Media Life

Right before I left for Paris and Vienna, I did an email interview with a writer from Media Life magazine who was working on an article about The Anxiety of Obsolescence. The interview, unsurprisingly, was mostly about the television end of the novel-and-television relationship, but the questions were interesting, and the article turned out pretty well, I think. (And it may be the first time in the history of ever that a review of an academic book ended with the weekend box office report.)

Given how little of my rambling made it into the article, though, I thought I’d post the entirety of the interview, for my own future reference, if nothing else.

Is TV becoming an intellectually challenging, novel-like literary form?

I would say yes, absolutely. Contemporary television shows are asking their viewers to do far more work than ever before, both in terms of parsing what is in some cases a very literary style of dialogue — like that of Deadwood, for instance — and in asking viewers to draw connections among characters and narrative events that might be separated by several episodes, if not even longer, in order to draw some often very subtle conclusions about the show’s meaning. I’d put The Wire into this category, and Lost as well. These shows don’t simply invite interpretation, they demand it, by requiring viewers to puzzle out the significance of what they see.

Which shows turn to this form of intricate narrative, aside from Deadwood and Lost? Would, say, West Wing fit this description? any others?

I’d argue that several shows fall into each of these categories. In the former, as I say, Deadwood is the obvious answer, but I’d also say that the various Aaron Sorkin series (Sports Night, West Wing, and now Studio 60) all rely heavily on a style of dialogue that requires viewers to pay close attention to the language used, to unpack a stream of references to other cultural texts, and to uncover the nuances of the interpersonal relationships that drive professional and public life. I’d also suggest that the Gilmore Girls belongs in this category, given how much work the speed of the dialogue and the denseness of the references requires of the viewer.

In the latter category, there are even more shows, as the enigmatic mystery has become a very popular style of series — the show that can get fans talking, attempting to puzzle out the meanings of subterranean clues. The X Files was of course the forerunner of this mode of show, but I’d also include Alias and any number of its descendants (some of which, of course, are better than others). But there are also the programs that aren’t mysteries per se, that nonetheless require their viewers to do a lot of interpretive work in order to really appreciate the show’s meaning. I’d include many of the HBO series in this category (The Sopranos as one of the originators of this style of novelistic television, but also Six Feet Under, Big Love, Deadwood, and of course, The Wire), but also shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars (though the second season of VM wasn’t as successful as the first, so we’ll see how it goes from here) — these are shows that reward careful viewing and attention to detail.

In what ways is the narrative of these shows similar to forms once associated with the novel?

I’d say that these narratives are similar not just to those associated with the novel, but those associated with the Big Novel — Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest — precisely in the work that they require of their readers, in their deep intertextuality (in which one must know quite a lot about the culture that the show is a part of in order to fully appreciate many of its references), their careful construction of complex characters, and their unfolding of a nuanced plot in which no easy answers are provided.

Why do you think this is happening?

That’s a really good question. I think part of it is that at least a subset of television viewers have simply become more demanding. It’s particularly interesting that the rise of these extremely sophisticated narrative programs has happened at exactly the same time as the rise of reality programming, which by and large avoids any such nuance and complexity. I think that the demandingness of contemporary audiences has been increased by the internet, which fosters the kind of discussion of texts that results in viewers wielding a more powerful mode of judgment and discernment when it comes to their viewing practices. They’re not simply watching passively; they’re also writing about what they watch, and conveying to the producers of these shows just how seriously they take their narratives. (Thus it’s interesting to watch the ways that Joss Whedon, for instance, interacted with fan groups by taking their comments and suggestions seriously in the production of Buffy and Angel, as well as the ways that Rob Thomas took fan complaints about the problems in season 2 of Veronica Mars seriously.)

Beyond that, though, I’m at kind of a loss to explain it. We’ve been in the midst of a kind of “golden age” for television for the last eight years or so, at the same time the lowest common denominator on the tube keeps getting lowered. It’s fascinating.

What impact does it have on the TV watching society? Does it make us more creative? Does it inspire people to write fiction, be it scripts or novels?

I’d say yes, absolutely — more people are writing more than ever. But lots of that writing is happening in forms that we might not notice, or might not consider “serious” — fan fiction, for instance, or other forms of fan writing on message boards and forums like Television Without Pity. And then there’s blogging; I think it’s no accident that blogging has spread like wildfire in the last five years, as many people have come to insist on a less passive position with respect to their media consumption.

Does it make us, in effect, a more literary society?

Again, I’d say yes, though not, perhaps, in the ways people expect. Perhaps we’re not reading and writing in book form in the same way that we used to (though, as I argue in the book, I still insist that the suggestions of cultural critics that there’s been some kind of “decline” of the literary, that we once were a reading-oriented culture and now we’re not, is both utopian and revisionist; literary reading has always been the province of an elite, and thus the kinds of reading and writing that we are seeing now, bringing together multiple contemporary media forms — watching television, writing on blogs and fan forums, posting videos on YouTube — are vastly democratized over older communicative models). Again, perhaps the book isn’t focal anymore, but more people are being more creative in a way that one might describe as “literary” than ever before.

Is Hollywood draining off folks that would have been novelists in a previous time?

I don’t know that I’d say “draining off.” There have always been these anxieties that all the good writers who wanted to make a buck were going to Hollywood — first to film, and much more recently to television — but I’m not quite convinced that this is so; people write in the form they want to write. That said, I would argue that some of the best writing being done in American culture in the last decade has been done for television. No doubt that will change, too.

Can we, in effect, begin to defend TV as a literary form?

