What is it that makes readers connect? Sincerity and honesty. The kind of sincerity I’m talking about might be called being “serious” but as Alan Watts pointed out, the word “serious” has a sort of dry unfunniness about it, and that isn’t what I’m getting at. Fantasy literature in particular has this problem, much less than it used to, that it’s hard to take seriously a book about wizards and dragons. Ursula LeGuin seems to have eventually convinced everyone to take such books seriously, but not without plenty of books getting written to convince people otherwise. Wizards and dragons sound like childish topics, until you read Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson, or dare I say Robert Jordan?
Books weren’t what brought my attention back to this over the past week, however. I bought Blurryface by Twenty One Pilots and noticed that this album is funny, ironic, absurd and self-referential, but extremely deep. The lyrics are about insecurity, uncertainty, life, and death; my favorite lyric is from the hit song “Ride,” which points out that we all have people we say we’d take a bullet for, but there really aren’t any bullets flying right now. I especially relate to “Stressed Out,” which points out that when we’re young, we tend to think our confidence will grow, but when you get older you can develop crippling insecurity. That was grad school for me. They’re blatantly honest about the superficiality of other music and how disappointing that is (“Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless”). It reminds me, of all things, of Laurie Anderson, whose songs are silly, but at the same time are about life and death and the nature of consciousness. She can be talking about a game of Simon Says and point out you could die at any moment. And wouldn’t you feel like it had already happened?
Last night I watched a film called Teeth about a teenage abstinence freak who discovers she has a toothed vagina. It was a risky move: the potential for being downright silly was tremendous given the topic, but this movie pulled off a scary, even funny, but psychologically deep story. No one, not the men who try to rape the main character, not the promise-ring wearing teenagers, nor even her metalhead brother were caricatured. This movie had the best inclusion of material from evolutionary biology that I’ve ever seen. They clearly did their homework with both scientific, psychological, and mythological material. Despite all the guys who get their dicks cut off in this movie, I found it hilarious, especially the card at the end saying “No men were harmed in the making of this film.” My question is: why wasn’t it stupid?
An example that shows the contrast is Katy Perry. She’s capable of producing songs that really get right to the heart, she’s an accomplished vocalist, and I like the themes of some of her songs: “Roar,” “Firework,” “Wide Awake,” and “Chained to the Rhythm” are all great songs that are totally sincere. On the other hand are some of the dumbest songs on radio, where the theme is basically “Let’s get our nails done and get drunk” or “I got drunk and fooled around on my boyfriend.” What distinguishes the two? If Katy Perry is a capable singer and songwriter, why is some of her work so superficial, whereas much of the rest really speaks to the listener? (This might be a good time to mention I can’t stand Phish. Look at the difference between Phish and the Grateful Dead and you’ll know what I mean. Music is a big joke for Phish whereas the Grateful Dead, if they weren’t exactly serious, were sincere about the meaning in the songs they sang)
This is where content, not style, shows its importance. Style is not enough. Katy Perry’s worst songs demonstrate that you can have a full command of style and sing or write about totally superficial material: money, clothes, alcohol, socks. The ephemera of life. If you really want to touch readers you have to talk about things that are universal. Life, birth, death, alienation, love, glory, courage, honesty itself. You can even do it in an absurd way, or in a non-universal way, but as long as the story you’re telling is believable, or if you walk the reader along into the fantastical elements of the story, it will reach them. In the case of Twenty One Pilots or Katy Perry, they get to the heart of the matter right away, having only two-and-a-half minutes to do so. When Katy Perry says “You’re gonna hear me roar,” we know that’s a metaphor, but it’s a metaphor we can all relate to; it speaks to a universal need to be heard and appreciated.
In the case of Teeth, Dawn’s mutation (teeth in her vagina) is not really believable, but the filmmakers walked us in to that using mythology, science fiction, and good ol’ teenage lust as she confronts her identity. By the end of the film, she is willing to concede that she’s a monster, but she’s a monster on a mission, and I was totally on her side. Not believable exactly, but sincere. A real exercise in rising conflict.
Don’t take yourselves too seriously, kids, but be sincere. People can tell the difference.