Even the Best

You have all heard the story of the first Thanksgiving, so there is, thankfully, no reason to go into it here. It was a great story once – maybe it still is – but we have heard it and its reiterations again and again. There is the Religious Version, blessing following tribulation and thanksgiving to God; there is the Patriotic Version, in which the founding of our national holiday entwines with the founding of America itself.

There is the Cheery Version, such as you might read in a brightly-colored children’s book, and the Downer Version, emphasizing that half of them were dead already and there were still hard winters to come. There are those who paint the Pilgrims as brave refugees of persecution, bequeathing a godly heritage, and those who paint them as incipient witch-burners and Indian-killers, and then along come the Fact-checkers to point out the Pilgrims didn’t really wear those hats, or eat pumpkin pie, and Thanksgiving began with Abraham Lincoln, you know …

… and finally you just want to eat your turkey without worrying about what the Pilgrims ate, or even why they ate it.

Even the best stories, with an expansive range of interpretations and a multiplicity of retellings, can grow stale. In fiction, what recurs are not whole stories but certain elements – the romance, the quest, the tropeschosen hero, the mentor, rags-to-riches and David against Goliath. In a good mood, we call these tropes or archetypes; in a less generous mood, stereotypes or cliches.

Although I know how sheer repetition can wear a thing down to banality and even irritation, I tend to be sympathetic toward books accused of cliched plots or overdone tropes. When the critics say, with worldly ennui, “It’s been done before,” I think: Of course it’s been done before. Everything’s been done before. All the original stories were discovered by Adam and Eve, and the rest of us just experiment with variations on a theme.

In the matter of tropes, readers must again mark the line between “a bad book” and “a book I dislike.” Most tropes – even most cliches – are perfectly decent in themselves. A portal into another world is a wonderful idea; if I’m tired of it, that probably says more about me than about the trope. I’ve complained about the predictability of romance novels (Are they going to fall in love even though they seem to hate each other? Yes, they are! And now they have problems? Didn’t see that one coming). But humanity must tell love stories, and the characters will fall in love and they will have problems, and I have no quarrel with the genre. I just pass by.

The ridiculed tropes of speculative fiction, such as the world-saving quest and the chosen hero, have – even as romance does – deep roots in the real experiences and even realer dreams of humanity. Tropes do as a rule. Often, tropes are not enjoyed, whether because the reader has lost (or never acquired) the taste for it or because the writer has forgotten that even when it is the same theme, it should still be a different variation. But the mere presence of a trope is rarely to be criticized.

So remember that, for all the times it’s been told, the story of the first Thanksgiving truly is a good one. And if anyone tells you that the Pilgrims didn’t have potatoes, tell them that what really matters is that the Pilgrims didn’t have Black Friday sales, either.

Beside the Point

Not long ago, I was reading a review of a new album, released by a Christian artist who was known for his edginess and is now, perhaps, over the edge. The reviewer said (here I roughly, but accurately, paraphrase) that he had always liked this artist because he used raw words just to rile up evangelicals. And I thought that this was not truly a noble endorsement.

And it’s not because of the words he used, or because people were upset or offended, or because evangelicals were upset or offended (though I do think that, on the long road of learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, not taking positive pleasure in seeing each other offended is one step). As a reason to approve of anything, Look, he offends them! possesses doubtful worth. It seems a superficial judgment at best, an uncharitable motive at worst.

It’s unfortunate, then, that these days, it’s all around us. People have made lucrative careers of giving offense. In Exhibit 1,873 of our current societal dysfunction, certain citizens of this republic value most, in their elected officials, a demonstrated ability to offend their fellow citizens. You don’t have to look far in the broader culture to find the same impulse, to see real appreciation of the writer or artist or celebrity who offends the right people. In art, too, transgressing other people’s boundaries is often taken as a pleasure, and sometimes as an end in itself.

I understand the phenomenon; it’s all human nature, even if not the best part of it. We have all known people so annoying that they almost deserved to be offended. We have all seen boundaries so misdrawn that they deserved to be transgressed. No matter who you are, someone out there has sensibilities that are, by your measure, so hopelessly narrow or warped that they are begging to be offended. This judgment of others’ boundaries and sensibilities must, in some cases, be false. By the same rule of logic, it must, in some cases, be true. So if the sensibilities are narrow and the boundaries are skewed, isn’t there some value in offending them?

No, not intrinsically. It doesn’t follow that, because the boundaries are wrong, the offense is right. In this, as in other disputes, it is not possible that everyone is right, but it is possible that everyone is wrong. One can be politically incorrect by telling the truth, but one can also be politically incorrect by being a jerk; one can violate Victorian sensibilities in art by being better than they would permit, but also by being worse. The idea of offending the right people is tribal and superficial. Beyond the superficiality lies the lack of charity. It’s not charitable to enjoy upsetting or offending other people, nor is it worthy as an aim. What do you really achieve by bothering people?

Offense, as such, has very little meaning; it proves neither right nor wrong. As an insignificant thing, it ought to be incidental to what you are really doing. Tell the truth, or pursue artistic superiority – and perhaps people will be offended and perhaps not, but neither will be the point.