Why Write About Unimportant People? – Part 2



Going back to the ‘Why write about the domestic lives (sorrows’n’joys) of the unpowerful, the unexceptional?’ argument – last time, I put forward one well-meaning reason why. This seems to come from a basic democratic instinct: ‘We are none of us unimportant’ which transposes to, ‘We are all important.’ Or, to go further: ‘We are all of us equally important.’

But such a statement could just as well have been made within Ancient Greek society. And, providing one was born a citizen (big ‘providing’), there was a far greater chance that one would end up governing one’s fellow citizens then than there is now.

Their form of democracy was against creating politicians, let alone career politicians who knew no other life.

In this sense of importance, the Ancient Greeks were all of them more important than we are.

Yet they felt the need for their stories to be, almost exclusively (even if they were comic), about the great – the powerful and exceptional. And these stories again and again demonstrated one thing: the dangers of the great coming to believe they were too great to fall.

i.e., hubris.

‘Listen, sonny boy,’ is the Greek tone, ‘anyone can be taken down at any time, capiche? – and taken down in the fastest, nastiest way.’

What needs are expressed within our stories? What’s their moral tone?

Throughout our popular culture runs an opposite story to the Ancient Greek. That anyone, however obscure, can be raised instantly to high levels of importance. We have a lottery that can make one minorly rich. We have talent shows that can make one majorly famous. We have YouTube.

But, as my partner pointed out, it’s not a level of gods up there – it’s icons and idols. And the word idol is misused in a way that is entirely faithful to its long-ago theological meaning. One should not bow down and worship idols. There is something essentially and profoundly wrong about everything to do with idols.

And icons  too is correctly misused. All the icons we have now are extremely secondary. They are not originals. They are mass-produced, simplified images of something far-recessed that stand in that thing’s place – in a diminished, domestic setting. Not heaven but a cathedral; not a church but the corner of a room. They are images that allow for indirect, misdirected worship.

It is wrong, though, to be too shortsighted about fame. Victorian fame – even Eighteenth Century fame (famous actresses, famous castrati) – was not another phenomenon to that of contemporary fame. A lot of the basic structures were identical.

In relation to storytelling, one aspect of our fame should be noted. On becoming famous, one’s life is likely to be more repetitive and predictable. A very famous person is likely to do lots of photo shoots, where the aim is to make them as recognizable as possible. (The same photo shoot, again and again.) A v.f.p. is likely to do dozens of interviews, where they are asked the same questions. ‘What was it like working with X?’ (And to which they are contractually obliged to give the same answers.)

Elements of unpredictability (material for stories), for a v.f.p., are likely to present as elements of danger. Yet we learn that the greater the security surrounding someone, the greater the danger that security attracts. (Princess Diana would not have died as she did had she been travelling in a rickshaw.)

As far as readers of stories are concerned, this removal from their reality becomes an issue when the main character can no longer be related to. Readers want to read (or usually say they want to read) stories with sympathetic central characters. And, ultimately, they can only sympathize with what deeply reminds them of themselves.

So, our version of greatness (fame), as soon as it is achieved, begins to corrode a person’s suitability for being the basis of a sympathetic central character. Instead, they are on their way to becoming something else. The best most of them can do is try to escape becoming cautionary tales. At their worst, they can only become Elvis or Marilyn Monroe or Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston.

But novels and short stories are more morally sophisticated than this. Cautionary tales are crude, aiming for a single effect: warning. Ancient Greek stories are cautionary. Do not wish yourself among the great, or you will suffer like the great. Be humble and happy.

This is not, I’d say, what most people want to read. They want something more like a How To manual.

How To Live Normally or Abnormally.

Maybe I need to look a little more closely at the idea of importance in storytelling – and perhaps, though it makes me feel a little ill – at value-added.

2 thoughts on “Why Write About Unimportant People? – Part 2

  1. I really enjoyed your short story “The Monster” and reading this article today,brought a new revolation to the story. “Ultimately,they can only sympathize with what deeply reiminds them of themselves” explained the reasoning why I empathized with the monster and what our society deems as monsters.Society does not care if you were born that way or evolved that way through time theough an illness or acciedent. Society does not care about the true essence of a person just the outer shell.

    • I hadn’t made the connection between the story and the blog. When I did a lecture about Sympathetic Characters for the MA students at Birkbeck, I was asked a very difficult question – What about stories featuring supposedly unsympathetic central characters? I tried to answer by saying that villains often end up as anti-heroes, if they stick around for long enough. Hannibal Lector starts out as a terrible serial killer and ends up as a kind of revenging angel (punishing the character that the readers most hate). But in the case of a book like American Psycho it’s more difficult to answer. Maybe it does come down to characters deeply reminding us of ourselves. And our monsters are always ourselves. (Maybe this, too, is too simple.)

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