February 23, 2017

In a world

High-minded critics like to describe the low-minded readers of genre fiction using terms such as "wish-fulfillment" and "projection," summed up in the epithet "Mary Sue." This as opposed to the more serious task of deciphering the text for its socially-relevant "messages."

Not that there's anything wrong with that! (Says this unrepentant post-modernist deconstructor of Star Trek.)

But no story can ever be effective if read solely as a sermon. Sitting in the choir and being preached to is certainly the less demanding mental exercise. For readers to project themselves into a story, they must engage in world-creation and role-playing, as in the role-playing game.

As Kate explains,

The desire to exercise the creative impulse means that while people want to get swept away by Middle Earth or Asimov's robots or Ahab's Pequod, they also want to imagine themselves inside those worlds. Or at least imagine that world as a real experience.

I believes this better accounts for the attractions of the action movie and the romance novel. Sure, the average guy can enjoy pretending for two hours that he is John McClane in Die Hard, but he's also smart enough to know that, placed in similar circumstances, he would last about two seconds.

He also knows that, in the course of his everyday life, he will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid literally walking across broken glass in his bare feet.

The appeal of the action movie is imagining a world where beating up the bad guys or blowing up the Death Star (or two or three) solves the problem. Or in the world of romance, where

everyone has a one and only and recognizing that one and only transcends everything from orientation and gender to age and occasionally, in Japanese manga at least, blood relations.

Nobody sums it up better than Don LaFontaine, the legendary master of the Hollywood movie trailer, who coined the expression, "In a world."

It's not this world but a made-up movie world, a hypothetical model of the universe, where alternative realities can be played out with the promise that "no animals were harmed during the making of this movie."

As G.K. Chesterton, that great defender of popular fiction, observed, "The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."

Or in Terry Pratchett's paraphrase, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."

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