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June 20 2010

Power of Becoming. An essay looking at the ways in which BtVS constitutes great literature from 'Seven Seasons of Buffy'.

Interesting. I have to continue reading later, but two things: Calling the "Buffy" movie "a successful film" is a stretch and calling Janeway the captain of the "Enterprise" is just wrong. Apart from that, I enjoy reading this essay and will continue later. :o)
Interesting though I must admit, I don't buy most of the stuff about Willow and the style of the piece leaves me a bit cold (too much in the way of bald statements of opinion and not enough in the way of textual justifications IMO). Not sure about the "intimate adventure" genre idea either, relationships and character drama have featured in fiction since forever, even in "adventure" stories, doesn't sound particularly new to me (though I think TV specifically has got better at it in the last 20 years or so).

I agree that Buffy is great literature though (might need a new word for TV shows but the principle holds).
Look. I love Buffy. It's a great TV show, and very entertaining. I love Joss's work. But Buffy is not great literature. What the author defines as "great literature" is really just good literature, that is, writing that gets the job done well. Buffy certainly does that. And while the show hits on moments of transcendence, it is still firmly in the pop culture department. Truly great literature transcends its setting. I'm not quite sure Buffy does that. It elevates pop culture to something greater than it usually is, but calling it "great literature" is just plain old gushing.
Seeing pop culture as necessarily separate from (and less than) great literature is a mistake I think - most of what we consider great literature today was the pop culture of its time (Dickens, Shakespeare etc.) - which is partly why i've never had much trouble crediting pop culture as great. Culture's culture to me, the line between high and low isn't clear and is certainly subjective.

Not really sure what "transcends its setting" means either, do you just mean "stands the test of time" ? Because fair enough, we don't know if Buffy will do that yet (personally I think that's more a symptom of greatness rather than a prerequisite though). Or does it mean something more like "is broadly applicable, captures universal truths of the human condition" ? Because that's certainly true of Buffy IMO, the themes will still be relevant and true in a hundred years.
Buffy only "transcends its setting" in the sense that it brushes up against some transcendent imagery. But it's still very much rooted in its time and place. But like most pop culture, it doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said. It says it well (better than most pop culture creations), but doesn't go further, which is what I mean. That is the primary difference between pop culture and great literature (or great art): pop culture at its best popularizes great ideas. Great literature creates them. Buffy didn't create any new, brilliant ideas. What it did do brilliantly was take what has already been said and root it in current culture and consciousness. Will Buffy's themes be relevant in a hundred years? Sure. They were relevent a hundred years ago as well. In a century, someone else will be popularizing the same ideas in new ways, and few will be watching Buffy. Buffy's themes are timeless, but Buffy itself is not. In my opinion. ;)
as someone who has a degree in literature and taught high school lit, i had a hard time even finishing the article. the author immediately lost credibility the moment they used "I," the first person. that's to say nothing of the fact that she quotes without citation (the "ruined it" was the most glaring).

but the thing that killed me the most, and ern hit it right on the head, was that the entire construct is built on an incorrect definition of "great literature." she writes as though she had a high school teacher who said she was a good writer, probably took a rhetoric and composition class in college and went from there. (i call this the "dead poets society syndrome")

i can think of many great works of literature that openly defy her definition (a personal favorite, "the scarlet letter" immediately comes to mind). internal or external conflict is the nature of storytelling. her line "The characters learn lessons and become different people" is rudimentary at best, and seldom creates "great literature," but rather just helps us sort the "bad literature" from everything else.

in the end, all i get from the article is that she's a fan of the show and is poorly trying to wedge it into a false definition to make her article work. the fact that she makes up quotes and cites poorly only detracts from the point she's trying to make.

now i love buffy as much as the next guy on these boards, but were i reading this paper as her teacher, i would've given this writer a "C" at best, probably with a note attached that she needed to see me and perform massive rewrites, if not rewrite the whole paper.
Wouldn't the term "literature" be a misnomer anyway? Literature is a fine art which encompasses writing. For sure, a script *might* be considered literature. But an acted drama is just that, a drama. It's also a fine art, but not the same one. Unless you want to get into the applied art vs. fine art distinction which to distinguish theater from television but... meh.

