The Cranky Curmudgeon: Imagination Isn’t Everything

I’m something of an eclectic reader. In the last month I’ve read (at least parts of) Tolstoi, Dashner, Dante, and Farland; Siddhartha, Count of Monte Cristo, Nag Hammadi, Lolita, and Dispirited. On my staging pile are works from Stephen Peck, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Brian Jacques, and Baroness Orczy, as well as Tales of Genji and Mormonism and the Negro.

I like works that fire my imagination and stretch me to observe, consider, and interpret in new ways. I tend to prefer fiction, but like a good philosophical, political, historical, or scientific essay now and again. I want to see how others perceive and make sense of the same sets of facts and observations I consider from my own viewpoint.

Maybe it’s an artifact of my odd reading selections, but in comparing classic works with many of the more modern stories I’ve been reading lately (admittedly heavy in YA), I’ve noticed a trend toward highly imaginative (fantastic) settings with fairly simplistic philosophical underpinnings. It’s as if authors are selling out to cool visuals at the expense of challenging questions; as if pace is a substitute for substance; as if conflict is inherently interesting and requires no consequence.

As if a clever idea and imaginative presentation is all that’s required.

Book reviews seem to underscore that point. Reviewers praise the imaginative settings and situations as new and innovative, but speak very little about the questions those settings reveal except in the simplest and most generic ways. It seems that if the story is odd, quirky, or strange enough, that’s good enough. If enough events occur—regardless of whether they’re causally or thematically related—then the story succeeds. If there’s an identifiable structure, then it doesn’t matter if that structure is useful.

I think I disagree. In fact, I’m pretty sure of it.

I love imaginative literature. Given the choice I will always gravitate toward the unusual precisely because it frames (largely) familiar questions in ways that invite re-engagement. A familiar question becomes interesting again when re-framed or exaggerated in a clever way. The three-fingered blue alien is really just Japanese (or Iranian), but the imaginative presentation bypasses my initial biases long enough to trick me into a fundamentally fairer rethink of those biases.

It allows me a second chance at a first impression in light of new experience. I generally consider that a good thing.

But when there is no real underlying question, then the imaginative pyrotechnics are just sound and fury that ultimately signify nothing. In some ways even more disappointing than the allegedly “important” works that point out the absurdity of expecting a question to even be asked, because the imaginative setting fires the…well…imagination into looking for something that isn’t actually there. Form without substance.

And don’t give me the “meta” argument; that’s an excuse for a piece that has neither soul nor purpose, and never did. The author knew from the beginning that they were spinning an irrelevancy, but as long as enough interesting stuff happens before the page count ends, who cares? It feels cynical, as if the only goal is to create escalating tension to sell another book, not to actually address an interesting question.

Not every story has to be meaningful, and not every conflict has to generate change or deliver new information that expands our understanding of the problem. But some of them should. It’s not enough to be vivid; there should be a question in there somewhere. And not just a bland rehash, but an imaginative reformulation—or at least re-exploration. If you spend three books setting up an underlying mystery, there better be a reveal worthy of the wait.

It’s why I haven’t read beyond the first Hunger Games book; based on the first volume I don’t trust the author to actually have a point with any of this. I don’t have to agree with the point, but I have to know what that point is so I can decide whether I agree.

So I find myself traveling the curmudgeonly road these days with stories that are very popular and very well-reviewed. Stories I should like by dint of their imaginative presentations, but that end up betraying me because of the relative emptiness behind the mythopoeic pretense. Stories that draw near to me with their lips, but whose hearts are so far from me as to be undetectable.

Does anyone else feel this way, or am I just getting old and turning into a cranky curmudgeon?

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21 Responses to The Cranky Curmudgeon: Imagination Isn’t Everything

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I’d have a better idea whether I agree with you or not if we could reference some common texts (sadly, I haven’t yet read Hunger Games). I think, though, that I probably do. Life is full of moral choices, and a story that doesn’t involve some kind of moral choice — or at least some kind of moral consequence — fall short of engaging fully.

    Kathryn Hume, in her study Fantasy and Mimesis, argues that all fiction is a composite of fantastic elements and realistic elements — and that of the two, the fantasy is the meaning-bearing element. I think there’s something to that. The very act of writing fiction rather than nonfiction brings us at least a little way into the realm of “should” as opposed to “is.” Or at least, so I’m inclined to believe.

