Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Director's Job Is Not To Honor the Words Of the Writer

A director's job is to tell the story as truthfully as he can. Or so I told myself after my first few years directing plays for the theatre. And I still stick by this definition. But it's a definition that must be unpacked if it's to make any sense at all.

A director's job is to tell the story… Yes, but what story? The playwright's story? What is the playwright's story? For that matter, what is a story? A story -- or at least the type of story the interests me -- contains a series of events linked via cause-and-effect: THIS happens, which causes THAT to happen, which in turn causes THE NEXT THING to happen. But causal-linkages alone are not enough to make a story. With cause-and-effect alone, you have "mere" real life: I got hungry, which caused me to go to the fridge, which caused me to see that we were out of mayo, which caused me to go to the store, etc. This is boring and not worthy to be called a story. A story contains a series of causal events centered about some interesting organizing element.

I hate dry phrases like "organizing element," but I'm wary of "theme" (though, since it's a short word, I'll use it in this essay), because it evokes term papers and statements like "the alienation of the individual from culture in the context of mechanized society." Such themes are formal and intellectual, and the theatre is most powerful when it is casual and emotional. But a story's "organizing element" CAN be a theme. One could also call it a "center" or a "pivot" or a "world" or a "purpose."

The chief notion here is that plays exist in theistic universes. Whether or not our (real life) universe is controlled by an intelligence mind is open to debate. I think of it as random and chaotic: event A may not have much to do with event B. I may call my mother on the phone and then, after that conversation, spend two hours taking a nap. But that's not a satisfying story. A story is only satisfying if its events are controlled -- if they are metered out to us in order to suggest some whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts. The storyteller, if he is a smart deity, will erase all aspects of the story that don't contribute to the story's organizing element.

I am tempted to say that a story, created by its storyteller "god," must have some purpose. But I'm almost as scared of "purpose" as I am of "theme." Purpose tilts dangerously toward didacticism, morals, ethics and social utility. A story's point COULD be to illustrate some moral principal, but it needn't be (and, in my view, the most satisfying stories don't try to lecture us about right and wrong). A story's purpose could simply be to thrill or titillate or entertain. For instance, a Stephan King story contains a series of causally-linked events, orbiting around a purpose -- which is to scare us to death.

The director's job is to tell the story … Which means that he must make sure that each event is clear. The man went where? Oh, he went to the STORE. The director must make sure that the causal links between the events are clear. The man walked out of the store without buying anything. Why? Oh, BECAUSE he doesn't have any money. And the director must also tie all the events and causes to some organizing principal: Why are we watching this anyway? Oh, because it's scary (or funny or touching or thought-provoking), and it's fun to be scared (or provoked in some other way).

It's not necessarily important that the audience can put their fingers on the theme or center or purpose. In fact, it's often better if they can't. If they can say, "Oh, I see -- this is a play about racism," then they will be able to classify the play in their minds, and once it's classified, they will be able to forget it. The best stories evoke a sense of mystery. They give the audience the feeling that their guide is a confident person with a purpose -- and that they can relax and know that they are in the hands of a master. It's okay that he is going to keep that purpose secret. The feeling that there is a purpose is more profound and satisfying than knowing what the purpose actually is. (God moves, but he moves in mysterious ways.) And the mystery is important. Once the mystery is solved, the story is over -- even in our minds. An unsolved mystery can resound in out brains forever, as we spend the rest of out lives trying to work it out.

(Note: so many storytellers don't understand the power of mystery. They've been taught to build their work around a theme or center, but they don't understand that the main value of the center is for them -- not for the audience. The center's value is to help the storyteller make storytelling decisions. It allows him to choose the right words or costumes or lighting or movement. By ensuring that each part orbits around the center, the storyteller creates a world that hangs together, which gives the audience a luscious, deep, complete feeling. And that's the goal. The goal isn't to explain the center to the audience. Or, if it is, one can do it very simply. One can put a note in the program saying, "The theme of this play is 'racism is evil.'" (Or whatever.) After reading this silly note, the audience can get on with what they came to the theatre to do -- to be titillated, moved, excited and provoked.)

We're used mysterious purpose in music. Those of us who aren't trained musicians can still listen to a Beethoven symphony and get the profound feeling that it all hangs together -- that every note is part of something great; that it has meaning. Yet what that meaning is, we can't say.

But the storyteller must know the meaning. He must know it, because all of his storytelling decisions must take this meaning into account. Otherwise he risks perverting the work away from being a satisfying story. Should the actress where a red dress or a blue dress? How do we decide? Well, does one of those colors distract from the point of the story? Does one further the point of the story? Only when we decide that the story is neither hindered nor helped by red or blue can we risk choosing the red dress, simply because it flatters the actress. The storyteller must use his knowledge of the meaning to make these decisions.

In the theatre, who is the storyteller, the playwright or the director? The storyTELLER is the person who TELLS the story. He's the last person in line between the story and its audience. Similarly, the joke TELLER isn't the joke book, it's the person who tells the joke that he read in the joke book. In the theatre, the real storytellers are the actors. They, along with any scenic, costume, sound and lighting events that take place (live) in front of the audience, are the vehicles that actually carry the story (the causal events) directly to the audience.

The director is the person who tells the writer's story to the actors (who then tell it to the audience). When the writer writes the story, he is the storyteller and the director (and, initially, the actor, when he is reading his script at home) is his audience. But soon the director takes over. He explains the story to the actors -- pushing them to emphasize this point and ignore that point. He becomes the storyteller, making sure the events are causally linked and centered.

Why? Why do we need directors? Why can't the writer -- or his text -- communicate directly to the actors? The director serves several purposes. If he didn't exist, rehearsals (and the resulting performances) would dissolve into chaos. Each actor would read the script, come to rehearsal and do whatever he wanted to do, based on his personal interpretation of the story. Interpretations would clash. The causal links would be unclear and the story would, like the Olympic rings, have many centers. One person needs to be the arbiter, the final decision maker, the guardian of the story. This doesn't mean he has to be a ruthless dictator who listens to no one but himself. A good director listens to everyone. He becomes a president, and the actors, crew and writer become his advisors and cabinet ministers. But the buck stops with him. And he must make the final decisions, so that the story has a chance of hanging together.

(The writer can take this role. He can come to rehearsals and tell actors what to do. But if he does this, he is the director. He may have been the writer when he wrote the play. Writing a play is writing. Telling actors what to do is not writing -- it's directing. One person may have two jobs. That doesn't negate the need for a director.)

