To Entertain or to Illuminate, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

On September 22, 1959, on the eve of the premiere of the new television series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace.  Serling, by that time already considered one of television’s brightest writing stars, had amassed a formidable resume.  He was known throughout the industry as television’s “angry young man” due to his ardent and very vocal criticism of the censorship so rampant in the medium at that time.

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Determined to produce gritty, realistic scripts that dealt with injustice, inequality, and greed, Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, and other venues that featured live TV dramas of the day.  His breakthrough script, “Patterns,” which aired in February 1955, launched him into orbit, and by the time of the Wallace interview, Serling, already a winner of three Emmy awards, was an established industry heavyweight.

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At the start of the interview, Wallace credits Serling as the accomplished writer he is; he discusses Serling’s rise within the industry, and his ongoing battles against sponsor-mandated censorship.  About midway through the conversation, the discussion takes a turn . . .

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“You’ve got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone,” Wallace says, and simply from his tone of voice, his delivery, one can sense Wallace’s disappointment.  After all, in the interview, Serling himself admits to be being “tired,” and that he doesn’t “want to fight anymore”–with corporate sponsors and their dictates on what can and cannot be included in his scripts.  The Twilight Zone, a short, half-hour sci-fi and fantasy excursion, was deemed by many, Wallace among them, as a sellout on the part of one of TV’s most serious and hard-hitting writers.

Wallace suggests the episodes will be “potboilers,” which Serling rejects, stating that he believes the shows will be “high-quality . . . extremely polished films.”

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Undeterred, Wallace then says, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future [since Serling would be so focused on The Twilight Zone going forward], you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

Even here, Wallace is not finished. He quotes TV producer Herbert Brodkin as saying, “Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both.”

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To which Serling replies, “I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic.  You cannot be commercial and quality.  You cannot be commercial concurrent with having a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve.  And this I have to reject. . . . I don’t think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it’s something raunchy to be ashamed of. . . . I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can’t have public acceptance and still be artistic.  And, as I said, I have to reject that.”

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***************

When I was an English major in college, there was a fellow student, named John, who shared several classes with me.  I’ve blogged about John before.  In addition to wanting to create something new, uniquely his own, John also wanted to create something artistic, arcane, even inaccessible.

“If just anyone can understand it,” he said once, “then I’ve failed.  I’m not writing for the layperson.  I’m writing for the select few.  If John Q. Public ‘gets’ my story, then what’s the point?  Anyone can write a story like that!”

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I understood his sentiment–up to a point.  All writers, all artists want to say something, to have one of their stories or songs or paintings or performances move an audience to tears, open eyes, create dialogue, and promote new viewpoints.  We all want our work to matter.

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But I strongly disagreed with his assertion that a work is somehow elevated if it’s nearly incomprehensible; that a story can only have merit if it needs a literature professor to explain its themes, ideas, and structure to a room full of confused and bored students.

Sure, I want my stories to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.  But to accomplish that, I don’t believe I, or any other writer, needs to create a piece that requires a literary road map through which to navigate.

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Certainly it is my hope that The Eye-Dancers will prompt readers to step back and think about the very nature of what we term “reality”; to consider the mysterious, even seemingly otherworldly psychic connection two strangers can share; and to wonder at the possibility that we, each of us, are just one piece of an infinite puzzle that includes countless variants of ourselves scattered throughout worlds that parallel our own like invisible, silent shadows.

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But more than this, it is my hope that readers will relate to the characters, cheer them on, root for them, get swept up in the flow and momentum of the story, and have fun as they read.

When I explained this to John, when I told him I wanted a wide swath of people to enjoy my stories, not just a select few, he simply shook his head and gave me a look that I could only interpret as pure pity.

************

The Twilight Zone remained on the air for five unforgettable seasons; and those “potboiler” episodes, those flights of fancy that delved into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, those “commercial” attempts at expression have endured and prospered.  It can be argued, indeed, that The Twilight Zone is more appreciated, more loved, more respected now, on the precipice of 2015, than it was when it actually ran.

Serling himself expressed a possible reason for the show’s ongoing popularity.  “On The Twilight Zone,” he once said, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”  He was able, in other words, to utilize imaginative storytelling, plots that took viewers by the hand and led them to strange, often frightening new worlds, to comment on and critique the social ills, prejudices, and personal crises occurring in our own, very real lives.

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The Twilight Zone accomplished Serling’s vision and proved beyond a doubt that a story, a novel, a piece of art, does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.

The great pieces, the truly memorable works that hold up through the dust and years and passing of decades and centuries are the ones that accomplish both.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

33 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. John
    Dec 06, 2014 @ 16:50:34

    An excellent read!!

    Reply

  2. John W. Howell
    Dec 06, 2014 @ 18:12:20

    I for one loved the Twilight Zone and Eye Dancers. I think when writers make a point to have more rather than less “get it” it is a win for literature. Clearly both did not compromise quality for commercial.(whatever that means)

    Reply

  3. Rosaliene Bacchus
    Dec 06, 2014 @ 19:43:22

    Thanks for that excellent post, Mike! So much food for thought.

    As a story teller, I also want my stories “to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.”

