On Wish Fulfillment, and “Art”

Someone made a snotty comment about art and entertainment being mutually exclusive (yes, this was on Twitter, how did you know?) and it irritated me enough to pop off a thread in response. It also got me thinking about wish fulfillment.

Inevitably, whenever someone starts making the case for entertainment being art too, goddamn if someone doesn’t trot out the Schlock Argument. The Schlock Argument is “this very popular thing is also critically panned and will not Stand the Test of Time, therefore your argument about entertainment being worthwhile is invalid.”1

Glossed over by the Schlock Argument are two very important things: who are the “critics” and how much time are we talking about standing the test of? In literature, critics have historically and overwhelmingly been old white men, and coincidentally (or not) it’s those same old, privileged white men who get to decide what gets kept and taught, held up as example and poured into malleable young minds. I’m sure you, my discerning reader, can see the problems inherent in that.

Which brings us to Twilight, and Fifty Shades.

No, I’m not joking.

I have often called the Twilight series “Mormon Housewife Wish Fulfillment”, with varying degrees of insolence, amusement, and sometimes even a touch of disgust. I can’t count the number of times in a private setting I was privy or party to a hashing out of the problems with characterization, narrative structure, plot, believability, or anything else involving Sparkly Vampires. The massive popularity of very weak tea indeed filled plenty of other writers with head-scratching bemusement or fury. “This is just so bad,” they would say to me. “Why, dear God, why?” And I agreed. Twilight is, by any standard, a hot mess lacking any real characterization or craft, and full of questionable things. (Renesmee, anyone?)

It is also art.

Twilight provoked a massive emotional and financial response. The latter has little bearing on this, except to underscore the intensity of the former. Twilight was genuinely, absolutely bonkers–but it was true. It provoked that emotional response because it was the absolute, unfiltered wish fulfillment of a human being in a particular time and place. I wish Livejournal hadn’t gone over to the Russians, because way back when the Sparkly Vampire Fandom was at full throttle, I read a marvelous piece by a former Mormon detailing how Latter-Day Saints theology and peculiarities filled the books to the brim. I remember exactly where I was sitting while reading that piece, because it burst upon me like blinding sunshine. I would love to link it here and give proper credit, because it was a dilly.

Bella as a character is a fabulous nonentity, so vague and dim the reader can project the reader’s own self onto her with little trouble at all, and therein lies an attraction, a powerful (and somewhat guilty, for me) pleasure. We all feel clumsy and at sea, and we all dream of finding out we’re special–not just everyday human special, but freesia-scented special. Stephenie Meyer either got her ego out of the way or sank so deeply into it as to become unself-conscious to the point of enlightenment; the result was a pure, grade-A, unfiltered wish fulfillment fantasy that was so specific to her time and place it became universal.

A paradox of art, that. Everyone alive has wanted to be freesia-scented special. Everyone wants a soulmate, if only to be completely understood. Everyone likes the idea of being protected by supernally beautiful creatures, everyone wants excitement and danger that isn’t really danger because you know you’ll be saved anyway.2 Twilight launched a billion fanfics and a massively profitable phenomenon because it went all-in, and readers could sense and responded to that commitment.3 It reminds me of the craze around Gothic novels, especially the ones wildly popular in their day and all but forgotten now because they were largely written for (and often by) women. Repressed sexuality and wish fulfillment is a powerful combination, and speaking truly about either is magnetic.

I’m sure you can guess why I mention Fifty Shades, as well. Yes, the fanfic (and the eventual book) is problematic as fuck. Issues of consent, authenticity, suppression of women, the poison of patriarchy run through both Fifty Shades and Twilight, which Fifty Shades was written mostly in response too. But both hit it big, because both evoked a huge emotional response–both are fantasies of wish fulfillment, of endless love, of submission becoming a power without the drawbacks normally accompanying real power.

Wish fulfillment isn’t just for women, either. Just look at Tom Clancy novels, or any movie starring Tom Cruise.

“Yes,” I hear you saying, “but, Lili, come on. Art? You’re calling them art?”

Yes. They were true, people responded to them, they are art. The false dichotomy between “art” and “entertainment” exists only to oppress; it’s a fucking classist fairytale. The idea that art has to be Serious, Disturbing, Approved by Professors, or Have Survived The Test of Time Plus Racism, Sexism, and Other Isms is pure bullshit. Art must be true, and the audience will respond to that truth. Whether or not art “survives the test of time” depends on cultural narratives of importance and who’s funding the fucking universities, not on any worth inherent in the art or artist themselves. Which sucks ass–how many beautiful, amazing things have been lost because nobody thought an artist a real human being because of their dangly bits, skin color, or socioeconomic position? The answer, always, is “too many.”

Yes, Twilight and Fifty Shades are badly written. The craft of either is bloody abysmal. They’re messy, farfetched, and often incoherent. But they are true. The artists behind them went right to the wall with gusto, refusing to water down the fantasy, the wish-fulfillment. Both of them were incredibly lucky to hit during a historical era where they could reach wide dissemination and reap financial returns. Both of them were fortuitous in their timing, and in tapping a few deep cultural veins.

None of the luck means they are not art.

Art is made for humans, by humans. It is to evoke an emotional response. I have often told my writing students the flavor of the response doesn’t matter–hate, love, laughter, weeping. It’s the response itself you’re going for, and the only way to get it is by telling the truth, in whatever fashion you can and refusing to look away. Don’t ask, is it art? Ask instead, is it true?

And if it’s not, revise until it is. You may hit it big, you may not, but either way, you’re a fucking artist. End of story, period, amen.

***

Notes

  1. Someone inevitably trots out Bulwer-Lytton at some point, too. It’s some kind of internet law, though I hesitate to call it a variation of Godwin’s for obvious reasons.
  2. I could go on a whole digression here about the Rapture, but let’s stay on target.
  3. Human beings respond to deep commitment in their art like cats to catnip.