Pop into the airport bookstore, or browse the bestseller shelves at Barnes & Noble. Read the loglines of the movie posters in the lobby at the Cineplex. Study the teaser ads for your favorite prime-time drama. In such places you will note the call of stories driven, in Hollywood parlance, by a “high concept.” An alien becomes stranded on Earth. Dinosaurs come back to life. An orphan learns that he’s a wizard destined to save the magical world.
Our culture is saturated with high concept fiction of all kinds—in movies, television, and books. It is tempting to consign all of it to the cultural dustbin. So much of it is vulgar, puerile, cheap. And yet—our love for the high concept is something that deserves a defense.
“One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar.”
So argues G.K. Chesterton, in a marvelous little essay entitled “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls,” published in his book, The Defendant, back in 1901. Penny dreadfuls are cheap fiction, cheap in more than one sense, no doubt. But not in every sense. Chesterton’s essay focuses on the boys’ book—i.e., the story of pirates or outlaws, of Robin Hood and Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine—stories light on literary merit but heavy on excitement. He asks whether boys should be kept away from such fiction. His answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “no.”
The “boy’s novelette,” Chesterton claims, “may be ignorant in a literary sense…but it is not vulgar intrinsically—it is the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”
Chesterton urges us not to discount the importance of high concept fiction for culture. “People must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important.”
Why is the need for what Chesterton calls the “true romantic trash” infinitely deeper and more important than the rules of good art? Why does my son go every morning to his “Lego table,” and the city he has built there and the adventures of its citizens? “Literature is a luxury,” Chesterton affirms, “fiction is a necessity.” Is this because the need to be amused or distracted is deeper than the need to be intellectually stimulated? Or does it have more to do with the wonder provoked by the high concept? For isn’t this what makes a fictional concept “high”—that it generates maximum wonder on the part of an audience?
The high concept is a way of wondering, and philosophy, Aristotle says, begins in wonder. When we engage with a story, we wonder at a fellow human being set out on a path in which he will achieve either happiness or misery. How will it turn out for him? Will he find happiness? Or will he find out that what he thought was happiness really isn’t? To wonder about these questions is the beginning of the quest for wisdom.
Whether it is with the help of Legos or of popular movies and television shows, to wonder about the truths, and even the truisms, of life is an inescapable part of being human. This is why high concept fiction will always be “the actual center of a million flaming imaginations.”
My name is Daniel McInerny, and welcome to my new blog, High Concepts. I hope you will join me as I reflect upon questions having to do with the impact of the entertainment industry and new media upon our culture. As this initial post makes clear, I bring a philosophical eye to my reflections. Chesterton and Aristotle, as you see, are favorites. With their and others’ help, my aim in this blog will be to explore what a movie or book or industry trend is saying about what it means to be a human being trying to pursue the good life, a life, Aristotle tells us, always lived in company with our families, our friends, and our wider communities.
What sorts of posts can you expect from this blog?
• Reflections on the very nature of art, entertainment, media, culture—and what forms these take in our society
• Discussions of particular content trends in movies, television, and publishing
• Dialogues with pieces from other blogs and publications
• Movie, book, and media reviews
• Invitations to discuss questions generated by all of the above
I look forward to our conversations.