Still, who here was personally affected by the scripts of Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Certainly they were important (they were the blueprint after all), but it would be more accurate to say that everyone here was affected by the finished episode which was a performance?

Sorry, just a definition nitpick there.

As kefka states, I don't think any of us might argue that BtVS was a "great something", I'm just pretty sure this is not the correct argument to be making.

I do have to give a superficial "A" for knowledge for many antecedents of BtVS. Mainly, because it doesn't fall into the trap of, "this is how Joss Whedon single-handedly, out of his on genius, without any help, because nothing had EVER existed before that was even similar, saved television."

That Janeway/Enterprise mistake was extremely jarring though.

[ edited by azzers on 2010-06-20 19:38 ]
Will Buffy's themes be relevant in a hundred years? Sure. They were relevent a hundred years ago as well. In a century, someone else will be popularizing the same ideas in new ways, and few will be watching Buffy.


The same might have been said of Shakespeare some time ago, though ;).

Buffy only "transcends its setting" in the sense that it brushes up against some transcendent imagery. But it's still very much rooted in its time and place. But like most pop culture, it doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said.


I, for one, doubt that most 'great literature' isn't 'rooted in its time and place' in some way. Isn't everything a product of its time, when all is said and done? Even if someone is actively not trying to root something in its own time, then it is probably still defined by the struggle to be free of that constraint.

Take Shakespeare as an example again. I'd say that's firmly rooted in its time, uses universal themes (many of the same one we see in Buffy) which certainly weren't unique to him. In fact, Shakespeare was very much 'pop culture' when his plays appeared. Yet it was the way in which he combined the themes, his use of language and the universal appeal of his stories, which contributed to his ultimate success.

That is the primary difference between pop culture and great literature (or great art): pop culture at its best popularizes great ideas. Great literature creates them.


Fair enough, though I doubt that's in any way a universal definition for 'great literature'. Also: it probably excludes many things which most people would consider 'great literature'. What's more, "creating ideas" gets harder and harder as time progresses. Which would mean that as time goes on, less and less great literature is created. Which seems instinctively wrong.

For my money, I'm with Saje on this. Seeing pop culture (or any culture) as something different from 'great literature/art/etcetera' is a big mistake. I see no real reason to separate these things, as - at the end of the day - there are no objective markers to place anything into one category or another and our judgment of what constitutes great literature or art is always subject to our own time, opinions, taste and countless other elements that colour our frame of reference.

So, to my mind, the only thing one can argue is whether or not something is worthwhile or - even, although that is a more slippery slope - whether something is very good or even extraordinary.

As far as Buffy goes, I think it's a great television show and a true testament to the power of the medium in which it was produced. Is it 'great literature' or 'great art'? It might be - if such a thing exists as a clearly defined category. If not, it probably is to some and isn't to others. Which is fine by me.
Can't we just say that "Buffy" is great entertainment? Sure, Joss might've "covered old ground," but the way he did it was innovative. Look at "Beauty and the Beasts" for example - Pete thinks his girlfriend Debbie wants him to be a big tough guy for her, so he's willing to change to become what he thinks she wants. He's also possessive of her, getting upset when he thinks she's interested in another guy, even if they're just discussing notes for class. The potion makes him abusive, and she becomes the typical abuse victim, assuming it's her fault he's that way, and trying to brush off the bruises as something she deserves, claiming "he doesn't mean it."

And then you've got the subplot of Buffy discovering that Angel's back and deciding to keep that knowledge from her friends.