The director is also needed to flesh out details. The writer may simple mention that a table is present on the stage. But what kind of table? A round one? A square one? Wood? Metal? Big? Small? These questions may seem unimportant, but they can't be ignored. They can't be ignored because someone has to actually go out and buy a table -- a real table. What sort of table should they buy? It’s appropriate that the writer simply writes, "table." Additional detail would clutter his script. People don't say, "I left the book on the blue, circular, metal table." They say, "I left the book on the table," so this is what the writer should have them say. Sure, writers can add "stage directions" in which they describe sets and costumes. But they can't describe everything. Yet in the theatre, everything must be described. It all must really exist. It must be purchased, placed and then the actors must interact with it. So the director fleshes out these details (thousands of them). And he makes sure that none of them pervert the story's center.

(Note: sometimes it's obvious how this should be done. You're directing a play about rich people. Should you choose the fine china or the plastic cups? Obviously, the fine china. On the other hand, if you're telling the story of a beat cop who happens to carry a notebook, which notebook should you use? There are dozens of notebooks for sale. Which should you buy? The answer in this case is to buy the most boring notebook you can find. The notebook that merges into the background. The notebook isn't integral to the story. It doesn't really contribute to the center. But the cop must have a notebook. If he didn't, the audience would notice -- "Hey, where's his notebook?" -- which steal their focus away from the story. So in this case, you choose one that doesn't distract from the center. In cases like this, you are creating the closest stage equivalent to minimalist writing like, "The cop wrote down the name of the suspect." In a sentence like this, you don't add that he wrote down the suspect's name in a blue, spiral-bound notebook with a Staples logo on the front, because this has nothing to do with the story. On stage, you don't have the luxury to leave out such details. The notebook must exist. So you simply make it boring. Audiences don't focus on boring things. So the boring notebook will deflect their attention towards the story.)

A storyteller has little chance of telling a good story -- an exciting story -- if he is not, himself, excited by the story. We know this, because we've all heard people tell stories that they are forced to tell against their will. It's deadly. We've all heard bored parents reading the same bedtime story to their children, over and over, each night, until they want to pull their hair out. They hate the story. So they won't tell it well. In fact, their children have to keep intervening: "You forgot to do the bunny voice, Dad!"

A storyteller finds the story exciting when it is his OWN story. This doesn't necessarily mean it is the story of his life. But he must feel like he is the owner of the story. When you tell a joke from a joke book, you only enjoy it if it feels like YOU are telling the joke -- that it's your joke. So when the writer writes the story, it must feel, to him, like it's his story, or he'll do a bad job writing it. Similarly, when the actors tell the story to the audience, they must feel like it's their story. They must feel like they have invented the words that come out of their mouths. The words may have originated at the writer's pen, but the actors must ultimately own the words or they will bore the audience.

In rehearsals, the director must own the story. So he's telling HIS story, not the writer's story. This offends many people, because they (rightly) hold writers in such high esteem. They feel like the director should merely carry the writer's words to the stage without adding any flourishes of his own. But if the director does this -- if he's just a pipeline between the script and the stage -- then he won't ever be able to own the story. And if he doesn't own it, he won't tell it well. He'll be like the bad joketeller who says, "Here's something I just read in a joke book. I may not tell it very well, but it's funny in the book." Who wants to listen to that?

If the director does own the story, then he will change it. He may change it in minor ways that are almost undetectable. Or he may alter it beyond recognition. But he will change it. Because by owning it, he will bring his own personality to it. And his personality is not the writer's personality. We want the director to own the story (so that it will be well told on stage) but we want him to stay absolutely faithful to the author's intentions. And this is not possible. If we allow directors to do their job -- and we must if we don't want chaos on stage -- then we will be watching the director's story, not the playwright's. The director's story may be adapted from the playwright's story -- it may even be closely adapted -- but it will necessarily be an adaptation.

(The audience will watch the actors' adaptation of the director's adaptation of the writer's story.)

And the director is not even really adapting the writer's story. He's adapting A story. It's a story that, influenced though it may be by the writer's words, comes out of his own head. Why? Because the story is the about CENTER. The story is the theme, spine, world, pivot, etc. That is what the story is about. But the writer doesn't tell us what this center is. It doesn't really exist in the words he's written. The words simply describe a series of linked events.

The director analyses these events to find the center. And one director doing "Hamlet" may find a very different center than another director doing "Hamlet." In fact, the same director may find different centers for two productions of "Hamlet," directed at different points in his life. And the writer (who takes on the role of director) may find that the play has a different center for him on stage than it did when he originally wrote it on paper.

The center isn't overtly stated in the text, but doesn't the text imply it? Maybe, but we must look closely at what the word "imply" means. Take a look at the following simple story:

Mark kicked the black man in the face. All of Mark's friends disowned him, never speaking to him again.

Most readers would say that this story "contains" a theme. And if asked to articulate it, the would probably say something like, "The theme of the story is that racism is evil." But no where in the story does it state that racism is evil. The story doesn't even show that racism is evil. The story shows that (a) Mark kicked a black man, and (b) Mark's friends disowned him. That's literally all the information that is contained in the story. (Note that the story doesn't make any universal claims. It DOESN'T state that anyone who kicks a black man will be punished. It states that one specific person, Mark, kicked a black man and he got punished.) We may say that the story implies that racism is evil, but the implication occurs in our heads -- not in the story.

Yes, the same implication occurs in most people's heads. But that is because all people are humans. And all humans share similar DNA and cultural experiences. So they are likely to derive the same -- or similar -- implications. A writer can capitalize on the similarities shared by all humans. He can try to push certain buttons, knowing that this will likely result in similar effects in most readers.

But even this theme isn't universal. For instance a racist man, reading this story, might derive a totally different theme. He might, for instance, say, "The theme of the story is that people treat you unfairly when you do something perfectly natural and right, like kicking a black man." We might loathe such a person, but we can't call his analysis wrong. (Though me may call his morality evil.) How is it any more right or wrong then our analysis?

Themes aren't IN stories. They are suggested by stories. And a suggestion must exist in a mind -- a human mind -- that is separate from the story. Yet in school, we are constantly told that, "The theme of 'Moby Dick' is…" or "'MacBeth' is about…" This is, at best, a sort of shorthand and, at worst, a sort of intellectual tyranny. Story's don't have universal themes. At best, they suggest similar themes to many people.

