Storytelling Smackdown: Avatar vs. A Serious Man

Predating our recorded history, storytelling has been part of what makes our species unique. Our stories help us make sense of the world around us and build our confidence by assuring us that even the humblest person can find the strength to overcome daunting troubles. Reading, listening to, or watching stories relieves stress, reaffirms core social beliefs (often telling us that love, family, and friends truly matter), and underscores heroic values, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, courage, and hard work.

As a writer of commercial genre fiction, I argue that that's a noble tradition and something our audience has a right to expect from us. We may be able to "get away with" straying or (sometimes) be rewarded with critical acclaim for dramatically altering the story landscape, but it's tough to endear oneself to a large audience that way.

Case in point: two recent Academy Award Best Picture nominated films, James Cameron's Avatar, which for all its nifty special effects is as heart an old-fashioned, ultimately triumphant hero's journey, and the Coen's Brothers' film, A Serious Man, which defies audience expectations by showing us a poor, downtrodden schmuck who never does rise up against the massive injustices heaped onto him by God and his weird family alike.

I left the theater completely inspired after viewing the first. Shouted "What the Heck?"(okay, I said worse, but I'm not copping to it in print) upon reaching the ending (meaning the movie's "ending," not the story's, because it didn't have one) of the second. Though I've loved the majority of the Coen brothers' past efforts (O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men are two of my all-time favorite movies) to and found the characterization of A Serious Man very well done, this film, for my taste, felt maddeningly self-indulgent.

Now, I think it's fine for a writer to challenge readers (or viewers.) I love being forced to reconsider a long-held opinion, knee-jerk prejudice, or to see the world from a wholly-unexpected viewpoint. Within the parameters of the storytelling framework, we have the power to illuminate all sorts of dark places in a way that still offers the powerful cathartic experience thousands of years of evolutionary culture has trained us to expect.

But at the end of the day, if you're going to indulge anyone, shouldn't it be the people who are plunking down their hard-earned dollars rather than yourself? Don't we owe our audience not necessarily a happy, but a satisfying, emotional experience?

Anyone else care to weigh in on either the question or the films?


Pat Kay said…
Colleen, LOL over your "What the heck?" I just looked at Dick when the movie ended and said, "Huh?" He shrugged. "Don't ask me," was his reply. We, too, love Coen Brothers movies, but A Serious Man was seriously weird. I did laugh at a lot of it and shook my head at the rest. The old rabbi was hilarious, as was the wife and her lover. But I'm with you. I want STORY. I want things to make sense at the end. I'm glad I said A Serious Man, though. When I watch the Oscars, I like knowing I've seen everything!
The irony is that one of the prerequisites of MFA programs is that the writer "challenge the form." We actually get asked how we're planning on forwarding the boundaries of narrative, and I don't think this is always bad--but it has to WORK. Faulkner challenged the form with narration, but let's face it, not very many people read Faulkner. And yet many novelists after have employed some of his techniques to achieve a more conventional kind of narrative.

I read a wide range of poetry, prose, nonfiction, and literary criticism. (Yes, I am a nerd and read lit crit for fun) I will admit that if a story is too conventional, I will lose interest easily, because I can usually predict the ending. I am not one of those people who reads solely for comfort; I want the writer to take me somewhere. I WANT to be challenged, to some extent. But I also want to come away feeling satisfied by the challenge, and usually stories with no plot don't do that for me. I didn't like Sideways either, because it wandered too much.

I guess what I'm trying to do in my own fiction is bring back (or continue) the idea of the good story, well told. I often wonder what happened to that!
Oh, and a short story writer I LOVE who defies convention is Donald Barthelme. He wrote a lot of metafiction pieces in the 70s and 80s, and I dig his work a lot. Even he has a sense of narrative structure, though, albeit a very different kind of narrative. Likewise Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities, which is another fave of mine. VERY cerebral, almost poetic, but there is still an overarching narrative sense.
"A good story, well told..." That's all I'm askin' for, ma'am. LOL. Maybe that's why Kathryn Stockwell's marvelous debut, THE HELP, is burning up the bestseller lists!

I loved SIDEWAYS, btw... which is proof of how subjective this business is!