So you've got three or four different "topics" in one episode, all woven together into one story. It's not just about Pete doing a Jekyll & Hyde, or Debbie covering for his abuse, or Buffy keeping an important secret from her friends. It's all of those at once. (And probably other things I'm not thinking of right now.)

kefka I find it ironic that a person who has a degree in literature and taught high school literature, and wants to grade an online article, only uses one capital letter in their entire post.
I think most people here would agree that Buffy is great entertainment which makes it a less interesting discussion IMO. That and the essay is about whether it qualifies as great literature.

Buffy only "transcends its setting" in the sense that it brushes up against some transcendent imagery. But it's still very much rooted in its time and place. But like most pop culture, it doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said.

As per usual, GVH says it. Shakespeare commented on his time (and certainly used language very much of his time), famously "borrowed" plots and ideas and wrote for the people of his time, his stuff is full of what would've been pop culture references 400 years ago. He and Dickens were both very much rooted in their time and place at the time. The same is true of e.g. Jane Austen or the Brontes or any number of other writers we now consider to be great literature (or some do anyway, it being subjective there's plenty of room for honest disagreement). That they transcended their time and place we discovered afterwards, right now it's too early to tell if the same will be true of Buffy.

That is the primary difference between pop culture and great literature (or great art): pop culture at its best popularizes great ideas. Great literature creates them.

That strikes me as, with all due respect ern, a pretty baseless claim which, taken at its word, means that all we need to do to disqualify a piece of literature from greatness (regardless of its other qualities) is find an earlier example of the ideas it was previously supposed to have created. Not only that but since an exhaustive search of all previous works is in practice impossible, it's also practically impossible to know whether the idea has been created or "merely" popularised. This already happens with annoying regularity BTW - one of my pet peeves is reading reviews by mainstream reviewers that laud a book for its startling originality when in fact the very same ideas have appeared numerous times, sometimes decades previously only in e.g. science-fiction, a genre many mainstream reviewers consider beneath their ken.

Isn't everything a product of its time, when all is said and done?

In fact i'd say that for many people, commenting on its times is part of what makes a work of art great and it's always part of the context in which it's appreciated.

As to whether a different word is more appropriate, as I say in my initial post, quite possibly. But to me that's splitting hairs (and I say that as a champion hair-splitter, particularly over matters of definition ;). If you want to call it literavision or picterature (or even just great art) then go for it. The point is that it being pop culture doesn't of necessity prevent it from being the nearest televisual equivalent to great literature.
Simple rule of thumb: if a thingís got commercials in it then itís not great art.
if a thingís got commercials in it then itís not great art


Not really. The great novelists of the 19th Century often got their work serialized or first seen in magazines. And those publications had adverts. Does anyone care now that when The Pickwick Papers first came out, people saw ads appearing beside what Charles Dickens had written? Just because a tv show has commercials doesn't mean it shouldn't be considered as great art.
I've only skimmed the article and don't have much to add on the "Great Literature" question. I do actually agree with this author's take on Willow though. Willow's inability to confront problems directly, and her identity-in-flux, seem to me to be her defining traits, one which she has resolved only superficially until season six, which starts with Willow *not coping* with Buffy's demise by reviving Buffy, and ends with a death that Willow cannot mend. I think that the author perhaps fails to provide sufficient supporting evidence to convince someone who doesn't already share this belief :), but it's nice to see my views reflected every now and again.
fwiw, i was a lit major, not a grammar, capitalization or punctuation major ;) the amount of effort i put into an academic paper is vastly superior to a post on a board :) besides, if it works for e.e. cummings, it can work for me :)

and drama can be considered great literature. one of the focuses (foci?) of my studies was drama. the works of tom stoppard, frank mcguinness, oscar wilde, j.m. synge (i have a thing for the irish) amongst many others are considered "great literature."

it should also be mentioned that popularity doesn't discredit great literature. shakespeare, wilde, dickens, and many, many others were very popular, while many others (dickenson is the great example, as only seven of her hundreds of poems, were published during her lifetime), were unknowns during their lifetimes.

anyways, i've gotta go make dinner for my dad. my point was that the flaws of her article are largely execution and premise, rather than whether her argument was right or wrong. :)

[ edited by kefka on 2010-06-20 23:34 ]
The great novelists of the 19th Century often got their work serialized or first seen in magazines.

