Getting Snarky About Television and Other Anti-Television Silliness

I'm rereading Kathleen Rooney's Reading With Oprah, which I commented on earlier (I read it for my thesis and found it quite helpful). Rooney creates a scholarly and surprisingly objective response to the Oprah Book Club phenomenon and its fall-out. In general, the book is an attempt to understand the patterns of high and low culture in America or, rather, the perception of high and low culture in America (My experience is that most people read/watch whatever they want. Like many academics, Rooney betrays a tendency to define problems into being and then be shocked--shocked!--that such problems exist).

In general, the book makes some valid points, and I recommend it; however, half-way through, Rooney finds it necessary to explain to the reader why she thinks OBC failed in its objectives (before Oprah herself cancelled the televised version of the club). It is here that Rooney's argument falls to pieces, and it falls to pieces because Rooney doesn't understand television.

Rooney claims that the problem with OBC (which in general, she is generous towards) was the format--i.e., no matter how good the books, the format of television would have produced a flattening effect whereby interesting/well-rounded novels were reduced to a few applicable labels.

I read that and thought, Has Rooney never attended a graduate-level class? Or a non-televised book club, for that matter? Girl, I hate to mention it, but "flattening" is par for the humanities course. (Interestingly enough, the book club I now attend, which is composed mainly of ladies from my church, is far less reductive [to borrow Rooney's term] than most book clubs, which just proves that reading and analyzing scriptures all your life has its payoffs).

Now, granted, Rooney has a point. I've never been a fan of the packaged this-is-your-life approach to literature but my dislike of this approach extends beyond Oprah. I have argued many times--in my thesis and elsewhere--that if you want an in-depth, passionate discussion about a piece of art, go to the fans (book and television). However, in order to bolster her argument, Rooney proceeds to make the extremely reductive argument that television is, by its very nature, stultifying and simplistic.
"[A]t this point," she writes, "one must do more than announce that TV flattens the complexity of things (which you'd have to be a fool to deny that it does) and leave it at that" (my emphasis).
Well, I guess I'm a fool, but I'm a fool who knows a lot more about television than Rooney does. (She goes on to produce several run-of-the-mill arguments: television is aimed at the lowest common denominator; it initializes viewers; it destroys the imagination: all this because of its commercial nature . . . Since up till this point in her book, Rooney displays a passing appreciation for the commercial nature of publishing houses, her sudden dislike of commercialized art sounds a little, uh, choosy.)

In any case, for someone who tries very, very hard throughout the beginning portions of her book to be a non-snob (although her dislike of genre fiction kind of gives her away), this "television is simplistic" argument kicks Rooney way off her egalitarian pedestal.

And it is impossibly stupid. The issue is not "Is television complex?" or "How can television be complex if it makes money!?" the issue is "TELEVISION ISN'T BOOKS!"

The latter statement would have given Rooney enough ammunition. If she had said, "The two mediums are incompatible: the kind of well-roundedness achieved by literature is not the well-roundedness aimed for by television," that is a perfectly sane and defendable claim. There was no need for her to decide that television in its entirety is simplistic, etc. etc.

Such arguments are easy to refute: books flatten reality all the time. Reproduced dialog and in-depth descriptions as well as plots encapsulated in 500 pages are all contrivances and not how things occur in real life. At least with television, you have a constant stream of sensory perception (sight, sound) while with books, all you have is words on the page which don't make your imagination work at all . . . .

And on and on and on.

Since I like both books and television, I won't bother. The point is, however, that if the standards of one medium are held against the other, both will appear flat, overly stylized, and fake. It is frankly stupid to look at television as a failed reproduction of what literature (the true art!) is attempting to do, just as it is pointless to look at novels as a failed reproduction of something that television is attempting to do. (And while we are at it, why not bring poetry into the mix? Wheelbarrows in the rain: how reductionist is that! Oh, wait, maybe poetry shouldn't be held to this particular standard . . .)

And can we please get over the whole "television speaks to the lowest common denominator" argument? Seriously, has Rooney EVER watched the Simpsons?