So the director must run with HIS theme. Yet that theme (or center), as subjective as it is, is the most important part of the story. It's the root from which all production decisions will follow. True, he can forgo coming up with his own theme. He can, instead, ask the writer what the theme is. Or, if the writer is dead, he can read interviews with the writer, from when the writer was alive. Or he can turn to scholarly analysis of the writer's life and works, from which, perhaps, the writer's intention can be derived. (Really, it can only be guessed. One can't KNOW another person's intentions.) All such analysis can be useful, but ultimately the director must go with his own theme. Only by going with his own theme, will he be able to own the story. And only by owning the story will he be able to tell it well. It may happen that his own theme matches exactly what the writer said the theme was in some interview. But that is a coincidence. The director must feel that the theme is his own.

And since the theme (or center or pivot or world) is what the story is ABOUT, the director must prune away anything that distracts from that theme. And he must add things that further that theme. In general, this will involve coaxing actors towards (and away-from) certain line-readings and gestures. It will also involve setting down some rules for the production designers. It may also involve altering the text.

This makes people nervous, but it is the natural outcome of sticking to a theme, which is the director's duty (if he doesn't want the play to fail). He may find that the theme is stronger if he cuts certain lines of text. If this is true, it's his duty to cut them. He may find that the theme is stronger if he changes certain words. If this is true, it's his duty to change them. He may find that the theme is stronger if he adds new lines. If this is true, it's his duty to add them.

Why would there be extraneous lines in the script -- lines that distract from the theme? Why would there be missing lines -- lines that must be added if the theme is as-strong-as it should be? Because the writer was using his own theme when he wrote the play; the director is now using HIS. And though these themes might be similar, they probably won't be exactly the same. The director must bring the script into line with his theme -- just as he must bring all other production elements into line with his theme. If he doesn't do this -- if he brings the sets, costumes, lighting, sound and acting into line with his theme but not the script -- then the script will be at odds with the rest of the production, and the audience won't have a satisfying experience.

(It's also possible that the writer simply made mistakes. If the director finds mistakes -- mistakes that distract from the theme -- he must correct them.)

Should the director willy-nilly change the script? No. The playwright lived with the script for a long time -- probably much longer than the director. His reasons for making certain writing decisions may not be clear at first. But upon further study, they may become clear. So before making a cut or change, the director should spend a long time studying the original version. He should make sure that the original really does conflict with his theme. But ultimately, if it does jar with his theme, the conflict must be eradicated.

(In the theatre, there are two traditions that clash. On the one hand, there is a cult of the writer. Actors and directors continually state that the writer's words and intentions must be obeyed. "It's wrong," they say, "to change a word in the text." Yet another tradition allows the text to be cut. "We can't expect a modern audience to sit through a full-length Shakespeare play," they say, "So we must make cuts." As if cutting a line (or scene!) wasn't just as much of a bastardization of the original as changing a line. Presumably, the writer wrote a word just so for a reason. And just as presumably, he included all the lines that he included for a reason.)

Theatre is a collaborative art form. Collaboration is a wonderful tool for bringing many minds to bear on a problem. But collaboration also has its dangers. Collaboration without control leads to anarchy. So in any successful collaborative effort, there must be an arbitrator. And in the theatre, that arbitrator is the director. The director takes the contributions of the actors, designers and the writer, and he bends them into a shape that fits within his theme. It is not the director's job to honor the writer's intentions. It is the director's job to tell the story as truthfully as he can.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Unknowable Brain

Stanley Fish, former head of the English department at Duke University and a university professor of law at Florida International University, claims "If interpreting the Constitution - as opposed to rewriting it - is what you want to do, you are necessarily an 'intentionalist,' someone who is trying to figure out what the framers had in mind." He implies that interpretation only makes sense if you are interpreting the words of some PERSON:

"Suppose you're looking at a rock formation and see in it what seems to be the word 'help.' You look more closely and decide that, no, what you are seeing is an effect of erosion, random marks that just happen to resemble an English word. The moment you decide that nature caused the effect, you will have lost all interest in interpreting the formation, because you no longer believe that it has been produced intentionally, and therefore you no longer believe that it's a word, a bearer of meaning."

I disagree with Fish: one CAN'T discover a writer's intention, which at most one person knows (or knew): the writer himself. And even he might have been unaware of his intention. Not all writers work consciously.

One can't peer into another's mind. The best one can do is to ask someone his intention (if this is possible, i.e. if he is still alive) and then pretend the answer one receives is the truth. But it may not be. It may be a lie, or it may be a plausible explanation that has nothing to do with what the actual intention was, when writing. (If someone asks me why I decided to write this blog post, I will probably come up with something smart-sounding to say, because I don't want to look dumb. But it may not relate to the REAL reason why I chose to write it, which I might not even know.)

One can try to mine intention from historical context (i.e. by "Separation of Church and State," the founding fathers were not talking about total atheism, because back then no one thought in those terms), but that is equally dangerous. It's a game and we can all agree to play by its rules, but it has nothing to do with real intentions.

I even take issue with Fish's example of "help" written on a rock. He claims that if we found out it "written" by an accident of nature, we would lose interest in it. No. HE would lose interest in it. I wouldn't. I claim it would still be the world "help" just as much as it would have been had it been carved into the rock by a human.

Texts have meaning irregardless of who wrote them. If they didn't, then the works of Shakespeare and Homer would be meaningless, since we know next to nothing about those authors. And if I discovered tomorrow that "Huckleberry Finn" had actually been composed by a monkey randomly pounding keys on a typewriter, I wouldn't be any less effected by the novel. It would still make me laugh and cry.

One can be interested in biographies of authors. One can care about Mark Twain and about the person -- if there was one -- who wrote "help" on the rock. But that is a different from caring about the text itself. People confuse the two all the time, because many people care about both -- the text and the author. It's fine and natural to care about both. But they are two different things.

If you want, you can let your knowledge about the author affect your interpretation of his work (i.e. Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet -- Hmm … pretty close to "Hamlet!"), but that is your choice, and it is a somewhat arbitrary choice. One CAN compare a work to its author's life. One can also compare one author's work to another author's work. Or one can compare a work to a peach. One should do whatever one likes, as-long-as one doesn't demand that everyone else does it.

The author doesn't matter -- unless you happen to be interested in biography. If I buy a book that is missing its cover, I can enjoy the story without knowing who wrote it. Yes, finding out that the author was actually a Nazi might color my ideas about the book, but so could anything. The author might casually mention the town I grew up in, and THAT will color my reading of the book. My mind will make the associations that it will.