I believe that commercialism is evident at a much deeper level in serialized TV. Dickens, as far as I know, didnít go about changing the structure of his novels because a newspaperís advertising department told him to, unlike what we saw happen with Dollhouse for example.
Well, my understanding of Dickens was that he did make changes to some of his orginal plot ideas to suit the public taste/time and space constraints/asvoid upsetting people. For example, the end of Our Mutual Friend with the faking of the materialism, and the character of Miss Mowcher the dwarf in - David Copperfield, right?
Not as deep a link to true commercialism, but still there. Commercialism is an extension of popularism, isn't it?
kefka, I think banishing "I" from essays altogether is as much a mistake as littering your essays with personal anecdotes about your grandmother. Sometimes a personal pronoun is perfectly acceptable, and I don't think the author's use of it here warrants a complete dismissal of the piece. This isn't freshman English class, we don't need to dock points from someone for a pronoun.

Citation is a more fair issue, although given the number of footnotes to this article, I'm willing the bet the "ruined it" was an oversight.

[ edited by Jobo on 2010-06-21 00:11 ]
you're absolutely right jobo, "losing credibility" was too strong regarding the use of "I." it's something that irks me, because a critical analysis is an opinion paper by definition. it's poor form (though so is my writing without capitalization), and is just somewhat jarring.

what's odd for me, and this is purely opinion, is that i never really felt (with the exceptions of willow, spike, and to a lesser degree andrew, not because of the scope of his change, just the short time over which it occurred), that the characters really changed that much. season one xander is season seven xander, just with one less eye and a better job. i was always more drawn to the characters from "angel." if you look at where cordelia and wesley start versus where they end up, the change is not only profound, but a bit more organic.

anyways, i've said what i needed to say. the article wasn't bad, per se, just flawed. as for the "ruined it" part, it may have been an oversight, but given the number of citations the author had, i have a hard time believing they either couldn't find a direct quote to cite, or just leave the quotations out.
kefka, ee cummings to one side, the rules of this board are that you punctuate and capitalize your comments where appropriate. Thanks.
I know much too little about Dickens to make any comments about him, including the one I made above :) In any case, if an author is pandering to commercial/popular interests then Iíd still argue he is not engaged in writing great literature. If heís appeasing a censor he canít have a claim to great literature. Even as soon as he bends to external constraints his literature becomes less great. Sure, we can look back one or more centuries to find many great writers who were forced to do this and we still greatly like what they did. But standards have improved. If someone wants to write great literature today they wonít be sitting in a TV studio writerís room. And I suspect everyone involved is fairly fine with that.

Disclaimer: when Iím talking about great literature I mean Nobel price/moving the literary world forward/participate in the big dialogue of literature stuff.
Sure, we can look back one or more centuries to find many great writers who were forced to do this and we still greatly like what they did. But standards have improved.

I don't really see how. If someone has constraints now, why does that make them less capable of writing great works that someone who had constraints then? I doubt anyone's going to argue that Shakespeare wrote less-than-great literature, and that guy had to make sure he didn't tick off the Queen of England with everything he did. I'm not sure what's changed between now and then that means we can no longer write great literature with constraints, except that we live in the present and it's always hard to consider something contemporary along with age-old classics.
If someone has constraints now, why does that make them less capable of writing great works that someone who had constraints then?

In literature a text does not exist in isolation. It is interpreted and judged in a context and the constraints will be part of that context even when they are not apparent in the text. Literature is a developing body and it has already conquered many constraints it has no interest in revisiting.
I think that great art comes from limitation, not in spite of it. Without limits, without constraints, there is no form, and without form, there is no communication, let alone art.

Besides, what's the difference between a serialized installment in a newspaper and an hour-long slot? Between a chapter and an act break? Books have to sell copies, newspapers have to sell issues, and TV shows have to sell advertising time. No one is completely immune to commercial and popular concerns.

