Alexander Hellene

Instruction Manuals

By Alexander Hellene

A silence so awkward it felt like being forcibly contorted into impossible shapes. He didn’t know what to do. The words came from him, just like the songs said, but she didn’t respond in kind. The way she was supposed to. It was in the song! This stuff worked for his friends who tried it. Why wasn’t it working now?

In years past, love songs let people know what to expect on dates. Boy/girl relationships, doo-wop, that sort of thing. The Beatles or whatever. The world didn’t work like that anymore. Things were different. Technology. Everybody had different needs. Though some things stayed the same, too many other things changed. There were new songs now. Updates and upgrades. Out with the old.

What was wrong with her? Why was she being like this? Why hasn’t she sent nudes?

*     *     *

She sat cradling her phone, the screen the only thing lighting up the dark. Was he serious? Of course he was serious. They’d been on two dates. But the request for nudes was supposed to come on date three—wasn’t that how the song went? Or was that the movie? She could never remember.  

Taking their relationship to the next level . . . She had to do it. But why did it feel so wrong? Surely there was something else that could guide her. Not her parents. They never talked to her about stuff like this. Wasn’t there some book in the Bible that was some guy’s love letter to his wife, some really steamy stuff? They didn’t have a copy in the house though. She could look it up, but it was late and he really wanted nudes and she didn’t want to lose him. It’s been about three weeks since her last hook-up and she was so lonely.

Perched on the edge of indecision, puncturing her skin like a million needles, she knew what she had to do: look up the lyrics so she could get the answer.

*     *     *

Most people get their instructions from TV and movies and video games and popular music. All fiction is message fiction. That’s why this stuff is so important. You can laugh and say that the “culture war” is just a distraction, and isn’t real besides, but you know that’s untrue.

You may also counter this by bringing up the importance of religion. For the tiny percentage of us who get our instructions from our faith, this is true. But let’s not kid ourselves about what is the most pervasive and powerful form of influence. Pop culture is faith for wide swaths of people. I’m not saying this as if it’s a good thing. It’s just a fact.

You’ll notice that I didn’t bring up books. That’s because, and this hurts to say as an author and an avid reader, that nobody really reads.

“Nobody” is a broad term, but Americans read about 20 minutes a day. Twenty minutes. And they’re not reading the “top” science-fiction. A glance at the dismally low amount of books our supposedly best authors sell underscores this fact.

Compare 20 minutes of reading to the average amount of time spent gaming, or watching movies and TV shows. Books only matter insofar as they get made into movies or TV shows or have video game adaptations.

None of this is intended to make people feel bad for their consumption of entertainment or lack of reading. It’s just a diagnosis of the problem at hand for those of us who remain stubbornly in love with the written word. I would argue that none of this is new information either, if you’re a savvy observer of cultural trends.

Now we get to the hard part: what to do about it.

First, when faced with free time, we can ask ourselves “Is it really worth watching something or other, or can we spare a little time to read?” Make a game out of it—tell yourself you’ll read first before watching TV. Turn the screen time into a reward. Not that reading should be work, but mentally it does take a lot more effort than sitting passively while scenes flash across a screen. The advent of movies and TV were envisioned to be the total artistic package—art, writing, and music all wrapped into one—but what percentage of audiovisual entertainment does that really encompass?

Turn reading into a habit.

Second, and this is a challenge for my fellow creators out there, we’ve been doing a pretty good job of getting the fruits of our imagination out there in written form. We need to cross over to new media now. People want to watch stuff. Heck, I think webcomics are more popular than actual novels, and that’s before the comics are turned into movies and TV shows. Cross-pollination is the next important step. We need to work with independent, like-minded creative types in other fields to help turn our books into movies or comics or cartoons or video games or roleplaying games and other such entertainment options. Right now, it’s not about hitting it big, though that would be nice. It’s about providing an alternative set of instructions for people looking for entertainment outside of the bounds the gigantic soulless conglomerates have decided for them.

Of course pop culture influences behavior. It is not merely a mirror reflecting the state of America’s social, moral, and mental health, but it is also a driver of these things. Stop kidding yourself that it doesn’t. Forget what libertarian types try to claim–they were wrong in the 1990s and they’re still wrong now, and in fact, have been wrong about nearly everything for a very long time.

Who would you rather your children learn about things like love, courtship, and romance from? People with your values, or the values of the kind of people who write for Amazon or HBO or Netflix?

The choice is yours. And that’s not just empty feel-good sloganeering: the choice actually is yours.  

– Alexander

4 thoughts on “Instruction Manuals”

  1. Alexander,

    I’m still figuring out about cross pollination. I see how videos, cartoons or comics derived from books are natural tie ins.
    Patches or 3d models I get that too.

    Role playing/board games are little tougher to see the connection.

    For example, Brian’s developing an RPG from his meca series. I can a connection but I still don’t completely grasp how this helps book sales. But that’s on me for my limited outlook.


    1. Xavier,

      Brian’s RPG is a fantastic idea. It’s not about helping book sales necessarily. It’s about creating viable alternatives to converged forms of entertainment, in this case, tabletop RPGs. It may or may not make people want to pick up the source material now, but in the future? Who knows? At the end of the day, there are these wide-open battlefields ready for alternatives to move in. Why not take back some ground for a change?

  2. Hey Alex,

    I love this. Making a parallel entertainment economy – one that features actual Truth and values – is 100% necessary, and unlike previous decades, I believe that even the funding is out there.

    Imagine movies that are visually on par with Hollywood (or better – some CGI still looks awful), but also have amazing scripts that don’t talk down to the audience.

    I Want to Believe.

    1. Dylan,

      Glad you found this a valuable post! It’s all about reclaiming lost ground, and there’s tons of it ripe for the taking. People decry the lack of viable alternatives in their preferred mode of entertainment? Let’s give ’em some! The funding is out there, usually from the fans. This is why I advise creators to 1) keep your nose clean and 2) use platforms like IndieGoGo, Patreon, Kickstarter, and others until they kick you off. I say “Keep your nose clean” and understand the terms of use so you can take appropriate legal action when they try anything funny.

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