Are Millennials the Lost Generation?

By Joseph Bentz

Millennials, the much-picked-on generation of young people from about 18 years old to their early 30s, are often referred to as the “Lost Generation.” A Washington Post opinion writer named Catherine Rampell summed up many of the stereotypes about this generation in an article she wrote (with “Lost Generation” in the headline) a couple years ago: “For years you’ve probably been reading about aimless, idle millennials hunkering down in their parents’ basements, filling their days with video games, Instagram and deep, longing gazes upon their shelf of participation trophies. Members of the Boomerang Generation simply haven’t been sufficiently motivated — or well-parented? — to get a damn job, spouse and apartment of their own already.”

The term “Lost Generation” is borrowed from Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. I am teaching that novel right now in a literature course at Azusa Pacific University. The quote “You are all a lost generation” appears as an epigraph on the first page of the novel, and it is attributed to Gertrude Stein.

According to a story Stein told, the “lost generation” phrase came from a French garage mechanic who said he could not hire anyone between the ages of 22 and 30 because they were no good, spoiled, lacked respect, and drank too much. Does that sound like a familiar list of complaints about today’s “lost generation”? Never mind that the young ne’er-do-wells Stein and the garage owner were referring to had just won World War I. They were still “lost.”

When Hemingway’s novel came out, his publisher’s advertising team “pushed it as the tome encapsulating the voice of the ‘war generation too strongly dosed with reality . . . all illusions shattered, all reticences dissipated,’” according to scholar Lesley M.M. Blume.

Hemingway was not pleased with that marketing strategy. Defining an entire generation had not been his intention. His Lost Generation quote shares the page with another epigraph, a quote from Ecclesiastes, which begins, “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. . . .The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. . . .”

He meant for the quotes to comment on one another. As Blume explains, Hemingway believed “Stein’s ‘lost generation’ remark was merely ‘bombast,’ and he had meant to lampoon its pomposity, not endorse it. . . .To Hemingway, the whole point of the book was that ‘the earth abideth forever.’ Wasn’t that obvious enough?”

When it comes to rejecting easy labels for an entire generation, I’m with Hemingway. I teach Millennials at APU and have done so ever since they came along. I don’t think they’re any more “lost” than any other generation I have taught. They do have their quirks. They don’t take notes in class as much as previous generations, for instance. They would rather take a picture of what I write on the whiteboard than copy it down on paper. They can’t write in cursive as well as previous generations, and some of them have trouble even reading it. They’d rather text than talk on the phone, and email strikes them as old-fashioned.

But lost? Only in the way that all generations are lost. The King James Bible that Hemingway was quoting from teaches that all human beings are lost in and in need of rescue by Jesus Christ. Hemingway was reluctant to follow the teaching all the way to redemption, but he did agree with the lost part. He simply didn’t think one generation was all that different from another.

I am skeptical of generational stereotypes or conclusions. In the more than 30 years that I have taught English, people have often asked, why can’t students write as well as they used to? But people have always said that. Gertrude Stein had trouble finding a good garage mechanic a hundred years ago, and it isn’t so easy today either. But let’s not blame any particular generation. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.”

What Happens in College is Real

We recently completed another graduation at Azusa Pacific University, where I teach literature and writing. In the celebratory dinners and receptions with students and their family and friends leading up to the ceremony itself, there is always a lot of talk the students finally finishing college and entering the “real world.”

That’s what they call it. Real.

That implies, of course, that what they’ve been doing at the university for the previous four years or so is not real, an assumption I vigorously challenge.

The course I teach most often is a survey course called American Literature Since 1865. It is real. I can tell you from about 30 years of teaching this class—and the feedback I have received from students—that the reading the students do in the course brings moments of insight and inspiration that are as important as anything they will experience after college. I’m talking about times inside and outside of class when we get lost in the literature, caught up in the stories, challenged by the poetry, awakened intellectually and spiritually by the things that matter most. Not every day, of course, and not for every person at the same time. A class day that is life-changing for one student may leave another student cold.

