Guest Blogger, Mike Cherniske, Talks About the Purpose of Story!

Mike expounds on the purpose of story. I am going to present his overall comments first followed by some of his specific points:
Where the Wild Things Are was, for me, too weird and intense to be enjoyable. When I mentioned that to a friend, he said, "Well, I love the movie. It's not meant to be enjoyed."

Which BLEW my mind. In my opinion, media is supposed to be enjoyable. If it wasn't, we'd spend our leisure time doing something productive. But it fascinates me how often I've been told that I have to suffer through a non-enjoyable part of a movie or videogame to get a reward. Shouldn't all of a work be fun and enjoyable and rewarding, not just the end? It seems that more and more we are being asked to suffer through things that are supposed to be fun.

More and more I'm hearing, "Oh, that movie was cool, but the story was crap," which is odd to me because the story, for me, IS the movie. Sure, there are things that can augment the story and make up for faults, but if, in the end, the story is complete crap, nothing can make up for that.

I guess I've just been pondering the perceived purpose of media and what people expect it to convey. I guess your [Kate's] post on LOTR also got me thinking about this again because that is one book that for me is absolute TORTURE to get through. It is not fun at all to read. But the story is cool.

In the end, I feel that media should be fun; that doesn't necessarily mean explosions and action. It means that the journey to the point should be enjoyable. Not many endings can justify a long and painful trip. The difficulty of the journey--whether in a video game, movie, or book--can change the level of enjoyment for some people; whether it increases or diminishes the fun depends on the person.
More examples from Mike:
Regarding Grant Morrison's Batman: R.I.P. and Joe the Barbarian: I do like Morrison's ideas. I mean, OF COURSE, Batman would be prepared for mind control. He's Batman. But it's Morrison's writing that is the most frustrating for me. His style of writing, in my opinion, does not suit monthly installments. He's a guy that has the picture figured out ahead, but only gives you pieces until the end (even then sometimes he leaves the point a mystery), which works great in a single, whole work. But this does not always transfer well to a serial format as the reader often forgets the clues and pieces presented before the next installment. This may explain why the only positive experience I've had with the man has been in trade format.

It's also very hard to form a cohesive and clearly communicated narrative or story when the pieces are so scattered and delivered at such long intervals. Morrison strikes me as a man who, when arguing, would jump to and fro from explanation to evidence to point and back again rather than presenting a point, then evidence and an explanation of that evidence.
Break and note from Kate: I feel like I spend entire semesters trying to pound this one simple concept into my students' heads: present a point, then evidence, then explain that evidence.

Back to Mike:
It's interesting because the very characteristic about his writing that I feel is his weakness is often hailed as his strength. I feel Morrison has little sense of direction, moving from idea to idea with no sense of flow or transition, until he finally runs out of ideas and tacks on the ending. Most people disagree. I suppose it's like Picasso. As long as all the pieces are there, it doesn't matter what order they're in. While I love that in art and visuals, I don't always appreciate that in writing.

As for Joe, it's classic Morrison in that you won't understand what's happening until he reveals the back story, but the back story won't be revealed (most likely) until the end of the comic, so not much is going to make sense until then. For me, that's frustrating, as I'd have to read the thing over after it's done to understand. While some people feel that having to read a work multiple times to understand it indicates depth, I feel it indicates poor communication.

The true sign of depth is when you can read something, fully understand the main story or argument, then discover more meaning and symbolism upon rereading. Some people may feel Morrison fits this definition. I would theorize that many of those people have mainly read his work in collections, which, as I said before, is a better venue (a single, self-contained and complete work) for his style of writing.

In general though, his writing is like someone giving a lecture in Hebrew to a room of English-speaking people, and, upon concluding, handing out an English-Hebrew dictionary. While the audience now has the tools to understand what the speaker lectured on, not many have the time or inclination to invest the effort it would take.
I respond in the first comment.


Kate Woodbury said...

Regarding LOTR, I know many people who enjoyed the movies but found the books hard to, well, just start. My first exposure to the trilogy was my mom reading it to me (I was somewhere between 8 to 11 years old). I later asked her if she edited the books as she read since I didn't remember them being long or boring. She looked surprised and said, "No" in a why-on-earth-would-I-do-that tone. (My mom doesn't do abridgments.) I asked because the beginning of Fellowship is admittedly very slow. I usually have to be in a Tolkien mood to start the trilogy up again; once I get started, though, the books move along at a good clip.

