Simplistics in Writing and Society

As I have listened to the various candidates for president trot out their ideas and policies, and as I see and hear the public and media responses, I’m not just disturbed, but appalled. Beyond that, I also have to wonder how long intelligent fiction will remain economically viable. As it is, from what I can see, intelligent writing, which considers and reflects on matters in more than “seven steps” or “five tools” or “the church/government/corporation/male sex is the root of all evil” or “the more violence/sex/both the better” is already fast becoming limited to a small part of F&SF or non-fiction.

We live in a complex world, and it’s not getting any simpler, but there’s an ever increasing pressure on all fronts to make it seem simpler by blaming the “bad guys.” Now, who the bad guys are varies from group to group and individual to individual, depending on personal views and biases, but these “bad guys” all have one thing in common. They aren’t us.

Gasoline prices are rising. So let’s blame the multinational corporations and the Arabs for their greed… and, of course, the U.S. government for giving tax breaks to oil producers. Along the way, everyone seems to ignore the fact that the United States remains the third largest producer of crude oil in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia, and that we produce twice as much oil as does Iran and four times as much as Iraq at present. But… with five percent of the world’s population, we’re consuming something like 26% of annual world production. Why are all those tax breaks there? Because producing oil in the US is far more expensive than elsewhere, and without those tax breaks U.S. oil production would decline even more. Does anyone consider what a few million 12 mile/per/gallon SUVs represent?

We have over 41 million Americans without health insurance, and guaranteed pension plans for Americans are declining faster than the government can count. Why? Might it just have something to do with the fact that we Americans are always looking for the lowest priced goods and services, and health care insurance and guaranteed pension benefits are the principal reasons why foreign car manufacturers can produce lower-priced/higher quality vehicles than the U.S. big three?

Housing prices, despite the current collapse, are still astronomical compared to fifty years ago, but how many people really look at the fact that the average new house is twice the size of the average new post-WWII dwelling… and has more than twice the conveniences and contains a two or three-car garage?

Immigration is another case in point. Building a 700 mile fence isn’t going to stop immigration. It might detour or slow it, but Americans want too many of the services immigrants provide, and we don’t want to pay exorbitant prices for them, no matter what we say publicly. Of course, there’s also the rather hypocritical aspect that everyone in America today is either an immigrant or the descendent of one — and that includes Native Americans. The latest studies indicate that the European immigrants of the 15th and 16th century brought the diseases that killed off close to eighty percent of the continent’s then-indigenous population. So… it was all right for our so-upright ancestors to seek a better life, but these people today shouldn’t have that opportunity?

As an economist, I could go on and on, with example after example, but these examples are just illustrations of a general mind-set. The current political mood is: “We want change.” The real translation of that is: “We really don’t want to consider how we got here, but please get us out without making us think about how we got ourselves into this mess, and, by the way, don’t make us pay for it.”

Unfortunately, this also carries over into writing, and particularly into fiction. Is it any wonder that the Harry Potter books have swept the world, but particularly the English-speaking world? In a stylized way, they recall certainties of a past time and offer a dash of short-term hard work and magic to solve the problems at hand. The success of The DaVinci Code offers another example of blaming ills on a mysterious church-related conspiracy. We have conspiracy and spy and thriller books and movies, all pointing to relatively simplistic villains who aren’t us.

Yes, as I discussed previously, for a writer to be successful, he or she must entertain, but why have so many writers retreated to or succumbed to the allure of the simplistic? Novels can certainly entertain without being simplistic, and without purveying gloom, doom, and despair, but there’s always the question of how many readers will buy the more thoughtful and thought-provoking work. I’ve certainly had readers who have written to say that they just weren’t interested in my “deeper” work, and I’m certain I’m not alone. I know several best-selling writers who began by writing some very thoughtful work that I felt was thoughtful, intriguing, and entertaining, not to mention fairly well written. They don’t write such work any more, and they make a great deal more money from what they do write.

Given the pressures of society toward the simplistic, how long will those writers who have not given into the allure and rewards of the overly simplistic be able to hold out against such pressures… and even if they do, how many readers will they be able to attract?