Let's say someone says to me, "What happens to Uncle Vanya after the play ends?" If I'm the actor playing the part (or the director of the play), I can answer, "Oh, he goes out in the yard and shoots himself," but does that make it true? Do I have the magic ability to insert an interpretation into the universe? And what if we discover a long-lost interview with Chekhov in which he says, "After the story ends, Vanya moves to the south of France and opens a hotel." Is he right? (If I disagree, am I wrong?) Why is he right? Because he is the author? Okay, but what does it MEAN that he's right? In what sense does Vanya move to France. Vanya is a fictional character, and no where in the work of fiction in which he exists does he move to France. So is the story the original play PLUS anything the author says about it? Or is the story just the original play? There's no answer. The story is whatever I (an individual reader) want it to be. It might be something different to you. All we can agree on is what is printed on the page.

As far as I'm concerned, "The Godfather" is a story told in two films: "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II." There's a Part III, but I don't acknowledge it. The filmmaker does. I say that neither of us is right. Or we are both right. We are right because there IS one interpretation that DOES matter: that of the reader (or viewer). It matters to the reader. It matters to the reader, because he IS privy to HIS interpretation. I can tell you what "The Godfather" means to me and Coppola can tell you what it means to him -- but he can't tell you what it means to me, even though he wrote it. By publishing it, he is allowing me to form my own relationship with it.

A book is like a child who grows up and gets married. When I married my wife, I formed a relationship with her which had nothing to do with her parents -- even though they created her. Parents hate this truth. So do authors. But it IS the truth.

And it all comes down to why we read. Perhaps some people read to form an imaginary relationship between themselves and the author. They imagine that the author is talking directly to them. And they try to figure out what the author MEANS -- just as I might try to figure out what you mean in a conversation with you. This is fine if reading this way gives them pleasure. (Although it is a sort of game. They can play it, but they can't make the game real. They can NEVER peer into the author's mind.)

This is NOT why I read. I read to think and feel -- mostly to feel. I look at the words on the page and let them form ideas and emotions in my brain and heart. This is why I read and it's the only reason why I read. If the words come from a human or a monkey or a freak accident of nature … I don't care. I just care about the effect they have on me.

Of course, Fish is not talking about fiction. He's talking about interpreting a legal document. But the same rule applies. It's pointless to try to figure out the founders' intentions. They are unknowable. To seek unknowable information is foolish and a waste of time. And even if we waved a magic wand and found those intentions, are we sure we would like what we would find? Maybe the INTENTION behind "Separation of Church and State" -- the reason one of the founders actually wrote that line -- was because he got pressured by his wife to d so. Maybe she said she'd quit sleeping with him if he didn't write it. Unlikely perhaps, but possible. And if it's true, what then? Do we cross out that part of the document, or do we decide that it's worth keeping, even if the original intention was silly or self-serving?

But if we don't search for the Founding Fathers' Intentions, doesn't that leave the interpretation totally up to us? And if it's up to us -- to each one of us -- then each one of us could come up with a totally different interpretation. Maybe so. I don't claim to have a solution to the problem of how we should interpret a legal document. But just because I don't have a solution, that doesn't mean we should search for the Founders' intentions. We shouldn't search for their intentions because it's impossible to find them. We waste our time trying to achieve the impossible.

And I don't think we really CAN try for impossible things if we KNOW -- I
mean deeply know -- that they are impossible. I can't try to make 2 + 2 = 5. I just can't. I know it's impossible, so my mind won't go there. When we get caught up in "impossible dreams," when we say, "it may be impossible, but dang it all, I'm going to give it my best effort anyway," do we REALLY think the task at hand is impossible? Many people DO believe (erroneously) that we can know intentions. So maybe they CAN strive for such knowledge. But I know it's impossible, so I can't strive for it.

What I can agree to do is play a game: I can say that evidence from written texts (and other evidence from history) is called "intention." And I can search for and study that evidence. If we all agree that such evidence equals intention then we can play the game together, perhaps to great utility. But that doesn't change the fact that I know of another type of intention -- the type I feel in my own head. And I know that no one has access to it except me.

I can say, "In his private diary, Jefferson reveals his intentions…", but this is a kind of conversational shorthand. In reality, I mean, in a document that probably is Jefferson's diary, the writer -- probably Jefferson -- makes a claim about his intentions." When we admit that this claim gives us ZERO insight into the actual Jefferson's unknowable intentions, why continue to talk this way? Say, I read the Constitution and was swayed by it. And then I read another document, and I was further swayed by THAT.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Good Writing

When asking for book recommendations, I often say that I only like "good writing." What a stupid phrase! I should speak more clearly. For what is good writing. To one man, it might mean good grammar and spelling; to another, it might mean that the writer knows how to wax poetic and spew out metaphorical devices. Sometimes, I say (a bit more clearly) that I am talking about writing style. At which point the listener usually points me towards ornate, flowery writers with showy prose.

But I read to get lost in a writer's world. I read to escape. I read to adventure. This is obviously true with fiction, but it's also true with non-fiction. By which I mean that a writer's world is a controlled version of our world. It's controlled in the sense that the writer keeps our mind from infinite wandering.

In our world, we can freely think about anything. You can I can be standing on the front lawn, talking about taxes, when I can suddenly wonder what's under that rock by the tree. It's safe to wonder about the rock, because if I pick it up, there will be something underneath. And whatever it is will obey the laws that govern our universe. True, I will have strayed from taxes, but that's okay in real life. Life isn't about sticking to a point. Life's only point is living, and one needed try to stay on task. For one is bound to live until one dies.

But books have a point. If they are non-fiction, their point is some subject. And that subject is the world. If the subject is George Washington, it's pretty disastrous if, in the middle of a paragraph, I start thinking about the Easter Bunny. Of course, an author can't control my environment. There's nothing he can do to stop my roommate from dressing in an Easter Bunny suit and hopping about in front of my while I am trying to read about Winter in Valley Forge. But he can take pains to control his own world. He can keep the text firmly focused on George Washington. It is this focus, in fact, that leads me to books. Real life is so un-focused and haphazard. I turn to books for meaning. In life, I'm an Atheist who believes in a random universe. But I love books because each has a god, and that god is the author. The author creates rules and all the characters and devices in the book are bound by those rules.

