Friday, September 29, 2017

As some rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born, Jake blogs about the process of writing fiction

While discussing one of the stories from my book with a friend the other day, my friend said he'd never be able to write a character as awful as the main character from ""Dawn Doesn't Disappoint." It's about a divorced man, starting to fall into the decrepitude of middle age, who takes up with an overweight, simple, but sweet and occasionally bright much younger woman who works for him. He does it because it's easy. He's realized that the relationship isn't good for him and definitely not good for the girl, Dawn, but he can't end it on his own. Instead, like a teenager afraid to tell a girl what he really feels, he decides to try to be a jerk to get her to end it.

I've discovered that the two questions a fiction writer gets asked the most are: 1) How did you come up with this? 2) (Related to the first,) Did this really happen/happen to you?

The reason I'm starting to have a little success, though, is because most of it didn't really happen

In grad school, or really in any writing workshop, you'll get this scenario all the time: guy turns in a story to the group, and the feedback comes back that the story seems to have a random ending, one that doesn't fit the logic of the story. The writer of the story will shake his head, look sorry for everyone offering their misguided advice, and reveal that "that's how it really happened!" The poor saps who didn't care for the story don't realize that the writer has given us TRUTH, because he's relayed it the way something really happened to him.

What the writer has really done is substitute anecdote or memoir where we expected fiction. This is normal; many writers start out by transcribing events in life that stood out to them. It's typical of a writerly temperament. Some aspect of life stands out to you, and you want to memorialize it. But it's not mature fiction writing yet. Fiction isn't real life. It's not real at all, in fact. That's what "fiction" means. Among other things, in fiction, unlike in life, things have to happen for some reason. You, the writer, are creating some order. Hopefully, it's not a heavy-handed order. It's something arising organically from the seeds of your characters and the situations you place them in. But it's still an order.

Stages from writing memoir to writing fiction

It may seem a little cheeky of me to be dispensing fiction writing advice; I've just had one tiny book of short stories published, and a handful of publications from respectable but not top-shelf journals. But I look at it this way: you cannot learn to play basketball from Lebron James. He's too good, and whatever he tries to tell you will only work for him. But you can learn from the guy in your neighborhood who made the high school team. So this advice is for people struggling to figure it out at all, from someone who's just starting to figure it out.

I don't think there's anything especially unique about the way I do things. It's pretty similar to what all-world writer George Saunders said in this video. But precisely because there's nothing flashy about it, it might be a useful road map if you're looking to take your first steps into writing fiction, or if you've tried and gotten nowhere with it.

Phase One: Transcription of events

This is the phase I described above. Something happens to you, or you encounter a person who leaves an impression, and something about that tells you that there's something worth rehashing in what you experienced, some deeper level of reality waiting there if you scratch a little further. So you write the story, keeping pretty much to how it happened. When you're in this phase, you can still develop as a writer just by paying attention to details, picking out details that matter and are interesting, and figuring out how to describe scene and action both clearly yet without killing the reader with details. One advantage to this kind of writing is it solves one of the biggest problems in creating a narrative: deciding where the beginning, middle, and end is.

But it's hard to make pure recitation of events work as fiction. I get a lot of this kind of writing at the journal where I read. I'm not saying I could pick out with 100% accuracy which stories are really fiction and which are close enough to real life to be memoir, but I can sure tell sometimes. One reader often rejects stories with the note "sounds like thinly fictionalized memoir." There really is something about it that stands out.

Phase Two: Change some shit

Perhaps the one piece of advice that helped me the most was a simple one. If you're writing a story and one of the characters is based on you or someone you know, try changing one important fact about that person. If the person is tall, make him short. If he's athletic, make him awkward. If he's attractive, give him warts. You can try for something bigger if you like, such as changing the gender or race or sexual orientation, but it will do at first to just make one profound change. You'll find that if you change one important feature, the whole character will start to change. Taking away something like intelligence or athletic ability can be like writing about Superman with his powers suddenly taken away. In fact, it can really start to drive narrative. You're answering a question about what someone would be like if you changed something about them, and that in itself can become its own story. You may find that by changing one thing, you end up changing more.