But some moments are life-changing. I’ve known students who have changed their major to English based on one literature course they had signed up for simply to fulfill a General Education requirement.

In my American literature survey course, we cover about 50 authors over the course of a semester. Students delve into the gut-wrenching psychological journey of Edna Pontellier as she questions every assumption about her role and identity in life in Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening. We work our way through a very different kind of journey in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as Huck wiggles out of one scrape after another while also trying to help his friend, the escaped slave Jim, reach freedom. We analyze the opposing perspectives and approaches toward race of  Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

We spend time with the fascinating but dysfunctional families in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We’re challenged and inspired by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Theodore Roethke, and Billy Collins. We marvel at the creative storytelling techniques of William Faulkner in his novel As I Lay Dying. We enter the worlds of a wide variety of American lives in the stories of John Updike, Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, and Amy Tan. As students read and consider the lives and ideas of others, they rethink their own relationships, challenges their own biases, and form a better understanding of the past. Sometimes become lifelong fans of authors they had previously never heard of.

None of that is real?

Only a job after graduation is real?

Our students do get jobs, too, by the way. Or they go to graduate school, or do missions trips, or pursue dreams in a variety of ways. I don’t diminish the importance of that, or of paying off the high cost of the college experience.

What I’m fighting is this perception that college is only preparation for life and is not life itself. The years you spend in college are real years, just like the years you spend in your thirties or any other time. Why reduce the college years to simply a time to endure so you can move on to “real life”? Why not relish every phase of life? I don’t know many people in their thirties, for example, who behave as if that time is mainly preparation for their seventies.

I’ve been focusing on one of my courses as an example of what’s real, but I could choose many others from my colleagues in English, and that’s only one department. Other fields are just as crucial, and not only for job preparation, but also for life—psychology, economics, theology, art, music, history, and others. And that’s just the curricular part of college. I haven’t touched on all the other elements of college life such as friendships, service, international study and travel, spiritual worship and development, and all the fun that college students also have.

Isn’t all that real?

Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

I loved watching Genius, the new film about the relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). At the same time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

I admit that this lack of satisfaction may not be entirely the fault of the movie itself. I am a Thomas Wolfe fan and scholar and have loved his work for almost 30 years, so it’s possible that nothing less than about a 9-hour movie would have been enough to satisfy me.

Perhaps my overall reaction to the film can best be summed up by a comment I kept making to my wife as she and I sat in a coffee shop right after the movie and discussed our responses. She has not read Wolfe or A. Scott Berg’s book on which this movie is based, so as she mentioned scenes that stood out to her and asked if that’s what really happened, I kept saying, “Well, yes, but it was more complicated than that.”

Any film on this subject would have to oversimplify some things, of course. Perkins became one of the greatest editors of 20th century American literature, as he helped establish not only Wolfe’s career but also that of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. He was a complex figure, as Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, brilliantly shows. Wolfe was equally complex, and the relationship between him and his editor, both when it was working well and when it was crumbling, is hard to capture in any movie of a couple of hours. Throw in other elements such as Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with his lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins’ relationships with his wife and daughters, and you have enough material for a min-series rather than a movie.

Still, even though as I watched it I kept thinking, “Wait, slow down, there’s more to show about that incident,” I still enjoyed the movie overall and strongly recommend it. Here are a few moments that stand out:

• The opening 10 minutes alone made are worth the price of the whole movie for me. An editor plops the huge manuscript of Wolfe’s O Lost (which would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel) onto Perkins’ desk and asks him to read it. Perkins promises to give it a quick look, but in the following minutes, as we hear voice-over passages from the book, Perkins is mesmerized by the novel over the next few days as he rides the train, ignores the greetings of his family at home, or sits at his desk and combs through page after page. The beauty of the writing itself is what Perkins was masterful at recognizing, and this scene captures it.

• Colin Firth gives the best performance in the film. He embodies Perkins’ reserved but in-control personality that served him so well as an editor and that comes through so forcefully in Berg’s book. Perkins was able to modulate his responses to the needs of the very different personalities of his authors. He did not participate in the foibles of those men, but he didn’t turn away from them because of those flaws either. He was the true father-figure, strong and steady.

