Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Missing the Big Picture

This past Sunday, in the Boston Globe, writer Steve Almond wrote an essay, using the recently released Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps to try to make a larger point about American culture. To wit,

" Pulps themselves may have vanished. But the underlying aesthetic of pulp, the moral assumptions they introduced and popularized, have endured. Those assumptions are not just shaping much of our popular culture: today, they are dictating how we understand our world."

Almond asserts that what he calls the "black and white moral universe of the pulps" has infiltrated our popular culture to such an extent that it even pervades out media coverage. With this statement, he shows he does not understand human nature or the nature of the media.

People, by nature, seek out patterns and look for evidence to back up their preexisting beliefs. One of the main ways we do this is by telling stories. Take The Old Testament. It's overarching narrative is that of the triumph of God's chosen people over those who would oppress them and keep them from the Holy Land. Now this is a good story. Large swaths of it are certainly questionable, but it served to unite a people who spent a lot of time wandering around in the desert and getting into fights with other kingdoms. Wandering around in the desert and getting into fights is not terribly inspiring, unless, of course, it's all part of some larger story that provides a "black and white" moral framework for dividing up the world into the Good and the Wicked.

I use the Old Testament as an example not to single out any particular religion, but because it's an example that everyone is familiar with to some extent, and because it makes it easier to make my point, which is that Almond is giving pulp fiction a little too much credit. Pulp fiction does not impact how we see the world, so much as reflect how we see the world. Everyone wants to identify with the good guy. Everyone wants to see justice triumph. Those moral assumptions were not, as Almond maintains, introduced and popularized by pulp fiction. They have existed since time immemorial, and they developed over and over in many cultures. Pulp fiction is just another manifestation of our deepest desire to see everything turn out all right in the end in a world where, no matter how hard you try, things are not going to turn out all right. Pulp fiction is a harmless manifestation of these desires when compared with religion. Unlike The Bible, no one has ever killed someone over differing interpretations of a story in Black Mask.

Almond also tries to tie pulp fiction to the state of the media today. While I tend to agree that news coverage today isn't what it ought to be, it's hard to blame that on Raymond Chandler. The news is a business, and the market dictates what you get. Again, people want to hear stories. Almond uses the Clinton impeachment as an example, calling it "a classic pulp fiction." Clinton, Almond states, is the corrupt pol and Ken Starr was the crusading hero. It's just as easy to cast Clinton as the hero and Starr as the tool of corrupt, jealous Republicans who were looking for something-anything-they could use to strike back at an immensely popular leader. Anyone who was paying attention to the Clinton story could have come away with either interpretation. So, the media did not package and sell a story. They packaged and sold a set of facts, which people were free to interpret as they saw fit. You can place the blame for the Clinton saga where it really belongs, either on Congress for trying to bring down a president out of spite, or with Clinton, for not keeping it in his pants. It all depends on what story you want to tell yourself.

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