What works for character will also work for plot. If you're retelling a story that happened to you, change one thing about how it went down. The girl didn't go to prom with you. Or she did. By shifting yourself just the slightest bit from the "real" story, you suddenly free yourself to make the story whatever you want it. There's no reason to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Phase Three: Start with what's made-up, and add some reality to it

This next phase is sort of the flip side of phase two. Instead of starting with a real person or story and adding fiction, you start with fiction and add some reality. This is where a lot of what I write now is. I start with a daydream or an image or a rough notion in my head. As I start trying to draft some of it, I will pull things from my life into it in order to give the story some bones. But I kind of throw them in wherever. I put words that my real-life hyper-masculine friend would have said in the mouth of the fictional gal pal of my female lead. I pull a story from dating Mrs. Heretic 17 years ago and transplant it into the foreign land of some story about a funeral home director from Akron.

One of the great things I find about writing like this is that one of those "phase one" stories I tried a long time ago suddenly finds a place where it makes sense as part of another story. I find that the instinct to think that a story existed there was right, it was just that that vignette really belonged within a larger fictional cosmos.

Phase Four: Make it all up

I haven't done this yet. I haven't written a period piece in which nothing is familiar to me and the characters are entirely made up and don't in any way resemble anyone I know. Some people would have you believe that until you ascend to this plane, you aren't writing at the highest level. I'm not sure I agree. Melville continued to mine the same autobiographical material for stories throughout his life. I can't think of a Vonnegut story that doesn't end up at some point back in some place he lived in--upstate New York or Indiana. Vonnegut actually recycled characters over and over. There's nothing wrong with this. Even if you're writing something completely out of your imagination, that imagination is still colored by your experiences. You can't escape yourself, and many of the best writers in history have done great work by not really trying to hide this fact.

Putting it together

Commenter Badibanga may critique me here for being formulaic and narrow about how I approach story writing,  but I promise the way I write feels fairly natural to me. After I've done whatever level of fusion of real life and dream sequence I needed to in order to put a story together, I look at it. I imagine what I do at this point is similar to what an artist does. The story probably doesn't look like I thought it would when I started writing, but that's okay. I look at it for what it is now as a rough draft, and see what stands out to me about it. Are there parts that made sense with the original plan that don't make sense now? Are there things that need to go in now to make the most of what's good about the story as it actually happened? What images have emerged as a result of throwing things into the story that I can now capitalize on? The rough draft becomes a launching pad from which to set out again--hopefully, with less imaginative heavy lifting to do from here on, but still with surprises to come as I continue to rework the clay.

A word about outlines

One point from that George Saunders video I somewhat disagree with is this, which I regard as perhaps a bit of overstatement: "...a bad story is where you know what the story is, and you're sure of it, and you go there with your intentionality fixed in place." Saunders compares this to going out on a date with someone who has notecards in his hands about when to compliment his date and when to tell which anecdote. He says it makes the story seem insincere, like it's talking down to its reader. A real story, a "non-bullshit" story, is one where the author goes into writing it without preconceived notions of where it should go.

This is a common notion in modern fiction theory. Because of it, it's typical to hear advice that you shouldn't use outlines going into a story. I don't think this is necessarily true. Saunders says he sometimes goes into a story with just the smallest idea of something around which he is basing his work. But I don't think that means that if you have a fairly detailed idea where you're going, that means your story is not authentic. Indeed, with some stories, such as Game of Thrones, it's hard for me to imagine writing them without plotting out a lot of it in outline/sketch/map format first. You don't need to feel like a story that comes to you in more pieces from the get-go is not artistically valid. You DO need to remain open to whether all your choices in the planning stage continue to make sense as you write. You DO need to fully incarnate people in your story, even if those people were just someone you originally drummed up to fulfill a role in your plot.

Anyhow, that's my advice, from one advanced beginner to beginners. Whenever I think of process, I think of what Arnold Palmer allegedly said about a good golf swing. A good swing is whatever makes the ball go where it's supposed to. Try this if you want. If it gets you near the hole, great. If it doesn't, try something else. Just don't stress too much over whether your stories are working out. Stories can teach us rich things about life, but they're also meant for fun, much like golf. Which is to say, there are a lot of things going on in the world that might be more important. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Yeah, you keep cracking wise...

