The script

I’ve long thought that most people really want to have a script for their lives. They want to be told what they should think and feel, what they should be interested in, what their opinions should be, what they should buy, how they should spend their free time, and, most of all, how they can pass judgment on the choices that others make.

I think this is why advertising and religion work so well. I think it is why television and movies have become the dominant forms of entertainment. I think it is why demigogs, whether political, cultural, or religious, are so successful.

The value of this, obviously, is that it relieves people from thinking for themselves about the complexities of living. If someone can deliver a simple, concise package of thought for you, especially someone who has a perceived “authority” on the subject, you are saved the effort and confusion of figuring out complex matters.

The problem with this, obviously, is that it robs people of their lives. They don’t live their own lives. They live other people’s lives. Or think they do. Or wish they could. This doesn’t apply to every aspect of their lives, and different scripts may apply in different parts of their lives. But while they are putting so much effort into molding their lives to match some envied ideals or revealed “truths,” the genuine life they might have made for themselves passes them by.

I think this can be true of writers as well. It’s cozy to wrap ourselves in the “rules” of grammar or the conventional wisdom of the publishing industry or the norms of a genre or the proclamations of successful writers. And I suppose from a pragmatic standpoint much of that is necessary. It is mostly a business after all. What bothers me about all of this is the same old complaint I’ve made before. Many writers obediently adhere to these scripts, seemingly without reflection, and then champion them as much to convince themselves they are true as to convince others. They don’t seem to consider what the demands of their story or voice make. Rather, they shoehorn their work into a script.

I think writers, and all artists, come in two basic forms: those who reflect the culture and those who create the culture. The former, I think, are ephemeral. The latter endure.

I understand that far more novels were published in the Victorian era than are published today. How many of those remain with us? How many of those are cultural touchstones? And how many are forgotten? Mark Twain is remembered, among other reasons, for creating the first true American voice in literature. Everything before him was considered merely a reproduction the memes and tropes of British literature. Faulkner pioneered stream of consciousness writing, and while The Sound and the Fury may be a difficult read, it spawned a new way of looking at narrative that has permeated all forms of expression. Moby Dick was published almost as a favor to Herman Melville since it was unlike his earlier writing. It didn’t sell well in his lifetime and was mostly panned critically, but it is now considered by most to be the definitive American novel.

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