It’s been some time since I actually wrote a post on writing. Most of my recent posts have been challenges, blog updates, etc. However, a while back Selanya wrote a post on poetics that I’ve been wanting to respond to a little more completely than a comment will allow. Now, let me first say that Selanya has a one-up on me here. I’ve never taken a class in poetics, or read much on the subject (aside from parts of Aristotle’s Poetics). That being said, I do (amazingly enough) have an opinion here, and a fairly strong one at that. The question of what makes for good literature is, to some degree, a matter of taste and interest. For instance, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series has been quite popular, and I don’t know anyone with even a minor education in literature who consider’s it an example of what books should be. In fact, there are plenty of popular books that aren’t particularly well-written and, as Cassandra and I discussed some time back, YA fiction is particularly well known for turning out sub-par examples of literary effort (though there are a few shining exceptions). However, just because there is clear disagreement doesn’t mean there aren’t strong arguments for or against something. As Selanya pointed out in her second post on Poetics, Aristotle and others have argued that a story must both ‘teach and delight’. For fiction to be considered ‘good’ or ‘worthwhile’ it must have an underlying point beyond the simple titillation of the faculties.
To some degree, I agree with Selanya that a character should be more than a mere mouthpiece for an author’s viewpoints. However, there are many excellent examples of books that serve just that purpose (some include Candide, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Utopia, and Starship Troopers) and it is certainly difficult to argue that these are not good books, though some may not be considered good fiction. I will argue, probably to my death, that it is certainly better to ere on the side of presenting mouthpiece characters than on the side of having no clear underlying purpose. Any book that does not teach is without value. Neal Postman presented a compelling argument against the dangers of mere entertainment in Amusing Ourselves to Death and his argument is one that certainly applies to literature as much as it does to film. Here I must say that I disagree with Postman’s argument that television is a medium that limits meaningful content. I think that shows such as Dollhouse or The Simpsons (seriously, the first six seasons are excellent religious satire) and movies such as Schindler’s List or V for Vendetta provide clear evidence that the video format can and does provide deep philosophical, political, and religious content, though this ability is certainly under utilized.
However, Postman’s argument that the modern world and likely future are much more similar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (in which the masses are controlled through their desire to be entertained) is certainly accurate. The quest for entertainment for the sake of entertainment removes meaning from our lives. This does not mean that entertainment is wicked in and of itself, but that it should be a medium for more meaningful things. Fiction is certainly much more popular than academic work (compare the number of copies sold of Twilight to the number of copies sold of Warranted Christian Belief), and it has the potential to reach many more people with a clear, meaningful message. This clearly begs the question (literally speaking, not the logical fallacy), who is going to take advantage of it? Thus far, in America, political liberals have been much more effective at using the American media (in pretty much every genre) to advance their core messages. This can be done very poorly (did you see the movie remake of The Lorax?) or it can be done extremely well. However, it is being done.
It is clear that what we write can influence others, even if we don’t write particularly well. However, good literature must do more than influence. In my opinion literature must influence individuals to positive ends, provide entertainment, meaningful content, and show artistic quality in order to be considered ‘good’. Selanya, I certainly hope you will give your thoughts here.