Raising The Next Generation

    Every singer out there with songs on the radio is raising the next generation – Taylor Swift.

A couple weeks ago 60 Minutes, CBS’s news magazine, aired a broadcast from last November which included a segment about popular singer Taylor Swift. During the conversation with Lesley Stahl, she made the above statement.

The most remarkable thing might have been what she said next: “so make your words count.”

How about that! A 21 year old singer understands what writers twice her age don’t seem to get. Sure, she was talking about music, not books. But I don’t think the difference is so great. Screenplay writers, novelists, lyricists, singers, actors–it seems the arts have arrived, and the influence of the arts on culture. Or perhaps, more accurately, entertainment has arrived.

Any idea that books are being kicked to the curb as an influence should have been erased by Harry Potter. Or Twilight. Or Hunger Games.

Kids dressed up like Harry, chose up teams for Twilight. I shudder to think what is out there in conjunction with Hunger Games.

In spite of all this book attention and the widening influence of those developed into movies, some Christian writers still parrot the party line that Christian fiction should not be about “a message.” Perish the thought that fiction should actually have something to say. The main goal–the highest goal–they claim, is for a writer to entertain.

I think Taylor Swift would think that odd. She gets that the words she sings have impact on those kids absorbing them.

Why wouldn’t characters we live with for seven books, or three? Don’t their values become ours for those hours when we inhabit their world? Aren’t we feeling their fear or love or hope? Aren’t we reasoning and planning the next step, as they are?

And yet they have no impact on us?

I dare say, the majority of the writers who hold this view first decided they wanted to pen a story because of something they read.

But horrors if the writer of that book actually intended to communicate the message that storytelling is a desirable thing. Messages can’t be intentional, only accidental, or so the thinking goes of this group of Christian writers. Anything intentional is nothing short of propaganda.

I doubt that’s what Taylor Swift thinks. I suspect she is responding to the fact that a generation of plugged in kids is vulnerable, easily influenced by the entertainment media, wide open to believe whatever their idols say.

Why is it that Christian writers can’t embrace this fact, too? Why is it that if we say, “so make your words count,” we’re advocating turning fiction into propaganda?

Could it be that a story with something to say actually has more depth, not less? Could it be that the difference between an excellent story and propaganda is in the execution not the existence of a message?

I don’t know, maybe most parents are content to have the current singers who are on the radio raising their kids. Maybe they’re fine with the characters in books like Twilight serving as role models.

But wouldn’t it be cool if the writers of those words–the song lyrics and the stories–paid attention to what Taylor said and made their words count in such a way that young girls learned more than to be obsessed with a bad boy? Or that war is as bad as the soldiers say, and to top it off, everyone involved is corrupt.

Personally, Harry is looking better and better. In his story friends matter, so much that they’re worth dying for, and in the end that kind of sacrificial love is invincible. Those words just might count for something worthwhile.

Promotion, Promotion, Promotion

In his comment to yesterday’s post Alex said

you really have to wade through the muck to find someone with something interesting, or purposeful to say.

I suspect the flood of trivia, junk, dirt, spam, ads, and promotion has only just begun. Businesses have discovered the goldmine of marketing through bloggers. And people like me who want to create buzz about a particular something (in my case, Christian fantasy) will undoubtedly proliferate.

So do we all just jump on the spam wagon and ride it for all it’s worth? I don’t think so. Having something to promote does not mean I have to become a spammer.

If I have a product or know of a product that I think someone else might be interested in, then it’s worth talking about. That’s a far cry from a) lying about a product and saying it’s good when it isn’t; or b) pretending that everyone I know will be interested in it, when I know they won’t.

In my mind, what separates legitimate promotion from spam is this: honest evaluation and care for the consumer.

Believe me, I’ve read posts and emails and status updates that turn me off because no matter what the subject, in the end the person ends up telling us about his latest work or her latest book. Sometimes those are appropriate and fit in well. But sometimes those kinds of comments simply sound self-serving.

It reminds me of the complaints that were bandied about regarding Christian fiction being preachy. If the writing comes across as propaganda, then it ruins the story. I don’t see any difference in writing non-fiction—blog articles, emails, or tweets.

So what is propaganda? From Wikipedia: “propaganda in its most basic sense, often presents information primarily in order to influence its audience.” There’s the thing—the purpose of propaganda is actually to manipulate others. It goes beyond information. Here are examples of each.

Information: I like this, and I think other Christian women my age might like it too.

Propaganda: This is the best one yet, and your life won’t be complete unless you too, all of you, buy now, before the price goes up or they run out of the autographed edition (or hardback copy or accompanying tee shirt … )

Propaganda: Yellow Labs and Golden Retrievers are popular dogs, which reminds me of how popular my book has become.

😀 Yeah, promotion can morph into propaganda, and as I see it, that’s not a good thing.

