Promises, Promises

Let’s talk about promises. To narrow the field, let’s talk about the promises the producers of culture make to us regarding their shows and movies and books.

Now, I don’t mean advertising slogans (BEST OF THE YEAR), which are not promises so much as exercises in hope and hype. I mean the implicit promises of genre, or brand, or whatever label under which a work takes up residence. These promises are made (of course!) in the interest of profit; if they get us to believe, they get us to buy. But once we believe and buy, they end up bound to their brands. The power of brand is a conservative force and resists change – including from readers and writers wanting something new in Christian publishing. (Incidentally, that is a preview. We will end at Christian publishing, but we’re taking the long way around, like they did before the Federal Highway-Aid Act.)

A brand is identity in shorthand and infinitely useful in this capitalistic world of choices. When you are so unfortunate as to be driving cross-country, do you stop to eat at small, unknown restaurants in small, unknown towns, thus exploring the rich variety of our great country and supporting hard-working small-business owners?

Of course not. You might get disappointed. You might get lost. You might get salmonella. What you do is, you watch the FOOD signs and get off the interstate when you see the logo of a chain restaurant that strikes you as good or, at any rate, acceptable. I’ve seen critical social commentary of this, but it’s only good sense. The selection off the highway sign of corporate logos is a selection based on knowledge, and if you’re not thrilled about getting a mediocre hamburger from McDonald’s, you won’t really be disappointed, either. Because you knew what to expect.

To teach people what to expect is the triumph of brand, and quite profitable when the expectations are good. What follows such triumph is an effort to preserve the brand and fulfill expectations. Disney, for example, has released most of its PG-13 fare and all of its R-rated fare under its Touchstone label. The more auspicious Disney label is reserved for gentler, kinder movies, movies fit for children. This is not a moral decision or an expression of values. Disney knows that its brand is a promise of movies that, while rarely without a dose of pathos, will never be too edgy or dark. Violate that too often or too egregiously, and see how many parents will be buying theater tickets on no other grounds than “it’s Disney”.

The same principle is manifest in publishing. Del Rey isn’t going to be releasing cozy mysteries with titles like Lemon Meringue Madness, and if you’re waiting for Harlequin to publish a six-hundred page literary novel with allusions in the original French and a textured analysis of symbolic-interactionist theory, I hope you’re a patient soul. That’s not what they’re about, and their readers know it.

And what is Christian publishing about? What promises does it make? To many readers, one of its most crucial promises is that it will be clean – that they can get the story they want without the unsavory content they don’t. All such readers could doubtless find books in the secular market they would enjoy, but the finding is so much easier in the Christian market. They expect that Christian publishers will adhere to certain standards, and depend on it.

Readers who want different standards, or even exceptions to the old ones, may be asking for more than they know. New standards and too many exceptions do something dangerous. They break the brand. They break the promise.

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

It is the rare but glorious lot of writers to create a cultural icon that lasts generations, one of those things that everybody just knows even if they’re not sure how. Tarzan is one such icon. Who doesn’t know the image of the handsome, wild, muscular man swinging through the jungle with the agility of an ape? Sometimes there’s a girl in his arm, but to tell the truth, she’s not really necessary.

Like many such icons, Tarzan has been unmoored from his ultimate source. Everybody knows Tarzan, but most haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I picked up Tarzan of the Apes, I was driven more by curiosity than the hope of a good story.

Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912, and a century is more than enough to make a novel historically interesting. Even the novels that were radical unconsciously reflect the ideas and attitudes of their era (no one lives entirely free of his time). In this respect, Tarzan is interesting, even though what it reflects can be quite bad. The crude racist stereotypes are obvious blemishes, but the more subtle eugenicist ideas are the same poison – refined and intellectualized and so more pernicious.

This book surprised me. It is darker and more violent than I anticipated, with a surprising dose of cannibalism from both white and black characters. Tarzan’s jungle divides itself pitilessly into killer and killed, and he himself is a wholehearted participant. Most of the characters, of whatever race or species, are scum. At the same time, it is far more thoughtful than I would have guessed. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Burroughs uses fiction to explore an idea. He takes up the nature vs. nurture debate by putting a child of the best hereditary (in an eugenicist touch, the son of English aristocrats) in the worst environment (raised by savage apes in a virgin jungle).