• Even though some of the factual details of how Wolfe and Perkins worked together on Of Time and the River are altered, the film brings to life the creative collaboration of these two men as they spend hours arguing and editing and wrestling the manuscript into shape.

• Even some of the small moments make the film memorable—stacks of Look Homeward, Angel appearing in the bookstore window at the novel’s release, Perkins reading the book to his daughter when she misses Tom, the moving reading of Wolfe’s final letter to Perkins (even though some details of its composition and delivery are altered).

For many of us who love Wolfe’s writing, our hope has been that this film would bring Wolfe the renewed attention we think his work deserves. We hope readers will want to go out and read one of his novels. I believe this movie may have that effect. As the film ended, I heard a woman behind us tell her friend she hadn’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but she sounded as if she wanted to. I hope she does. I was ready to go home and read one of them again myself.

Why Build a Monument to a Pest?

People build monuments to great leaders, war heroes, saints, and other admired figures, but why would anyone honor a pest in this way? In my new book, Nothing is Wasted, I explore the idea that in the midst of all the calamity, pain, and difficulty of life, God has planted hints of redemption throughout the universe in unexpected places.

One example I refer to in the first chapter is the Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama. Why did the people build it? The following excerpt from the book suggests the answer:

When a Destructive Insect Embodies Redemption

The boll weevil is an ugly little insect that loves cotton. Over the past hundred years, it has caused billions of dollars in dam­age to cotton crops in the United States and elsewhere. Numerous farmers across the decades have gone bankrupt because of this one pest. Scientists have used every means they can think of to try to eradicate it—pesticides, wasps, fungi, specially engineered anti-weevil cotton plants, and other methods. The fight against it continues to this day, and the eradication programs have been largely successful.

No one sheds a tear for the boll weevil. Just about everybody wants to kill it. So I was surprised when my friend Jim Davis, who lives in Alabama, a state that historically has been plagued with wee­vils, told me that a town named Enterprise, Alabama, has a boll wee­vil monument prominently displayed in the center of its downtown.

A monument to a destructive insect would be surprising in any town, but for Enterprise, Alabama, to honor such a creature seems especially strange, considering the destruction the boll weevil has wreaked on that town and the surrounding county. As the town’s historians report, in the early twentieth century, the boll weevil destroyed almost 60 percent of the county’s main crop of cotton, and farmers were at risk of utter ruin.1 Their failure would have meant devastation for the entire economy of that region.

The monument the town built to this pest in 1919 features a statue of a woman standing in Statue-of-Liberty-like robes, her arms held high above her head. In her hands, on top of a kind of pedestal, stands a large and ugly boll weevil. A flowing fountain surrounds this statue.

The farmers in Coffee County, Alabama, where Enterprise is located, were determined not to let the boll weevil defeat them. Instead, they turned its destructive behavior into an opportunity to diversify their crops and be more successful in the long run. If the crisis of the boll weevil had not forced the issue, they might never have made changes and would have missed out on the pros­perity the shift brought them. Peanuts in particular became an especially profitable crop for the region.

As the Enterprise history relates, “By 1917, Coffee County produced and harvested more peanuts than any other county in the nation. (In 1993, Coffee County ranked 4th in the state of Alabama with 128,000 acres planted in peanuts.)” The plaque that accompanies the monu­ment states, “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of Prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.” The work of a pest was redeemed.

Read more in Nothing is Wasted: How God Redeems What is Broken (Beacon Hill Press, 2016).

Don’t Let Them Squash Your Creativity

With all the roles that many of us have to fill throughout the day—friend, employee, spouse, parent, consumer, and so on—the creative self can be one of the most fragile. Even though for many of us the creative self is deeply embedded and even essential to our sanity, it is also easily crushed.

