June 29, 2010

The Humanity of Hacks

Thomas Hardy had a genius for inventing characters. He did this in a way which bucked the trends of the time. While his contemporaries were creating characters by mixing flaws and virtues, Hardy created characters by their inconsistencies and contradictions, presupposing that no woman was purely an agenda or a prayer book, no man was only a monument or a villain. For Hardy, humanity was about struggle: self-defeating behaviors, rallies, and relapses, and the only truly wicked thing in the world was a prudish, mechanical society that expected a demure, dispassionate consistency, as inhuman as it was impossible.

Your average hack writer, your Crichtons, Koontzes, and Baldaccies, are hacks because they are only capable of producing two characters, rigid in their consistency, both of which seem inhuman as a cartoon, insipid as a corporate mouthpiece.

The first, and most common character, is the stoic. The stoic, tortured by some personal (and unarticulated) calamity, generally involving the death of a spouse, child, parent, or partner, is portrayed as silent and indifferent except for, perhaps, a crude obsessiveness that likely takes the form of an urge for revenge or “redemption.” The unemotional facade of the stoic is meant to imply an ocean of turmoil and complexity churning just beneath the bland, steely-eyed surface. But the stoic’s actions, their few words, their revelations, and their “redemption” lack any individuality, any psychological consistency, any humanity. The stoic is merely a mechanical device, a conduit through which the plot moves.

The stoic depends on the reader to supply the emotional details, and this is why the stoic is always defined in the context of some generic human calamity. The hack presupposes that death is meaningful, or that suffering, being universal, is universally understood. This is, of course, at odds with the purpose of art: to expound upon our understanding of the human experience and condition. The hack spends all his time explaining the simplest of things, what happened, leaving it to the reader to supply the infinitely more difficult why.

The second hack character is the sentimentalist. The sentimental character is just as devoid of humanity as the stoic, but as opposed to being emotionally white-washed, the sentimentalist is sopping with emotionalism. The sentimentalist often stars in stories that turn on relationships and romance, and can be defined by the purity of their moods, the simplicity of their revelations, the tidiness of their desire. If the stoic is making a feint for humanity by concealing, the sentimental character feigns humanity with an excess of exposure and emoting.

Sentimentality is often confused with fondness or nostalgia, but a better definition of sentimentality would be selective emotionality, selective memory. Sentimentality is socialization made flesh and blood; that big phony that we sometimes become at a fancy party or a family reunion is the heart of the sentimental character. The sentimentalist will inevitably be “redeemed” by some absurdly simple maxim: follow your dreams; believe in yourself; forgive and forget.

Both characters almost always enjoy a succinct and crude redemptive moment. The stoic breaks down crying that his son’s death was not his fault; the sentimentalist is able to like herself without the love of a man. These revelatory moments are so potent and attractive in their simplicity that the human reader/viewer will feel a sympathetic elation, an experience not unlike a sugar-rush. But the elation we feel turns to depression when we find that the revelatory moment, the character’s redemption, is unadaptable to our experience, our life.

Hack writing is a rewarding read because it whispers the familiar, preferable, simple lies of what it is to be human. It is as addictive as it is, in high enough doses, deadly. The hack has a singular talent for making me a stranger to myself, turning me into the Great and Powerful Oz while my true self hides behind the curtain: a shriveled and humiliated old man.

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