The New York Times followed the U.S. media's long tradition the other day of treating North Korea dismissively. In this case, it was yucking it up over the use of the word "dotard," claiming people everywhere were scrambling to find out what the word meant. The implications of this laughter are that North Korea uses antiquated words, and is therefore easy to deride and take lightly. They can't even use normal words, who can take them seriously?

Of course, neither Kim Jong Un nor his ghostwriter said "dotard." The word shows up twice in the English version:

Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say.


I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.

The Korean, for those able to play along, was the following:

말귀를 알아듣지 못하고 제할소리만 하는 늙다리에게는 행동으로 보여주는것이 최선이다.


미국의 늙다리미치광이를 반드시,반드시 불로 다스릴것이다.

I don't really object to the translations. The statement clearly wanted to achieve hyperbole, and there's no way to soften that and give a true translation. The word 늙다리, translated as "dotard" doesn't really have a better translation. Other ones might have been equally good, though: old coot, buzzard, dinosaur, etc. It's an old person whose age has weakened his/her faculties. (Did that many people really have to look up the meaning of "dotard" in English? That was surprising to me.)

It's not that unusual a word in Korean, though. It can be used about anything old. An old animal that's past its prime can be a 늙다리.  I think most adult Koreans would know what the word means, unlike (much to my surprise) most Americans with the word "dotard." It isn't, in other words, a particularly strange thing to say in Korean. On the scale of KCNA pronouncements, it's actually kind of normal.

I wouldn't  begrudge folks having a laugh over such a pedantic point, except that it seems like the U.S. media has only one note with North Korea, which is to make fun of everything it does or says. It's all just a big joke, all the time. Well, it's not a joke to North Korea. It's an existential matter for them. Nobody there is laughing.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Resentment as a motivator

I've read a lot of articles over the years about how athletes used the resentment they felt from a perceived snub as a motivator to achieve greatness. Warriors basketball player Draymond Green remembers all 34 players taken in front of him in the 2012 draft. Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame induction speech was sort of a litany of all the wrongs done to him. A lot of players get traded and use that as proof that the team that got rid of them never saw the value that was there, and they become all-stars the following year.

I can see how convincing yourself that the world is against you and you need to pay them back is a good way to get the most out of your off-season workouts. But it's obviously false motivation. No team intentionally throws away talent. It's just hard to evaluate. If they had known how good someone would be, they'd have taken that person. But until the moment talent shows itself, it's extremely difficult to judge.

Some people have suggested using resentment as a motivation for writing. One day, I'll have a Pulitzer or a best-seller, and then I can laugh at everyone who missed their chance at me. When I found out I was getting a book published, people suggested I throw it in the face of others. I just don't feel that way. For one thing, after facing so much rejection, whenever I get the least bit of acceptance, I feel nothing but grateful. Secondly, I know that nobody is rejecting me because it's personal. It's just hard to decide what's good enough to publish.

But mostly, does it make any sense to write from resentment? The best writing I've ever read, your Shakespeare or Melville or Vonnegut or Cervantes, can often have a caustic, derisive sense of its subjects, but it's also infused with love for the same fools it's deriding. You cannot write about humanity while full of hate. That's like being told as a young man that you'll never achieve your dream of becoming a missionary, then motivating yourself through Bible college by telling yourself I'll show these assholes. I'm going to show these fucking starving people the love of Christ like a motherfucker. Some means annul the hoped-for ends just by invoking them. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A big honor from a blog I admire

For a few years, I've been trading comments with Karen Carlson, whose blog "A Just Recompense" discusses, year after year, every story from the anthologies Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Anthology. I've complained before that literature has almost no community. We read that BASS and Pushcart are influential anthologies, yet if you try to find discussions about stories from them online, it's pretty slim pickings. Compare that to the million YouTube viewers of a Rick and Morty remix that comes out just a few days after the latest episode. Karen's determination to keep blogging about these stories--in between the many MOOCs she takes to improve herself--gives us one place a writing community can assemble to find other people to whom literature matters and to talk about literature that's worth talking about.

Today, Karen posted about my book. I won't go over what she had to say about it; you can go read that for yourself. What's important to me is that it's given me a chance to talk about things that were once just in my head. Really, this is why I write. Something is burning a hole in me, and the only way to get it out is to put in on paper. Once it's there, I want to find a good reader somewhere to look at it and talk about it with. You can agree or disagree, like it or dislike it, as long as you read it intelligently. Talking about literature is always great, because you're talking about ideas that matter. Talking about literature you wrote is a whole other level, because it's the most important ideas to you, personally.