    A query: what do you mean by referring to the “meta” argument? I don’t follow this one (possibly because I have a headache today…).

    Interesting thoughts, as always.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    I’m kinda sorta trying to avoid names and titles precisely because three of the four novels/series stuck in my craw right now are by Mormon authors and I might be guilty of uncharitable reading (if someone else names a title, I will happily confirm). Their massive popularity suggests I must have it wrong, so I ask the general question to see if it’s real or if I’m just a cranky curmudgeon (as opposed to also one).

    All are highly imaginative and at least competently written (two are bestsellers), but none of them drive toward a new world created by the characters’ genius or intentions. Being against something isn’t quite the same as being for something. I’m struggling through the last book of a series where action occurs at a breakneck pace, but absolutely no progress (that I can see) is being made toward the underlying mystery—events without meaning.

    It feels like episodic TV, where the goal is to keep viewers coming back by suggesting (and complicating) mysteries, but little is done to actually resolve those mysteries. It’s too bad limited series’ don’t have a meaningful market in the U.S., because it means we’re left with open-ended series’ whose purpose is to be renewed, not to tell an focused story. I have no gripe with a story that requires ten books to tell, but I get tired of series’ that get stretched to ten books from a two-book idea that so dilutes the idea that the resolution thuds.

    Shows like The Prisoner or Babylon 5 had specific arcs known from the beginning, and while individual episodes (or even half-seasons) could veer into a subplot or sideshow, the overall movement of the mini-stories was toward resolution of an overarching problem. They were planned from the start to have a specific number of episodes, and then to (mostly) end. Of course they leave it open for a sequel, but they at least resolve the mysteries posited in the first half-season. A video novel as opposed to a traditional sit-com.

    There’s nothing wrong with episodic TV (or open-ended comics), but I’m not keen to see novelists learning the lesson of the never-ending series. Each has its place; I like my novels (and limited series) to actually drive to an inevitable climax and resolution. It’s one of the nice things about Asian stories—everyone dies, and the sequels require new characters and conflicts rather than simply expanding the old one.

    That’s something of a veer from the original idea that imaginative settings or situations does not substitute for a satisfying underlying story, but it’s a near complement to the question.

    On meta, I only mean the concept of the self-referential story that shows the futility of literary constructs by telling a story without one or more of those constructs. While such stories exist, they tend to be exercises or illustrations, and are useful only once. The excuse is most often employed as an intellectually justifiable dodge for authorial incompetence.

    • Wm says:

      Have you read the Mistborn trilogy yet, Scott? Because I find its philosophical underpinnings quite fascinating — and also evocative in relation to Mormon thought.

      I feel the same, albeit in a very different way, about Dan Well’s John Cleaver trilogy.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        Haven’t read Mistborn yet; I’ve heard nothing but good things about Brandon’s works. I’m also a big fan of David Farland’s as far as meaningful exploration of conflicts go.

        I’ve only read the first of Dan Wells’ serial killer books, but it’s one of those series that strikes me as being vastly imaginative, but ultimately going nowhere. Unique idea, fascinating characters, fantastic situation in a series of tales that exercise the clever ideas without developing the core mystery/challenge.

        This is one of those three stories stuck in my craw that I must be missing something on, because the reviews are nearly universally positive, but some young readers that I trust really hated the way the series failed to meaningfully resolve. Based on the feedback from those trusted readers I’m not in a hurry to read the other two books.

        It sounds like your experience is different. Can you elaborate?

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          I’m not William, of course, but I’m willing to elaborate on my experience.

          Personally, I found the John Wayne Cleaver books got more satisfying as they went along, precisely because what seemed initially like a clever gimmick became much more than that by the end. The basic supernatural premise of the series remains unresolved, but the evolution and development of Cleaver’s character as a result of what he goes through follows what seems to me a very meaningful — and satisfying — path. I elaborate on this at greater length in my review at A Motley Vision: http://www.motleyvision.org/2011/destiny-demons-dan-wells/ (now under revision for inclusion in Irreantum).

