It’s very dangerous to extrapolate an individual experience into everyone’s experience, which is why good fiction doesn’t tend to do this. It focuses on a single story, and that is its power.
As I said, I don’t enjoy too much reality in my fiction, because I think those lines should ideally be kept pretty separate. I think if those lines get blurred enough, people will no longer be able to tell one from the other. And it’s very unsatisfying to try to live fully in unreality, since reality always bites back. I’m reminded of the Mirror of Erised, from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where the wise character of Dumbledore tells Harry, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that." Likewise, we have the brilliant opening of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Both reality and dreams are necessary states, but they must remain separate. Let us continue to find new ways to dream, but never forget, unpleasant as it can be, that we always have to wake up.
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