And Tolkien is one of those few writers whose massive descriptive passages I will tolerate. Usually, if I open a book and see passages of exposition and no dialog, I'm outta there. But Tolkien, although he writes more laboriously than Lewis, has the same eye for real details (as opposed to literary ones). Here's a passage:

"There were no trees nor any visible water: it was a country of grass and short springy turf, silent except for the whisper of the air over the edges of the land and high lonely cries of strange birds. As they journeyed, the sun mounted and grew hot. Each time they climbed a ridge, the breeze seemed to have grown less. When they caught a glimpse of the country westward, the distant Forest seemed to be smoking, as if the fallen rain was steaming up again from leaf and root and mound. A shadow now lay round its edge, a dark haze above which the upper sky was like a blue cap, hot and heavy."

It's so simple! The only word longer than two syllables is "vis-i-ble," yet this passage is far more evocative for me visually and emotionally than most so-called literary or flowery writing.

As for everything else you wrote, Mike: right on! I've never understood the whole angsty approach to art. I don't mean people who enjoy depressing literature (I know someone who actually likes Ethan Frome!), but people who think not enjoying themselves is equivalent to heavy insight. In that case, why not have literature classes on car manuals or income tax forms? I bet I could discover super-duper feminist and deconstructionalist meanings in a W-2 form!

I also agree about communication: a story is meant to be understood. A good story doesn't need cliff notes! Or, if it does, the first go-around is enough to inspire a desire for future exploration. I can't imagine ever exploring a book or movie in the opposite order: I'll keep rereading/rewatching this until I'm forced to enjoy it.

I wonder, sometimes, if this is how some members of the college industry feel: they can't enjoy literature until they force themselves. Their contempt for popular culture is a massive smokescreen to the fact that they really don't care for story et al. to begin with. More likely, it is simply the result of personal taste being turned into a little demigod. In any case, there is this weird Puritan (although that isn't fair to the Puritans) fear of HAVING FUN. One can be serious and profound and even vaguely amoral but gosh darn it, one mustn't have FUN! Stop those American Idol singers right now!!!

Actually, I think the elitist fear of plebeian entertainment (going all the way back to Plato) is probably rooted exactly in this: plebeians having fun is plebeians out of control. So the elitists get all worried and start sending out ultimatums: stop reading those comics and listening to that radio and playing those video games and going to those vaudeville plays and reading those pulp/genre novels and watching those Hollywood flicks and listening to those Top 40 artists right now!

But in a capitalist system, what the people pay for is what the people get. Thank goodness.

Cari Hislop said...

The Literary Establishment often appears lost up its own fundamental. Why are they so scared of a good story? Why do they think people shouldn't have fun reading a book or watching a play or a movie? It's more than bizarre. It's demented!

Personally, unless I'm at someone's house and they put on a movie and I have to watch out of politeness (Titanic, the remake of The King and I...both of which I found mentally excruciating to endure)I normally refuse to waste hours of my life on something if I'm not enjoying myself. If it doesn't catch my attention on the first page or first five minutes; Next! When I was young I had this personal rule that if I started a book I had to finish it. I don't know where that annul-retentive mentality came from, but it didn't last long. I was soon throwing books across the room.

This past year I did read a biography which I had to slog through the first half to enjoy the second. They were eternal chapters each about 30 pages or more and every time I picked up the book to read it, I felt like I'd been sucked into some evil time warp where I'd spend eternity reading one boring eternal chapter.

I think if something is meant to entertain regardless of the medium, it should have a good story...the story should make should be well done ie not ramble onto pointless subplots (I hate pointless subplots - they're filler and I loathe being expected to watch or read filler).
Personally, I think a great story
should resonate with the reader/ with fairytales there should be space for the audience to become part of the story. Great stories hold you spellbound and then when you re-read them (because you loved them) they then reveal their layers. Often the purveyors of "Literature" seem to think it best to numb the mind of the reader to more easily convey (brainwash the reader into accepting) their philosphy and/or message.

Cherndawg said...

I think it comes down to a compromise for every consumer (reader, watcher, player, witness, ect)- At what point does the effort required to finish a work or to get through some of its content nullify the worth and enjoyment of that work?

Now, admittedly, I'm a fairly lazy consumer. Don't get me wrong, many of the movies and books that I've read and enjoyed are "deep" and meaningful. It may have even required some mulling and thought on my part to come to a conclusion about what that work "meant" and what its point was. However- in all cases the work was enjoyable to get through. The extra thought and effort I extended once my journey with that work was over was merely frosting on the cake.