In fiction, I may wander with the main character to the grocery store, to school, or to the court of King Arthur. But once there, I can't idly pick up any rock I choose. I can't do so because there's nothing under than rock. The writer can't completely flesh out his world. Yet his world must feel completely fleshed out. Otherwise reading his story will be a tawdry experience. So he has to trap me in a train of thought. He has to control my mind to such an extent that I don't try to peek through certain doors and don't climb certain staircases. Also, if I could wander anyway, I would lose the thread of the story. Fiction has just as much of a point as non-fiction, though generally the "point" is the life and times of a specific character. While reading about Oliver Twist, I shouldn't be thinking about Justin Timberlake.

Which isn't to say that writers should hold my mind in a vice. The trick is to make me feel as if I have freedom to wander anywhere within their world without actually allowing me to do so. The writer should create a cage for me like the ones in today's sophisticated zoos, in which the animals feel as if they are wandering through hills and forests, while all the time they are trapped in an exhibition. Sure, they can wander from the lake to the gulley, but both lake and gulley are trapped within the same enclosure. And there's no way the animal could wander into the gift shop.

When I'm reading it is possible for me to experience a high so great, it's like the best sex in the world or the best chocolate cake or the best cup of coffee. This happens when my I control my surroundings: when I'm sitting comfortably in a quiet, well-lit room; when no one can disturb me and when the wristband of my watch won't chafe my wrist. In short, when I can focus with complete attention on the writer's words.

At this point I have done all that I can, and the rest is up to the writer. If there are no internal distractions within his book, I can submerge myself totally within its world. If it's non-fiction, I will get so caught up in the book's ideas that all other thoughts will be banished from my brain. If it's fiction, I will believe the world is real. Sometimes this belief doesn't last long, but there are those rare, wonderful moments when I fall in love with the heroine or scream when the hero falls off a cliff. Others may read for different reasons, but this is why I read. It's the only reason why I read. For these orgasmic moments of complete escape.

(So-called post-modern fiction, in which the fourth-wall is broken and the story admits that it is a story, is not an exception to the rule. Such fiction still should contain a controlled world. Perhaps the writer wants you to think about the fact that you're reading a book; perhaps he wants you to consciously compare the hero to Bill Clinton; perhaps he wants you to notice puns and other word-games in the text. But he doesn't want you to think about anything. When watching a Brecht play, you're meant to always know it's a play -- but you're not meant to think about what shoes you're going to wear tomorrow. A PoMo writer's world contains items external to his book -- but it doesn't contain ALL items external to his book)

There are many ways a writer may can stumble and distance you from his world. He can contrive a plot device so ridiculous that you know it could never really happen. He can flout logic. He can insert anachronisms in a historical novel. He can put didactic speeches in his character's mouths. He can use obvious exposition and try to pass it off as dialogue.

Imagine coming across something impossible in real life. You're walking down the street and you see a dragon. At first, you cast around for physically possible explanations: it's someone in a dragon suit, etc. But when this fails, you're forced to except on of two possibilities -- either there is magic in the world of you have gone insane. But your mind will try everything else before jumping to one of these conclusions.

When reading a book, your mind will never jump to these conclusions. Those orgasmic submersions are powerful but fragile. If you come across something impossible for in a book and your mind can't account for it within the book, your mind will do the only logical thing: it will think, "it's just a book, and clearly the writer made a mistake." At which point you're no longer submerged. You're thinking about the writer, and the writer is not part of the story (or, in the case of a PoMo story, certain aspects of the writer are not part of the story).

Some people may enjoy the story even if it contains such lapses (after all, the fight scenes are still cool, and the language is still astounding), but I can't. I read for submergence, and no one can be simultaneously submerged in a world and sitting outside it. You're in or you're out. Sure, you can be in for parts of a book and out for other parts, but if you come out too often, it's hard to keep resubmerging. It's painful to be yanked out of a submergence, just as it's painful to be yanked out of a pleasant dream. And if a clumsy writer keeps yanking you out, you're not going to trust him enough to allow yourself to be duped back in again.

One of the easiest ways a writer can burst the bubble is through bad use of language -- bad style -- or as I stupidly put it, bad writing. Something simple as a spelling mistake can rip me from the world. After all, where could a misspelling come from except from the writer, and if I'm thinking of the writer, I am not thinking about his world. As a terrible spelling, I would long to join those ranks that say, "spelling doesn't matter as long as you know what somebody means." But it does matter. It doesn't matter for some polite, academic reason. It matters because bad spelling makes you think about spelling. Whereas good spelling doesn't make you think about anything. So you are free to think about the world.

Cliches are good yankers. They make you think about the ineptitude of the writer, in which case you're not thinking about the world. The same is true with bad dialogue, mixed metaphor, poor grammar and overly-complex construction. The list could go on and on.

There are a million uses for good language. Words can be beautiful things in and of themselves. And while pedestrian writing may not hurt, skilled writing can evoke powerful, often unconscious feelings and urges. And I praise all these poetic and magical uses of worlds. But when I ask for good writing, I mean something far simpler. I mean writing that doesn't dislodge me from the world. I want to thrill to the fear of what's behind the creaking door without cringing at who's responsible for the creaking sentences.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Peter Jackson: con-artist

Of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films: most people I know -- people who have never read the books -- were mildly entertained by the movies. The Tolkien fans were either ecstatic or furious, depending on how close they thought Jackson got to their scripture. I wouldn't call myself a Tolkien fan. I think Tolkien had some great ideas for a story, some of which he pulled off, others would have been better left for another, better writer. But I did enjoy reading his books.

I HATED the movies. And I think of them as sort of a con-job, pulled on the movie-going public. As a HUGE movie buff, I get irritated every time I hear Jackson talked about as if he's some sort of great director -- as if he's a Kubrick or a Welles. He's not. He's a hack.

Here's what he did: he took the Tolkien books and ILLUSTRATED them. And he used the most banal illustrations he could find. People think the films are "visually stunning" because they contain huge battle scenes and show expansive landscapes. But they are actually visually sterile and cliched. Gandalf looks exactly the way we all imagine him to look when we aren't thinking about him in any meaningful way. So does Gollum. So do the landscapes and castles. Everything looks the way these things look on dozens of mediocre book-jacket illustrations. A REAL director -- a Copola or an Ang Lee -- would have his own, unique and brave take on the book. Jackson's visual style seems to be to accept the first thing that pops into his head and then MAKE IT REALLY BIG.

If he didn't have a really unique take on the books, he could have hired someone who did. This is how the makers of "Alien" worked. They wanted something really special, so they combed art books and found H.R. Geiger. And with him, they came up with a really original, scary style. (Which doesn't seem so original now, but that's because it's been copied so much since.)