It's easy to pick on TV because of its ubiquity and its relatively short history, but I think it's important to remember that any medium or genre you look at will be at least 90% crap. We can only truly know great literature from whether or not it withstands the test of time. And when it does, it's easy to forget about the thousands of other works that did not. How can anyone know for sure that future generations won't be looking at Joss Whedon's work (sans commercials) and seeing greatness?
This felt like two different essays to me -- one about Buffy as 'great literature', one about the initiate/hero journey that Willy and Buffy go through. It was more stuck together than a cohesive whole, sandwich rather than a muffin.

I would be interested to read the first one, although given this person's very broad definition of 'great literature' I don't think she's the one to write it. I also think it's too early to judge whether or not Buffy can transcend its time given those criteria, although the fact that it has spawned a veritable subfield of academia does seem rather telling to me. But a comparison to actual great literature - let's say Shakespeare, as above, or Austen, or Dostoyevsky. Why should it not be great literature just because its on television? Theatre can be considered to be great, and so I certainly don't think its more permanent relatives on the screen should be excluded. Wilde, Shaw, Stoppard, and Beckett are certainly classics, why shouldn't Whedon be added to the list?

Hm. I think that ended up sounding pretentious than I meant it to be. I found this article a bit pretentious, though, and I'm having a hard time putting my finger on why. I also found the mere use of episode titles as evidence a bit thin. Sure, we know what happened in each, but it just seemed like she skimmed over a lot. The most interesting part to me was her analysis of Willow, which was a point I'd never really considered before. It makes perfect sense now, especially Willow's use of magic to fix external issues. Actually, I rather wish she'd stuck to that theme, even without the 'initiate' framework.
@Saje, I always enjoy the depth of insight in your comments and I completely agree with you. Popular culture and products of it should not be denigrated simply because they appeal to the masses. Too often popular culture and particularly television as a medium are dismissed due to their audience appeal; exclusiveness is not a mark of high culture, only intellectual snobbery, IMO. Certainly the line separating high and low culture is subjective, but popular culture shouldn't by necessity be excluded from works of great art.

@zoinkers, I also agree with you :)
I read this essay years ago and I really like it. Nit picking the technical merits of the essay style aside, I think she makes some excellent points.

She even alludes to the problem of classifying TV shows as "literature", saying that she believes that BtS is "contributing to a process whereby TV is becoming a medium that can support great literature."

After all, we don't really yet have another name for the few shows that have transcended the ordinary to a degree that would, historically, earn them the designation of "literature".
And I think it's a pretty well established fact that all great literature was "pop culture", in it's own day, something we've discussed before on this forum.

I especially enjoyed the deconstruction of Willow's character, and the contrast of she and Buffy's very different ways of dealing with power.

But I liked this essay, when I first read it, for a very personal reason .... the conclusion that "becoming" is the underlying theme of the entire show, a conclusion I had reached before reading the essay, and discussed with my one R/L fellow Buffy fanatic. I mean, who doesn't like seeing their personal conclusions validated by the published word? ;-)

I do think that this simple concept defines the reason that people of all ages can relate to a story told in a context and setting where most of the main characters were high school kids, for the first three seasons.
As someone who was far older that that, even when the series began, I didn't relate to it just in a nostalgic "oh yeah, I remember what high school was like" way. I realized pretty early on that there was more going on than just high school kids/young adults growing up.

The "becoming" theme is, as is pointed out in this essay, an overriding theme for every conscious human being, and in BtS, transcends the setting of high school, college and young adulthood, while remaining firmly rooted in the culture of its' own time and place, set and setting.

So yes, I'd go with the "great literature' conclusion, until a better term, incorporating visual media, comes along.

ee cummings? .... no match for Whedonesque mods. :_)

[ edited by Shey on 2010-06-21 11:12 ]
Cheers cardea and yep, some attitudes to pop culture strike me that way too.