Getting a book published, even a small, artsy book of short stories read by a small number of people, can be thrilling and also incredibly saddening. There's the exhilaration of knowing that what you wrote will now have semi-permanence, but also the depression when it's over of knowing that life goes on like before.

Getting the chance to talk to people about the book is really the best part of the whole experience. It's an honor that I got to talk to Karen about it, and that she extended the conversation to her readers.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Actually, William Faulkner, I think about your daughter a lot

I was sick some this week, sick enough that I got tired of being side-eyed by the germ-adverse at work and stayed home some. That gave me a chance to catch up on a lot of writing work that I intended to do over the summer but never got to. A lot of it was administrative, submitting stories all over the place. September and October are the months more journals are open than any other, so I've got to make hay. I've submitted 20 so far, and I'm going for another 20 by next week (not that I've written 40 stories: we're talking about 6 stories submitted to 40 or so places). I'm also still plugging away at getting my novel query letter out to the magic 50 agents--that number somehow being the underground wisdom for how many you should write before you begin to think something is wrong with your novel.

I also did a little actual writing, finishing a story that's been taunting me since I started it on Memorial Day. I think it finally came together, although there were times I really wondered if I knew what I was even doing there.

My original plan was to have a busy September, get a ton of queries and submissions out there, and then shutter things up for a while with writing, to return to it after an undetermined time. I have been feeling like I both: A) need a break, and B) ought to do some other things, like pay attention to my son's homework or Mrs. Heretic's school year-induced fatigue (she has something like 120 students this year). I also am always aware of the need to retrain myself for work, mainly on Information Technology types of subjects. Probably wouldn't hurt to do some re-training in the languages I translate, either. This would all be self-training, but it still has an opportunity cost of time and energy. I'd need to give up some things, and nothing sucks up my time like writing.

There's that famous story, which apparently is not apocryphal, about William Faulkner, where his daughter asked him to please not get drunk during her birthday party. Faulkner replied, "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children." Meaning, I guess, I'm a world treasure, and your suffering is nothing compared to the value of the art I produce. I told that story to a non-writer friend of mine one. He went pale and said, "That's terrible." I agree.

I said in my twenties that I'd gladly give up family for writing. I didn't have kids then. Pretty much from the moment Mrs. Heretic was pregnant, I have disavowed that stance I once held. A person is real, a story is not. A story might make the lives of people who read it better, it might not. But investing in a human being always means something. Especially a person I'm uniquely responsible for.

 After I get all this work done, I'll be at another cross-roads. I've published a book. I could call it a day, say I did all that a part-time writer could realistically hope to accomplish, and move on. Or I could keep hammering away. I know a lot of writers insist they write because they have to. Sometimes, I feel that way. I do feel compulsion, but I think it's also a compulsion I could control if I felt it were necessary. Is it necessary?

The "if I won the lottery" question

If I won the lottery, I wouldn't sit around and write, I don't think. I knew what I'd do with the money about six years ago, when I visited Mrs. Heretic's then-school in Baltimore and saw an entire run of about eight row houses, all vacant. If I won the lottery, I'd buy a bunch of vacants like those, rehab them, and set up some type of recreational facility within them, with rock climbing, indoor paintball, etc. There'd be some room somewhere for homework mentoring. Just a place for kids to do something other than get into trouble. Like the Boys' Club, only with stuff I like to do, not boxing.  Hopefully, it could provide a few jobs, too.

There are all kinds of problems with this dream. First, I'm an idiot at real-world stuff, and likely to lose all my money in a year doing this. Secondly, as I've discovered, when you try to help people with a lot of problems, you end up with a lot of problems. It's not a romantic world where you are adored as a white savior. It's hard work. I'm not sure I'm equipped for it sometimes. People with years of training in handling this stuff burn out. I'm likely to, also.

But let's just say that Baby Haysoos came to me in a vision and gave me a choice. Either I can write a novel that will gain recognition and become part of important cultural discussions, or I can have a non-profit that I will somehow manage to run successfully and it will have a tangible benefit to dozens or hundreds of lives. How should I answer that question? If I'm not a monster, I have to pick door #2, don't I?