Imagine you were going to make a movie of "Frankenstein." What are the first images that pop into your head? They are probably pretty style-less and cliched. Compare them with this drawing:

Bernie Wrighton, the artist, had his own personal take on the story. And it shows, whether you like his art or not. And that's key. Jackson was cowardly. If you pretty much stick to dull illustration, most people will pat you on the back. "You were faithful to the source," they will say. They may not be deeply deeply moved by your work, but they will praise you. If you take a risk and pour some of yourself into the film, some people may damn you for bastardizing the source. Jackson either wasn't willing to risk this, or he's so empty inside that he can't risk it.

His Sauron was horrible. That big flaming eye. In the books it's a big eye, so he makes it a big eye. But Sauron should be SCARY! I was never scared -- not once -- by Jackson's literal imagery. They only parts of the movie that got to me were the parts where some of the actors -- mostly the Hobbit actors -- transcended Jackson's work and made me FEEL. But good actors would have done this in anyone's version.

There was a moment in the last film where I ALMOST forgave Jackson everything. I thought he was going to make the bravest decision in the world. In the novel, Tolkien creates this beautiful (almost religious) structure in which he makes it clear that Frodo, Sam and Gollum are somehow mystically bound together -- that it will take the three of them to destroy the ring. But I didn't feel this at all in Jackson's film. Which isn't necessarily bad -- it's just different.

In any case, there was this moment when Frodo was standing on that ledge, above the crack of doom, and in a horrible move-cliche way he became EVIL (one of the worst bits of acting in the film). Sam BEGGED him to throw in the ring, but he wouldn't do it. Meanwhile, the power of the ring was making Frodo stronger and stronger. Soon, clearly he would be able to destroy Sam. So Sam had very little time to act. Since Jackson hadn't really set up the Frodo/Sam/Gollum trinity, and since (much more than in the books), Sam seemed to be the emotional center of the tale, I suddenly KNEW what was going to happen. And my heart broke.

I realized that Sam was going to have to do that only thing possible in order to save the world. I realized that he was going to rush his best friend, Frodo, and push him into the fire. He would sacrifice Frodo to save the world. How brave! How achingly sad!

Had Jackson been brave enough to let this happen, he would have been damned by Tolkien fans worldwide, but he would have come up with something truthful to HIS movie -- something noble. Something transcendent. But, of course, he didn't.

And then he lopped off the end of the novel. That part where they all go back and save The Shire. But cutting that out, he destroyed the point of the whole thing. "Lord of the Rings" has a classic, Joseph-Cambellesque structure: the hero leaves home, learns something, and they returns home to use what he has learned. You CAN'T just cut off the end of that structure. It makes no sense.

Of course, had let Sam kill Frodo, he COULD have ended it that way. But he was too unoriginal, cowardly and uninspired.

Here are some images that, to me, are more interpretive of Tolkein's world that merely illustrative. There's no point in illustrating. Tolkein's books vividly describe his world as is. Illustrations add nothing. They're redundant. A strong, personal visual take should go beyond just illustrating.)

Quality and Art

In discussions of Art, people use the would "quality" in several different ways (probably more ways than I'm about to list), and then create confusion by using the word in conversation without being clear what they mean by it.

By quality, some people mean a ranking system for what they, personally, like and dislike.

Others are speaking about the likes and dislikes of an elite class, critics, to which they may or may not belong.

Still others are talking about economic power -- how much money the work has generated. (People will often claim they are not talking about this when they are. They will claim that they are talking about how many people LIKE a work, but they gather their statistics by tallying how many copies of said work have sold, which isn't necessarily the same thing. People sometimes buy things they don't like, i.e. for status or to read/see/listen-to what everyone else is reading/seeing/listening-to).

Some people use "quality" to mean "influence," and by this measure, a work has high quality if it has inspired other works or trends. Note that a work judged bad by other standards can still influence. And a works influence is not always good. (Example: "Lord of the Rings" has been so influential that it has inspired a whole genre of similar works. How many of these spin-offs is any good?)

Some people simply mean lasting power. To them, if we're still reading something that was written several hundred years (or some other arbitrarily long period of time) ago, it has quality. Some people say a work has quality if it conforms to certain standards -- standards which have usually been laid down by critics (for instance, at one point in history, dramatic critics decided that all plays had to take place in real-time, so that if the play was two-hours long, it could only cover a two hour period).

Of course, many people define quality as a combination of these things and still more use it as a fuzzy term, not quite sure what it means, but with a general feel of "I like it and a bunch of other people seem to like it too."

John and Jane have no basis for conversation if, when they speak of "quality," John is talking about influence and Jane is talking about whether or not she personally likes something. Alas, they will probably converse anyway.

People get really confused about whether qualitative judgments are objective or subjective. This confusion stems from a much larger confusion: are people individuals or members of a group? In other words, can an artist create a work that affects our general human nature or must he try (and often fail) to appeal to each person individually?

The answer to whether we are individuals or herd animals is simple: we're both. We're herd animals with individual differences. But this is too complicated for most people, and throughout history, people have tried to deny it and flip the personality-coin to either heads or tails. In reality, it is forever wavering between heads and tails.

People are based on shared genetic code. We all start out with the same code. (Or do we? Some people have mutations not shared by others. We all start out with SIMILAR code. It's not exactly the same). Then, our life experiences -- upbringing, books we read, etc. -- changes us into individuals. Which means you will always be different from me, even though we are members of the same herd.

The mind is incredibly plastic. On the other hand, it's not completely plastic. The are some aspects of the mind that are the same in most people. Artists can try to appeal to these parts. If they appeal to the plastic parts, they will create works that appeal to some people and not others.

Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has been studying art and the human brain. He seems to have uncovered certain patterns that artists can use, which, in general, cause certain effects in normal human minds. Interesting stuff.

I believe that the most useful way to view art is to simply ask, "Do I like it?" "Does it move me?" "Does it change me?" "Does it entertain me?" Why seek out art if you're not trying to be moved, changed or entertained?

Well, there are other reasons. Many people seek out art in order to seem more intelligent. They read, say, Camus, not because they want to, but because they think people will be impressed. Others read certain works because they think these works are good for them. They read, say, "King Lear," not because they want to, but because they've been told that they won't be a complete person without having read it.

