Story Talk: Aaron Sorkin Critics vs. Reality

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Salon posted a scathing article July 19, 2012, by Alex Pareene, entitled “Aaron Sorkin versus reality.” Scathing is hardly the word for it. Pareene essentially eviscerated Sorkin for being “ ... a smug, condescending know-it-all who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.” Clearly this guy does not like Aaron Sorkin, but why even post something like this on a highly regarded website like Salon (which I love!)? Pareene’s vitriol against Sorkin was nothing short of a fit—unseemly at best and embarrassing at worst.

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But, Salon did publish this. So, I can only assume the editors saw some value here. Don’t know that I agree, but hey, Salon doesn’t consult me. Even so, why would an attack of this nature be something a respectable and valued media outlet like Salon would consider acceptable? I think the answer is complicated, not unlike the subject matter of Pareene’s article: Aaron Sorkin.

Let me be clear, I am no one’s apologist, and Aaron Sorkin does not need anyone, especially me, coming to his defense. He’s a big boy and knows how to deal with pundits. But, I’m seeing a trend lately of “Sorkin haters” who are collectively building a case to support the following:

Aaron Sorkin:

  • is smug, arrogant and superior,
  • his writing all sounds the same; his characters are just himself in disguise,
  • his dialogue is over-the-top and preachy,
  • his characters alternate between “speechifying, quipping and dumbly setting up other people’s quips, [Salon, Pareene]”
  • and he doesn’t know subtext or irony from a steak sandwich.

You get the idea.

There was a time Aaron Sorkin could do no wrong. His successes with The West Wing and Sports Night are just two examples of shows that helped galvanize him into the popular zeitgeist as clever, insightful and sublimely talented. In the film world he has The American President, A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball, an Oscar win, and one nomination, and at least 50 other award nominations, and 35 award wins. And he’s still on top of his game, as Pareene points out in his Salon article, “ ... he’s [Sorkin] … more professionally successful than ever, back in demand as a major film screenwriter ... and heading one of HBO’s trademark ‘prestige” dramas’ [Newsroom].” And yet, Sorkin has become a kind of punching bag for many who find his writing hackneyed, repetitive and preachy. Why has this all gotten so personal and tawdry and mean-spirited?

The easy explanation for all this is that our culture loves an underdog and hates the dog on top. We send mixed messages to ourselves all the time about success: be successful, but not too successful, people will think your full of yourself; make money, but not too much money, people will think you’re greedy; be pretty, but not too pretty, people will think you’re vain. Perhaps we can add one more: be talented and opinionated, but not too talented or opinionated, people might think you’re Aaron Sorkin.

The more difficult explanation (complex may be a better word) is that talented people are just plain folks too. They have ups and downs, get stuck in creative ruts, and sometimes ride on the wave of their talent, rather than push ahead into the white water. Okay, maybe Sorkin repeats himself, maybe he gets preachy and maybe he could share the writing more generously with his writing staffs, but rather than disembowel him for being human, how about we appreciatively point out the shortcomings and thank the man for being a bloody genius? So what that his characters sound the same? Do you think all of Stephen King’s characters have individual voices? Have you read a James Patterson thriller lately; his work is same ol’, same ol’ from book to book? And, like Sorkin, Mr. Patterson cries all the way to the bank, even with his detractors. Here we have a writer with something to say, a voice of his own, passion enough to risk sharing both with the world and we Sorkin-bash him in response. I'm all for challenging artists on their process and calling them on their sh*t when they get lazy, but I find this current round of Sorkin punditry a bit disingenuous—actually, a lot disingenuous.

I’m not shy when it comes to having a strong opinion and sharing it. I piss people off all the time because there is no love lost between Hollywood and me; its cruel games, or its plethora of self-important blowhards. And while Mr. Pareene had some valid “observations” about Mr. Sorkin, I think we need to keep some perspective here on the man, his work and the bigger picture of what he’s accomplished in his creative life. Writing for television is one of the hardest things to do in the world. To do it well, and often and consistently is like having your lottery ticket hit by lightening on your birthday in a leap year on Friday the Thirteenth; unless you are one of those rare breed of creatives to whom this comes naturally. Mr. Sorkin may not be perfect, but his lottery ticket is like a lightening rod, and we are all the better for it.