Story Talk: Aaron Sorkin Critics vs. Reality

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.

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.

14 thoughts on “Story Talk: Aaron Sorkin Critics vs. Reality

  1. Michael O'Daniel

    Let me expand a bit on my posting yesterday. Just as I am not willing to accept biased opinions about basketball from someone who has never played the game at the same level, or spoken with people who have, I think the same holds true here: unless you have worked at the same level (episodic television, whether drama or comedy) as Aaron Sorkin — and with successful feature films on top, to boot! — I give no credence to whatever criticism you may have of his work. In sports, you have statistics, which can’t be fudged and which provide some baseline for measurement. In the entertainment world, decisions and evaluations are much more subjective, which is why, in my opinion, the credibility of the person rendering the opinion is even more important. In the realm of criticism of any kind, personal attacks are irrelevant and unnecessary, and diminish the credibility of the person offering the opinion.

  2. C.K. Best

    Anyone as successful as Mr. Sorkin is doing something right. One may not care for the products, but obviously there is a eager & large market for his material. The public’s taste, and of course, producers, determine marketability success and ‘serious’ writers often bemoan this. However, Mr. Sorkin has found venues that people want and has worked hard to attain his success. It might behoove aspiring writers to study his formulas. We can all learn from his successes, even though it may not be our own particular style of writing.

  3. Michael O'Daniel

    People who write personal attacks like this are sick. I have never understood what they hope to accomplish. Let me offer a parallel example. I am in a business partnership with perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. A few years back, a self-appointed expert on the game of basketball — who unfortunately has been given a national platform — undertook to devalue and disrespect the achievements of my colleague and many other players from the same era. This is a person who has never played the game, or bothered to talk with the players who did play in that era. During the NBA season just concluded, the historic achievements of my colleague and several others from that era were celebrated. So the self-appointed expert couldn’t let that pass — he had to reprint his columns and his book excerpts from several years ago just to make sure everyone knew how he felt about this particular player. I felt like we should respond, but my colleague said no, we would just be giving him more credibility — the best course is to ignore him. I trust Aaron Sorkin will take the same approach in this case.

  4. Brooke Monfort

    Alan Sorkin’s work is far more consistently smart and compelling than what’s produced by many other successful Hollywood screenwriters. Four of his movies are in my collection, savored repeatedly. “Newsroom” is hotly political, so I wonder if Pareene’s opinion is simply that of a conservative with their panties in a bunch over hearing the truth. His diatribe seems too skewed to be motivated simply by professional jealousy or any real faults in Sorkin’s work. As Shakespeare said of such tells, “Me thinks s/he doth protest too much.”

  5. S.

    What drives me nuts with all the Sorkin criticism is that it is done in a bubble, and the double standards that only apply to him.

    Take Lone Star (78 metacritic), that was a piece of crap, but by newcomer that had to battle hard to get his chance. Just because of that it got lavish reviews. Or the Dallas (62 metacritic) where what is good is not original, and what is original is not good at all.

    Sorkin’s characters accused of all sounding the same, yet when Amy Sherman-Palladino’s all sound the same it’s her unique voice. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of AS-P’s unique voice. As I am a fan of her setting people right about stuff. Like telling people that 50 Shades of Grey is crap and making fun of women that read it. Yet The same critics that burned Sorkin to a stake for soap-boxing give her a pass.

    Yes, The Newsroom (57 metacritic) is not the best Sorkin has done. It’s clunky, but it still is better than most of what is on TV, and that is what burns critics. That the worse Sorkin is still so damn good, and way better that script they have been working on for years.

  6. CC Rubi

    I don’t like everything he does, but I can say that about any writer, musician, director or actor, but he is hardly an idiot. There are no idiots at that level in Hollywood.

  7. Bill

    Re: Daz – YEAH! And that’s not all…it’s, well, you know…I, I don’t like it, and it’s all really sucky and makes me wanna puke, so I just, uh, basically, that is, it just kinda all SUCKS! And…so…., I just thought… I mean…well, it makes me feel real, uh…icky. Yeah, icky.

    Re: Mr. Lyons – While he doesn’t agree with all people who cast themselves as pundits, and they obviously with him, he does offer some pretty objective logic and industry insights to support his views…kind of like THE NEWSROOM.

  8. Dave C.

    Jeff, you alluded to one of the reasons that he was vilified in the article, and it’s one of the things that Jim Rohn use to talk about. “All good will be attacked. Don’t ask me for a reason, but in this world, all good will be attacked.”

    Or as one popular country song says, “people throw rocks at things that shine.”

    That’s just the way it is. Jealousy is a nasty emotion and when people see someone that is more successful than they could ever hope to be, their tactic is to try to tear that person down so they can feel better about themselves.

    There is no doubt that Sorkin is talented. West Wing was just one example. The show was great and very watchable when he was doing the writing. When he left the show you could see a dramatic turn to the mediocre and it wasn’t too long after that it was gone.

    The American President and A Few Good Men are both excellent examples of a writer at the top of his craft. If we want to discuss a writer so full of himself and has fallen to the pits of mediocrity, let’s talk Eszterhas.

  9. B Rich Adams

    Mr Sorkin is the cream of the crop.
    As near to writing genius as you can achieve. Leave him be.
    If you don’t appreciate his writing ability or talent, simply change the channel.
    You can’t please everyone.
    I love and admire his work.
    Wonderful stuff.

  10. Daniel Delago

    “Writing for television is one of the hardest things to do in the world.” That about sums it up. Like a professional baseball player, a television writer is not always going to hit it out of the park. Sorkin is talented and will give ‘Newsroom’ a necessary facelift. That’s what good writers do, they rewrite over and over again until it clicks.

  11. Mike Lang

    At its best Aaron Sorkin’s writing puts me in mind of the late Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, The Hospital, The Americanization of Emily, Network) it’s very difficult to pull off because it’s the kind of writing that has to be nearly perfect in order to work or the inherent weight of the subject matter will collapse on itself. Newsroom, in my opinion, isn’t quite to that standard yet and as a result it doesn’t work as well as it could or should.

  12. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons Post author

    Daz: Thanx very much for your comment. I don’t really disagree with you. But, the article is really about the tabloidization of the man, not any one show’s shortcomings. Like I said, I’m all for calling artists to account, but we don’t have vilify them in the process. If that makes me an apologist–hey–I guess there are worse things to be called in the world.

  13. Daz

    Sounds like a Sorkin apologist to me.

    Newsroom is not half as clever as it posits. It suffers from a handful of insufferable characters and a sixth of its story time soapboxing and regaling the audience about the trinity of Cronkite, Murrow and Wallace.

    Seriously, for a series based on tackling the truth and meat of its stories, it hardly does that at all.