I've been rewatching CSI: Season I and have been amazed, all over again, at how well-written the first few seasons are. I'm always impressed by seamlessness (one reason Tolkien impresses me): people who write well enough to make it look easy. (I think good art always looks easy from the outside. Bad art appears clunky and mannered and "look at me"!) I'm not just referring to the repartee on CSI but to the ordering of the scenes, the use of external, visual clues to move the plot forward, and the strong characterization of minor characters like Hodges, Ecklie, the coroners, and Greg.

Not to mention the acting, the editing, the directing, and a myriad other choices made by the producers.

tr-caption" style="text-align: center;">There's a great--and hilarious--

There's a great--and hilarious--exchange
exchange in Lois Lowry's Taking Care
of Terrific. The narrator's housekeeper, who
is reading Moby Dick, thinks that it is a
novel about taking a cruise with Gregory Peck.
(and seeing whales).

novel about taking a cruise with Gregory Peck.
"Ah, yes, Kate," my peers in college used to say, "but you are searching for those things; you are intellectually trained to look for them."

Sure, and I'm also intellectually trained to look for nuances in War & Peace, which doesn't alter the fact that is possible to read War & Peace purely for the plot and come away with no particularly in-depth reaction than, hey, a bunch of people died and a bunch of people got married.

The first point being that the things I notice in CSI are there to be noticed, which means that the writers are as smart as me (and much, much better at streamlining texts). In fact, if you watch a lot of television, you begin to realize how well-grounded the writers are in their culture. Television writers consistently insert literary, film, and show-based references into their scripts. It's a little unnerving after a while. (All these writers holding private conversations with each other through their scripts!)

If the people who dislike television are incapable of seeing those things, well, hmmm, could it be that from television's point of view, they are untrained and uneducated? Well, well, that sure does change the stakes, doesn't it?

The second point: If a thing is made with intelligence, one can find intelligence there, and television is very, very, very intelligent.

Take, for example, my favorite episode of House, the second to last episode of season 1. In one episode, you have three plot lines running simultaneously plus an over-arcing plot line,  House's issue with his ex-girlfriend. On top of that, you have the introduction of several temporary characters (the students in the class) who, for the purposes of the story, must make an instantaneous impression on the viewer. There are a number of flashbacks, not to mention the editing (which is always excellent with House), the acting, the lighting, the dialog, and the camera shots. Not to forget the music.

All of it seamlessly combined, utterly self-contained; the set-up is paid-off (at several levels). The episode never jars; it never comes across as clunky. Television can. This episode doesn't. It is truly artistic. Again, one definition of good art could be art-that-makes-you-notice-all-the-hard-work-the-writer-did-and-instead-of-letting-you-enjoy-the-creation-calls-attention-to-itself-on-a-constant-basis. That would not be my definition, but then I don't read the same kinds of books that Rooney does. (In all fairness, Rooney might agree with me, although she does prefer books that "put [readers] through the paces of moral awareness, affiliation, and disaffiliation . . . they encourage us . .. to grapple with ideas and situations different from our own," all of which I find frankly tiresome. I don't, by the way, consider myself to be a lowest common denominator.)

To return to House: this intelligent, sophisticated, multilayered episode is simplistic? Based on the lowest common denominator? According to whom? By what standard? Because it prevents people from (to quote one of Rooney's experts) "being able to imagine any social order different from the established one"? Does any novel do this? Does any good novel do this? Does any oeuvre beyond the puerility of Ayn Rand attempt to do this?

Again, the complexity is there. That doesn't mean people go looking for it (although a lot of fans do). By the same token, people don't necessarily go looking for complexity in Jane Eyre, Shakespeare, Catcher in the Rye, or Moby Dick (see above).

When Rooney claims "[Its pervasiveness] is what makes TV's anti-imagination effect so frightening: no one is safe," she means the absence of the kind of imagination she and her experts utilize and applaud. Television provides plenty of imagination, just not the same kind of imagination as one gets from books. But I suppose that concept is just a tad too complex for book-readers to understand.


Joe said...

The notion that television dulls the imagination has long puzzled me. Just now it struck me that critics aren't talking about imagination in a holistic sense, but in the very narrow sense of thinking of images. Therefore, since television and movies are fundamentally about images, they replace and thus destroy imagination.

