Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Bit of an Acquired Taste

Maybe this will clarify things about prequel "apologists" or maybe it will just get me more derision, but here are a couple of stories that I think bear light on the subject.

Not long out of college, I read a couple of books by Gene Wolfe: Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. The first one amazed me -- brilliant, literate, and highly entertaining all at once. But the sequel just plain baffled my brain. I found it a total chore to get through, a maze of mythological allusions and deep dives into what I think was the history of the Peloponnesian Wars. The ending made no sense at all, and I finished the book thoroughly dissatisfied. Not long after, I got into a debate about the book on GEnie (yeah, this was pre-WWW for me) with a guy who said SoA was just as good as SotM, if not better. You just had to be willing to work at it more, he claimed. I pretty much blew him off, arguing that Wolfe had managed to make the first book not just comprehensible, but gripping, and that he should have done the same thing with the second one.

Also not long after college, I re-read The Lord of the Rings. I'd first read it in seventh grade and found it absolutely tedious. Having devoured The Hobbit multiple times and knowing that everybody and his dog loved LotR, I expected the trilogy to be wonderful, and instead it put me to sleep. I spent all of high school and most of college thinking its popularity just represented people jumping on a bandwagon without knowing what fantasy ought to be like. But a friend of mine insisted I must have been too young to appreciate Tolkien's opus, and I respected his opinion enough to give it another try. And ... I still thought it was boring and overblown, full of cardboard characters and melodrama. But in my early thirties, yet another friend I respected let me know in no uncertain terms that I was wrong, so I tried it again. And finally, I saw what everybody else saw -- a phenomenally rich fantasy world layered with brilliant allegory on what it means to be alive and human.

In retrospect, I'm positive the Soldier of Arete fan knew what he was talking about. If I'd put the effort in, I would have found that book extremely rewarding. But here's the thing: I didn't want to put that much effort into it, and I still don't want to. Gene Wolfe is a genius. I've read a bunch of his books, and the man is on a whole other plane. But I don't get most of his stuff. I just don't get it, and I don't want to put in the effort that I know it will take for me to get it.

I'm not saying George Lucas is another J.R.R. Tolkien or Gene Wolfe. But when tons of smart people are able to speak passionately about the intricate elements of a fictional world and the meaning they find in that world's characters, it probably means there's something there. I was wrong to look down my nose at all the Lord of the Rings fans in high school. I was wrong to assume that the guy on GEnie was just full of himself.

And you're wrong to scoff and sneer at prequel supporters. You're simply wrong. It's fine that you dislike the movies. It's fine that they don't click for you. It's fine that you don't want to devote any brainpower to analyzing the films in search of things that might make you like them better.

But it's not fine for you to ridicule people who find something deeper in these movies. They're right. There IS something deeper there. You're wrong to tell them that they're mistaken.

There are millions of people around the world who have no business ever trying to read The Lord of the Rings. That's not because they're dumb or ignorant, but because the reward they'll get out of it is far less than the effort it will take for them to finish it. It's just not a book for everyone.

The prequels aren't for everyone. But they are for some people. Hate them however much you want, but at least try to acknowledge that you dislike them because their flaws make them indigestible to you personally, not because they lack any inherent value or aesthetic accomplishment.