I hope all of my answers above suggest that I’d say yes, absolutely. Not across the board — there will always be the pulp novels and porn magazines of television, too, but there are clearly some programs that are making a lasting impact on American culture in a way that must beg the question of what the literary is.

What does all this say about the novel?

The novel, I believe, will continue to be the novel. There will continue to be serious, important writers whose work best fits that format. And there will continue to be important novels that affect our culture in deep and lasting ways as well. But there are other forms that now exist alongside the novel that are making such contributions as well. It’s not a zero-sum game; they can co-exist peacefully. The culture will only grow richer if we continue fostering new forms of the literary as they crop up.

7 thoughts on “Media Life

  1. I agree with all of your points about television narrative, except for evoking terms like “literary” and “novelistic” to describe complex TV narration (which comes more from the interviewer than KF). What such programs do with storytelling strategies is rarely parallel to the strengths of the novel – depth of character interiority, narrative voice, formal play, etc. Rather this type of television should be hailed on its own medium terms – it’s televisual in its most complex & mature form yet seen – rather than held up as legitimate simply by linking it to a more valued cultural form.

    (And in the shameless self-promotion dept., I have an article in the new issue of Velvet Light Trap about these very narrative strategies in contemporary programming, downloadable in manuscript form from my website linked above…)

  2. Thanks, Jason — I’ll have to go read your article. I’m a bit less willing to dump the idea of the “novelistic,” though, not because I don’t see television as a mature form unto itself (which I’m sure you already know), but because “novelistic” or “literary” function as a kind of code for “worth taking seriously.” Yes, of course, media culture should be worth taking seriously on its own terms, without having to claim some affiliation with “high” culture, but I have a vested interest (witness the entire project) in disrupting the position espoused by much of the literati that television is somehow stealing the novel’s audience, that television is dumbing down the culture, that television is making literature less important and us less literate. And so my arguments in this interview are primarily aimed not at suggesting that the particular narrative structures of the novel and television are all that comparable, but rather that television demands complex reading strategies, much like those of serious literature, and thus must make us question what we label “literary” and why.

  3. I have a feeling that I’m going to be playing the part of Mr. Obvious, but I’ve played that role before and I’m sure I’ll play it again.

    I am curious about the persistence of a high/low distinction in your comment that “there will always be the pulp novels and porn magazines of television, too.” If what’s “literary” about television is its demand on the audience to interpret dialogue, trace character & plot development, and catch allusions, isn’t the very act of engaging with a TV show (as opposed to the quality of the show itself) a “literary” act? I guess another way to ask this is, when you say “complex characters” and “nuanced plot,” are complexity and nuance essential to your argument? (And I ask that as a genuine question.)

    You see where this is headed: even a boneheaded show like Everybody Loves Raymond requires cognitive work on the part of its audience (to develop knowledge of its characters, to catch its cultural references & inter-episode developments, etc.). So, if a bad novel can rely too heavily on flat characters and predictable plot devices and still be undisputably a novel, why do the literary qualities of a TV depend on their aesthetic goodness for their very existence?

  4. I guess what I mean to say is: is “literary” something that TV shows should aspire to be at their very best? And if that is the claim you’re making, does it go against the broader aims of your work?

  5. But e. — pulp novels and porn magazines require cognitive work too, don’t they? To compare some shows to them is not to say that they’re brainless, only to say that they do have different goals, and require different work.

    And I’m not thinking Everybody Loves Raymond when I talk about these pulp forms of TV. I’m thinking Fear Factor. Or the E! True Hollywood Story.

    But, in answer to your second quote, for me, complex is good. I want to be challenged a little. I don’t think this goes against my argument, because complex != “high,” at least not necessarily….

  6. I would have to say that I have been trying to wrap my head around the complexity issue, ie good/bad measured by level of complexity. Just as Sudoku has been described as something that “challenges but does not enlighten,” there is a degree to which certain forms of “complex” television challenge but do not inform. For all the fast talk and references of a show like Studio 60, The Wire or The Gilmore Girls, they are only good, from my assessment, if they provide support and thoughtful encouragement to their audience.

    The Wire is effective because it give me the sense that television can still be intrepid and explore the relationships that divide us and bring us together. But when the show gets too involved in character molds, genre and other conventions that it obviously fights, it loses value to me. similarly, if the Gilmore Girls gets too much into talking fast for the sake of it, or if Studio 60 refers to Faust to seem smart, I feel stifled.

    I would rather see the Gilmore Girls showing some of the interesting nuances and frustrations of mother/daughter relationships being tested by economic and social distances (it really helps to explain the phenomenon of the “hip mama” lampooned very nicely in “Mean Girls”). I also like Studio 60 when it shows the nuances of and frustrations of working as a media professional in an industrial context.

    But finally, it is essential that these shows reveal a working ethic that they can reaffirm. Networks hate presenting consistent ethical systems because ethics force networks into decisions based upon something other than economic considerations. I could say more but I am sure I’ve been confrontational enough.

  7. Hi there, Person. I have to say that, overall, I agree with you — I want the stylistic innovation that these series are experimenting with to be put to the use of something more important on the level of ideas, in the same way that I want stylistic innovation in the novel to be at the service of some significant meaning, rather than simply being postmodern fun & games for their own superficial sake. And I absolutely agree with your readings of the shortcomings of Gilmore Girls (which has become tedious) and Studio 60 (which is alarmingly quickly threatening to do the same). I don’t so much agree about The Wire, or perhaps I don’t quite see what you’re pointing out in the show’s simultaneous use and subversion of conventions, which strikes me as being a pretty sophisticated mode of exploring the structure and function of narrative. That said, your overall point is well taken, and was hardly confrontational. Thanks.

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