I know A SERIOUS MAN is supposed to be "darkly humorous," but I felt so sorry for the protagonist, and so anxious for the guy to finally stand up and do something, I couldn't even laugh. (Well, maybe I did just a little at his wife's lover when the guy kept trying to hug him and make it all better. And the irony of the funeral thing - don't want to give too much away.)
Yikes, should've said Kathryn Stockett, not Stockwell. I checked the spelling on her first name but forgot to look at the last.
Joni Rodgers said…
I haven't seen "Serious Man," so I can't comment on that, but I have to say, I cringe at the idea that a writer "owes" the reader anything. We owe it to ourselves to do our best work, and we owe our work the opportunity to be what it wants to be, even if not everybody is open to it. With all due respect and appreciation to those who plunk down their hard-earned money, they've invested $24.99 in my book. I've invested thousands of hours, great care, buckets of tears, and a huge chunk of me that could have gone to my family. So yeah, I stand foursquare for indulging myself over the money-plunkers.

To thine own self be true. Which doesn't mean we should be deliberately obtuse or challenge the audience for the sake of challenging -- which is just as doomed as not challenging for the sake of not challenging. I'm just saying you've got to do what you want to do as an artist and get what you need from a book first and foremost, because all other rewards are a total crapshoot.
It's an interesting conundrum, Joni, one I'm sure that writers will be trying to sort out forever. There's undoubtedly a thin line between pleasing and pandering, and I'd definitely agree that you have to love what you're doing or it definitely shows.
Suzan Harden said…
Wow. I just realized I haven't seen a Best Picture nominee since 1998, the year before I got pregnant.

And I must beg to differ slightly, Joni. I think we writers do owe our readers something-Kay's STORY, the best damn story we could ever write. Does it mean we owe them anything beyond that? No. (The whole Gearge R.R. Martin debacle comes to mind.) But our readers plunk down their hard-earned money to escape from whatever crap is happening in their lives and to live in another world, if only for a short time.

Otherwise, our readers won't plunk down that money for the next thing we write and we'll be out of jobs.
Kathryn said…
I think it also depends very much on genre here. For readers of literary fiction (and yes, there still are SOME), story is probably second to character development and narrative challenge. I've certainly run into a lot of readers in my program who felt that way. For those readers, a book that doesn't bring anything new to the table is a sure-fire turn off.

For readers of other genres, though, I could see the idea of formula being a comforting one and a good one. When I read scary stories, I'm looking for something a little different than what I'm looking for when I pick up a "literary" novel. When I read mysteries and romances, I'm looking for something different still. And lately, I've been getting into some YA books, because I'm really enjoying getting inside the heads of the new generation and seeing how and where they're different. I also read YA, I admit, to remember what it was like to be that young, and sometimes to be relieved that I'm not. I read poetry to see what's happening with the form and for adventures in language. (Often literary fiction writers irritate me because it feels like they're writing fake poetry, and I'd rather just read the real thing)

I just try to be as generous a reader as possible, but I admit that years of workshop and teaching fiction have made me somewhat a snob. Someone once asked me if I could turn off my critical eye, to which I replied simply "no." It's been ingrained in me through these programs to see what's wrong with something, and now I'm trying very hard to retrain myself to see what's right. It's just so much harder for me to suspend disbelief now, because I know too much.
Mylène said…
For me the key word, as Colleen points out, is "satisfaction." As a writer I have the choice of giving a reader emotional satisfaction, intellectual satisfaction--sometimes both. I found Avatar emotionally satisfying but it did absolutely nothing for my brain; A Serious Man cared nothing about my emotional satisfaction, but was very happy to play with and challenge my assumptions about narrative--and I let it. I share with Joni a strong belief that it is our choice, as writers, to pursue whichever path most engages us. But we have to be prepared for the consequences. Emotional satisfaction generally trumps intellectual playfulness, both at the box office and the bookstore.
As Katherine points out, sometimes we're in the mood for a rollicking, action-packed crowd-pleaser, and sometimes we want (and need) a deeper, meatier experience. It's great -- and important -- that choices continue to exist. Sometimes books and movies that challenge us only appeal to a niche audience, but who's to say that niche doesn't deserve addressing?

During the past year, I've read everything from literary fiction (don't faint) to Harlequin romances to a variety of non-fiction and watched everything from art house indies to raunchy comedies to classic noir. And I'm exceptionally glad that we live in a society that supports so many choices.

Of course, all judgment is subjective, but when a writer/artist/etc. fails to engage enough people, the market will eventually become the decider. Especially (unfortunately, I think) in an increasingly bestseller-driven economy.

And yes, I realize I'm pretty much contradicting myself. I reserve the right to hold and argue conflicting opinions. :)

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