I also agree with zoinkers (and Ted Sturgeon ;) that 90% of everything is crap though i'm still not convinced about the primacy of the "standing the test of time" criterion (though I agree it's usually one property of greatness). How do we know that something that stands the test of time isn't just good, rather than great ? E.g. if something's "just" good entertainment in its time but is also considered to be good entertainment in a hundred years, does that make it great ? Feels like there's more to it.

(there's also an element of contingency to durability too of course. To go back to Shakespeare for instance, if he hadn't had friends and fans with sufficient means/determination to have the First Folio published then much of his stuff wouldn't even be around today. Gives me the *shudders* just thinking about it ;)
So now I'm wondering... just what would the Greatness Algorithm look like?

I think it would incorporate "standing the test of time," "universal themes," and... some other stuff. :) I'm gonna be obsessing about this now, damn it. (Any input would be appreciated.)

Anyways, it's interesting trying to compare a medium that has a solitary vision (novels) to one that is (no matter how much we think Joss is The Master) a truly collaborative medium. Even plays are not in that category, imo. The above oft cited Shakespeare can still breathe on the page all by itself or in a simple circle reading. It isn't really about sets or costumes or music. In fact, often those possible aspects of a play are underplayed, less they become too distracting for the audience. If the performance of a "great" play sucks, we criticize the production of the play--the play lives on to be attempted again by another group at another time.

But a tv show? It is so intimate--every little nuanced change effects the finished work. A couple of examples off the top of my head:

1. A scene as written can be completely changed by a location (Buffy meeting Angelus for the first time, unbeknown to her, in "Innocence" as explained by Joss in his commentary).

2.A scene can also be strongly effected by the choice of music. Documentaries about the early wrestling with how to incorporate music often cite "The Lost Weekend" (1945) as an example of audience reaction to a scene with and without music (laughter verses horror and sympathy during an alcoholic's drunken hallucination sequence.)

3. And then there is the nature of the camera shot which picks FOR us how we will view the scene. A scene will play out in our minds very differently depending on how close the camera is, do we even see the person talking, and how the scene is framed, etcetera.

These three variables are each controlled by different people in the world of tv and can both add and detract greatly to the finished work. And while the show runner does have some input, the variables are ultimately the contributions of different minds--because the show runner can't be everywhere and have expertise in everything. ;)

I'm wondering how fair it is to compare an entire show/series to a novel. Even on arc heavy show like BtVS is uneven due to the nature of collaboration and shooting schedules. So, does one just pretend the lamer episodes don't exist in terms of a tv show's "greatness?" Cohesiveness in a series isn't as necessary as in a novel or a play where a false note really stands out and can't be written off. There seem to be different rules operating in tv land. Maybe "greatness" just comes down to, "Is it memorable/haunting/moving?"
I have to quarrel with the idea that Willow and tara 's relationship was inherently "unheAlthy" from the beginning and thus foredoomed to fail. In the first place, the attraction between Tara and Willow to start with, well, a *lot* of real relationships start that way (attraction has to be based on something after all) and they often turn out as well as any other. And even if you grant her idea that such an attraction is unhealthy per se, they still could have transcended that with the proper attention to their own failings. Of course how often do two people in one couple show willingness to pay honest attention to themselves?
Like ern I too am a Lit Major and in school to become a high school English teacher. I was unable to finish this essay as it sounded more like an ode to BtVS mixed with random big words and end notes.
Yes, Buffy is pertinent. This show reflects the evolution of the feminist movement and underminds stereotypes. Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare were also critically reflective to their time; however, they only became "great literature" after at least 4-5 decades. Buffy is important in this generation, whether or not BtVS stands the test of time will, pardon the pun, take time. As for her argument that a tv show can even be considered great literature I, like many others, take issue with her basic definition of literature. There are tons of great novels that do not create new stories but either expand upon another idea or mine other works for material.
Like I said, I feel that this article was written but a big fan of BtVS; and while I too am a huge fan I don't think the argument is a solid, well edited one.
If the performance of a "great" play sucks, we criticize the production of the play--the play lives on to be attempted again by another group at another time.