I'm not a big fan of these reasons to seek out art. But I don't mind them if people are honest with themselves and each other about them. I'm deeply saddened when (as so often happens), a friend sees a movie or reads a book and says, "I don't know if I like it or not." This friend is letting other people's judgment -- or personal desire to look smart -- to interfere with their natural feelings and thoughts. Most likely, this friend went to SCHOOL. School is where many people sustain damage to their thoughts and feelings. It's where authority figures (professors and other students) tell you what is good and what is bad. It's a rare (but wonderful) school that helps you grow into a person who feels and things deeply for yourself. Most schools just say, "look, we know you're in a hurry, so we'll tell you what's good and bad and let you get on with your life." Beware these schools. They are killing small parts of you.

You DO know if you like something or not. You MUST have some feeling when you read it or watch it. Did it bore you? Did it move you? Did it make you laugh or cry? When people say they don't know if they like a work or not, they generally mean "I didn't like it, but I have a feeling it's a Great Work, and I'll look like an ass if I admit I didn't like it." Or they mean the reverse: "I have a feeling this is generally considered bad, but I actually enjoyed it, and I don't want people to think I'm stupid." Of course, they might also mean they liked parts of it and didn't like other parts. Which they should say. A book CAN have a good first chapter and a lousy second chapter.

(Sometimes -- rarely -- a person means, "I didn't like it, but I have a feeling I MIGHT like it if I studied up a bit and read it again." This feeling might be worth listening to. More below.)

So is it okay to say a work has "quality" if I like it and that it doesn't if I dislike it? Yes. But I would add some advice, which you should only follow if you wish to. The reason to follow it is that they might lead to a richer life: a life in which more works move you or a life in which you might be moved more deeply by works you already know. But you should STOP following this advice if it interferes with your subjective quality gauge. The most important aspect of art -- for YOU -- is they way in which it moves you. So if you find yourself being moved less (if you start saying, "I don't know if I like it"), then STOP following all external gauges. STOP listening to professors and critics. For God's sake, just read and watch and listen! Experiencing art should be like falling in love. Don't marry the girl because your father tells you to! Marry her because you love her!

Having said that, it is worthwhile listening to (some) critics because they can lead you to art you might not know about or be able to find on your own, and this art might move you.

Some art can't be enjoyed (fully) without knowing certain things before you experience it. For instance, you have to understand some archaic words before you can enjoy Shakespeare. A critic may be able to give you this contextual information.

A critic might point out some subtle aspect of the art that you missed when you first experienced it. Knowing about it might totally change the way the work affects your brain, which may make the work move you more deeply.

A critic can point out which works have endured. If a work has been read for centuries, this might be just because an elite group has kept it in the curriculum for centuries. On the other hand, it might be because this book has moved hundreds of thousands of people. And if it has, then there's a good chance that it will move you too, because though your nature is plastic, it's not completely plastic.

I have written about works MOVING you. As humans, we are moved mostly by things that tug at our animal nature. We are moved by surprise, whish hooks into our fight or flight instincts. We are moved by things that make us want to eat or fuck. We are moved by certain patterns that fire our sense-systems. And we're also moved (I believe to a somewhat lesser extent, but still truly moved) by intellectual games (generally by experiencing surprising new thoughts).

Critics (especially academic critics) often tell us that a work is good (or bad) for all sorts of obscure reasons. And they make us feel stupid if we like a work because it scared us or because we fell in love with the heroine. We're taught that these are the effects of "entertainment," not "art." Yet these are the things that appeal to the deepest part of who we are. Look for those works that make you hungry, that turn you on. Look for those works that make you say, "what's going to happen next?"

"King Lear" is a great play because it deals, in a deep way, with parents and children, with love and aging and fear of death. It deals with all of these simple, eternal aspects of being human. "The Brady Bunch" deals with parents and children too. I'm not saying "The Brady Bunch" is as-good-as "King Lear." My internal quality gauge tells me that "The Brandy Bunch" is trash, whereas "King Lear" is a masterpiece. But "King Lear's" lofty status doesn't stem from the fact that it deals with obscure, highly-intellectual, philosophical truths. "King Lear" is great because it's a well-told tale which deals with simple human truths. Whereas "The Brady Bunch" is a poorly told tale which deals with simple human truths.

By well-told and poorly-told, I'm talking about technique: world-choice, avoidance (or non-avoidance) of cliche, etc. But these stylistic concerns are important because they allow me to FEEL more deeply. They have a greater (or in the case of "The Brady Bunch") a lesser chance of hooking into my human nature and moving me.

But what if you're not moved? If you read "Hamlet" and are bored by it, should you say it's bad? I think you should first note than many people think it's a great work. You might want to investigate why they think so and if there is any prep work they had to do before reading it (i.e. learning what certain words mean) in order for the work to move them. If you follow their advice and are still bored, then yes, you can say it's bad. Your subjective judgment must ultimately trump all other judgments, because the most important aspect of art for any person must be the effect art has on that person.

(Note that as a culture, we are flooded by information and must discard some of it. Our libraries aren't big enough to contain all works and our lists of 100 best movies can, by definition, only contain 100 movies. So we must use odd means of choosing what to preserve and what to discard. We can't consult every person on Earth when a decision has to be made. Since these choices are made in a practical (but imperfect) way, they should be taken with a grain of salt. Just because a book is or isn't in the library, we can't say that book is good or bad. We can only say it's good or bad if we like or dislike it.)

"Quality" is best used as tool. Don't use it to place works on some cosmic scale. There is no cosmic scale. Use rankings as a way of finding works. If a NY Times critic says, "go see this film; it's the best film to come out in the last 10 years," then you might want to see the film (especially if that critic has steered you right in the past). But if you see the film and dislike it, don't say, "I didn't like it, but I know it's a good film." Please, please, please don't sell your soul. Be brave. Say it was bad.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Jane Austen of Science Fiction

When I was young, I was a "card carrying" geek. So naturally I read a lot of science fiction. But as I got older, I found it harder and harder to enjoy these books. Eventually I stopped reading SF and moved on to "serious literature." But when looking for a novel to read, I often find myself longing for another world. I desire escape. I want to be taken far, far away to somewhere massively different from New York City in 2005. So I look for some good SF or fantasy, but I rarely find any. Sometimes I ask SF fans for suggestions, but I rarely wind up liking the books they recommend.

I've discovered that if you're a lover of fiction who would like to read good SF (as opposed to a SF fan), you generally won't get very far asking the average SF fan to recommend books for you.

