(With apologies to the old StarKist tuna commercials for ripping off their tagline)
I don't often write here about movies, because I feel completely incompetent as a film critic. I go for the enjoyment and spectacle, and my wife is frequently explaining techniques and the finer points over coffee later on. I return the favor when she reads a book I've read, since books are my thing and films are hers.
But we recently went to see AVATAR and it got me thinking about the role of story. Or, as it is sometimes known, PLOT.
I don't consider myself a highly knowledgeable film buff, but it struck me that, aside from the special effects, I'd seen everything in the film before. No real spoilers here, if you haven't seen it yet:
- The "noble savages" are as old as the earliest novels, but this theme was handled quite well in DANCES WITH WOLVES. I kept thinking, AVATAR is DANCES WITH WOLVES in outer space.
- The evil, unfeeling, money-grubbing embodiment of corporate America was done quite well by Paul Reiser in ALIEN; here it's Giovanni Ribisi doing the same thing.
- Sigourney Weaver played a wise, caring woman infiltrating a foreign culture - that of primates - in GORILLAS IN THE MIST. She plays the exact same role in AVATAR, with a bit more profanity.
And the list goes on and on...
While this may sound critical (in the pejorative sense), all these similarities - perhaps Jungian plot devices? - mattered not a whit to my enjoyment of the film. I found it involving and affecting.
And it hit me that mystery/crime fiction is in a similar boat. Much of today's fiction really does recycle the same old plots and plot devices time and again. This liberal borrowing from what has come before annoys us (well, it annoys ME) only when it's not done well. In the right hands, and when executed with panache, a tired old plot contrivance causes me to think "Ah, well done." When executed by a less-than-able practitioner, I think, "Oh God, not THIS again," even though it's not the plot, or the story, that's the problem, but rather the way it's implemented.
This is good news, I think, for those trying to break into print. While we (editors) say we want something new and interesting, I don't think too many would dispute that it's often the books that rely the most on formula and tradition that end up with contracts. Every once in a while something really fresh comes along, but how often does that happen, really? The idealists in us want such new and exciting things, but then we think: How will we market it? How will we describe it? How will we find reviewers whom we can count on to say something nice? Thus those many talented people attempting to write cross-overs or multiple genres in one book (let's say, horror + mystery + supernatural + cozy) send agents and editors running for the hills, which isn't fair; but, as I was fond of saying to my children when they were younger, since when is anything fair?
Some day I'll have to write a bit more about PLOT vs. CHARACTER. I use the "vs." for a reason. I have found in the last few years (well, decades probably) that the books that sell massively are mostly plot-centric. And for good reason--many people read for a good story. And yet it seems to me that people are reluctant to admit that story is often as important, or more important, than character development. Yet I see savage reviews when Reviewer has decided that there is not enough Character Development in a piece of genre fiction. What Reviewer means, I think, is that S/He has not found someone to like in the book, or someone to relate to. For, really, how much crime fiction is a bildungsroman? But that's fodder for another post, perhaps.
ON ANOTHER NOTE...
I try to blog only on one subject at a time, but I was reading some of the comments on my last post, and was slightly saddened that a reader thought I painted a "bleak picture" of publishing. I can see where that perception comes from, but I want to say that I don't think things are bleak. They are changing, yes; and the model of "write a book and get a big advance" is going the way of the dodo, which to me is good news, not bad news. But I see ample opportunities for small and independent presses to step in and make a difference; and I think many feel the same way.
Remember, too, that you can make a difference. All it takes a willingness to read new writers, to buy their books new, to spread the word, to "do no harm." There's a somewhat famous story of a well-liked mystery novelist who was dropped by a publisher in 2009 and then picked up rather quickly by a smaller house when readers rallied to his side. So people/readers can and DO make the difference.