Many forces stand ready to squash the creative self. You no doubt have been struck by these enemies. Even the most successful people are prone to these creativity crushers. To name just one example, there are the naysayers. These are the people who tell you, either directly or in some other dismissive way, that you just can’t do it. You’re not good enough. Or you’re not as good as you used to be. Who do you think you are? Nobody asked for your creativity.

Growing up, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about wanting to be a writer. I feared that if I said too much about it, I was simply opening myself up to mockery. It felt so pretentious to want to write a novel. Who was I?

So I hid it. I wrote my first novel almost secretly. When I would go off to write, I would be vague with family and friends about what I was doing, telling them simply that I had work to do. In college, I was so paranoid about my roommates reading over my shoulder that I developed a secret coded language in which I could write when others were around, which I then had to decode later.

Today I am still tempted to let my creativity be squashed, not so much by naysayers, but by other enemies such as procrastination, the pressures of life, fear of rejection, weariness.

Yet the words, the ideas, keep bubbling up. When the ideas come, I think, I have to write this. Why is no one else saying this? I find myself writing as fast as I can, letting the momentum carry me. In those great moments, the creativity blasts right through the doubts, tiredness, discouragement, and second-guessing. I write. I create.

This semester I am working with an outstanding group of writers in a course I am teaching in the new M.A. in English program at Azusa Pacific University. The theme of our course, which I write on the board every week, is, What is possible for me as a writer?

Part of our work involves breaking down obstacles that discourage creativity. I will mention only two of them here, which stall many writers:

1. Nobody cares whether you create or not. The world is not asking for your work. Nobody is out there saying, “The world is a diminished place because you are sitting there not doing your writing.” If you don’t write, they won’t know or care. The world will go right on.

2. The market is already glutted. Mountains of work are already being rejected every day. So who needs you in there adding to that pile and struggling to compete?

Harsh, I know. I’m reluctant to even mention those things, but for many writers, it’s not as if these dark thoughts don’t already plague us fairly regularly.

So why keep writing?

Let’s look at that first obstacle. The world may not be asking for your work and may not think they need it, but the world in fact may be a diminished place without your writing. Think of your favorite author. Would your life be diminished if that writer had not written the books you love? Of course. For example, I love the novels of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Some of the most meaningful hours of my life have been spent with their words flowing through my head. The world would be a much shallower place if they had let obstacles to writing stand in their way, and for both of them, there were many obstacles.

You may or may not have the wide impact of those two writers, but picture one reader who reads your words at just the right moment, who is challenged, inspired, or entertained by exactly what you have to say. You have made the world richer for that reader, and perhaps many others, even people who haven’t been born yet. Write for those readers. It’s worth it.

As for the second obstacle, the glutted market, it’s true. Amazon boasts around 8 million books, more than the world needs for a lifetime. Online and print magazines, newspapers, website, blogs and other sources have an almost infinite number of articles, videos, lists, and other material available. There is no shortage.

And yet, as a reader, don’t you still find yourself searching for something new, something that fills a particular need that sometimes you can’t even articulate? Be the writer who writes that for someone else.

As a writer, I have known the joy of connecting with readers. Not as many as I would like to have connected with, of course. But I have known the fulfillment of connecting with that individual reader who gets what I’m doing, who loves it, who needs it. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m not willing to let anything crush it.

4 Important Elements of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” that Readers are Overlooking

After 55 years of waiting for a follow-up novel to Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, readers finally have the new book in their hands, and many are shocked by certain elements of it. The most unpleasant surprise in Go Set a Watchman for many readers is that the beloved Atticus Finch, one of the great American literary heroes of integrity and justice, is an aging racist in the new book.

I spent the entire day reading Go Set a Watchman, but rather than do a typical review, I want to focus on four issues I think are being ignored in the early reviews and discussions of this novel.

1. I believe it is a mistake to see Atticus Finch as simply older and more racist than he was in Mockingbird. Instead, I think he is essentially a different character in Watchman than the reconceived Atticus in Mockingbird. In other words, there are two Atticuses, created by the author to fit the needs of the particular book.  