(I'd go further; when many intellectuals describe their "imaginations" [say that with a Sponge Bob voice for full sarcastic effect] it sounds awfully like comic books, though that's an insult to comic books.)

If having visual imagery is so horrible, then why is theater allegedly good? More importantly, why even bother with house drawings or physics experiments. Hell, why don't we just poke our eyes out so we don't destroy our ever so important "imaginations."

One of my growing theories is that reading is actually quite abnormal. Human beings are programmed to use our senses in much more active ways. We're programmed to imagine--by the holistic definition--things and then build them (and then blow them up, but that's a discussion for another day.) It would follow, then, that this idea of reading and imagining being so important is both a conceit and luxury of the leisure classes. It is their way of being "above" the drudgery of actually doing real work--of creating things.

Anonymous said...

Reading isn't abnormal or writing would never have been invented (after all, if one writes one must
read). People have always tried to communicate. Cave drawings may be a form of "writing" or they may be art (I tend toward the latter--why couldn't cave men create art?)

But language was a very early acquisition--and communication followed. Story telling was also very early. So why not write down the stories?

The problem with Rooney and Co. is that they define something they like and of which they approve with
something they don't like and think is lower class. The resulting comparison will, of course, be positive for the thing they like and negative for that which they dislike.

The key is, as Kate says, to accept each media on its own merits. No art critic compares a painting to a book or to a piece of music. She compares it to other paintings.

As far as literature and imagination is concerned, books do energize the imagination. One of the problems with making movies from books is that the reader "knows" what the characters look like. The image of Elizabeth Bennet is in one's mind as are images of the other characters. If the movie makers don't cast
someone who "looks" like Elizabeth the viewer (and critics) will complain. One of the reasons the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice is so good is that Darcy is cast right and played right--i.e. as most readers know him. This isn't a conscious decision, it is an inner image that arises from the text.

I couldn't completely accept Jackson's Lord of the Rings because Aragorn just isn't my inner image. Whenever he appeared on screen I had an inner/mental "nyaah".

Apparently my image was different from most because the movie was a success. But if too many people had had my reaction, it wouldn't have succeeded.

From this viewpoint, the better the author's character delineation and the more constant the image produced in the readers' minds, the more careful the producer must be in selecting the right actor for the part.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think from the point of view of civilization, reading and writing were inevitable. The unusual aspect is how few people could do it and how little of it was imaginative (mostly court records, censuses, and edicts) until relatively recently. (My definition of "relatively recently" is the Renaissance.) In many ways, it was the new technology and caused the same consternation as radio and television: novel reading was salacious and reprehensible and would corrupt the young.

Of course, now it is respectable, which is great (and nobody every bothers to thank the Puritans with their 98% literacy rate!), but the corollary is unsettling. One of the sadder parts of Rooney's book is the constant mantra: Well, OBC must be okay because it gets people to read.

I'm sorry, but if I really believed that television was a corrupt and malign force in the universe, the justification "Well, it gets people to read" wouldn't be enough.

In fairness, what Rooney is trying to do (and to an extent, what I tried to do in my thesis, which is why her book proved useful) is create some kind of standard, any kind of standard, by which to judge books. Forget all this everything-is-relative junk: there is a good writing and bad writing. Let's debate books on their merits!

And with this, I utterly concur. Where Rooney got bogged down was in trying to define something ephermeral (OBC didn't do the books justice) by lashing out at another medium.

Joe said...

Given that the vast majority--probably in excess of 99%--of all peoples who have lived on the earth were illiterate and given that most people today do not read outside a narrow, utilitarian, range, I stand by my statement that reading is abnormal (not normal, average, typical, or usual; deviating from a standard) though perhaps it would be less grating, though less accurate, if I stated that reading fiction is uncommon by any measure.

Do remember that most story telling in human history was oral, not written. This is still essentially the case with movies and television, with vision--I genuinely believe it is indisputable that human beings prefer their stories through sight and sound, not through reading (before movies, plays were more popular than reading. Watching people getting eaten by lions was more popular than reading.)

Kate Woodbury said...

You can find Eugene's comments at his blog.