Of course, I don't have a Baby Haysoos crystal ball. All my decisions are based on guesswork. Maybe writing will never lead me anywhere beyond where I am. Maybe it will lead me to a best-seller, and I'll sell the movie rights and use it to buy my row houses and start my non-profit. Maybe if I put writing away, I'll succeed more at work and get paid more. Money is always useful for helping people. Or, maybe I give up something I love doing and it gets me nowhere.

My guesses about what I should do change almost every day. The important thing to me is that when life asks me to not get drunk today, metaphorically speaking, for the sake of someone else, would I be willing to put the bottle down?

Monday, September 11, 2017

At last, my Swedish fans are satisfied

Googling my book to see if it's been reviewed by anyone I sent it to yet, I saw...this:

I'm guessing that 164 krona for the book, and that the language is therefore Swedish. I mean, I guess they just link into some database, and if someone for some reason ordered one, they'd just order one themselves. It's not the same as a bookstore in Stockholm stocking an artsy book of short stories from a small American press, which would involve some sort of opportunity cost. But still, it's a weird place to find oneself. I already had a friend in Australia buy a copy, making me an international phenomenon. Dare I hope someone in Sweden will make me happening on three continents? No, I don't dare. That's stupid.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

My roller coaster goes up

I apologize if any of my posts, such as the last one I wrote, come across as entitled or pouty. I've committed to blogging about the struggle to find my way as an unknown writer of what I hope is serious fiction. That's going to involve some dark nights of the soul. So I don't shy away from writing about them, because to do so would be dishonest.

I was looking up some information about the Pushcart awards yesterday when I stumbled onto this article. It's an "open letter" from some guy who advises writers not to list Pushcart nominations in their biographies.  I thought it was ultra-fastidious and ridiculous. He argues that because a Pushcart nomination is common to thousands of writers, it's meaningless. This strikes me as nonsense. In the first place, as I've said before, your credits really aren't that important. They might get you a more sympathetic reading, by which I mean if I don't like something, I might give it a page longer than I normally would if you have a top-shelf credit to your name. But 95% of my decision comes just from the story there. I usually don't even look at the bio before I start reading the story.

To me, a Pushcart nomination means someone not only published your story, but thought it was one of the better ones they published that year. It's not a huge deal, but it's certainly not a negative.

One commenter really nailed it. Here's an edited version of what he wrote:

Publishing a story anywhere is goddamned hard enough. You... should tout that journal and then go around and brag the hellz about it because here’s the deal:
No one flippin’ cares anyway.

Not your writer friends. Not your mom. Not your priest. Shit. Even if you get a notable publication in a place high up on Perpetual Folly’s Pushcart nomination list... find someone who gives a shit. ...

You know who does care. The damn editor who accepted your piece in the first place. Listen to him or her, strangle-hug him or her, and bragz the flying F out of their zine because the chances of you convincing another schmuck to like your crap is a million to one. Literally. There are a million lit journals and you happened to find the one journal that liked your stupid story. And you’d turn your nose up at that?.. Who the hell are you?

Unless you’re one of five writers in America (and I suppose Canada and maybe a few other quasi-American speaking countries) who can expect a call from the New Yorker, you should just assume your story is shit and it won’t be read by anyone. So, writers-who-turn-their-noses-up-at-the-only-lit-ragz-they’ll-ever-get-published-in, I bid thee thus: Play with the first damn dog who sniffs your butt. Then yip your nutz off.
100% of the world doesn’t care where or how you were published and the infitesimally small percentage who does care knows how flippin’ hard it is to get someone to, first, read your work and , .B., get someone to actually like it.

Be one of the 60,000. Print out your Glimmertrain finalist certificate and paste it to the back window of your car. Goddamnit. Make a bumper sticker that says “I’m a published Hint Fiction author.” And tell all your cousins that you placed a poem at and you have the 1996 anthology to prove it.
You’re writers, you bitches. Everyone hates you and no one cares.

Normally, the comments section anywhere on the Internet is a source of despair. But strangely, although this comment doesn't really offer much hope that anyone will ever notice what I do, I find that somehow hopeful. It was very hard to get my book published. It's an accomplishment. If nearly everyone now ignores it, that kind of just means I'm doing it right. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

My book drops tomorrow, and I feel a little lost

There have been two sides of me writing for the last few years. One knows I'll never make money off this, and does it because there is something burning inside me that has to come out. So he writes because he has to. To this person, writing is its own reward and its own curse.