SF fans have different criteria for what makes a good book than general readers. As the SHOULD. They are SF fans. So their starting point is that the book must be SF. They love SF so much that, though many of them don't like bad writing, they will forgive bad writing if they have to -- if bad writing is the only sort of SF writing they can find. The bottom line is, good or bad, they want to read SF.

And many SF fans pretty much only read SF, so they can't really compare it to anything else. They can only measure with the ruler of their genre.

I've had similar problems when asking people to recommend graphic novels. When I say that I want to read a good graphic novel, I mean good when compared to a story by John Cheever or a movie by Martin Scorsese. I don't mean good as compared to Spiderman. It's not that I expect a comic book to be like a movie or a novel. But regardless of the genre, I expect the same level of workmanship and quality. And I'm continually disappointed.

I can't seem to find the Jane Austen of SF. When I ask SF fans to recommend good novels, they generally take "good" to mean better than the crap with the bug-eyed monsters and the ray guns. But that's not good enough. Who is the SF equivalent to Shakespeare?

I have a need for SF, because I like other worlds, but I need it to be GREAT. I need really really good writing (style), I need expert plots, I need realistic dialogue, I need characters that I fall in love with. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the people who are best at this sort of writing aren't writing SF.

Unlike many SF fans (and perhaps this also separates me from many fans of serious literature, too), I don't much care for novels of ideas. I'm a pretty intellectual guy, but I prefer to get my philosophy from non-fiction. When I read fiction, I want to wonder "what's going to happen next?" and I want to fall in love. I want those two things. And in addition I want to be transported to an alien world. And I want all these treats wrapped in evocative prose. I mention my distaste for idea novels, because when I say I'm looking for "good SF," that's what people generally think I mean. "You'll like this book," they say. "It explores some really interesting themes." But I have no interest in themes. I plot, character and language.

In theory, SF could be a hothouse for growing great plot/character/language books. Writers should use their best verbal skills to describe alien worlds; the freedom to go anywhere -- to any planet or "dimension" -- should allow for some rollicking plots. And one can explore unique facets of human psychology by placing characters in extreme situations. SF can (but rarely does) do all these things.

To be fair to the SF writers, people like me are really asking a lot of them. It's REALLY hard to be the Jane Austen of SF. You have to be an expert observer of people, and you have to be a master of prose and dialogue. To expect such a writer to also be a master of creating believable alien world AND to have a degree in physics is a bit much. But that's what is needed.

So what do I do when I need an alien world fix? I generally reach for historical fiction. A couple of years ago, when I read "Memoirs of a Geisha," which was expertly written, I got the same feeling I get reading really good SF. It was set a hundred years ago in Japan, and the world was so alien to me, it might as well have been SF.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

"The American Public"

Andrew Sullivan wrote an article about the Michael Jackson trial, explaining that, from the point of entertainment, "it's been a bit of a dud." He claimed that Americans "turned off" and explained why ("…because the Jackson trial focuses attention on features of American culture that most Americans simply don't want to acknowledge or handle.")

It's certainly a FUN article. And ten years ago -- maybe even five -- I would have called it perceptive. But as I've grown older, I've become increasingly suspicious of such essays -- ones that make claims about mass psychology: Americans want this; middle-class males want that. Certain writers -- David Mamet, Camile Paglia and others -- are genius at this sort of thing. I think their genius lies not in unearthing the truth, but in creating plausible worlds. They are really writing fiction in which the main character is "The American Public," which shouldn't be confused (but is) with The American Public (without the quotation marks).

These authors write with such conviction. Of course they do. They've freed themselves from the burden of proof. Claim almost ANYTHING about Generation X or Black Urban Males and you're likely to be believable, as long as your claims are bold and unapologetic.

When I get done enjoying these articles (and I DO enjoy them), I am tempted to say to the writers, "yes, but how do you KNOW?" What evidence backs up your claim about the inner minds of millions of people? Have you taken surveys? Have you performed double-blind psychology experiments, or are you just so smart and superior that you KNOW.

This idea that we just KNOW what goes on in other people's heads is terrifyingly pervasive. I suppose it's baked into our brains. It makes sense that, being social creatures, we need to make snap decisions about people so that we can act quickly. And we can get quite good are reading the tiniest signs and extrapolating reams of information from them. But this doesn't mean we're always right -- or even usually right. But it does mean that we FEEL like we're right.

We say, "You could tell just by looking at his face that he was jealous" or "Look at her; she HATES this party!" And in the worst case scenario, we get people like that woman Meryl Streep played in "A Cry in the Dark." (A Dingo Ate My Baby). You know, that Australian woman who was INNOCENT but who got convicted of murder because her face didn't show enough emotion. Everyone "knew" what was going on inside her mind.

(And the ironic thing is that I've been doing the same thing. In the last few paragraphs, I've been talking about what WE do and what WE think. And I may very well be wrong. And to add insult to injury, I'm going to continue my hypocrisy in the NEXT paragraph. But I'd like to admit this evidence into the courtroom: all those articles in the NY Times that note how this summer there have been three movies about Hospitals (or whatever) and then extrapolate that, as a culture, we have a fascination with mortality.)

What galls me the most is the condescension. It's always WE Americans or WE modern people, but you never get the sense that the author includes himself. Doesn't he really mean, "those stupid people who mindlessly follow trends -- a group to which I'm pleased to say I'm NOT a member"?

And how does he KNOW people aren't watching the Jackson trial? He doesn't cite data. What is he going by? The (flawed) Neilson Ratings -- which monitor only 100 households. Or is he just going by the general buzz of his friends and acquaintances.

I always wish, when I read these articles, that the author had rewritten it as a personal essay. I would have no objection -- indeed I would be thrilled -- if he said "I have stopped watching the Jackson trial because I am disturbed by stories about child molestation. In general, I'm a liberal guy -- not much shocks me -- but I can't deal with that one subject." But he doesn't say that. Maybe he doesn't do it because he feels that if he did so, the article wouldn't have enough weight. It would be "just" personal and not sociological. Or maybe -- more likely -- he feels like it would be dishonest. HE'S not uncomfortable. It's all those people who are less sophisticated than him (and, of course, less sophisticated than his readers) who fall prey to petty prejudices.

I'm sorry to pick on Andrew Sullivan. He's a good writer and it's was a well-written article in spite of my objections. But it's fiction. Sullivan has created a character -- and the fiction works (this is why all fiction works, isn't it), because it's easy to map that character onto real people that I know. That's its appeal. That's its danger.