The Pretenders

If all fiction is pretend, then those who excel at it are the best pretenders. So actors are pretenders, musicians are pretenders, writers are pretenders, directors, key grips, publishers, illustrators, and on and on. I say this not to impugn the art of fiction, but merely to understand it for what it is. Quite a bit of human activity is devoted to the creation of fantasy. To what end?

Any investigation of the fictive creations of mankind must involve two measurements – aim and quality. Much fiction will be burned away in such an analysis for it is merely dross. For example, much has been said about Downton Abbey, but something rarely asked are these two fundamental questions: “What is its aim?”, and “Is it qualitatively good?”. Of course the world does not need another threadbare soap opera, busy with activity, but bereft of meaning. However, it is typical of what we call “entertainment” – that is, something meant to be entertaining, which is to say, diverting, a diversion from our “real” lives. (The irony that we choose to watch an empty show in our “real” lives somehow does not seem to count as living our “real lives”.)

Do you see where the lie creeps in? Entertainment is never moralless. Everything we consume, all we see, all we do, and all we experience comes with an inherent moral perspective. For any entertainment to be convincing, it must have a worldview that anchors its inhabitants, no matter how vague or evil that worldview is. Anything diverting is also always communicating a worldview – it is moral instruction. Fiction thus is not some escape from morality, but rather a back door into the pulpit. Those who create “entertainment” thinking that they are avoiding moral concerns are either lying to themselves or lying to their audiences, for their work has a moral point as well. There is no escape.

Trying to escape reality by partaking in a different reality traps us still. Fiction gives us a rest from our own problems, but it is always communicating a worldview and a story with the problems of others.

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