“As I suspected, you’re a rank sentimentalist.” — Captain Renault to Rick Blaine in Casablanca
I have a confession to make.
I am a rank sentimentalist.
There was a time not that long ago when I tried to deny this aspect of myself, when I went to college and got my English degree, when I studied Chaucer and Shakespeare and literary criticism, when I thought Nietzsche was a god and Stephen King was a hack, and when my writing was mostly regurgitations of something Raymond Carver or Ernest Hemingway could have done much better. I wanted to be a literary writer and I wanted to write Something Important, something that would not only sell millions of copies but would also reaffirm my shaky belief that I was, of course, a literary genius merely masquerading as an ordinary human being.
Well, those days are long gone. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Shakespeare, or that I don’t think literary criticism has a place in this world, or that I don’t at some deep down level hope, just maybe, I have Something Important to say, but it is to say that as a writer, and as a reader, I’ve decided to focus on what reaches me on an emotional level. If something makes me laugh, or cry, if something thrills me or moves me, I’ve learned to pay attention. I trust that instinct. You can’t reach people in a lasting way through their intellects anyway. And I now think some of Stephen King’s books and stories (not all, but some) will be read a hundred years from now when the vast majority of authors acclaimed by critics today are long since forgotten.
An outrageous claim? History will be the judge. Just remember that few people thought the works of Charles Dickens would survive and look at him now. There were a couple things lately that got me thinking about why critics are so often at odds with popular taste, why they so often miss the boat when it comes to books and movies and other works of art that live on and endure. While I don’t quite share Dean Wesley Smith’s opinion that most reviewers are failed writers, I do agree — and through experience, have learned to follow — his advice to never read reviews of your own work. It’s just too easy to upset the apple cart of creativity.
Isn’t it every writer’s goal to write something that becomes beloved? Something that becomes a classic? Well, what’s the definition of a classic? I’d say it’s something that’s not only popular, but also endures. The movie Titanic was popular, but will it endure? The Da Vinci Code certainly sold like hotcakes, but will it be read a hundred years from now? Who knows. All I know is that a movie like Somewhere in Time, which was eviscerated by critics in its day (one critic said the movie did for romance what the Hindenburg did for dirgibles), is a great movie. How do I know this? I know it because when I watched it this weekend I felt it, because it moved me, and I’ve learned to trust that instinct. And if a movie most critics thought was awful could spur people to create a fan club, well, what does that say about most critics?
It says they’ve let cynicism and contempt for popular taste destroy what made them fall in love with movies or books in the first place. Nick Hornby has a great essay which says essentially the same thing. Read what you love, and don’t worry about whether it’s critically accepted. And if you’re a writer, or painter, or musician, then create what moves you, and don’t worry about whether it’s critically praised or not. As much as artists might like to think otherwise, it’s best to remember that art is an optional activity. And the art that lives on is the art that reaches us on an emotional level. As a writer, I lay my bet on the fact that if something moves me, there’s a good chance it will move other human beings. We’re all made from the same basic mold, you know.
And just for the record, I’ve seen Casablanca at least a dozen times. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.