There is another side of me, though, that I can't quite get to hush. It dreams of somehow, miraculously, in spite of all the facts about publishing these days and how unrealistic it is to dream of ever making real money at this, somehow turning writing into what I do for a living. Part of that is just that I want to leave my current job. I don't hate my job. I probably have it better than most working people in America. It's just not always a great fit for my personality. I feel a lot of anxiety, mostly because I'm afraid of what happens if I fuck it up.

95% of the time, I manage to squelch the voice that would beguile me into thinking of making a living out of writing literary fiction. But 5% of the time, that voice breaks through, makes me dream unrealistic dreams, and then I'm all the more crushed when reality inevitably settles on me again.

For the last few years, I've been using writing as the thing that makes my day job bearable, the thing that shows I'm not just what I do at work. But writing also keeps me from doing what I sometimes think I ought to do--get another bachelor's degree in something other than English and find another career in life. I'd have to give up writing for a while to pursue a new field that would allow me to do something new with my life. But writing is also kind of what sustains me in the here and now. Which is why I sometimes fall into the foolish trap of dreaming of making a living off writing.

I didn't expect my book of artsy short stories to sell a ton of copies. But right now, I'm a little bit humiliated--I don't know another word strong enough for it--by the lack of sales. For Chrissakes, I know a lot of people, even though I'm a heavy introvert. But unless Amazon's sales tracker is very, very wrong, almost none of those people I know bought a book, in spite of my uncharacteristic, unpleasant self-promotion of it on Facebook and in person. And nobody who doesn't know me has bought one yet. I refused to give up and self-publish all those years, but there are plenty of self-published books outselling me by a wide margin.

At least one of my brothers hasn't bought the book or said anything to me about it. Lots of friends seem to have not realized that this was a big deal to me, and I really needed them to step up, buy a book and maybe write a review. I don't get paid for them buying a book--not unless 1,000 copies sell, at which point I start to get a share of the sales. It's not about money. It's about legitimizing what I do so it feels like a real thing.  It's about making a strong showing with this book so I have a chance of selling the novel that is my real goal here.

I worked hard for years to get a book published. Tomorrow is the official drop day, and all I'm thinking of right now is how I want to put this whole stupid midlife crisis writing phase behind me and do something practical with my life. People seem to need HVAC repair more than they need artsy stories about death, poverty, and male identity.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Is Andy Dwyer an indictment of fiction?

Since I've been on the subject of how fiction might not be good for you of late, I thought I'd follow up with a little deeper probing of one of the ideas supporting that thesis: fiction makes us accept things we would never accept outside of fiction. Here, I'd like to consider the proposition that it encourages us to accept ignorance as a morally acceptable condition.

I said "morally acceptable," which is something not often considered when discussing intelligence in a human being. But I rather accept Lionel Trilling's contention that in a democracy, there is a moral obligation to be intelligent. One cannot control many factors that contribute to intelligence, of course, but one can read and struggle to become as intelligent as possible, given one's constraints.

But fiction--and here I'm going to throw in movies, literature, plays, and TV, since fiction in all of them operate off similar psychological principles--often encourages us to love stupid people. Carl Sagan was chagrined when Dumb and Dumber became the number one movie in America in 1994, but if he had lived into today, he'd have countless more examples to shake his head at.

Let's consider Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation. If you're not familiar with the show, this montage ought to give you a pretty good idea:

Even if you don't know the show, you probably know Andy, because "Andy" has been done to death in the last 20 years in American TV. I didn't even own a TV for five years once, but without trying, I can come up with: Phoebe from Friends, Kramer from Seinfeld, Peter Griffin and a few others from Family Guy, Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, half the town of South Park, Coach and his replacement Woody from Cheers, Luke Dunphy from Modern Family, Rose from Golden Girls, Malorie from Family Ties, and that's just what I can do without Googling.

