An Open Letter To Aaron Sorkin

Normally I wouldn’t put this kind of thing here. But frankly, putting it on my other site was becoming a bit of a pain in the ass and I feel more comfortable posting it to an account that isn’t tied to my home address or my credit card information.

While there’s a short clip at the top of this post, this letter was written in response to Mr. Sorkin’s work (and the common reception of his work) as a whole. If Mr. Sorkin (or anyone else) would like to address my remarks, you can reply below — or find me on Facebook. It’s a website. Aaron Sorkin wrote a movie about the guy(s) who made it. My name on the website is Jeromy Oblivian (yes, everything is misspelled).

XXXX Caswell Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 

Dear Aaron Sorkin,

I should start by saying that I don’t think you’re bad. In fact, I think you’re better than most. I also think you’re a really smart dude. So do your accolades ever bother you?

Does it bug you that the social & political views you espouse in your work are applauded for being progressive & thought-provoking when they’re views that had already found their popularity 20-30 years ago? Does it irritate you that you’ve made a career writing 2 kinds of characters: thinly-veiled Sorkin surrogates and straw men set up as their tackling practice dummies? Does it ever get under your skin that dialogue plated in smugness, sarcasm and romanticism seasoned with nostalgia & tinged (but only ever so slightly) with a light sear of cynicism gets lauded as powerful writing with moments of genius?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then we have something in common.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think any of my issues with your writing are evidence of you being a bad writer. I don’t think you’re a bad writer. Many people (including myself occasionally) find your writing to be compelling despite the aforementioned “flaws” — and that’s not easy to do. I rarely find your work boring — and that puts you ahead of a lot of writers in my book. And you get your characters to talk quickly — even when they go on and on and on at length. All of those qualities are to be commended. 
But I think you’re as edgy as LL Cool J and your writing displays all the genius I see in a Toyota Camry.

At the beginning of this letter I said that I should start by saying “I don’t think you’re bad.” I felt I should start it that way and so I did. But I don’t think this is a great letter because I did something I should’ve done. I don’t think this letter deserves any awards or I should be considered a genius because I did what I “should do.” I believe that accolades and acclaim are to be reserved for works that do more than merely execute what they “should do.” So please write something that transcends your process. Write something that simultaneously challenges people while it speaks to them. Write something that surpasses ‘what works’ and finds itself in the realm of ‘what truly inspires.’ Write a script that really says something instead of just talks a lot. Write something that isn’t just better than most, but truly great. Write something that merits the description “a progressive, thought-provoking, edgy, powerful work of genius.”

I’ll take my response off the air.

Very Sincerely,
J. Oblivian



ADDED 6/28/12.

These additional comments arose during discussions that stemmed from the letter above:

In all fairness, I haven’t seen every episode of “The West Wing”. I saw roughly 30-35 episodes from the first 5 seasons and 1 episode from season 7. It’s possible that if I had seen more episodes, I’d have appreciated the show more. But I didn’t watch more episodes because 75% of the time I was overly aware of “oh, this is Sorkin doing what Sorkin does — EXACTLY, UNWAVERINGLY what Sorkin does.” And he does that well. But over a 20+ year career it seems like he only has 3 things that he knows how to do well. And that’s fine. He maneuvers through and around those 3 talents so deftly that it’s clear (to me) that he’s a talented cat. He deserves recognition and even a little bit of admiration. That doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is when he’s recognized and admired for talents/attributes that I don’t believe he has displayed or, if I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, displayed only occasionally.

I enjoyed “Sports Night”. I think the format of a sit-serio-com lends itself to his style & his strengths. But whenever I watched “The West Wing”, I kept getting the feeling (as I do from most of his work) that he was patting himself on the back for how insightful it was. Sure, it was refreshing to see a show on a major network that displayed the goings-on at the White House as what they are: a series of political games. But is that insightful? Is it challenging? Does it get anyone that isn’t already a supporter of his views to adjust or even question their own? I don’t think so. And as long as he does that, he’s pandering. It’s well-written, very entertaining pandering — but it’s still pandering, in my opinion. Pandering, no matter how well executed, gets tiresome. And I think that as long as a writer works in that mode, he or she plateaus at “good” writing. But there are so many smart people around me that don’t leave it at “he’s a good writer.” Descriptions of his talents tend to get elevated to include superlatives like “great”, “powerful”, “stunning”, “fantastic”, “amazing” and “genius.”

But I still don’t see the greatness or the genius that others see in his work. I don’t see layers. I don’t see him challenging himself or his audience. [Forgive me because I’m occasionally going to slip out of the sphere of TV/screenwriters in this next bit.] I don’t see the guts of Chayefsky or the critical introspection of Charlie Kaufman or the thematic complexity of Faulkner or the healthy abuse of his characters exhibited by a young Coppola or the critical pathos of Arthur Miller or the keen social eye of Andrea Arnold or even just the narrative bravura of “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad”. The absence of those traits doesn’t mean his writing is bad. But I think it’s what keeps it from being great. If I regularly saw just one of those qualities in his work, then I’d stand up and applaud him as one of the great dramatic writers of our time. But until then, I’m going to stay seated, willingly granting him that he rarely leaves me feeling cheated.


One Response to “An Open Letter To Aaron Sorkin”

  1. To be fair, who has ever compared Sorkin to Kaufman, Faulkner or Miller? His only Chayefsky comparisons have been because in the Pilot episodes of two of his TV shows, his main characters pull a NETWORK and other characters in the show refer to the incident as being very “Chayefsky’s NETWORK.” It’s more blatant homage than anything.

    I was a huge Sorkin proponent until THE NEWSROOM. “American President,” “Social Network,” and that movie where Tom Cruise can’t handle the truth are all great. SportsNight was fun and I’m a slavish devotee of West Wing – but I fully admit that I love West Wing for exactly what it is: a fairy tale where the world is a best-case scenario wonderland at start and circumstances and character traits create conflict. The patter is fun, the actors are great, and there’s a nice mix of comedy and drama.

    Should Sorkin ever write TV again? No. Every new episode of NEWSROOM is becoming such retread territory that I’m embarrassed. The last episode took THREE plot points and scenes (and DIALOGUE) from The West Wing. It’s obvious that Sorkin writes about himself, but to do the same story in the same way over and over embarrasses me.

    What he does and does well is write people who are supposed to be very smart and erudite. Most people who are NOT those things will see sharp clever writing, characters in jobs that look important, and will think exactly what Sorkin wants them to: Everything these characters say is smart and important. It’s a good charade. Even when you can see through that fog, you have to admit that he has a way with snappy banter – something that, to be fair to Sorkin – he has always said he’s more interested in the sound of snappy dialogue than in writing plot.

    People say that TWILIGHT is great. They say that TRUE BLOOD is great. They think reality TV is great.

    And maybe it is. In some world I don’t inhabit.

    I think, similarly, you should just stop trying to understand. Because sadly, I don’t think he’s going to change. Maybe he’ll do more film writing and get less political and high-minded. But I doubt it.

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