Bread and Circuses and Why I Write

The chase

The chase (Photo credit: focusshoot)

I grew up on all kinds of nature shows. My dad has always been fascinated with all things wild, and since he was in charge of the remote, I saw quite a bit of PBS and Discovery Channel back in the day. Later add channels like Animal Planet, TLC, and NatGeo, and I was in nature heaven. Was.

Steve Irwin 1962 - 2006

Steve Irwin 1962 – 2006 (Photo credit: pauliepaul)

My kids love these kinds of shows, too. When we can find them. My elder son recently took an interest in reptiles, and so my husband told him about Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, and looked for some of his old shows on the web. I’m glad for this resource because good luck finding anything like that on TV. We finally found a different reptile guy with some shows on Netflix, but it’s rare to find a good nature show on TV anymore.

Then this week I just happened to see this article about Animal Planet’s Call of the Wildman: “Animals Are Injured in This ‘100 Percent Fake’ Reality Show.” Not only is it bothersome that apparently animals were drugged for a good number of these shows, but the attitude behind it all is what drove this deception to begin with. In 2008, Animal Planet’s president Marjorie Kaplan said, “We’re looking to be an entertainment destination, not a natural history channel.”

I suppose this makes sense, considering that I can never find the good old lioness-chasing-a-hyena type show anymore. Still, it sickens me how so-called reality TV (or what the article calls “guided reality”) has taken over.

Think about TLC – The Learning Channel, for goodness’ sake! What do you learn there? I’ll tell you: what not to wear, how to make a cake that looks like a person, and how bratty, four-year-old beauty pageant contestants behave at home (and worse).

Who came up with the idea that we need to watch how people supposedly live in order to be entertained, anyway? Hey, I’ve got an idea: follow me around with a camera all day. I’ve got two young boys. It should be entertaining, right? Well, maybe not. I know! You can jazz it up by putting us into some kind of controversial situation. Or rile my kids up, and make them drive me crazy.

Someone please tell me when reality became so fake.

As my mother pointed out when I mentioned the Animal Planet article, human nature hasn’t changed much over the millennia. As we did in Ancient Rome, we continue to do now: give us bread and circuses (food and entertainment), and we’re pacified. Just because we’re not watching slaves-turned-gladiators slaughter each other anymore doesn’t make us more sophisticated. Instead, we exploit people who are too ignorant to know that the world is making fun of them (or worse yet – they don’t care and just want the money); we turn ludicrous contests into “must-see” TV; and we stage all kinds of nonsense in order to make people think that the so-called “Wildman” is a hero.

I’m not saying that all TV shows are worthless or that tuning in upon occasion is bad. Hey, my husband and I used to love watching Top Shot and cooking competitions on the Food Network. But at some point, enough is enough. Nowadays, people think that the only way you can break into the music or cooking or fashion industry is to win a competition on one of these shows. And if you don’t, you’re worthless. Whatever happened to trying to break into your industry of choice the old-fashioned way – by forging out there and proving yourself without all the attention and sensationalism? And whatever happened to being entertained by, I don’t know, a professional entertainer instead of a “real” person’s stupidity?

All of this got me thinking. As my regular readers know, I am an avid reader, and my dream is to be a published novelist. Years ago, I was forced to consider both why I read and why I write, which goes right back to bread and circuses, right? No, I’m not talking about reading The Hunger Games. I’m talking about reading and writing indiscriminately.

Back in the days when I attended my friend and mentor Ari’s fiction workshops, he sometimes cornered the class by making us think about things we often take for granted. We knew that, according to the Gospel of Ari, we always had to read something, but he also wanted us to consider why we were reading. And we went around the room, each of us saying why we read. On another occasion, we had to say why we write.

Here are the answers that Ari did not want to hear: “I read to escape” and “I write for the money.”

I can’t remember what I said, but if Ari were to ask me now after years (okay, over a decade) to think about it, I have plenty of answers. I don’t read fiction to escape but rather to augment my life. I read to find out what could happen if. I love it when an author creates a setting (dystopian America) or a character (vampire) that is obviously not real, but I believe anyway. I love it when a story transports me to a new place, and I don’t even have to leave my couch. And as an introvert, I can meet all kinds of new people without ever having to introduce myself.

As for why I write, if I’d had the guts, here is what I would have said:

Of course I want to make money writing fiction. That’s why I’m not getting a useful degree that will get me some high-paying job. I’m young enough to still have the hope to make a living writing novels.

But that doesn’t mean writing any old novel. Unlike Animal Planet, I’m not going to change my M.O. mid-course to make a buck. I sometimes joke that if I decided to write Forty Shades of Pink or something raunchy like that, I would make it big. But at what cost? And besides, I can’t write that kind of garbage, anyway. At the end of the day, I can only write what brings me joy – which is what I want to read but simply hasn’t been written yet.

So I continue to be a starving artist (or nearly so).

There are writers out there who can memorize a formula and whip up a story that fits the mold. And people will continue to read them. People who maybe haven’t stopped to think why they read. People who have never considered that fiction can be more than an escape or sensationalism.

But I am not one of those readers or writers, so I’ll keep writing what moves me. I’ll go against popular culture and do something really real for a change. I’m happy with who I am and what I do – with not a single camera in sight to document how I go about my life – and I’m trying to raise my kids to find that same satisfaction. It’s going to be tougher for them than it was for me, but thank goodness for parental controls, archived TV shows, and zoos. We can keep it real just fine on our own.