This is the first essay in a series of essays called The Cult of Mediocrity, about my general dislike of the state of literary fiction, where it went wrong, and how to tell deep, thoughtful, and inspiring stories without falling into these errors.
One of the most uplifting things to capture in writing is a sense of awe.
Others (probably others more qualified than myself) could disagree. They could point to the ingenuity of characters so real they could come off the page and exist in real life. They could point to plots so compelling that they make us forget to do anything, even eat, because we have to know what comes next. They could point to worlds so well-woven that they are more attractive than the one around us.
But there is something special about that sense of awe.
It is the sense of awe evoked by mysterious, legend-shrouded cities being unearthed. It is the sense of awe as an unstoppable army meets an impenetrable fortress like the sea strikes a cliffside. It is the sense of awe when the evil monster, with all the powers of Hell at her disposal, is slain by the virtuous hero, despite the monster’s foulness.
It is awe at something greater than oneself drawing one away from focusing on the mundanity of life, and experiencing something bigger and grander. It uses mythic elements to achieve this, whether those mythic elements be the chaos of war and the valor of soldiers, a heroic knight against a wicked sorceress, or a vast starship against an unfeeling and empty universe. Pomp and importance gravitate like moths drawn to light around such mythic themes.
But something I’ve seen in the genre of literary fiction (though those who write in that genre dislike it being referred to as a genre) in my few dealings with it. These books try to capture that pomp and importance, and assign them to mundane and ordinary things. They ascribe the gravitas of Frodo casting the accursed One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom and undoing the work of Sauron, a veritable demigod, to something ordinary and plain, like writing a letter. They ascribe the victory that a farmboy named Luke Skywalker feels after destroying the Death Star, a weapon capable of unimagined destruction, to a minor achievement, the kind encountered daily, such as winning an argument. They ascribe the courage and valor of a soldier charging an enemy stronghold to an act that isn’t nearly as risky, like asking the boss for a raise.
They want living a life to be seen with the same amount of awe and valor as going to war, or embarking on a quest to save the world. They want the glory reserved for heroes, for those who face down dragons or pioneer into space, to be given to people living life without being noticeable or remarkable.
(Now, this is not to say that people who do not do great deeds do not deserve respect. Everyone is made special, made sacred, and is deserving of a base level of respect. I am simply saying that getting out of bed in the morning should not merit someone the Medal of Honor.)
Why, you may ask, is this the case? Why do literary authors, especially those of the modern day works, seem to be obsessed with giving glory to characters who have not struggled in proper proportion for that glory and honor?
It is because they do not believe in the virtues that push people to do such deeds.
The knight who slays a dragon, or faces down an old and evil wizard, to rescue a princess, is demonstrating the virtue of courage and compassion. Should he seek to slay a dragon, he is facing a beast with breath that can scorch his flesh off his bones, talons that can carve him into shreds, and strength to crush him. Should he fail, like the countless before him, he would die painfully. Yet he persists. To face a wizard is even worse. Now, though the man may be frail, he is allied with dark and unclean powers, or strange and arcane ones (depending on the story world). At worst, the peril extends to the knight’s very soul. He fights anyway, demonstrating courage, and by this, demonstrates compassion by risking his life to rescue the captured princess.
The hero who walks on the face of other worlds by the light of a foreign sun demonstrates a courage of a different streak, as well as the virtue of ambition (here, ambition is trying to do the best you can, and calling on yourself to do better; self-improvement, not self-glorification). He braves the void of outer space, where shipwreck means certain death, and the destination is hard to find. While he risks his life, he does not do so as directly as the knight mentioned above. He demonstrates virtuous ambition by daring to use his talents (whether they be sailing not by compass and charter, but by mathematics and starlight, or by constructing and maintaining the vessel) to walk on the surface of other planets.
Courage, ambition, compassion. These are merely some virtues, and like all virtues, one can dwell too much and go from one extreme to another. Excessive courage is foolhardiness, while lack of courage is cowardice. Excessive ambition is vanity and pride, while lack of ambition is sloth. Excessive compassion distorts one’s judgement and makes one easily swayed, while lack of compassion makes one hard-hearted. And since it easy to flee from one extreme to another, the struggle is finding that happy moderation.
Now, you, dear reader, may be wondering why I have gone from discussing literary fiction lauding meaningless actions like they were the deeds of heroes to discussing how fictional characters show virtue, then a paragraph on the nature of virtues and their excesses. As I had said before, the literary authors, inculcated in the modern philosophies of the day, do not believe in these virtues. They are a con, convincing the rubes to act better even though they can’t live up to those standards. It’s easier to ignore them and do as you please, or reinvent them for your own purposes. That is what the modern philosophers think.
Remove the virtue, and you have meaningless actions. A knight slaying a dragon or a wizard is a man killing a beast or another man. Death, meaningless death. A man who travels across galaxies to step on another planet’s dirt is a guy just going places. More time spent, moving one closer to death. Modern philosophers are convinced of the meaninglessness of existence, and when confronted with the innately human desire to find meaning, they speak of creating their own meaning. But they seek to create an illusion. A man wiser than the philosophers of our day and age had said it well. “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
As you can imagine, such an outlook is corrosive; all things eventually degenerate into matter and motion, without any importance whatsoever. For if virtue doesn’t exist, then one thing is not better than another. Quickly, things like free will, the sanctity of life and liberty, and the sanctity of property disappear. The philosophers, and the literary writers by extension, try to escape that corrosiveness by building their theories, a flimsy framework designed to give them some semantic ground to exist; but this corrosive mindset will eventually devour their theories. Everything that is done under the sun is vanity.
But have hope.
For where the philosophers of our age, and by extension, the literary authors, where they blunder is the source of salvation. Everything that is done under the sun is vanity, and the philosophers declare that there is nothing above the sun. This world, of matter, is all there is, they say. Thus, they become vanity and a striving after wind, with their theories and semantics. But there is something above the sun, something unseen and beyond, something transcendent.
For wise king Solomon does not end the book of Ecclesiastes by wallowing in self-pity, declaring everything vanity. He does not assert that it is his place to create meaning. No, he acknowledges that everything under the sun is vanity, but instead places his hope in the Eternal, the Transcendent, the Unchanging (I’ll give you three guesses what that is).
So when you see a book that gives the character the proverbial laurels for making it through life without difficulty, know it is a symptom, and not a problem. It is what happens when one philosophically severs itself from the Transcendent source of virtue and morality, proclaiming that they are not chained down while not realizing that the chain they broke was not their shackle but an anchorline. The pretentious lauding of mediocrity is a symptom of a philosophy drifting from the Transcendent towards nihilism and oblivion.
They sack the wonders of Atlantis because they don’t believe anything deserves wonder. They try to turn suburbia into Shambhala because when nothing has meaning, when everything under the sun is vanity and there is nothing above the sun, the two places are the same. They try to turn ordinary men into heroes without virtue, because virtue is for chumps, and they’re smart enough to not believe in anything.
For literary fiction to right itself, it must re-anchor to the transcendent. It must embrace virtue as something not merely to acknowledge as real and true, but something to strive for. For them to rightly laud characters as heroes, they have to write heroes again. Deep and thoughtful literature did it once, and it can do it again.