Why is Atticus Finch so different in Watchman than he is in Mockingbird? The publication history of the two novels is crucial in answering that question. Lee submitted Watchman to her editor in the 1950’s. The editor, enjoying the childhood flashbacks the most, urged Lee to write a novel set 20 years earlier, focusing on those elements of the story. In doing so, I believe Lee created an alternate version of Atticus Finch. He is a different character in Mockingbird than in Watchman, though carved from the same materials.

Mockingbird and Watchman are not really sequels or prequels to one another. They are separate treatments of the same core material. Even the outcome of the trial that is central to Mockingbird is different when it is referred to in Watchman. Lee never expected to publish both books. She did not need to keep the characters completely consistent between the two books. She had the freedom to adjust the characters to meet the needs of the particular book. One implication of this for readers is that if they don’t like the Atticus in Watchman, that doesn’t need to “ruin” the Atticus in Mockingbird for them. They can choose whichever conception of the character they like best.

The Scout character in Watchman, who is more commonly called Jean Louise, also strikes me as significantly different from the Scout character in Mockingbird. It’s not simply that she is twenty years older in Watchman, it’s that I don’t think she is simply a grown-up version of the Mockingbird Scout. She is a reconceived character. She is not radically different in the two books, but different in ways that novelists often change the personalities and other traits of their characters in later drafts of the stories.

2. If Harper Lee had written Go Set a Watchman now instead of in the 1950’s, I think there would be an even greater outcry against it from readers.

If we didn’t know that Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote Mockingbird, then I think the changes in the character of Atticus Finch would be even harder for readers to accept. If Watchman had been written in the 21st century, I think readers would have protested it as a cynical modern treatment of a beloved 20th-century American hero. Why, they would have complained, did Lee turn the justice-loving man of integrity of Mockingbird into the racist cranky-old-man of Watchman?

As it stands, I find it fascinating that Lee saw that the character could be written as both of those men. The relationship between Scout and Atticus is more complicated in Watchman than it is in Mockingbird, but what is fiction for if not to shed light on such intricacies of human motivations and relationships? We have had 55 years of Atticus as an unblemished saint. Now we also have him as a fascinating and contradictory man of his times.

3. Go Set a Watchman is not only about race. Its brilliance extends to other areas that are not getting enough attention.

Much of what I have read in reviews and on social media about Watchman has focused on the racial issues the book raises, but when I read the novel, many other elements of it also stood out to me. Like Mockingbird, this novel richly captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century. It brings to life the feel of what it is like for Jean Louise to return from living in New York City and be thrust into the family life, church life, and social life of the place she grew up in. Lee is a masterful storyteller who uses humor and passion in creating vivid, memorable scenes.

One of my favorite chapters appears about two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra hosts “The Coffee,” a reunion of Jean Louise’s former classmates and other women of the town, almost none of whom Jean Louise wants to see. The social satire of this gathering targets the way the women dress, the way they chatter on about their husbands and children, the way they reveal their prejudices, and other details of Southern life. It is beautifully handled and worth reading the novel for. It shows that Lee was a masterful novelist of manners, among her many other gifts as a writer.

4. The release of Watchman reveals that Lee owes her editor a big thanks for compelling her to set aside this book and write Mockingbird instead. Watchman is a good book, but by itself, it would not have become a classic.

Most readers’ first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird is in a high school literature class, where it has been a standard text for decades. The book has all the features that create a beloved classic—a compelling young narrator who shows courage, grit, and humor in confronting challenges young readers can relate to, a plot that offers conflicts that are universal in scope, a memorable setting, an engaging writing style, and other elements.

Watchman is also an entertaining and well-written novel, but it is much more targeted toward adults. I believe that if it had been released first instead of Mockingbird, it would have enjoyed some success and then gradually faded into the literary background. Lee’s editor’s instincts were correct in pushing the author to bring to the forefront Scout’s earlier story. This shows the crucial and often overlooked role editors play in the creation of literature.