Spinning Presidential Politics

“Words mean something.”

I heard that line from one of the candidates for the US presidency as he chided his opponent during a stump speech.

Words do mean something, but unfortunately they can be slanted by context, tone of voice, body language, and innuendo to mean more … or less, than the original speaker intended. This, coupled with editing a fifty-minute speech into ten-second sound bites for television news shows, and a person’s message is easy to distort.

Once upon a time we called the purposeful misconstruction of meaning propaganda. Now we call it spin, or maybe advertising.

What disturbs me most is that Americans no longer know how to recognize these tactics. Unfortunately, much of what passes as campaigning these days is a war of competing commercials, written by slick campaign strategists who know what hot buttons to push.

Of course there are also media reports. Some journalists purposefully misconstrue the views of the candidate with whom they disagree. Some do so unintentionally because they too are unaware of the tactics that shape a message. (And some intentionally because they know the spin will sell more newspapers).

Although I grew up in an era that taught children in school how to recognize propaganda, covering high school sports for a local newspaper group showed me first hand how a writer shapes a story.

After all, the games I attended lasted two and a half hours, but I generally had less than ten inches of (newspaper column width) copy to write. The key was to write only the most important information. And of course, I got to decide what was important.

Should I feature the offensive line that didn’t allow a quarterback sack? The running back who gained over 150 yards? The defensive back who intercepted a pass and ran it back for a score? The place kicker who hit a 40-yard field goal with less than a minute remaining in the game?

The point is, what I left out of my story became lost to the public. Sure, the coaching staff would probably know. The parents who attended might, and the players surely would. But Average Interested Fan who read the article would know only the part of the story I wrote. Only what I considered important.

And what if I had a rooting interest? What if I wanted one team to look better than it actually was? What if I wanted to slant the story to highlight a particular player? What if I had no scruples about telling the truth?

Let me illustrate how easy this shaping is. Here are two accounts of the same (imaginary) athlete. Which one shows my bias against this quarterback?

Brown completed 14 of 22 passes, but yielded a critical intercepted at the close of the first half.

Brown completed 14 of 22 passes, including a ten-yard touchdown strike to put the Vikings ahead for good.

Not too hard to figure out, right? Both lines may be true, but what I write shines the light on this athlete so readers see him as I want them to.

All this to say, I think it is essential for a thinking people to watch news coverage and/or read articles about the political campaign with an eye to the slant that shapes the story. Otherwise, we end up spun.

Published in: on September 8, 2008 at 1:15 pm  Comments (5)  
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Why Do They DO That?

OK, this is a rant. Fair warning.

Of late, I’ve been asking myself the “Why do they DO that?” question more and more. Seems like there is less and less “common” sense going around.

Take NBC and the Olympics coverage. How many times do they tell us they are giving us live coverage of this or that event? Except they delay the feed to the West Coast and, I presume, to the Mountain Time Zone, as well. Rather than watching true live coverage from 5 PM to 9 or 10, no. We on the West Coast must wait until 8:00 and either stay up late, tape (and watch the next day—a 24-hour delay), or miss the “live coverage” completely. Why do that DO that?

Or take the oil companies, who did—to the extreme—their annual price hike. First gas at the pump skyrockets to the point that consumers actually start to do something, then the prices plunge, but never quite to pre-rocket levels. Yet there’s a collective sigh of relief from drivers who are now saddled with a significant increase in price from the previous year. All the while, the oil execs rack up huge salaries and stock holders rake in untold profits. All this, despite the fact that America went through gas rationing and long lines at the pump back in the 70’s. We’ve known for 30 years that being at the mercy of foreign interests when it comes to a vital resource such as oil leads eventually to trouble. So where are the electric cars and hybrids? Still on the fringe? Why didn’t the car manufactures DO something to prepare for this eventuality?

Then there’s the “fair and balanced reporting” of any network on the current presidential candidates. One will be featured with a pithy sound bite, backdropped by cheering, smiling faces and lots of handshakes. And the other is captured in a clip commenting about the first candidate, with no audience response, in fact, with no audience—as if the speech was delivered from an empty studio. Or how about the pictures of Unpopular Political Figure? Always the person is in mid-sentence, making his facial expression appear somewhat dopey. Whereas Popular Political Figure has a picture making him look especially young and handsome. Perfect propaganda procedures, which I was taught to recognized way back when the Communists were the ones who used such tactics. Why do we put up with this in America?

The writing community is not without our share of people who inspire the question. Some people in the business treat every piece of correspondence, every personal contact, every discussion board post as a commercial. Sure, buried in there somewhere might be the information you’re looking for … if you can keep reading beyond the self-serving content. But the overall effect is to leave a bad, bad taste. So why do they DO that?

Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 12:21 pm  Comments (6)  
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