Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rant—Fast Food Art

Allow me a little rant today.

I’ve been thinking about nutrition lately. I’ve been on this diet, you see, and one of the keys to it, and I suppose to any diet, is simply a change in consumption. It is an effort to alter habits and acquire an appreciation for things that are better for you though perhaps harder to access.

The truth is in our society, food is easy. Fast food for it’s quick carbs and easy availability is as ubiquitous as smog. It’s always been faster to do a drive through than a sit down and it’s now cheaper to go out that cook at home. Fast food, once the exception, a treat for special occasions on the road. and that day when you’re out of of leftovers, is the standard and everything else, vegetables and roasts, must fight for attention against it and is the holiday exception to pizza and ten inch “foot long” sandwiches.

I make the connection to entertainment. There’s a fast food variety of story telling. Like McDonalds we’ve all been raised on it. Unless we had a couple of hippie parents who pulled the cable and fed you kale and organic cheeses, you are accustomed to the three act structure and the fifteen point Save the Cat narrative timing. You can sense a coming reveal by the commercial breaks and are confident that you can plug away on your iPad sure that you can passively absorb the explanations at the end with little need to digest more than the quick cutting and special effects. The same plots and characters, situations and timings, like Taco Bell’s famous six ingredients, are rearranged slightly, renamed and then served in disposable cartons. It is ideal for the lazy consumer and a population of jaded entertainment junkies with short attention spans strung out on instant gratification and reruns.

It’s not healthy.

But it sells.

Books are better than most entertainment delivery devices. They books cater to a different audience, one willing to dedicate real time and actively—yes, I said ACTIVELY, participate in their own entertainment. But there is still a fast food component to the mass market. Stereotypical plots and characters, patterned structure, voice and pacing dominate the publishing world. Poor writing is excused and artless tropes are allowed for the literary equivalent of explosions.

I’m often surprised by how shallow some modern books are, how they don’t experiment or express, how their themes are as simple and accessible as a car commercial’s. How they are meant to be consumed, forgotten and thrown away—the very notion originally behind the invention of the paperback novel, I might add.

The problem lies in the self-replicating expectation of easily digestible story-telling. There is no patience for difference. Nowhere do I see this more evident than when I’m trying to get a book picked up. The hook—the almighty hook—is all that matters. Dare, as I often do, to create a slow build for greater later effect and you’ll most likely be passed over, called “boring” or “slow.” It’s an insult of course, and usually says more about the reader than the writer who might very well know what they’re doing. The problem, my dear Horatio, is that there are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The narrow-minded, sugar-craved, consumer-centric stereo-type focussed editor gives little opportunity for an artist to push boundaries of thought and expression and share their art. You can still make it, but god help you getting it past such gatekeepers to put it effectively before the public.

Long Arc - not so new after all
The sad truth is the editors think they know their audience, but I’m not sure they do. They know the disposable stories, the retreads and flavors of the months. They keep the pipeline full of safe saccharine stories, ignoring the exciting stuff that connoisseurs hunger for. It’s telling that occasionally someone will take a chance with something new and it’ll be a hit. Look at Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, for. the impossible multi-year, long arc fiction, or The Revenant, an Oscar winning movie with less dialog than a Swedish porn. Not all flavors are for all people, but given a chance they can find an audience. Arrival blew everyone's mind because it was structured to theme and challenged the audience to understand. And they did. These broke convention and were successful, like a quality steak house in a strip mall, or a vegan kiosk in the food court. People cannot live on junk alone.

It’s risky to break out of the patterns, to celebrate novelty over imitation, but eventually these very safe techniques get old. Movies bomb, pizza franchises fold, and vampires are not longer chic.

I’m sick of superheroes and space teenagers, speeding cars and orange fireballs. Italicized thought bubbles and dragon riding love-sick pubescents. I crave adults. I want some depth and meaning. Repercussions and theme. Yes, theme—what are you trying to tell me?

True art, like healthy food is out there, but usually not promoted. Word of mouth and active pursuit are required to find it. It’s hard.

Was this book any good
because not even The Wachowskis
could save the movie.
There’ll always be a place for the fast food, the for the mental margarita. Michael Bay will be in demand for a while still, Burger King ain’t going anywhere, but there is more than constantly shooting for and accepting the lowest common denominator. Not everything needs to be all things to all people.

Living on fast food is unhealthy for a person and a society. It reinforces laziness and conformity while promoting the basest affinities of taste. The problem is that we’re so used it, inundated with it. All the promotion goes to it. Unless we force ourselves to turn away, it’s all we’re fed. We must consciously find alternatives, boycott the crap. Once we break out of the habit, we can realize how unhealthy it’s all been and how wonderful the other possibilities really are.

Culture will move on eventually, if only from boredom, and those tales that managed to be brought out only to be forgotten may yet be found to be one of those wonderful things called "ahead of their time," "cult classics," and "avant-garde."

In the meantime, I'm sick of the pablum, the fourth grade reasoning levels, and simplistic designs of most of our stories.  I have a personal hunger to experience something other than a re-tread and a professional desire to find editors with vision who’ll see difference not as wrong, but as, well… different. Gatekeepers who can think beyond paint-by-numbers simplicity and appreciate the beauty of a rough edge, an unfinished phrase, a new pattern, a different pace, a thematic moment or an interpretative ending that all conspire a greater artistic whole.

You know, nutrition.


  1. FANTASTIC! Thank you for this, Johnny.

  2. This is a thought provoking post. I feel the same way-getting bored with movies and stories in general that all feel the same. I do have to defend Save the Cat, because it's the only way I make it through a novel. Without it my pacing would be abysmal, and I would probably forget something important, like a midpoint. The authors/writers themselves need to put in the depth. Theme, conflict, powerful prose, beauty in their story telling... There's nothing wrong with a template (we use them every single day for a thousand things) but that's all it is. Guidelines. Learn the rules, then break them. Try something new. If you want to write popcorn fiction, do it. If you want to share a deeper story with the world, you might have to dig a little.

  3. Well said. Thank you for your thoughts.

  4. I have to write stuff that I would want to read, commercial considerations notwithstanding. It might not get picked up, but at least I'll have entertained that audience of one. Then who knows--there might be another brain or two out there that is tickled the same way as mine.