The Difficulty of Difficult Media

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(Thanks to Serdar, who inspired me with this column.)

I often hear the word “Difficult” used to describe media with praise. The “difficult” film that supposedly makes you a film buff if you understand it. “Difficult” is apparently a good thing, and I see no reason to believe this.

If a book or movie is “difficult” to understand, is that a testimony to its depth? There’s no reason to assume that it’s any good – maybe it’s incoherent or bad. Perhaps the creator didn’t know how to communicate. A difficult movie isn’t necessarily a mental obstacle course that strengthens you, but just a pointless labyrinth.

Yes, some media is “difficult,” and yes, it takes intellectual fortitude to understand it. I evaluate such media on a case-by-case basis because “difficult” even when properly used doesn’t communicate depth. A clever mystery isn’t the same as a symbolism-packed journey.

I think people love to praise “difficult” media because it says I am smart enough to understand this and you’re not. Claiming something is “difficult” for too many is a way to praise themselves. It’s a way to use a single word to claim one’s intellectual superiority that you “got” it.

I’m always wary of simplistic descriptions such as “difficult.” They quickly become shorthand whose meaning is lost or ignore important distinctions. One word can get in the way of the real experience of a piece of media or a person.

Steven Savage

On Popular Things

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

A discussion that I and my fellow authors seem to have again and again is “is it worth time reading or watching really popular things?” This is not snobbery, but more a question about using our limited time. Maybe something popular is so analyzed and discussed we don’t think there’d be any value in seeing it or reading it. Perhaps we want to find the less known and bring it to light. Maybe we’re tired of good but overexposed franchises

There are legitimate reasons to ask “do I care about this popular thing?”

As I noted before, you can overdo worrying about “am I consuming the right media.” There are reasons to take a chance on popular media.

First, you may like it. There is nothing wrong with enjoying something popular, no matter how many people tell you your nose isn’t turned up enough. To try to dislike things you like is to turn your back on the rest of yourself.

Even if your enjoyment is minor, you may also desire the social connections. You may be “into” a film series or TV enough that you can enjoy discussing it with others. Humans are inherently social beings, and media consumption is part of it. Don’t indulge in something you don’t like, but I think it’s understandable to “give it a try as everyone else is.”

If you are unsure if something popular is worth your time, then why not try it? You can always drop it after reading a few chapters or watching an episode. It is OK to quit.

Finally, no matter why you partake in popular media you will have useful reactions – as I’ve noted, your insights on any media are uniquely yours. You may learn a valuable lesson, even if that lession is I hate this stuff. Each encounter with media – rare or common – is a learning experience.

Remember, your experience of a media is unique, even if it is “I will never touch this dreck again.”

Steven Savage

Only You Goes Both Ways

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

“Only you can write your story,” is something I and others often tell troubled authors. No matter how unoriginal you feel your work is, your take is unique because you are unique. The world is filled with similar stories, we remiind our fellow creators, but those are at best a framework animated by a unique author’s spirit.

However it seems we get suddenly judgmental when we decide how to spend our time. Is this book truly worth reading? Should we see this movie? We’re ready to encourage others to create, but suddenly far less interested in taking in various creations. This is not saying you have to read and watch everything, but that maybe you can be a little more open to experiences because your reading and viewing is also unique.

You are the only one that can write your story, and in turn you are the only one that reads a book or sees a movie your way.

(Besides, as Serdar notes in a column that semi-inspired this one, you can just stop if something is truly awful.)

Your reading or viewing experience is just as unique as anything you create. You will have insights no one else has, and find inspiration unique to your own creativity. You will find flaws no one else saw, and take away lessons no one else will learn. However you consume an artistic experience, that experience is yours and what you take from it is yours.

As an example, let me tell you about when I read a compendium of Lupin stories, tales of the titular gentleman thief by Maurice Leblanc. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and I had two takeaways. The first was that I didn’t get the popularity, and figured it was a cultural difference. The second was that the concise writing, even in translation, provided a good example of doing a lot with few words – Leblanc could do in a paragraph what might take another author a page. I didn’t fall in love with Lupin, but the style helped me reduce my own gratuitous wordiness.

That was my experience. Yours might be different, and perhaps if we talked we’d learn twice as much.

Guard your time, definitely. But don’t guard it so much you find you’re in a self-made prison.

Steven Savage