The Need for Factual Fiction

Editor’s Note: Last week I wrote a blog post that touched on the relationship between fact and fiction in Sony’s controversial film, The Interview and in another film from 75 years ago, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This week I am honored to present this guest post by Alton Gansky, an accomplished author of more than 40 books and the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Gansky also examines the relationship between fact and fiction, this time in the classic movie, Inherit the Wind. I think you will enjoy his perspective. 

By Alton Gansky

In January of 2015, Baker Books will release my latest nonfiction work, 30 Events That Shaped the Church. It comes on the heels of the 2014 release, 60 People Who Shaped the Church. Some are surprised to learn that I write book-length nonfiction. True most of my books are novels but I also enjoy and see great value in producing nonfiction books as well.

While preparing 30 Events I went through a long list of possible topics. In the end, one chapter caught my attention and so infiltrated my mind that I’m still researching it long after I turned the manuscript in. As I worked through the centuries I came upon a week long event that most of us have heard of but few of us know much about: The Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. When I research I try to keep my mind free of bias, which is a difficult thing to do. Still, I thought I knew a fair amount about the “Trial of the Century.” I didn’t.

Part of my preparation was to watch an old movie (1960), based on an older stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind. I remember it being one of the best movies ever made, made all the more memorable by actors like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, as well as Gene Kelly (no dancing in this movie), and Dick York (later of Bewitched fame) who portrayed John T. Scopes (Bertram T. Cates in the movie). This time, I watched the movie with a critical eye and was surprised how far they had strayed from the truth.

To be fair, Lawrence and Lee, as well as director Stanley Kramer, went out to their way to alert viewers that they were watching a movie, not a documentary. The movie begins with these words:

Inherit the Wind is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely its own. [. . .] So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre.”

I appreciate the honesty of the writers. Still—and this is the problem with some types of fiction—many took the events as historical fact. To this day, people who have seen the movie think:

William Jennings Bryan was a glutton. (He was a diabetic on a very strict diet at the time of the trial.)

Clarence Darrow crushed Bryan’s beliefs as the latter sat in the witness stand. (Darrow ridicule people of faith but it had no impact on Bryan.)

That Bryan was a buffoon. (He ran for president three times, was a great orator, served as Secretary of State, and was a gifted writer).

That the townspeople of Dayton wanted to hang Scopes from a tree. (Nothing of the sort happened.)

And that Bryan died in the courtroom, the victim of Darrow’s grueling examination and ridicule of biblical stores. (Bryan died five days later from complications of diabetes. He remained active in the days following the trial.)

When I was in college, my psychology professor told the class that the human mind has trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction. It is the reason we jump in scary movies or tear up reading a sad scene.

All of this to say, that we as author’s of fiction need to take care how we represent figures and events in history. Lawrence and Lee went so far as to change the name of the characters (although they also went out of their way to make the actors look like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow). Despite their efforts, fifty-four years after the movie (longer for the play the preceded it) people still think the movie is trustworthy history.

This realization puts a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of novelists. While the novelist’s goal is to entertain, we in the Christian market also want to edify and to do so we need to be as accurate as we can be when portraying real people.

William Jennings Bryan’s reputation and work was sullied by the play and later the movie, despite the authors’ and director’s efforts to make clear their story was only loosely drawn from the real 1925 court case. Nonetheless, many have taken the fiction and see it as fact.

We novelist take some needed liberties in our creation, but when it involves real people from the past (or worse, vaguely disguised characterizations of living people), then we run the risk of doing harm.

 

Alton Gansky has written over 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. His latest work 30 Events That Shaped the ChurchLearning from scandal, intrigue, war, and revival releases mid January 2015. He is also the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. www.altongansky.com – See more at: http://altongansky.typepad.com/writersconferences/2014/12/the-need-for-factual-fiction.html#sthash.dBW1l0nG.dpuf

 

 

Sony’s The Interview, Citizen Kane, and the Power of Story

The controversy over Sony’s film The Interview and the hacking attack the company endured in response to it illustrates a principle I teach every day as a literature professor—the Power of Story. It shows how a fictional narrative that on the surface does no harm to anyone can still be perceived as such a threat that people will go to extreme lengths to stop it. The incident also reminds me of another instance when powerful people tried to squelch a movie they saw as a threat—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

First, a few thoughts about Sony. Consider what triggered the devastating attack that cost the company tens of millions of dollars and brought turmoil to the lives of studio executives, actors, theater owners, and many others.

