Many thanks to Kiersi Burkhart for inviting me as a guest on her blog! At her suggestion, I percolated thoughts about “literary” writing vs. “entertainment.”
So What’s Wrong With Escapist Entertainment?
“I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
On Thursday night I watch myself watching The X Factor. It felt like, um, viewing a circus side show. A 13-year-old fainter (Cue 911!) is revived to (predictably) give a knockout performance. A morbidly obese guy is hauled in his wheelchair onto the stage by a crowd of Backstage Guys (Instant Replay!). The guy explains how he weighs 400 pounds less than he used to, then he sings like an angel. The audience is (predictably) shocked and (predictably) hooked. I am mortified, feel vaguely unwashed, and, yes, hooked. Simon Cowell (refreshingly) (yet predictably) asks the scary-cute 12-year-old in the macabre Britney outfit not to sing the song he most hates: “Tomorrow.” She (of course) does. A cute-as-a-bug 16-year old boy dedicates a song to his girl-friend: Cut to Simon (refreshingly/predictably) rolling his eyes.
The X Factor packagers (Hi, Simon) carefully film, chop, edit, and boil the whole shebang down to 50 minutes of precision-engineered emotional hooks. It’s designed so there’s one emotion conditioned by each moment of packaged hard luck or cuteness.
Well, actually, X Factor offers two emotional options.
Simon Cowell is a genius at manipulation. Part of the audience thinks that Macabre Britney is adorable. He’s not there for them. He’s there for the cynics, and every time he rolls his eyes or says something gruff, we think our emotional autonomy is being validated.
And, yeah, we keep watching. Because Simon Cowell has convinced us we aren’t being manipulated. Escapist? Hell, yes. But it’s not Tolkein’s escapism. The difference is in the degree of emotional air the artist/producer grants the audience.
Fact is, I love trashy TV. I love People Magazine and gossip and Glee. People who dislike shows like X Factor because they aren’t “edifying” make me itch. X Factor’s real problem isn’t that it’s “escapist.” Life needs escaping sometimes. In fact, if life weren’t so hard, the manipulative bad taste of shows like X Factor would be all the art we need.
But since we live in the world we do, let’s escape into complex books and movies and TV, work that enables us to feel emotions we didn’t know existed. Then, when we’re exhausted from all that depth-plumbing, the X Factor beckons. Join me on Thursday night? Let’s Tweet about it.
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory.” –J.R.R. Tolkein
“My attitude is, if someone’s going to criticize me, tell me to my face.” –Simon Cowell
(I’d send him a copy of this post but I doubt he’d read it.)
For ripping entertainment that probes deep psychological complexity, check out my newly-released short story, Casual Day at the Crazy House.
Dad’s living in the bathroom and will the shrink make house calls and does Sarah really have to be falling for the shrink’s niece…?