I am often told, by a young Catholic gentleman of considerable intelligence, wit, and virtue, that I am an undiscerning consumer of narrative art.
When I express my approval for this book, that film, or the other animated series, this gentlemen will – as reliably and good-naturedly as the rising sun – protest: “but Ben, you like everything!” My general positivity about the stories I expose myself seems to him to speak ill of my aesthetic judgment.
This gentleman does not seem to be alone. I have a good number of friends, all people of sense who I am very pleased to know, who seem to really enjoy perhaps one in every eight films they go to see, whose usual reaction to the question “was it good?” is “eh, it was OK”. I know others again who would sneer at such lukewarmness, and proudly declare themselves true believers in Sturgeon’s Law, which states in no uncertain terms that “90% of everything is crap.”
Am I, then, merely a schmuck?
Let me write, then, in my defence – and in the defence of an optimistic – even a cheery – approach to fiction.
I do not like everything. I do my best to avoid the obscene, the gratuitous and the amoral. I attempt to be careful with the images I put in my head, – they’re usually a lot easier to put in than take out.
In addition, and this is quite an important point, I tend to filter what I watch using that wondrous modern invention, the review. Empire Magazine, Rotten Tomatoes, Decent Films, Publisher’s Weekly, Orson Scott Card’s review column… there are quite a number of avenues available to the discerning consumer for getting some idea of the nature of the film or book you’re about to experience before you experience it.
I am sure that had I watched Spring Breakers or Final Destination 14: Viscera Ad Nauseum I wouldn’t have enjoyed them one bit. So I took what I consider to be the eminently rational pre-emptive step of not watching them.
However, once I am committed – once I have taken the step of saying “I will watch this” or “I will read that”, I am in one sense guilty as charged. I do not say to the film “overcome my scepticism”. I do not demand of the book that it justifies the time I spend on it. I have already decided to spend the time, and I am not getting it back one way or the other.
Nor, I must confess, do I come to stories completely neutral, letting them impress me or not as they will . No, once I have decided to let a story occupy my mind, I do my best to see the good in it: to focus on what I do like, rather than what I don’t, to focus on what’s well-executed rather than what doesn’t quite gel.
Part of this is just a matter of efficiency – I’m in a cinema for two hours, I’ve paid for my ticket, I might as well enjoy what I can – and part of it is dispositional (I have occasionally been accused of being a die-hard, interloping, maniacally cackling optimist).
But part of it is philosophical. I have a bias in the way I approach stories: the same bias I have in approaching everything else. As Chesterton puts it:
But (there) is a deep mistake in (the) alternative of the optimist and the pessimist. The assumption of it is that a man criticises this world as if he were house-hunting, as if he were being shown over a new suite of apartments. If a man came to this world from some other world in full possession of his powers he might discuss whether the advantage of midsummer woods made up for the disadvantage of mad dogs, just as a man looking for lodgings might balance the presence of a telephone against the absence of a sea view. But no man is in that position. A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration.
Honestly trying to spin a good yarn will almost always yield at least some fruit. The second Night At The Museum film isn’t going to set anyone’s mind on fire – but it has Amy Adams playing Amelia Earhart, and if that isn’t self-recommending I don’t know what is.
Does this make me undiscerning? I don’t think so. It is, after all, perfectly possible to quite like most of what you watch, but like a smaller subset of it better. I enjoyed my time with Cars 2 rather more than did most reviewers, but it’s no The Road To El Dorado. It’s not that I don’t recognize when something is a bit rubbish. I just don’t waste much time dwelling on the rubbishness – most of the time.
When I do, it’s usually because a story has been cynical: when it’s pitched itself at some elite audience who understand this sort of thing, when it’s gone for cheap emotional manipulation or
I have no quarrel with amateurs putting their work out there (I’m expecting you to read this blog, aren’t I? Dohohohohoho!). I’m much more inclined to resent talent misused – people who use their considerable skill to create something vile.
I’ll put it this way: K.J. Parker’s Fencer trilogy is one of the most well-crafted, immersive works of fantasy I have read in my life. It’s also utterly horrifying, disturbing, and ultimately completely nihilistic – a moral void (I always laugh when people describe the Game of Thrones books as bleak. They ain’t seen nothin’!). I regret reading those books much more than I regret reading Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books, which are rollicking reads with all the depth of a dry lake-bed.
Finally, focusing more on what you like rather than what you don’t makes one less vulnerable to the bizarre pathology that seems to have inflicted far too many good men and women that I know – that of seeing all stories as being somehow involved in a great, universal competition.
I watched six films over the course of this summer: How to Train Your Dragon 2, Calvary, Begin Again, Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
I suppose if you asked me to I could put them in a list based on quality, with Calvary at the top and Dragon 2 at the bottom. But I’m not really sure what I’d gain from doing so.* Why compare Boyhood, a film about one boy’s life from age 6 to 18 that charts the ordinary struggles of growing up, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a post-apocalypic dystopia that uses a tale about chimpanzees and gorillas to examine what it really means to be human? They’re doing very different things.
I submit that this way of approaching storytelling and narrative art is eminently defensible – and what’s more, it comes with some quite useful side-effects. When I tell you that something is slipshod, unfocused, messy, and generally pants, you’ll know that I mean it.
So for goodness sake, give Dracula Untold a miss.
* Well, except silly fun. Top 10 lists are great fun. But they ought to be fun, not Very Serious Business.