My laziness becomes a real issue however, when I find myself spending my precious free time trying to finish something that is bringing me minimal enjoyment. Even if the ending of the work it awesome, I have a hard time justifying the rotten time I had in the build up.

The unforgivable crime however, is when a work is thoroughly enjoyable until the end- I'm absolutely livid when I've invested hours and hours into a story just to discover that it's a dream or that the main characters died before accomplishing their goals, or even worse, when they forget the entire ordeal!

The best explanation about why I feel this way comes down to why I watch movies or read books- for escape. Sure, I'm thrilled when the text explores concepts and themes that are important, but in the end I'm looking for something to help me de-stress and relax. I don't often find dramas or cop movies relaxing because too often they're TOO realistic- and if I wanted reality, I would turn off the movie and turn on the news. That doesn't mean I won't watch CSI or Dangerous Minds- it just means that they have to work that much harder for me to be able to justify the putting in the effort for the content I'm getting out of it.

Joe said...

You're forgetting the notion of spectacle as entertainment. A circus doesn't have a story; neither does an orchestra or a variety show. Or burlesque (which I've long argued is the foundation of modern mass entertainment, not opera, symphonies or the other blue blood arts.)

And let's be honest, many operas, especially, have stories that are just as paper thin as Avatar. And just as dumb, if not dumber.

As for me, I tired long ago of computer generated graphics as the sole form of entertainment. In movies, I often find them to be a self-indulgent mess that all to often look neither real nor particularly cool.

Kate Woodbury said...

You know, I've never been able to get into circuses or parades. I'd put this down to a very un-American appreciation of spectacle except I also prefer people art to abstract art. It has nothing to do with how good the art is; I just like people (story). And non-ballad music is practically a closed book to me. Well, I do like to listen to the 1812 Overture at full blast while driving down the highway (very dangerous, by the way).

As for Mike's comment--"The unforgivable crime however, is when a work is thoroughly enjoyable until the end; I'm absolutely livid when I've invested hours and hours into a story just to discover that it's a dream or that the main characters died before accomplishing their goals, or even worse, when they forget the entire ordeal!"--this is why I read the ends of books!

I try not to do it with mysteries, but when I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (which I thoroughly enjoyed), you bet I read the end first. NO WAY was I going to slog through 800 pages, get to the end, and go, "Boy, that was waste."

I wonder sometimes if this fear of wasting time is why I have a tough time watching movies. Seriously. I can sit down and watch two discs of Bones' episodes without batting an eye but sitting down to watch a single movie just makes me squirm. I have to REALLY want to see it, and even then, I multi-task. (It is possible to watch a movie, read a novel, and correct papers at the same time: not easy but possible.)

Cherndawg said...

Joe-I think even for those areas, the argument holds firm. In the end, is the journey or the experience worthy of the climax? I agree with Kate, Circuses and other live form of entertainment are usually hit or miss for me (I absolutely REFUSE to watch reality TV).

Because for me, the entire time I'm at a parade or a circus or something similar, I think "WOW, I could be doing this or that instead of wasting my time here". On occasion I have had a blast, and for those incidents, the reward was worth the effort.

So, regardless of the medium, the end result of the time spent must have more worth than the time invested. (and btw, I really enjoyed Avatar, proving my point that different people find different things stimulating).

Joe said...

Don't get me wrong, I detest parades and circuses! I'm in it for story (and am a rather big fan of B-movies and television.) My point was that there is a huge audience for spectacle and storyless movies and television and to discount them is to be every bit a snob as the blue bloods who go to opera and the symphony (cue the Yes, Prime Minister reference, which is still one of its funniest episodes.) Having said that, I have to sheepishly admit that the masses rarely have any taste, but neither do the blue bloods, but that's life and my true grief is never coming up with a way to exploit that (or having the lack of integrity to do so.)

Cari Hislop said...

Perhaps it's not the medium, but always what the viewer/consumer brings with them that makes the story or creates a story that resonates.

I have a theory that different personality types need different types of stories with different types of heros. I think stories that speak to one personality type are often meaningless to the others. If you've taken the Myer's Brigg personality test...look at your main group type (SP, SJ, NF, NT) and then start looking at the stories you enjoy the most. I think you'll find an interesting correlation between your personality type and the characters/stories you enjoy.