          Your mileage may vary, of course. In fact, I’d be very interested to see what your thoughts were, once you’ve read the entire series.

        • Wm says:

          I think the trilogy resolves quite meaningfully — both in terms of John Cleaver’s story arc and the overall mystery, which, as Jonathan notes, remains unresolved in total, but at the same time does, imo, actually resolve quite well. Not every little thing is revealed, but by the end we understand quite a bit about what has been going on.

        • Wm says:

          Or to put it another way:

          I think the John Cleaver books are one of the finest explorations of agency and what it means to be human (and the importance of relationships to being human), that I’ve read.

        • Scott Parkin says:

          You’ve both convinced me; I’ll read the other two books after I read Steven Peck’s middle-grade squirrel novel and Redwall (to which it’s being likened by many reviewers).

          I did finish Dashner’s series, and I was underwhelmed by its thematic exploration. Great action, vivid imagination, but I never found the beef. Not throw-the-book-in-frustration disappointment (the series never pretended to be anything other than what it is—as such the books succeed on their own terms), but a deep sigh and mild head-shake at what could have been.

          Which is fine. He fulfilled the promises he made. I just keep wondering if the more that I wanted wasn’t there, or if it was and I somehow missed it.

  3. D. Michael Martindale says:

    It’s happening everywhere in our culture. Flash over substance. Just look at Hollywood!

    It’s a serious problem that I don’t think will be resolved. Technology has been turning us into short-attention glitz addicts, from television to M-TV to YouTube to instant texting communication to 3-D visual effects extravaganzas in the theater.

    There is no tolerance for substance anymore. I question if there ever will be again. I think our generation may very well be the last one who will ever appreciate it.

    • Wm says:

      I see an abundance of substance. I think we’re in a golden age of genre fiction, music, gaming, television and audio (in the form of podcasts).

      The same may not be true of cinema and literary fiction. But there’s still solid work being done in those forms as well.

  4. Sam Payne says:

    I went to a writers’ conference a few years ago on the UVU campus. The lunchtime speaker was a prominent local — author of a regionally popular fantasy series. He said that the way he figured it, great books were about “cool people doing awesome things.” I had no words, and still don’t. All I can do is quote him. Often. At parties.

    • Wm says:

      It starts with cool people doing awesome things, but most of the prominent LDS fantasy and/or YA authors are also adding other layers in. Everybody talks about how cool the magic is in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, but the actual core of the story is something very different and something very LDS (which I can’t really talk about without spoiling the series).

      Which isn’t to say that he’s a perfect writer. He has a few things that he needs to work on (although I’ve seen some improvement on some of those things in his later work so I’m hopeful that we’ll see even better things from him in the future).

  5. Andrew Hall says:

    Dashner’s The Maze Runner series is what I would cite as an example of this. It is an interesting premise, with some fine twists. But in the end it did not add up to much. The first book was a fun thrill ride, but thrill rides get old, and with the second and third books not doing much except for adding more twists and turns to the ride. There was not much there there, in the end I was very dissatisfied.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Sorry for the late reply; I’ve been trapped in the mountains near Fairview, Utah for the last three days chaperoning Scout camp and only got back about 30 minutes ago (checked email and blog *after* a good, hot shower).

      Dashner’s books are the primary genesis for my confusion (and the primary source of my crankiness at the moment). He is *very* popular and has legions of fans. I’ve listened to him speak and find him to be everything one could ask for in an author.

      But after reading all of the 13th Reality books and now less than 100 pages from the end of The Death Cure, I feel like I’m still looking for the beef. I hate to comment too much on series that I haven’t finished, but while I find the amazing action, pace, and creativity of the Maze Runner series to be close to exemplary, I’m increasingly doubtful that it will resolve in a way that I find satisfying.

      The challenge of any mystery is that the reveal had better be spectacular to justify 800 pages of setup. When every character turns effectively despicable by turns (thus making it hard to find a hero), that mystery needs to be a knockout. Since I haven’t finished the last book I can’t say whether I was KOed, but I’m really starting to worry. I commented similarly on The Sparrow a while ago—a long mystery whose reveal turned out to be so disappointing that I literally threw the book (one of only two times).

