Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Siegel on Crass Culture

In the December 7-8, 2013, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Lee Siegel (Are You Serious: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly) discusses the artistic impact of our increasingly coarse pop culture. Excerpts:
"What's celebrity sex, Dad?" It was my 7-year-old son, who had been looking over my shoulder at my computer screen. He mispronounced "celebrity" but spoke the word "sex" as if he had been using it all his life. "Celebrity six," I said, abruptly closing my AOL screen. "It's a game famous people play in teams of three," I said, as I ushered him out of my office and downstairs into what I assumed was the safety of the living room. ...

And so it went on this typical weekend. The eff-word popped out of TV programs we thought were friendly enough to have on while the children played in the next room. Ads depicting all but naked couples beckoned to them from the mainstream magazines scattered around the house. The kids peered over my shoulder as I perused my email inbox, their curiosity piqued by the endless stream of solicitations having to do with one aspect or another of sex, sex, sex!

When did the culture become so coarse? It's a question that quickly gets you branded as either an unsophisticated rube or some angry culture warrior. But I swear on my hard drive that I'm neither.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). There's a fair amount of Siegel's analysis with which I disagree, from his assertions about the socially liberating "power" of crass sexual discourse to his praise of "Miley Cyrus's brilliant, purposeful, repeated travesties of her wholesome image" to the fact that he still seems to be using America Online in the twenty-first century. But Siegel gets one thing absolutely right: "Once you spell it all out, the tension between temptation and taboo disappears." In other words, overt explicitness robs raw content of its power -- and that matters a great deal for narrative writers.

"Fiction goes after understanding by creating characters who subtly embody values, then testing the truth of those values through drama," crime writer J. Mark Bertrand states, paraphrasing from John Gardner's On Moral Fiction. One of the dramatic paths most authors will want to take at some point is the via negativa, the negative way that shows readers how not to go. To do that, we'll need to portray Bad People doing Bad Things (and sometimes Very Bad People doing Truly Awful Things should you prefer to pen noir and horror as I do). But that doesn't mean we need to normalize their transgressions. We shouldn't rob wrongdoings of their impact, because their wrongness is the very reason we include them in the first place. (That and verisimilitude, which is an entirely different discussion.) A single startling obscenity, the play of light on a knife blade, a quick flash of flushed skin -- such things have far more impact than all the twerking or torture porn in the world.

(Picture: CC 2013 by PVBroadz)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'm not sure if you've seen Breaking Bad (if not: highly recommended.) But there was an interesting moment near the end that gets at its balance between a via negativa and the simple joy of watching a bad person do bad (but personally empowering, in the short run) things. By the end of the season, there was a lot of interesting commentary on how the show explicitly responded to its "bad fans" by writing (and condemning) a speech that was remarkably similar to the content of a number of wrong-headed message boards.

Loren Eaton said...

I watched the first season and the first episode of the second season ... and lost interest. I feel bad admitting that, because I thought it would be something I'd enjoy. Perhaps it was the show's treatment of cancer. I mean, our family went through six years of it, and I just didn't want to relive it again. Might have to give the show another go.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Cancer becomes less of a part of the show as it goes on, but yeah. It does hit a lot of raw emotional edges (in, I think, healthy yet painful ways). There was one S1 episode that I had to turn off because it was so painful; I took an hour or so to recover before finishing it.

Strangely, it seems to be less emotionally intense and more intellectually engaging as the show goes on. The more Walter White goes down the path towards evil, the more he becomes a demonstration of sinful desires that we all have, and the terrible consequences that result. And by the final season, nervous compassion for the characters is about equally balanced with utter shock at how perfectly sculpted the narrative turns are.

Loren Eaton said...

Part of what bothered me about Walter's illness was how the writers made every part of it as awful as it possibly could be. I mean, my father had something like fifteen chemo treatments for his brain tumor and he never got sick, never lost his hair. They just tortured Walter at every turn, and I hated watching it both because of the reality -- and unreality -- of it.

Yeah, I think I'll have to give it another go, though. Need to finish Fringe first. I just wrapped up season three.