Although the rise of the "goofball-hero" has been a characteristic of American TV of the last 25 years, it does have antecedents in literature. I'm not talking about characters who are dumb and evil, but characters who are dumb and also meant to earn the sympathies of the audience. Don Quixote leaps to mind. Although Cervantes himself apparently meant for Quixote to be much more scorned than he has ended up being, many readers throughout history have sympathized with the eponymous hero, with some interpretations such as the musical Man of La Mancha actually romanticizing him. Lenny from Mice and Men is another stupid character we are meant to root for, although Lenny appears to honestly not be able to help it, unlike many modern American goofball-heroes.

Characteristics of the goofball-hero

The goofball-hero makes claims on our sympathies because while he may not be bright in a traditional, bookish sense, he's a "good guy." He'd never scheme against you, in large part because he is incapable. He cannot even conceive of guile, or if he tries, it fails so badly, one doesn't hold it against him, because the attempt is so pathetic. In this sense, our attachment to the goofball-hero is much like our attachment to dogs.

The goofball-hero also often has a certain mystique of wisdom attached to his or her persona. Nine of ten statements the GH makes are meant to get a laugh because of how simple, foolish, or mistaken those statements are, but then every so often, the GH says something profound. This wisdom is assumed to be the product of a life unencumbered by all those book lernin' thoughts that weigh us down. By sacrificing traditional intelligence, the GH obtains an esoteric wisdom not available to the rest of us.

This was a device the writers of Friends resorted to often. The entirety of Chauncey Gardiner's character in Being There is built around the delivery of unintentionally thought-provoking aphorisms.

Not that there's anything especially wrong about it...

We all know people in life who just aren't that bright, but have good hearts and mean well. Even if everyone in America committed themselves tomorrow to bettering their minds, exactly 49% of the population would always be of below average intelligence, and not all of that 49% would be bad people. We'd want them on our sides in a tough spot, and indeed such people often are, maybe even more so than the smarties in our lives, because their brains don't give them reasons not to be there for us at a personal cost to them. I'm not talking about people with genuine developmental issues. I'm talking about people who just were never interested in school, people who don't read now, whose minds are both stubbornly made up in some ways and yet dangerously pliable in others.

One use of fiction is to make us see things through other perspectives, and it's certainly possible to see things from the perspective of the GH and appreciate that there is value in the life of a person who is not traditionally intelligent. On the other hand, if becoming intelligent is, indeed, a moral obligation, then the willful failure to do so must be immoral in some sense. But the entire thrust of the GH's depiction for the last several decades has been to ignore the immoral aspect of a lack of intelligence.

But there's definitely something wrong with the flip side of it...

Nowhere is this more easily seen than when we get a depiction of someone supposedly intelligent. The Big Bang Theory has been presenting intelligent people as hopelessly socially inept for over a decade now. Even while they are the protagonists, they are still the butt of the show's own jokes. Intelligence is seen as a condition one is born with, and it comes with a major downside one also cannot do anything about. It's the flipside of the GH: the GH also really can't do anything about the way he is, but there is also an upside to being born that way. Indeed, in Jonathan Franzen's novels, being born with advantages that lead to a developed intellect is almost certain to lead to crippling personality disorders.

All of this demonstrates the most radical kind of democratic view of things, in which nobody can really be critiqued, because we all just are the way we are. If nobody can be critiqued, nobody can be praised, either. This ends up with a worldview that skews slightly in the anti-intellectual direction, because the presence of someone who has become intelligent by his own bootstraps is an indictment of everyone who hasn't. So we have to mock the intelligent as pretentious and self-important.

This is actually as old as the very first American literature. The jock, Bram Bones, gets the better of the stuck-up prig school master Ichabod Crane, who wanted something in life above his station. So the jock pulls a practical joke on the nerd and chases him off, leaving room for the more likeable genes to be passed on. It's an archetype deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

This isn't necessarily an indictment of literature, but it's close

Of course, if literature can get us to accept one worldview, it can get us to accept another. There is nothing preventing me from using a story that demonstrates that being smarter really is better than remaining ignorant. But that's a hard sell. Buffoons do much better with audiences than smart people do. Using a fool to get around the prejudices of the audience and communicate some truth is a tried and true technique in Shakespeare, although Shakespeare's fool was never unintelligent, only iconoclastic. There is nothing especially wrong with tricking the audience by holding up a fool to laugh at, and then using those good feelings toward the fool to get the audience to accept a truth it would have resisted from someone else. But in the process, we seem to have come to love truly foolish types of fools, far more than might be good for us.