My personal preferences should be set aside, however, today. This time I want to discuss the "X Factor," as I call it, that seems to separate the award-winning films and books and plays from the rest. This may be a long, rambly post because, frankly, I have no idea what it is. I do know what it looks like when I see it, as I think everyone might, as shown by this trailer for every Oscar-winning movie ever:
This parody video nails it. Every movie that wins an Oscar looks like this. I think the same goes for plays (my family has decided that edgy works win Tonys for Best Play/Musical) and for books. I can't tell you how many times someone has recommended a book to me on the basis that it made someone cry. I don't think that's valid proof that a book is a solid work of literature. I've read books that made me cry too, but I was crying in pain.
This is the part of the post where I allow that one of the definitions of literature is that literature strikes us where we're most human. It discusses what it means to live and love and hurt like human beings. I agree with this. Maybe this is the X Factor. But personally, I've seen plenty of films and read plenty of books that do this but are definitely not award-winner material. For example, Titanic is a movie that wins awards. And it's a stupid story with flat, obnoxious characters. Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, has a sold plot and really well-developed characters, as does Tangled. I would be shocked if either won major accolades.
The best literature can find this X Factor without beating it to death (which I think some books and movies do) and explore it in a well-told story with great characters. I thought Wonder by R.J. Palacio did this. I think what made Shakespeare great was that he could do this. He explores in his plays the heights and depths of human nature and the human condition, but the characters feel real and the stories are interesting. There's a lot of murder in Hamlet.
So what are we to do? I still have no idea what the X Factor really is, but I'm going to do my best to analyze it based on some of the more hackneyed, award-scrounging works I've seen and read. The X Factor seems to incorporate:
1. Tragedy. For some reasons, comedies rarely win big awards or get remembered in history. How many times did you read Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet in high school? Did anyone read The Importance of Being Earnest? Anyone? If so, you're lucky. Despite the potential for spectacular characters and creative social critique in comedies, they rarely rise above the ranks. High school English was a depressing 4 years.
2. Edginess. I think we've been trained to think that high art pushes the envelope. So it's no surprise that the works we hail as great are somewhat edgy, dealing with taboos of society and harder characters. WARNING: This element of the X Factor can be a cliche trope. Edginess is fine in aid of plot, characters, and meaning of a work. But throwing it in a story that works just as well without it to look artsy is kind of pathetic. It becomes a "sex sells" thing, when the story alone should have the power to compel based on its ability to connect to humanity. Everything should be in aid of the story and the characters that move it.
3. Current societal trends. Yes, this matters. I swear. Watch the video above for the parody of the social connections. Whatever disease or war or financial scandal is happening today, I promise you will see it reflected in the works that win awards nowadays. On the one hand, this seems like a pandering to mass culture and not the timelessness that classics have. However, awards aren't given by eternity but by a panel of judges right now. Humans also respond more to the things that speak to them right now. Horror stories, the best ones, do a great job of this. Dracula was a monster that directly terrified the Victorians, and Frankenstein's monster was horrific to the Romantics. What made them last was the fact that they still terrify us on a deeper, human level.
I'm going to call it here. If you have other elements you see that I missed, please put them in the comments. I could also add good writing, heavy focus on the characters over plotting, symbolism, etc. But these seem to rise and fall, while the above seem pretty constant. I also want to add that genre (mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, horror) rarely gets the nod. That angers me. The quality of crafting the story should matter more than it does.
Why do I care? Well, the Tonys were last night, and I'm getting sick of the self-congratulatory nature of awards shows in general. Also, I'm entering a writing contest (which me luck) and I spend too much time calculating my chances. I'm not altering my story to fit this formula or ranting about the unfairness of the system, I promise. I'm just thinking about what separates different kinds of stories.
Last, if there is a formula for the kind of books and movies and plays that win awards, we as writers need to know about it. It may give us an insight into the kind of stories that resonate with people most, which can boost the power of our writing. But it can also hinder us if we start using the X Factor's elements as a way to gain cheap recognition. A book isn't good just because it can make you cry. It might just be emotionally manipulative. The more knowledge we have, the better our writing will be because we can make conscious decisions to craft it the way we want it to be.