Dune and Why Art is Not a Zero-Sum-Game
Even as audiences enjoy Dune, it is being criticized for a range of elements including its muted colors, slow pacing, and overt portentousness. All fair criticisms to be sure except a number of these opinions go on to imply that Dune shouldn’t have been made because it’s taking science fiction in the wrong direction. The mindset here, that art is overwhelming a zero-sum-game, pops up often in film and literature. Dune provides an excellent moment to discuss why it’s harmful.
If you don’t like the type of science fiction Dune represents it is very tempting to view it as taking the place of more worthy work. Afterall only so many books, television series, and movies can be made. As a viewer or reader sometimes work you dislike gets published or filmed at the expense of something you would like. All of this is true and yet it is simplistic.
As someone trying to make a living making television or books, pouring yourself into the process, it might be particularly tempting to view other artists only as competition. You might be particularly annoyed when projects you view as lesser than yours get picked up. Ultimately, this view is less than productive.
For an extreme but exemplar version of this mindset, look no further than Booker-prize-short-listed author Will Self’s piece about how hard it is to read contemporary literature as a writer. He begins with a self-aggrandizing lead-up about how hard it is as a writer to get people to suspend disbelief (it’s like a seal juggling a ball) with the gist captured in this passage where he writes about reading other author’s work: “[If] I can’t suspend any disbelief at all…[I] am simply suffused with pity: for them, for me, for the entire bob of literary artificers. But… if they’re balancing that ball brilliantly…I’m visited with the most terrible sense of envy.”
Self centers all writing around himself. Poor writing makes him look bad. Good writing serves as a pinnacle he might not be able to achieve. It is the zero-sum-mindset taken to its furthest and logical extreme. For, if all art is ultimately pitted against itself, then, in the end, there can only be a few winners. Self pities books he views as lesser because he would never choose them as winners. He feels envy because great books lessen his status as a winner.
Firstly, let’s address the part about pity. For any book to be published, multiple people had to be convinced that people would not only read the book but enjoy it. To verify this, pick any book and read its reviews and you will find that people enjoyed it. Better yet, read the positive reviews of a book you disliked (always a good reminder for me that I’m not the arbiter of what’s good). Why would you pity the author? Their book brought people joy.
As for envy, it doesn’t fully even make sense in a competitive way (although some might be tempted to give Self credibility because of his success). The success of your closest peers can help you. Harry Potter greatly increased the popularity of young adult literature and no doubt helped many other works get published. Self recognizes this reality in a twisted, competitive way, thinking that peers only read each other’s work for the sake of mutual blurb publicity. It seemingly never occurs to him that an author might want to help their peers because they like and respect them. Or that increasing the voices of like-minded individuals increases the audience for your voice as well.
For the Readers and Viewers
Frequently, those with the zero-sum-mindset won’t stop at saying they didn’t like something. They’ll go further and bemoan that a particular book or movie even exists because it is taking up space that should be devoted to what they want made. (I’m sure most people can relate to this if a favorite television series has been cancelled while others remain.) However, art builds on itself as much as it competes with itself.
Science fiction, and Dune specifically, provide a great example. There is undeniable overlap between Dune and Star Wars, but the goal of the storytelling is strikingly different. The former is a serious exploration of decidedly heavy themes. The latter, while not without darkness (see The Empire Strikes Back), is focused on adventure and uplift. It would not be surprising if some people wished only Dune-esque movies were made or vice versa.
What is completely lost in the zero-sum-mindset is how, despite their differences, one begets the other. Star Wars is heavily influenced by Dune. It would not exist in its current form without Dune and perhaps wouldn’t exist at all. On the flipside, without Star Wars popularizing space opera movies it is possible that Villeneuve’s Dune would not have been funded.
Despite the difference in tone, having read and watched both Star Wars and Dune the similarities between them are quite clear. The same cannot be said for Alien as horror-science fiction. Yet, Ridley Scott said he wanted to direct Alien because he was so impressed by Star Wars. Given Scott wasn’t involved in the script Alien probably would have been made, but without Scott it would have likely been quite different. The art you hate might have led to the art you love.
For Art (in general)
The result of viewing all art as a zero-sum-game is the desire to control it. The Self piece both realizes the inevitable failure of attempting control and, in his reluctance, shows how someone with his mindset would control it if they could. Self frets that, with so many books and stories available now, it is hard for any to stand the test of time. Literature is being pushed to the side. Still, in the end he accepts that this is inevitable and not a bad thing. That literature is a “collective work: a great quilt to which we both add original patches, and alter those already sown.”
It’s a nice sentiment and well-written. However, I suspect he only came to the opinion grudgingly, after realizing that control was impossible. See this sentence: “there are no ‘guilty pleasures’ when it comes to reading — even if it’s your metier: read what the hell you like — everyone else is.” It’s not read whatever you like because that will give you the most enjoyment. Or read whatever you like because letting people manage the canon is dangerous. It’s read whatever you like because inevitably that’s what everybody is going to do regardless.
And so, while Self recognizes how literature works, he misses the point. It’s good that literature and film and television and every other art form is increasingly democratized. More artists can be inspired than ever before. More people can see art that speaks to them and see themselves represented in it. Art thrives on a diversity of styles and perspectives. Attempting to strictly control art is antithetical to so much of what it can stand for.