A New Romanticism
The turn away from nihilism and irony will be fueled by kindness in the face of cynicism
If you’ve never heard of Brandon Sanderson, he’s sort of the evil twin of George R.R. Martin, by which I mean that he is efficient, prolific, clean, and can actually complete the books he is writing.
I have a few friends who are huge Brandon Sanderson fans. They signed up for his Kickstarter where he surprised fans with four secret books and, bypassing the traditional publishing route, brought in 41 million surprise dollars through Kickstarter.
I’ve read a few Sanderson books and I like him fine. I have been fairly impressed with his ability to churn out compelling fiction that is cohesive, imaginative, and surprisingly sweet. It’s a rare gift, people gobble it up, and it makes him tons of money. Everyone loves Brandon Sanderson.
Hence my surprise when Wired magazine published this inexplicable piece on Sanderson. The entire article is Jason Kehe writing about how boring he finds Sanderson, his family, his fans, his home, and his books. It’s less of an article about Sanderson than a diary of a journalist who has been assigned a story he is simply not equipped to write. He doesn’t have the interest, curiosity, or cultural background to connect with Sanderson and he spends the article telling us more about himself than about his subject.
As I read the piece, I thought about the cynicism with which most modern writers and journalists approach so many topics. In fact, this trend reaches out to much of our literary and high art culture. A writer can’t just be a writer. He has to have a secret, a hidden trauma. Anything good must have come from a hidden bad and all virtues are beset by ulterior motives.
This is the main theme of George R.R. Martin’s work. The good are weak because they selflessly value virtues and the bad are strong because they reject morality and loyalty in favor of will-to-power. The cynicism of Martin’s work is deep.
It’s always hard to say how much art influences culture and how much the culture is reflected in art, but we’ve been watching this concept of the uselessness of loyalty, honesty, and unironic goodness getting beaten up in real-life and in art over the last twenty or thirty years. I’ve been pondering how to engage the culture to reverse this trend and I have no answers. It’s so much easier to tear down than to build up. Is our culture doomed to be soaked in irony and cynicism for the foreseeable future?
To my surprise and delight, I saw that The Mob was pummeling Wired for publishing this piece. People were slamming the magazine and Kehe for publishing such an inexplicable piece of journalism.
And then I saw Sanderson’s response on Reddit. It’s beautiful. He basically agrees with Kehe that he is boring and empathizes with Kehe that it must have been hard to write an article about a person as boring as he is. But then he relates this lovely lesson he learned about people in a Terry Pratchett book:
In Going Postal, one of my favorite novels, Sir Terry Pratchett has a character fascinated by collecting pins. Not pins like you might think—they aren’t like Disney pins, or character pins. They are pins like tacks used to pin things to walls. Outsiders find it difficult to understand why he loves them so much. But he does.
In the book, pins are a stand-in for collecting stamps, but also a commentary on the way we as human beings are constantly finding wonder in the world around us. That is part of what makes us special. The man who collects those pins—Stanley Howler—IS special. In part BECAUSE of his passion. And the more you get to know him, or anyone, the more interesting you find them. This is a truism in life. People are interesting, every one of them—and being a writer is about finding out why.
There is someone I admire on Twitter, a good young Catholic man who has taken it on himself to become a conduit for prayer requests of people who feel lost and alone, abandoned in a social media wasteland and trying to find some way to plead to God when things seem hopeless. He believes that irony is played out, that we are ready for what he calls “New Romanticism.”
I agree. I want to see this love for earnest curiosity, for the triumph of kindness and goodness. I want to see a resurgence in the belief that the earth is teeming with fantastic, unique, explosive individuals and that every one of them holds within themselves a gold mine of potential.
Sanderson believes this. He said it in his Reddit post and he says it in his books. In isolation from any real-world conflict, this rosy view of human nature seems kind of lame. It seems too easy, too storybook. It seems like the kind of worldview that crashes disastrously in the real world and becomes the topic of an ironic cynical joke.
But here Sanderson was given the perfect opportunity to play the victim. He could have railed against Kehe, shown umbrage at the inexplicable cruelty that was shown to everyone within his orbit. Sanderson would have been well within his rights to respond with vitriol and spite.
Instead, he pleaded with his fans not to attack Kehe, saying:
I respect him for trying his best to write what he obviously found a difficult article.
He’s a person, remember, just like each of us.
In the face of a culture that is overwhelmingly vindictive and punitive, this is a curious and astonishing oasis. I think this is the gateway to a cultural revision.
I’m not sure at the moment how cultural revisions play out. But I know inspiration when I see it. Watching Sanderson respond to such an unkind article with the grace of a saint is an inspiration. It makes me think that maybe there is a good path through this otherwise bleak moment.
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Disney Shorts: The Pointer (1939)
In this short, Mickey goes out hunting for for quail with Pluto. When Pluto pounces on the first thing that moves, Mickey gives him quite a cruel rebuke, calling him all manner of names. In an attempt to redeem himself, Pluto goes off trail to try to help sniff out game for his master. Mickey ends up being chased by a bear and he and Pluto end up back at camp without any game.
The art in this short is really good, almost better than they should be for a short film. The forest scenes and animal animation are both exquisite. I suspect that, as many of the other shorts were testing grounds for Disney feature film animation, this was likely a test-run for animation techniques and styles we will see in Bambi in a few short years.