That's an interesting point I reckon Breathestory. Because of the way author/ownership usually works with TV scripts i.e. they tend to be copyrighted to large corporations and are rarely published as scripts (which, in turn, is ultimately presumably due to the high costs of TV production) they tend to be judged on a single implementation, they never have another chance to prove how good they are (if not for e.g. a bad Director of Photography or bad lighting or an inappropriate musical cue - or even just a badly mixed one - or bad acting or even good acting that's a different interpretation of the script and so on). Even remakes never (AFAIK) use the same script word for word.

Which is related to your point about comparing novels/plays to TV series. In some respects it's easier to be great with a TV show (because people will overlook entire episodes when judging) but in other ways it's much harder because so many ducks have to line up (at least most of the time) for it to work and each script only gets one shot. So TV greatness is "on balance" whereas with novels people are arguably less forgiving (though there's still an element of scale to it - so a few episodes of a long running series can be overlooked in the same way that a few clunky sentences might be for a novel).

As to the formula, here's a first attempt at cracking what should be a dead straightforward problem (not just *cough* but *cough*ing fit ;):

test of time + thematic richness + insight-into-the-human-condition^2 + novel content + novel implementation + technical excellence + a bit of luck = Greatness

Easy. Now i'm off to write the next Great British Novel by simple application of the above ;-).
How do we know that something that stands the test of time isn't just good, rather than great ?

You make a valid point here, Saje - I think it comes down to personal opinion. One can merely be reassured that enough people valued the work to save it from the ravages of time. It's possible that if I traveled back in time, I'd find dozens if not hundreds of works that I might personally value as much as the ones that survived. It might be a matter of my own subjective taste differing from that of the mainstream, or it might come down to chance. If the Buffy movie had never been made, would we be here now talking about Joss Whedon? What if someone other than Sarah Michelle Gellar had been cast in the show? (This ties into what BreathesStory was saying above.)

I don't think there is an objective standard for great art. It's just that we as humans happen to be similar enough to each other that we can communicate, and we share enough values so that many of us enjoy the same art. Not everyone likes Whedon's work. Not everyone appreciates Shakespeare. Does that make them wrong, or just different?

If it were easy to classify the things that make great storytelling, it would be easy to create based on that formula. This is clearly not the case. If there's one thing we can agree on here, it might be that formulaic storytelling tends not to be regarded as great literature.
Boy do you have some editing to do now that you've seen my totally comprehensive formula for greatness.

(so, so kidding ;-)

Yeah zoinkers, facetiousness aside, I agree that there's no objective metric for great art and also that formulae (except in the broadest terms e.g. Joss' "formulae" of always asking "What's the emotional journey ?" or "How does this affect Buffy ?") don't have much of a place (though - tangent alert - formulae themselves can be beautiful IMO). All great art has things in common but those properties are often so broad or arbitrary they're about as descriptively useful as "It's great".
I guess I've already contradicted myself here, as I was speaking earlier of constraints being a benefit to art - and then I turn around and dis formulae. I guess when people use "formulaic" as a pejorative term, they mean storytelling that sticks to the formula as method for cutting corners or filling space when their imagination fails them. But I agree - a stringent formula can become very interesting when it helps to push artists to find imaginative ways to subvert expectations.

This is something I think Whedon truly excels at. He's amazing at using genre expectations - and setting up his own - and then pulling the rug out in the most unexpected ways. But he does more than just break the rules - he exceeds expectations by turning what we were expecting completely on its ear. It's about suddenly changing the context ... which is also the way humor works ... you're right, it's a tangent and it's a long one!

I guess the attempt at defining what makes great art is still useful, even if it's ultimately an unachievable goal. By trying to define what makes art great, we are trying to figure out what brings us together as people, and how it is we're capable of understanding each other at all. (Another tangent!)

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