Protagonists can fail to overcome an obstacle, but they are not themselves an obstacle. And naturally they are never a source of legitimate grievance to anyone.
Obviously, not all fiction is like this. But a lot of it is. Jane Austen is this. Samuel Beckett’s novels are this. “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And I wanna say nineteen out of every twenty movies.
It’s classic. It’s what everybody wants. It makes you feel good. And it corresponds to something deep in every child: “You, child, are magic. Everybody else—buncha muggles.” You, by definition, are James Bond. Whoever’s in your way is Goldfinger.
I know what you’re thinking. “How is any of this a fault specific to fiction? Aren’t poets every bit as—” Let me cut you off there. Yes, poets are every bit as. But there’s a difference. Poets (despite eighty years of cant about distinguishing the speaker from the writer) pretty much have no choice but to come right out and say “I am awesome, and you people are trash” when that’s what they mean. Poems that vindicate the self do so more or less directly. Whereas, Harry Potter vindicates all selves—without ever owning what it’s doing.
One can very easily cheer on Harry Potter without ever guessing one is masturbating the Self. Most never do guess it! Whereas, if one identifies with the speaker in, say, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” one knows damn well that it’s personal.
Fine! You can pelt me with exceptions all you want; the idea is fundamentally sound. It wouldn’t be, if all prose narrative were memoir and all poetry were personal monologues, like those of Robert Browning or whoever. But as long as the standard novel is about a relatable character’s adventures slaying some dragon or other, and as long as the standard poem is a weather report from the speaker’s soul, it’s going to be fiction that must bear most of the guilt for improving people’s native narcissism into the monstrosity one sees all around one.
It’s not that poetry isn’t sinister! It’s that it’s openly sinister.
Look, it’s like you’re on a diet. A slab of cake in a refrigerated display case is openly sinister. Most fiction on the other hand is more like a bottomless bag of nuts. Looks harmless! Looks natural! And worst of all, the very form of nuts, the structure of nut-eating, easily suckers you into sitting there eating them all afternoon. You can wind up with twenty times the calories as you would have gotten from the display-case Napoleon, with its exquisite zigzag chocolate-drizzle stripes.
The very fact that poetry cloys prevents the all-day, vindication-of-self binge. Your standard poem is the front side of a piece of paper; Harry Potter is like eighty books, each one of ’em thick as a quart of milk.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.
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Author: Anthony Madrid