Tales from the Back Garden: You Can’t Have Your Cape and Eat It

             We’ve got new neighbours and are at their place with a bottle of wine to say hello. They’re a couple in their thirties with a two-year old child. It’s a very warm summer’s evening. The gardens are full of white and pink roses, amongst a thousand shapes of green; birds skitter in the bushes.

            At one point, James and I are in the garden on our own and there is that slight nervousness between two people who know nothing about each other but live closer than most of their family.

            He’s just told me that he works for an online marketing company, where he’s responsible for a large team of people. I tell him I’m a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer, then something clicks.

            “I used to read a lot of Sci-Fi,” he says. “And I still like the ancient classics like Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury.”

            I laugh. “I grew up reading those guys as they were actually producing their stuff.”

            “But,” he says, “I find these days there’s more happening in comics than books.”

            “I used to read comics avidly,” I say, “then stopped in the early 80s for some reason. I think because they were getting rather predictable.”

            He nods. “They probably were back then. But now, if you know where to look, there’s a lot of innovation going on in comics.”

            “I read this review of the Avengers movie the other day. The critic is one of those rather artsy-fartsy middle-class types who is usually appalled by super hero movies. But he liked the Avengers because he thought Joss Whedon had put the fun back into super-heroes; that he knows how to nod and wink to the audience that it’s okay to like this film – don’t worry: it doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

            He shakes his head. “He’s got that totally wrong. Joss Whedon doesn’t do what that critic means by ‘fun’.”

            “I agree. He does characters who are funny. But that requires the skill to produce convincing characters in the first place, then give them dialogue that’s actually funny.”

            “Absolutely! The super hero stories that work best are the ones that take the subject seriously. Not as in po-faced but as in, well, tone.”

            “Which is why the Batman TV series totally sucked – because it wasn’t for comics fans; it was for people who couldn’t enjoy super heroes unless they were sending up the genre.”

            “I would say Joss Whedon’s a brave man – a great writer working in genres that won’t ever be taken seriously by the art establishment – except I think he’s doing exactly what he loves to do.”

            And suddenly, it’s turned out to be a great day. I’ve met someone who really gets what I get. Who understands that great writing is just that; it’s not dependent on whether or not its form is an acceptable one.

            “It’s all about honesty to your art,” I say. “And there’s nothing worse than someone who plays at their art; who wants the benefits of the form but also wants his audience to know he’s not really serious, that if it turns out winning the literary prizes means you have to say you were just being ironic . . . “

            “But that way leads to compromise and crap writing. You can’t have your cape and eat it.”

            We both laugh at that. Later, in my study, with the window wide open and the cool night breeze tickling my bare feet, I wonder what the point is of my conversation with James. The point that I could tell my writing group about.

            For decades, super heroes have fought the bad guys. What do the bad guys want? Well, the world, in one form or another. They want to rule.

            Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that literary fiction critics want to rule the writing world? And if they do, does that make them the bad guys?

            I have an insight then, perhaps. Super heroes spend a lot of time fighting bad guys. But they’re not defined by them. What they really care about, or should do, is fairness, honesty, truth. If those things could exist in the world without the need to be defended, they’d hang up their capes in a second.

            So, it’s no good a comics or genre writer existing just to battle the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, stuffed-up, over-artsised, prejudices of the literary establishment. He has to write because he loves what he writes about. The best literary writers do the same.

            And with that thought, I wrap myself up in my metaphysical Bat cape and go to sleep.