September 15, 2011

Playing by the rules

In his review of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, an anthology of classic pulp fiction, Allan Massie notes that

Sincerity is essential in this sort of work. The author must believe in what he is writing if the reader is to believe while reading. Irony is out. The masters of popular fiction always play by the rules.

And David Goldman points out that "ordinary people can't be expected to learn a new style every time they encounter the work of a new artist (neither can critics, but they pretend to)." In the real world of consumer art, not playing by the rules means that

today's "serious" artists write for a miniscule coterie of aficionados in order to validate their own self-invention, and get university jobs if they are lucky, inflicting the same sort of misery on their students.

As a result, the "sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture," which, Goldman quips, "is not the worst sort of outcome." Agrees screenwriter Robert Ben Garant:

What people need to embrace and accept, if you're going to be a writer in Hollywood, is that every single movie has the exact same structure, exactly, whether it's Die Hard or Night at the Museum . . . But the problem that a lot of young screenwriters have--and by that, I mean the baristas at Starbucks--is that they are struggling because they think formula is a bad word.

This problem can trip up established veterans. Recurring flaws in Joss Whedon's work seem to spring from an unwillingness to leave the hard lifting to the formula. Or maybe it's because he turns over the reins to assistants, who then try to be "creative."

This was somewhat understandable with Buffy, because of the inherent age and setting limitations. Angel suffered from neither, and should have been a witty noir PI drama (with a supernatural edge), a once popular but sadly underserved genre.

Alas, the show kept piling on cast members and ending the world (literally) in order to generate enough conflict to keep everybody interested. By contrast, with David Boreanaz basically playing an older Angel, Bones has mostly avoided these problems.

Related posts

In praise of cliche
Writing to be read
The conservative hero
Good books don't have to be hard

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