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Friday, December 30, 2005

Chapter Seventy-Five, in which Terror is Escapism

Time magazine recently published its Top 100 Photos of the year. One, by Matthew Rosenberg, was of a double decker bus damaged by the 7 July terrorist bombings in London. Ironically, on the side of the bus is a poster, probably for a movie, with a tag line proclaiming "Outright Terror... Bold and Brilliant."

This made me think about Stefanie's post concerning the value of genre fiction. She wonders why genre fiction--such as mystery, horror, and science fiction--is so often disparaged as mere escapism. "Good writing is good writing," she writes, "no matter if there is a murder to be solved or an alien race to come to terms with." Or a terrorist bombing to be suffered. She believes such stories ought to be paraged (a doubleplusgood word according to neologeneticists) as much as literary fiction.

Why is it, then, that the same people who suffer the terror of a suicide bombing, or refuse to use an airplane because they are terrified it may be hijacked, also eagerly slap down ten dollars to be terrified by a film, or the latest novel by Stephen King or Jack Higgins? Are such plots so disturbing that they can be accepted only as escapist? And why do the media review films and praise them for their heart-pounding terror, and then wail at the outright terror on a London bus, or in a Tel Aviv discotheque? Sensationalism? Exploitation?

Your Bibliothecary once attended a reading course at a college near Mad About Books International Headquarters. The instructor assigned several books, and then solicited nominations for a final selection. We suggested The World According to Garp by John Irving. The instructor informed us a few days later that the book we suggested was too vulgar--without putting words in her mouth, it was not acceptable to her literary sensibilities. What must she think of This Side of Paradise and Lolita and Ulysses and la morte d'Arthur--escapism or literature?

Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, our friend Tiresias wondered in public about the terrorists: "Can you imagine the absolute thrill they must have felt watching the building come at them at 400 miles an hour? The god-like power they must have felt carrying so many people to their death? The bravery they must have possessed to prepare for and commit such an act? The incomprehensible faith they must have possessed, to believe they were doing good and they would be forever praised?" What they did was quite literally bold and brilliant. Yet those remarks of Tiresias were disparaged more than a Luke Short western. But he was considering events as a novelist, not paraging the terrorists--he was trying to understand the emotions and the motives involved in such acts. After all, isn't that what people want: four-star bold and brilliant--fear, explosions, terror, unmitigated and unparalleled evil? Shouldn't good writing be good writing, whether the story is a dazzling chronicle of a romantic egotist or a disturbing psychodrama about a suicide bomber?

Might any of this indicate where American civilization is headed? Perhaps we should be more careful of what we wish for. The Roman plebians must certainly have feared an attack by lions on themselves, and yet they relished the spectacle of Christians as lion chow. We refer you, Dear Reader, to Gibbon to learn the end result.

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