For my birthday I bought season one and two of Moonlighting and watched all of them. I told my sister and she said, "Why?" with disgust. I said, "It's funny!" She disagreed! And it makes sense because it's an SP/SJ romance. She can't stand SJ's (Maddie the heroine is a mega SJ-Gaurdian). My sister is an NF and she loves movies that make me want to vomit. I think too the fact that SP/SJ's make up about 80% of the population causes story shortages for the NF's/NT's particularly in mass medium that are expensive to produce. These are the movies that don't initually sell a lot of seats, but are still making money after thirty years.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think there is a fascination with detail for the sake of detail. I think Mike from Milwaukee's critique of the Phantom Menace is one of the most insightful and hilarious things I've ever seen, but while I was rewatching it recently, I thought, "I wonder how many Star Wars' fans actually were disappointed? I wonder how many were satisfied just to have more information added to the Star Wars universe?"

I confess to being a story-snob! But then, I'm a fairly consistent story-snob. I dislike excessive detail for the sake of detail in just about any form of art. Actually, I have to take that back: at one point in my life, I thoroughly researched and understand just about every aspect of Middle Earth. And I was into it for itself. I actually added my own kingdom to the north of Tolkien's map and then figured out how to blend it into his history: it was very fun!

But then I would argue that Tolkien's world at least has consistency; there's a pretty high level of organization to the entire world as compared to many other universes/worlds, making it more interesting to "invade" than others. And I think that it matters that Tolkien's world is better constructed than, say, Star Trek's universe (and remember, I love Star Trek). Standards do matter!

On the other hand, I suppose it is unfair to argue standards for things I have no interest in. So, for example, I really should never argue standards over stream-of-consciousness writing because it bores me silly. But I should argue standards over murder mysteries because I like them and read tons of them!

This is actually what I like about Mike from Milwaukee's critique. Despite the psychopathic murder subplot, the critique is completely centered on the thing itself; he dismantles it based on what it is (or what it purported to be), not on any outside theory or a completely different type of movie like, say, Citizen Kane.

The wrap-up to this comment would be that while not everything has to have a story, if it does have a story, it should, as Cari says, "make sense...i.e. not ramble on to pointless subplots." (Mike from Milwaukee's explanation of a one-problem ending versus a four-problem ending is one of the no-hands-down smartest explanations of out-of-control-subplots I've ever heard.) I think that personality does play a role in what people are drawn to, but I also think that, within a genre, some things are far better than other things. Making those types of arguments is what English literature instructors SHOULD focus on doing (but rarely do).

I admit though that like Joe, I just wish I knew how to create that one thing that gets a mass following. Well, maybe not a MASS following. I'd settle for having groupies (and an action figure or two; hey, Jane Austen has one! Of course, she's dead, but she does have one).

Cherndawg said...

So, I've been hearing about that review of the phantom menace for awhile now, and I decided to give it a watch after you mentioned it, kate. it was AWESOME. When I first saw the movie years ago, I was just happy for new Star Wars, but as the years went by, I've become more and more bitter about it.

While I was at it, I watched his Avatar review and part of his generations review. Whoever this guy is, he's brilliant.

a calvinist preacher... said...

I think the Hobbit and LotR are designed to be read aloud. I tried reading them as a teenager (about 13) and could not stomach them. They were dull beyond words.

I finished reading the Narnia Chronicles to my children and needed something else (I'd had more than enough of Seuss and George and...). My wife suggested LotR. I figured I'd give the Hobbit a go and my children were enthralled - as was I. My kids were 9, 7 and 4 at the time. The middle one was especially taken and, by the time he was 12 he'd read the books so many times he could recite extensive passages from memory - he still can.

Many of those who really love the books did not read them first. They heard them first.

Kate Woodbury said...

This is a great insight! After all, Tolkien is the writer who said the following: "I remember . . . a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon [in my story], but pointed out that one could not say 'a green great dragon', but had to say 'a great green dragon'. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language."

I remember coming across this quote several years ago and was struck by this issue of how things SOUND. To be honest, stopping to listen to the words slows my writing process down more than anything else. I keep taking the language apart to see if I can achieve a different sound.

Plus Tolkien read Lord of the Rings aloud (to the Inklings). I'm a huge advocate of parents reading to their kids! But for those of you without (or away from), Rob Inglis' reading of Tolkien's work is pretty fine.