Wednesday, January 27, 2010

metaDRAMA: "So What's the Big Deal?"

James Patterson, who was profiled for this week's New York Times Magazine, had this to say about his detractors ("these people who call themselves open-minded but then make judgments about what I write"): "Well, these people like it. They're happy. So what's the big deal?"

It's an interesting question, and a fair one, especially given the recent spate of critic-proof shows--both in terms of those that cannot be commercially saved by praise, and those sugary bits of pap that soldier on despite those who hate them. More people will have seen MTV's "Jersey Shore" than will have seen Young Jean Lee's "The Shipment"--even with the latter now being available online. Despite the fact that Lee's piece does as much (if not more) to talk about the dangers of stereotype as MTV's programming does to sustain and nurture its cliches. The reason why we talk about "The Shipment"--or at least, why I emphasize theater reviews as opposed to the higher-hit-generating, wider-ranged film and book reviews--is because it's important.

To get back to Patterson, the "big deal"--and reason for criticism despite its "mass" appeal is that titanic name-brand authors not only drown out other voices--they rewrite them. As David Cote wrote in his review of Lear, "we lack a critical vocabulary to evaluate badly behaved plays; that is our collective cultural failure." If we focus only on Broadway (i.e., Patterson), we lose our ability to evaluate theater (literature). There is nothing inherently wrong with "enjoying" Patterson, but to give up on other authors because they aren't like Patterson--often without even giving them a chance--that's the big deal. In fact, that's the danger. (As my father often tells me, the danger isn't in people like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. It's in a culture that only listens to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and then calls that news.)

The fact that Patterson churns out nine formulaic books a year, many of which are co-written--ala the Stratemeyer Syndicate--isn't the problem, and he should take pride in the happiness he gives people. But the fact that his blockbuster publishing strategies, honed from his years in advertising, have wound up eclipsing other authors, authors who have original and valuable things to say--well, that's troubling.

If you go to Barnes and Nobles looking for a new book, and all you see are wall-to-wall displays for Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyer, you might not even realize you're missing the rest of the store. (It's even worse online, where it's harder to accidentally browse.) This is akin to the issue of Broadway, which makes it hard to tell that there's anything else playing. You've heard of Times Square and Wicked, but probably know nothing about Soho and Lear. (And if you do, perhaps because you're literate enough to recognize a big Don DeLilo-esque name, how about Access Theater and Luck of the Ibis?)

That's where criticism comes in. It has to slam your book, because that's the only way to make a reader pause long enough to consider that there's other stuff out there. Provide enough comparisons, show enough discerning and taste, and maybe you can convince people to give other works a chance, remind people that delicious as ice cream might be, it's a shame to spend the rest of your life eating nothing but ice cream. The fact that people enjoy junk foods is not a reason to blithely go along with supporting the junk food industry--it's a reason to point out the failings and to attempt to explain why a Patterson book is about as nuanced as a Twinkie.

In some ways, this gets to the whole argument that was going around the theatrosphere a few weeks ago, about the value of that great overshadower, Shakespeare, and about the importance of producing new works--even if (or especially because) they were not as good. Simply for the different, inspired ideas. To be stagnant or repetitive, to be entertained just for the sake of being entertained--that is the mark of nothing more than Zombie culture, with its forever cries of "Brains! Brains!" It was not until Conan O'Brien started doing things differently that his younger audiences started watching again, rapt and overjoyed once again by the surprising appeal of possibility.

The big deal is that there's no big idea, and people have grown to call that ideal.

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