Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Regrettable Art

Harper Lee's follow-up to the widely revered To Kill A Mockingbird hit the shelves this week to reviews ranging from merely tepid to downright scathing (NYT review here). Go Set A Watchman appears to be, according the folks who've read it, the literary equivalent of a Van Halen/David Lee Roth reunion: an embarrassing and ill-advised cash grab that threatens the integrity of the original project.

Of course, the ill-advised plunder of past works is nothing new. Contemporary reviews of works set in established fictional settings are often less than complimentary. I'd wager that after The Aeneid saw its first publication, critics were quick to lambaste it for straying too far from the source material. More recently, there has been some upset over the insults delivered to the Star Wars universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the planned Ghostbusters reboot, and a—of all things—Full House sequel.

Time has proven the literary contribution of Virgil in Homer's fictional setting to be among the greatest treasures of Western Civilization, so maybe it's too early to say whether or not Jar Jar Binks will enjoy a fruitful legacy. But whether or not the passage of the ages will be kind to liberties taken with source material, it's fair to say that fans appreciate the integrity of a well-crafted fictional setting and don't immediately appreciate breaches of that integrity.

Sentiments of anger and disgust are typical of fans who feel betrayed by canon violations. If the insults to a beloved franchise continue, anger softens to sadness, disgust to resignation. If I didn't know better, I'd say that the pattern sounds an awfully like a bout of regret. A loyal fan who sits down expecting to enjoy another chapter in the life of John Connor and ends up getting Rise of the Machines instead can perhaps be forgiven for suffering the taste of betrayal. In the extreme, the regret can extend back to the original properties. "I'd never have become a fan if I knew this was in store for me."

Why mention this? Who cares? It's just entertainment, after all. Mere escapism. And that's true, as far as it goes. No one will starve for lack of consistent narrative structure and tone across the Jaws franchise. But it is big business. And it's big business for a reason. Stories are profoundly human. If you've been camping, you might be familiar with the urge you get to start spinning yarns round a crackling campfire after the sun has slipped below the horizon. It's perfectly natural to indulge sentiment for one's beloved, even if it arises as the product of an author's imagination. You won't starve for emotional betrayal, but you might lose sleep. And you will almost certainly lose peace of mind.

What's to be done, then? The savvy consumer will train herself in the fine art of expectations management. Think twice before listening to a new album, going to an art opening, cracking the spine of a new novel, or squishing your buttocks into a theater seat. Think twice about your benchmarks. Think twice about the whether or not the cow in your mind is sacred or just chuck on the hoof. Think twice about how your nostalgia might be quietly influencing you. Think twice on whether or not you're the intended audience anymore. And on the producer side, maybe take a minute to consider the motivation for a project. I might be an oddity among folks with an economics training, but I cannot bring myself to accept the idea that mere mercenary motivation is likely to produce great, or even good art. If your purpose extends no further than to make an alimony payment or buy a new yacht, maybe the TV show you produce will end up more like Shasta McNasty than the original run of The Twilight Zone.

Let a thousand flowers bloom, sure. But maybe make sure it's in well-fertilized, properly drained soil.


  1. Or you could give up the crazy notion that the original author has some kind of magical power to create "true" stories in the fictional universe.

    Reform copyright (or read things in an internet underground) and let a 1,000 people write a sequel to your treasured work. Read the ones with the best reviews and just stipulate whatever you like the most is what happened.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?