Friday, July 25, 2008

Writing and Whedon

I know I tend to get on kicks where I discuss the hell out of one particular subject to the detriment of reader retention and interest, so I promise that this will be my last blog entry on Joss Whedon for a while -at least a week. I would extend that further, but I'm kind of a little bit obsessed.

Anyway, due to the recent release of Dr. Horribe's Sing Along Blog, there has been a whole host of literature flooding the web devoted to analyzing and criticizing and critiquing its content. I have, due to said obsession and a little bit of boredom, read a lot of it. Several have struck my fancy. More than a couple did not. But there was one where I disagreed -profoundly- with the opening statement, that being this:
"I give my audience what they need, not what they want"? How did fandom let him off the hook for that and the one-way, almost dictatorial street of creator-fan interaction that implies?
One, I think think that quote has been forever misinterpreted. That isn't to say that Whedon gives audiences what they want, in terms of fluffy bunnies or whatever. I'm sure there are many fans (myself among them) who have wanted things along the way he has firmly denied them: Angel & Buffy 4ever, an alive Tara, a dead Dawn, etc. But he does give the audience what they want and what they need in terms of brilliant and multifaceted characters, witty and meaningful and wonderful dialogue, and a clear and interesting philosophical take on the world. But I'll get back to this in a minute because I think there is a real issue here that needs to be addressed.

Writing is a dictatorship. I am a writer, albeit not professionally. And I would be lying if I said thoughts of my audience didn't come creeping in, didn't make me rewrite sentences and rethink posting on certain subject. I had a post all written up about Katie Couric and racism versus sexism -but then there was that John Kerry thing and I've decided to wait a bit before putting that up. Because, well, parts of it need to be rewritten and also it seems kind of like intentionally throwing gasoline on an inferno right now. But don't get me wrong; when I write -fiction, nonfiction, whatever- it is my thoughts and my feelings and what I want to express that get the most play. I decide what stories I want to highlight, what issues are of greatest importance to me, and how polite/offensive I want to be. I frame the original argument, and those who read it generally have the opportunity to work within that frame -whether by agreeing with me or not.

Writing isn't a dialogue; it isn't a lateral movement. The writer and the reader are not equals on this particular scale. The fan has the right and the responsibility to critique, to point out weaknesses and latent 'isms and so forth, but the writer is the creator. The writer doesn't -or shouldn't- take requests or modify his (or her) own vision based purely on fan response. Writers aren't short-order cooks. And so whatever two-way street that does exist owes its existence to the writer allowing an up-down dialogue about ideas and structures and criticism. There are plenty of lateral discussions among fans, and those will always exist and have forever existed and have a meaning and purpose. But really being able to talk to the author, to demand explanation and change, well that's all on the author to allow or deny. Joss Whedon happens to be very fan friendly. He visits fan communities, he types under his own name, he is genuinely respectful, and he seems to really appreciate his voracious and kind of crazy fanbase. He's made some comments about fans and fan interpretation that have come under fire, but often times he takes the time to explain his vision and show an appreciation for fans, especially those on-line. Other writers don't do that. You want to see a true dictatorship, a writer who at times seems to despise his own intense, obsessive fanbase? Look to Aaron Sorkin. And he takes a lot of flak for it that is, frankly, undeserved. Because fans are allowed and expected to have an opinion, but they shouldn't expect to necessarily have their opinion matter or be valid. They have the ability to control a product only so far, and that is -like with so many other things in a capitalist culture- based mainly on what and how they choose to consume the product. If the show doesn't get the ratings, especially after good, solid ratings for years, then that is how the fans have spoken.

And Whedon generally has a pretty good feel for the pulse of his fanbase. He talks about writing a scene in the episode "Innocence" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer specifically so the audience would fall in love with a certain character. He knows what the audience needs in order to feel as deeply for his creations as he does. And he knows enough to disregard what they want in order to fulfill what he needs to do and what he wants to express. People die; lives are ruined; characters become twisted and dark and saved again. But we shouldn't -as fans- for one second believe that we have the right to a democracy. Fans -and even nonfans- seem to come to the mistaken assumption that the product is theirs. That once it leaves the author's head, it no longer belongs to its creator. And in a way, they are half right. Works authors intended to be taken in one way can and will be interpreted at times to mean the exact opposite. That is the nature of the micronarrative at work. But they aren't right in the idea that they get an actual piece of the creative pie, because they don't. At most, fans have to hope for an author who has his (or her) finger on the pulse of the thing, who understands the fans and the characters and is able to move the story forward organically while simultaneously not driving watchers or readers away in hordes. The smart author does that; the smart author understands that staying true to the work is the best way to stay true to the fans; to love the characters and to write from the characters is the best way to please fans, because fans can tell when an author's heart is no longer in his (or her) creation and fans can tell when authors are pandering to the fanbase. And it tends to make them cranky. Because most fans would probably prefer a lovingly and intricately crafted dictatorship than a haphazard mish mash of contradicting dogmas existing purely to satiate fan want.

Which brings me to the second part of this rant, that being Whedon's line of giving the audience what they need. Now, I think he is giving fans what they need from the tale instead of giving them what the wanted from it. Penny's death in Dr. Horrible, Jenny's death in BtVS, Buffy and Angel's break up, Buffy's death (twice), the arrival of Dawn, Restless, Hush, Once More with Feeling, Wash, all of these things are examples of items fans may not have particularly wanted (or even thought about) but needed -either to make the story fully work or because it was a pushing of the boundaries or what-have-you. Whedon made an allusion to Romeo and Juliet in his explanation of this philosophy once, that it works so well because we want Romeo and Juliet to get away and live as old marrieds, but Shakespeare gives us what we need -the emotional catharsis of their untimely and tragic demise- and because of that the play is a classic in a way it wouldn't have been if we'd only gotten what we'd wanted. And there's a definite truth to that. If entertainment can be more than simply about entertaining people, if really good works of art can come from entertainment, we need works that push us beyond the boundaries of what we want and into what we need. We need works that challenge our ideas, challenge our beliefs, and wake us the hell up. We need works that don't end happily; we needs works that end happily too, but I don't think Joss is our man for that.

There is a second interpretation of the line, one not based upon but supported by the line slightly rephrased by Whedon himself. The line becomes "I'd rather have a show that a hundred people need to see than a thousand people want to see". Joss wants devoted fans; he desires people needing to see what he creates; he desperately needs fans to be just as attached to and just as moved by and just as crushed by his characters and what happens to them as he is. He would rather make a show that was constantly on the verge of cancellation but meant something than made a show that was a big hit but that most people casually viewed while discussing their day. It is the difference between making a Two and a Half Men and... ...well, a Firefly. Or a Sports Night. There are times when the two shows are the same thing; The West Wing had a devoted, obsessive fanbase. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did well in the ratings for the network(s) it was on. But I think in the grand scheme of things, Joss wants fans who are like him when he is a fan: frantic, obsessed, broken-hearted when there are reruns or deaths or tragic happenstances, and overjoyed when something goes right for once. I could be wrong about that, but I think that the two-pronged interpretation of Joss' most hated statement among the fanbase is necessary to even begin getting to the heart of the matter.

I'm not wrong about the writing though.

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