One of my writer friends, David Epstein, read the first few of these newsletters, and told me that he likes them best when it sounds like I'm “thinking out loud.” Since I consider David to be nearly infallible (and if you haven’t read David’s books, you should: here and here), I thought I would take his advice, and do some more thinking out loud.
So here’s my question. One of the things that inevitably happens in any podcast is that some number of riffs and arguments and anecdotes that made their way into early drafts of a given show’s script get dropped in the final version. And then (particularly if you are a perfectionist Virgo like me) you spend a lot of time wondering: Should we have dropped that bit? Or—more precisely—were our reasons for dropping it good reasons?I think that kind of after-the-fact reasons-analysis can be really useful, because one of the things you find out in postmortems is that your reasons often aren’t very good.
OK. So here’s my example. And I want you to judge this one for yourself: Were we correct in cutting it?
Fletcher argues that fairy tales come in two forms. The oldest, most traditional kinds are what he calls “fairy tale twist” stories, which have a narrative structure based on a number of distinctive elements. Here’s how Fletcher puts it:
His example of this kind of fairy tale twist story is an ancient tale called “Adamantina and the Doll.” Adamantina is tasked by her sensible older sister to take their last scraps of money and go to the market and buy food, because the family is starving. Instead, Adamantina foolishly spends all the family’s money on a doll. She comes home, and her sensible sister chastises her. “You idiot! Now we’ll starve.” But what happens? The doll ends up being a magic doll.
The other kind of fairy tale is the kind you grew up on, especially if you watched a lot of Disney movies: poetic justice fairy tales. Poetic justice stories are narratives in which good things happen to good people—in which virtue is rewarded. Cinderella is the perfect example. She’s poor and abused by her evil stepsisters and all but forgotten. But she wins the prince in the end because she is selfless and pure.
Fletcher’s point is that people who make stories for children have, for hundreds of years, assumed that they prefer poetic justice stories—that they like Cinderella because purity and selflessness are rewarded. But his research shows the opposite. Children actually prefer the fairy tale twist. Why? Because when they see virtue rewarded, they immediately look at their own experiences—including all the times they weren’t rewarded—and conclude: “I must not be a good person.” Poetic justice makes us all feel bad. Fairy tale twists give us hope that anyone can reach the top.
OK. So here’s the section we took out of the final draft, word for word:
Here are our reasons for taking it out:
We felt no one wanted still more on Donald Trump.
We thought it would rub people who voted for Donald Trump the wrong way.
We worried that it was too much of a digression from our main point, which was children and Disney.
I still think Reason #3 makes sense. And I think Reason #1 makes sense. We had Trump fatigue! Reason #2, in retrospect, strikes me as unconvincing. It’s not condescending to say to Trump supporters that they were attracted to him in part because of his flaws. Every time I talk to a Trump supporter, this is the one of the first things they bring up! Trump’s great genius was his relatability, and that stemmed in large part from the fact that he didn’t seem like some perfectly turned-out product of the meritocracy. That’s what made him seem real. And that’s a hugely important lesson for all engaged in the business of politics. Personal stories are appealing and powerful not to the extent that they follow a predictable path. If the star athlete, valedictorian, Rhodes scholar, Supreme-Court Justice, part-time model wins higher office, that’s not a story. That’s an algorithm. And the products of algorithms do not win our hearts. What we respond to in narratives of all kinds is unpredictability—flaws that end up offering a means of redemption. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you fall on, that’s something to remember.
Next time I leave it in!