Was it a dangerous new weapons systems pointed at North Korea?

Was it a new round of economic sanctions that caused suffering for that nation or its leaders?

No. It was a story. Not even a true story, but a silly, unremarkable comedy that without the attacks that accompanied it probably would have been quickly forgotten.

 Why Not Simply Ignore the Film?

Some have asked why a dictator or anyone else would care about such a frivolous piece of entertainment like The Interview. Why not just ignore it?

Maybe those who hacked Sony fear the movie because they know, as I teach in my college literature courses every semester, that stories—whether novels, films, plays or other genres—are far more than “entertainment.” They often shape our perceptions and shape us even more than “reality” does. Stories may inspire, thrill, challenge, and teach, but they also may threaten.

Think of the most powerful films or novels you have seen and read. Aren’t those stories as moving and life-changing as any “real” incident you have experienced or heard about? Think of how stories have shaped your perceptions of places you’ll never visit, historical periods that otherwise would only be hazy in your mind, and aspects of human experience into which you otherwise would never have delved. For example, when I think of what I know about the World War II era and where that knowledge and perceptions came from, I have to acknowledge that far more of it came from fictional stories about the era than from my direct reading of history.

Stories move us and shape our view of reality. So it makes sense that a dictator would believe that the world’s perception of him might be shaped by this film, even if it’s an over-the-top comedy.

Citizen Kane as an Example of a Film that Defined a Real Person

Controversy over another film more than half a century ago shows just how powerful a movie can be in shaping the public’s perception of a real person. In 1941 RKO released Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which some scholars have labeled the greatest film ever. The movie is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose vast publishing empire made him one of the most powerful cultural figures in America in the first half of the twentieth century.

The movie gives an unflattering (but in my view, not entirely unflattering) portrait of Hearst and his mistress. Knowing the power of story, since that is how he made his living, Hearst and his allies fought the release of the film by pressuring distributors not to make it available to theaters, by ignoring it in the pages of their newspapers, and by other threatening tactics.

As with the hacking campaign against The Interview, the campaign against Citizen Kane was only partially successful in suppressing it. The controversy itself made people want to see the movie, and it did reach the public in a limited way. It got good reviews, but then it essentially disappeared from public view in 1942 and did not emerge again into the public consciousness again until the mid-1950s, when RKO sold it to television.

Is Kane Hearst? Is Hearst Kane?

That’s when something interesting happened. As the film gained popularity and exposure, the memory of the actual life of Hearst himself, who died in 1951, faded from public perception. David Nasaw, who published an excellent biography of Hearst in 2000 and showed what a fascinating and complex man he was, calls Citizen Kane a “cartoon-like caricature” of a man who was actually very different from Hearst.

However, over time, Nasaw writes, “the lines between the fictional and the real have become so blurred that today, almost sixty years after the film was made and a half-century since Hearst’s death, it is difficult to disentangle the intermingled portraits of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst.”

In other words, the good story won out over reality. Even though people may be told that Hearst and Kane are different, and even though talented biographers like Nasaw might try to set the record straight, when you mention Hearst to most people, they’ll think of Citizen Kane.

The hacking attack against Sony is reprehensible, but the North Korean dictator may be correct about one thing: the fictional story may be how most people remember him.

Why the Cell Phone May Save the Novel

I like to watch people’s reading habits when I’m at airports and on airplanes. During several recent flights, which included some lengthy layovers and delays, I noticed that not very many people were reading novels, at least not ones in the form of books made of paper. I didn’t see all that many people reading on tablets, e-readers, or laptop computers either. What I saw, more than anything else, were people reading on cell phones.