      I’m not saying I need to agree with the novel’s (series’) ultimate argument, but I do expect it to be direct, supported, and powerful. I love a great many stories whose philosophical basis is utterly repugnant to me, but I admire the craft and creativity of both the plot and its inherent argument. (I know…if you want a message, use Western Union…)

      Because James is a NYT bestseller with a newly sold movie option who’s beloved by legions of fans it’s clear that the limit must be in me—I’m just not seeing something (in either series) that is apparently vital and wonderful and obvious to others.

      Or maybe the definition of good has changed and I need to catch up with the times and evolve my esthetic.

      Or maybe these stories really are wonderfully imaginative, but ultimately explore only thinly, and their massive success speaks only to audience demand and not literary pretension. That so many of them are written by Mormon authors is both exciting and (for me) a tad worrying; I always assumed that our better (or at least more popular) authors would be successful by dint of Mormons’ tendency to grapple with basic existential questions.

      Not so, it appears.

      • Wm says:

        I don’t think you’re missing something. I found the Maze Runner trilogy to be a very frustrating read.

        The two that I’ve found the most resonant and interesting are the John Cleaver trilogy by Dan Wells and Ally Condie’s Matched and Crossed (well see what Condie does with the third and final book).

  6. Entering the discussion. First, SO GOOD to see Scott Parkin philosophizing again! I wondered where he was all these years! Actually, it’s good to revisit all of you. And I’m agreeing with the “no substance” complaint. Technology has terrorized me, and the shift to electronic and short-term attention spans seems overwhelming. But at the same time, there has got to be some bouyancy happening in the human spirit that is rather amazing. Spanning the century (and then some) I see SWIFTNESS. And it is in itself inspiring! (Did I adequately avoid zeroing in on the argument?)

  7. I third what Jonathan and William have said about Dan Wells’ John Wayne Cleaver trilogy, for whatever that may be worth.

    By the way, I haven’t read past the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy either, and I haven’t been able to get interested in any of the dystopic YA fantasy that is being published by LDS authors lately. So count me as a curmudgeon, too, Scott.

  8. Th. says:

    .

    I read all three Hunger Games books, and it was a downhill slog. A mostly fun one, but your instincts were accurate.

  9. Mark Penny says:

    Just had an interesting and slantingly a propos development in an exchange with my mother. She commented on this poem

    How sad and how good, makes you want to call after her and say, ‘please, come back, there’s freedom and healing for everyone here.’

    I replied (misinterpreting, I think, her meaning)

    I think the message you’d like the story to end with comes across more powerfully because it isn’t manifested. It’s the reader calling her back. The catharsis may have to wait for an opportunity in reality. Not all stories are about satisfying conclusions that help us go peacefully to sleep. I don’t mean that in a patronizing or insulting way. Many good stories make “[a] chink for light to make a start in” as I point out in a poem.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Not to be defensive, but I have no problems with stories that either don’t resolve or that don’t resolve positively; I just prefer for them to explore something along the way. As I suggested in my comments on A Short Stay in Hell, a well-asked question is deeply satisfying precisely because asking it well requires a fair amount of thematic development.

      Which is where this poem lands for me. It asks one major (and several minor) questions and invites the reader to consider their own feeling about how POV responds to those questions. But it asks the questions vividly and directly.

      Not quite the same thing as vivid action scenes that progress rapidly through time and space but don’t seem to shed additional light or complexity on an underlying question.

      To be clear, I see nothing wrong with event-based fiction that steers clear of asking (or answering) questions. There just seems to be an awful lot of it these days, especially in YA, and especially by Mormon authors; enough to make me wonder if the market has shifted or if I’m just being cranky.

      • Mark Penny says:

        Thanks for responding to my comment, Scott. Yeah, I knew you were talking about another problem, so I introduced my comment with “slantingly a propos”. Not that I’m being defensive, either.

        I know what you mean, though. When I read Twilight and all its successors, I had to keep reminding myself what I was reading and not to expect great insights. It was good as what it claimed to be. I don’t often read that sort of thing. I do read a lot of YA fiction, some repeatedly, partly because some of it is good and partly because some of my work is aimed at the same audience. My preferred reading, however, deals with issues beyond the immediate conflicts of the characters and the plot of the book.

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