To Burroughs’ credit, he doesn’t offer a quick, cut-and-dried answer. Tarzan, the subject of his fictional experiment, is deeply influenced by both hereditary and environment. At the same time, Burroughs’ treatment of the question is generally unconvincing, occasionally ridiculous, and undermined by eugenicist assumptions. Burroughs explicitly grounds the explanation of Tarzan’s superhuman physicality in evolution, in the logic that human muscles and senses atrophied as we learned to rely on reason and would rejuvenate in an environment that demanded it for survival, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy that Tarzan’s aristocratic genes made him instinctively gracious or chivalrous, or that he could become fluent in any language quickly. In a very real way, Tarzan of the Apes is a book of ideas. It’s just that the ideas are mostly claptrap.

As much as eugenics, as an idea, deserves to die, its presence in Tarzan is part of the novel’s scientific bent. So, too, are the references to evolution, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the way an important plot point turns on this new thing, fingerprinting. If you don’t know what that is, the book explains it. A good part of the book’s darkness comes from its more realistic portrayal of apes in particular and African jungles in general. The portrayal is not really scientific; Burroughs attributes to the apes a language (however limited) and customs and laws (however savage). But unlike Disney’s Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which were developed out of a desire for fun, child-friendly stories with animals that talk and sing and occasionally even dance, Burroughs’ jungle society was developed in the spirit of the real jungle. The apes in this novel are violent, but so are apes in real life.

To take Tarzan of the Apes strictly as art, the plot was well-constructed and the author unafraid of making decisive change in his hero and story. The love story, for once, was not completely predictable. The old professors were funny. I was still ready for the book to end in the neighborhood of page 150, and I got tired of the phrase “forest god”.

Not much of the real Tarzan of the apes survives in his icon – not his propensity to kill, his blue blood, his superhuman strength. But the image of him in his jungle is enduring. Tarzan of the Apes may be good fare for those interested in culture, history, and old-fashioned pulp romps. Reader discernment is needed, however, and the novel is emphatically not for children.

The Reepicheep Syndrome

It happens in fiction. A character strides through scene after scene, endlessly impressive to his fellow characters and obviously beloved of his author. He is invariably showered with attention and almost always with praise – except from the audience. The audience can only watch, baffled and annoyed. This character is the author’s pet: The author is transfixed by him, but the audience just can’t share the joy. Call it the Reepicheep Syndrome.

Reepicheep is, of course, the bold, talking mouse of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. We know he’s bold because

You can take this guy.

they tell us he’s bold, and also because he recommended the phenomenally bold course of sailing to the Island where Dreams come true (though here I am using “bold” in the sense of “stupid”). Reepicheep talked incessantly of honor and his sword, though his only known uses of the sword were to beat a coward and stab Telmarines in the foot. His habitual threats of violence thus rang hollow. But everyone took him as a paragon of valiance and courage, and by the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, it was all rather too much.

Though the namesake of this syndrome, Reepicheep is a mild example of it. Why C.S. Lewis decided to anoint him “most valiant of all the Talking Beasts of Narnia” is a mystery, but at least he remained fairly tolerable. A far more extreme (and obnoxious!) example is Wesley Crusher. Widely taken as an avatar of Gene Wesley Roddenberry, Wesley Crusher was the Enterprise‘s wunderkind, a precocious genius and occasional savior of the ship, the captain, and possibly the galaxy. What he is truly famous for, however, is the irritation and, yes, hatred he inspired in the fans.

The hatred is probably out of proportion to the actual offense. But the point is that it was very real. For some reason, it struck the writers – or perhaps just Roddenberry – as a good idea to present Wesley as genius, savior, and sometime-victim of adult stupidity, while viewers – according to their account – mostly suffered. Wesley Crusher is an exemplar of the Reepicheep Syndrome.

But the greatest example – the model of imperfection for the ages – is Jar Jar Binks, the symbol for all that is wrong with the prequels. The mockery and hatred directed at Jar Jar Binks is a rare distinction; that he is annoying is as universal an opinion as that the world is round. (There are always dissenters.) George Lucas thought he was a good idea, though, and that was when the franchise started going off the rails. Even after receiving the judgment of the fandom, Lucas insisted on including Jar Jar Binks in following movies. In one sense, he broke from the usual pattern of the Reepicheep Syndrome: Jar Jar was not an object of much admiration (though the people of Naboo, proving that they should have been left to the Trade Federation, elected him senator). But the divergence between the author’s judgment and the audience’s is rarely so overpowering.

Divergence of opinion between author and audience is common. The Reepicheep Syndrome distinguishes itself by a blatant fondness on the side of the author that is inexplicable to the paying public. Wesley Crusher and Jar Jar Binks are star examples of this phenomenon, but all readers have their own experiences of it. Reepicheep is one of mine. What are yours?