Why We Need Stories in the Gray

I talk a lot (maybe more than I should) about the spectrum between high art and pulp, because I’m fascinated by it and I think it’s important to recognize it as just that: a spectrum and not a dichotomy.

But there’s another aspect to that spectrum that I haven’t explored as much on this blog or on my YouTube channel: how pulp and high art handle the question of good versus evil.

Now hold on: I’m not going to try to define good and evil here. That’s a lifelong question that we each need to work through for ourselves, so for our purposes here you can insert any definitions of good and evil that make sense to you.

Because however you define good and evil, you may have noticed that some stories have no problem declaring their definitions of good and evil and sticking to them. For example, look at almost any serial children’s cartoon from the 80s: Care Bears, Transformers, He-Man, etc.

All of those cartoons have “good” characters that demonstrate behaviors that are traditionally “good” in an American context like courage, kindness, leadership, wisdom, hard work, or generosity. By contrast, the villains demonstrate traditionally “evil” behaviors like cowardice, cruelty, tyranny, ignorance, laziness, or greed.

Not all children’s entertainment is pulp, especially when you consider the lack of sex and violence, but when it comes to moral arguments, pulp and children’s entertainment follow similar logic: show the audience “good” characters who demonstrate values the audience already thinks are good and pit them against easy-to-hate villains who are easy to hate because they demonstrate values the audience already thinks are evil.

In other words, the pulp sensibility is all about reinforcing the moral framework the audience already has in place. For adult audiences, this sometimes means presenting a black-and-white moral dichotomy as a way of tapping into their nostalgia and giving them a break from the moral complexity of adult life.

High art, by contrast, presents a moral universe that highlights the ambiguities, gray areas, and nuances that are part of real life. I should note here that even the most staunchly realistic piece of high art is not exactly as complex as life itself; it still needs to streamline the issues enough to form a cohesive story.

A good example of this is Charlie Wilson’s War, directed by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin. The story, based on true events, starts off with what could easily become a pulpy morality tale about a wild man learning how to take responsibility and look out for others.

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) is a United States Congressman who spends most of his time throwing lavish parties instead of legislating. However, that starts to change when his romantic interest Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) convinces him to do more to help the Pakistani resistance currently fighting the Soviet Union.

As Charlie becomes more emotionally connected to their cause, he assembles a ragtag team of various intelligence experts to help get more resources out to the Pakistani resistance. Charlie and his team do this so well, in fact, that they end up redirecting the course of American foreign policy and paving the way for the Reagan Doctrine, a still-controversial strategy that has lasting consequences to this day.

The bones of the simple, pulpy morality tale are still there: we see Charlie mature as a leader and earn the genuine respect and admiration of his team mates. However, the film becomes high art when Charlie, and by extension the audience, wrestle with growing doubts about the broader moral implications of his actions. Was the Reagan Doctrine really the right direction for our country to take? By the end of the film, Charlie isn’t sure, and the audience most likely isn’t sure either.

Like with anything else in the dance between high art and pulp, this is a spectrum, not a dichotomy. There are works of high art that fall back into black-and-white morality just as there are works of pulp that stumble into moral nuances.

Anyway, go write.