    Your friend John reminds me of inaccessible poetry meant only for literary elites. Such writers seek only academic recognition, losing the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 09, 2014 @ 20:09:59

      That is a great point! If writing can only be understood by a select few, then it cannot, by definition, reach a wide audience, and therefore can’t make any difference at all in the vast majority of people’s lives . . .

      Reply

  4. June Lorraine
    Dec 07, 2014 @ 01:14:03

    Your point is nicely made Mike, everyone gets it 🙂

    Reply

  5. jjspina
    Dec 07, 2014 @ 03:18:03

    Very enjoyable read, Mike. I miss Serling’s show. It was one of a kind and very memorable. Some of the shows still haunt me. He was very talented to see above and beyond others. You are like him!

    Reply

  6. stockdalewolfe
    Dec 07, 2014 @ 03:43:04

    Excellent post, Mike! Makes really interesting and wise points. Thank you for writing, as always, with substance and quality.

    Reply

  7. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Dec 07, 2014 @ 07:01:47

    Great post, Mike! Yes, I was a fan of The Twilight Zone. I thought it was always very unsettling in a good way. It wasn’t overwritten, and it could really get at the strangeness that is all around us. I love his response, and i agree with it. I’m a huge fan of making art that people enjoy, or at least something that makes them think and enjoy the process of thinking. Anyway, thanks for making this point.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 09, 2014 @ 20:00:51

      Thanks so much, Jilanne! Serling did handle that interview well–Mike Wallace really put him on the spot a few times. And that was indeed the beauty of The Twilight Zone–entertaining stories that were, at the same time, very thought-provoking . . .

      Reply

  8. Bruce Thiesen
    Dec 07, 2014 @ 18:55:51

    I’d like to like more “inaccessible” writing, music and art. I really would. When I say that, I think it may be the same thing as, “what if I was smarter, better educated, had the financial resources to have the luxury of more time and perhaps fewer commitments so that I could access more of that “inaccessible” writing, music and art?” Or, perhaps that’s too much to think about. Maybe I can make this mine without more good fortune. Sometimes, it seems to me that those who are able access the “inaccessible,” particularly poetry, art and music, simply possess the illusion that they have done so. I’m just saying.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 09, 2014 @ 19:58:35

      That’s a great point, Bruce–I hadn’t really thought of that. And the more I think about it, the more I agree that sometimes that illusion you speak of is very much there!

      Reply

  9. evelyneholingue
    Dec 08, 2014 @ 01:05:13

    “…does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.”
    How true!
    Like you I think that a good story is there first to entertain. It doesn’t mean that the story has to be over simplified in order to be understood. Most readers are smart enough to enjoy the decoding. Of course the dream of every writer is to be able to entertain and illuminate. But if I had to pick between an obscure piece of writing and a smartly entertaining one I know I would rather be entertained. Good post, as always, Mike. See you.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 09, 2014 @ 19:55:45

      It’s always wonderful hearing from you, Evelyne! And yes–it’s very true. A story can be illuminating, but if it’s not also entertaining, very few people will read it. The trick, as a writer, is to somehow make a story both entertaining and illuminating . . . which is always a fun challenge to undertake!

      Reply

  10. teagan geneviene
    Dec 08, 2014 @ 12:02:34

    Brilliant post once again, Michael. I’ve never deluded myself that i’m a truly literary writer, but i love to entertain people. However, i also like to make them think (whether or not it’s with one of my stories). I get satisfaction from seeing the expression in someone’s eyes when they’ve just realized a new path for their thoughts. Huge hugs! 😀

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Dec 09, 2014 @ 19:53:06

      Hi Teagan! And you’re right, of course–when you do see that expression you speak of–when someone does see something a little bit differently due to something you wrote . . . that is one of the high points of being a writer, isn’t it?:)

      Reply

  11. Mary Strong-Spaid
    Dec 12, 2014 @ 06:09:36

    I miss the Twilight Zone! Always looking at the world in a slightly different way…so much creativity!

    Reply

  12. Laurel Leigh
    Dec 13, 2014 @ 17:57:56

    Great post, Michael!

    Reply

  13. A. Blake
    Dec 15, 2014 @ 21:10:16

    I am getting super excited for the Twilight Zone NYE marathon!

    Reply

  14. Carol Louise Wilde (Carol Wuenschell)
    Dec 16, 2014 @ 23:27:01

    All very well-said. I couldn’t agree more.

    Reply

  15. gertloveday
    Dec 22, 2014 @ 00:15:08

    Absolutely agree with you about the importance of having fun when you read. And you have to be just as skilful a writer to write stuff that’s fun. Sometimes more so. Nothing heavier than someone trying vainly to be funny.

    Reply

  16. randee
    Dec 28, 2014 @ 11:27:51

    I agree with you. I was just struggling with this today, with my latest post. I didn’t want it to be too abstract. Abstract is annoying. I want people to get what I’m saying. Sure, it might require a little focus and patience to read to the end, but there, in the end, it should have some meaning, some purpose.

    Reply

  17. Michelle Rene
    Jan 05, 2015 @ 22:07:46

    Reblogged this on YSayNo Cafe.

    Reply

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