The people reading their cell phones were not necessarily reading novels, of course. I personally would not want to read a novel on a cell phone, nor would I want to watch a movie on one. The screen is too small and uncomfortable. But not everyone sees it that way. Readership studies show that many people do like to read books on cell phones, and the numbers are increasing.

How Americans Read

According to a Pew Research study of Americans’ reading habits, last year 32 percent of e-book readers 18 and older read books on their cell phones. That is a higher percentage than people who read e-books on a computer (29 percent). The highest percentage of readers still read e-books on e-readers (57 percent) and tablets (55 percent), and many people use multiple platforms.

As a novelist and professor of literature, I am very interested in the future of the novel and have written elsewhere (including in this article in APU Life magazine) about my concerns that its popularity may wane in this era in which readers are used to being entertained by shorter chunks of information such as Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and YouTube videos. Will readers who have grown used to skipping from post to post still have the desire, focus and stamina to work their way through a 350-page novel that contains nothing but words? Have we grown too distracted?

I still worry about that, but this trend of reading books on cell phones, more than any other trend, gives me hope for the novel. Why does the cell phone make so much difference? One reason is that, unlike the e-reader or even the tablet, most people almost always have their phone with them. If they get caught up in a novel, they might find themselves dipping into it at times when they otherwise would not be reading anything—in a doctor’s waiting room, in a line at the store, in an airport terminal. Potential readers who might never think to bother with a novel in other circumstances—such as going to a bookstore to buy one or messing with an e-reader—might be more likely to read one if they could easily access it from their phone.

How the Cell Phone Increases Reading Around the World

Another reason I think the cell phone-reading trend is good news for the novel is that this practice is even more prevalent in other countries, especially developing countries in places such as Africa, than in the United States. A study by the United Nations organization, UNESCO, showed that 62 percent of people in developing countries now read more because they are able to do so on cell phones. In many countries covered in the study, such as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria and others, physical books are prohibitively expensive, while open-access books cost as little as 2 or 3 cents each.

The UNESCO study showed that about a third of readers in these countries use their phones for reading books, and about 80 percent of the population has access to cell phones. What kinds of books are they reading? The study showed that the most popular genre was romance novels.

In addition to the countries covered by the UNESCO study, other nations also have a large number of people reading books on cell phones. One report indicates that more than 25 million people in China read books only on their cell phones.

I believe this trend in reading habits worldwide will not only help the popularity of the novel, but will also lead to changes in the novel itself. The novel of the future may look significantly different from novels written in earlier eras. I plan to comment on that issue in a future blog post.

OJ Simpson? Never Heard of Him, Or Johnny Carson Either

When I started seeing the headlines and news segments marking the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson murder trial, my first thought was that the whole tawdry saga still felt too recent to be wrapped in nostalgia. My next thought was that, as a college professor, I have seen a big shift over those twenty years in how students perceive the OJ Simpson case.

In the first few years immediately following our culture’s fascination with the Bronco chase, bloody gloves, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito, and all the rest of it, I could refer to the Simpson case any time I needed an example of an event that captured the attention of an entire culture, an event that you couldn’t get away from even if you wanted to, and that everyone seemed to have an opinion on.

I teach literature, and in one course we read some literary works that sprang from another “trial of the century” about a hundred years earlier. That was when Lizzie Borden either did or did not take an axe and murder her parents in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden, like Simpson, was acquitted, even though many people thought her guilty. The Lizzie Borden case still has a big following (the home where the murder happened is now a hotel that caters to fans), and many movies, short stories, articles, and other works have been devoted to it. Why?

It’s just like the OJ Simpson case, I used to say. Why did everybody want to watch it? Why was the trial carried on so many TV stations? Why was it the talk of the nation? Students could immediately see the connection.

Recently, however, teaching the same literature course at the same university, I tried to use the Simpson case as an example, and all I got were blank stares. OJ Simpson? Some students had a vague idea who he was, but not one knew anything about the case.

The 20th Century as Ancient History

The Simpson case is only one of many twentieth century references I have had to drop. A 20-year anniversary of anything means that it happened Continue reading