What even is literature?

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Back a few years ago, the Nobel committee created a minor furore for awarding Bob Dylan – known for his performances in Hearts of Fire* and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – a Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such.

My criticisms of literature stem from who performs this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

As I pointed out recently, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked or instated, as tastes change.

Thus, having the Nobel committee awarding Dylan’s lyrics a literary prize might actually be about them trying to bridge the divide. They could possibly be about making us all think of lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

I look forward to future Nobel Prizes for Literature being handed to Dan Brown and James Patterson. Because they are certainly pushing literature in an interesting direction.

* This is a great reference. Seriously. Check for yourself.

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How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

There is a joke that started a month or two ago about how HBO subscriptions were going to cease once Game of Thrones concluded. The implication is that despite a long history of high-quality TV shows – Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Flight of the Concords, Banshee*, and Strikeback** – the station will suddenly have nothing to offer audiences.

This argument reminded me of a PBS Ideas Channel video I shared on how technology is changing TV shows.

It raises an interesting point about how there appear to be more complex narratives in TV shows now. And in light of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, audiences are expecting more from networks that they doubt can be provided.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows has a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which in turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge-watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

* Banshee is criminally underappreciated.

** I stand by including this on the list. Show me another TV show that managed to do more in one episode than most entire action movies with 10x the budget.

Book vs Movie: Johnny Mnemonic – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from CineFix looks at a not-so-classic movie starring the indomitable John Wick  Neo  Keanu Reeves.

Woah, the 90s were, like, 25 years ago. So long ago that the movie is set 2 years from now.

And that is also how long it has been since I’ve read the short story and watched the movie. I barely remember the story – but it was the reason I’d had Neuromancer on my TBR list for decades – and only recall a handful of scenes from the movie (e.g. Dr Allcome).

Does that mean a nostalgia trip is in order? Around the time of Johnny Mnemonic, there were several cyber-themed movies that would be interesting to watch now in The Future™. Seeing Keanu or Sandra Bullock talk tech could be a lot of fun or as cringy as those 60s and 70s movies with futuristic reel-to-reel computers.

Maybe not.

One of the advantages of books is that descriptions spur imagination whereas visuals (movies) tell you what you should be imagining. As a result, they don’t tend to date as badly as the visual medium*. So it is probably time to dust off some more Gibson.

Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves’ second best character named John, may not be the high water mark of his career, but it’s a significant piece of sci-fi nonetheless. Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson’s original short story about a data trafficker with a time bomb in his headset the stage for decades worth of movie tropes you know and love. So how does a Sci-Fi classic turn into a great piece of mid-90’s guilty pleasure cinema? It’s time to ask What’s the Difference?

* Except for all of those pesky social changes that tend to date fiction badly.

Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

Book vs Movie: The Little Mermaid – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at the classic children’s story that became a(nother) Disney movie.

My memory of The Little Mermaid story is what you would call hazy. The Hans Christian Andersen tales, from my recollection of them, were a lot darker and nastier than would generally be acceptable for young children these days.

The movie is much easier for me to recall, as my daughter has recently taken a liking to the tale. Except for the bits with Ursula in them, which are far too scary. Fortunately, I’m usually on hand for hugs during those scenes.

The thing that has struck me the most about The Little Mermaid, and Disney kids films in general, is how much they have progressed in the last 30 years as compared to the 30 years prior. Several of the Disney films released in the 70s and 80s (The Little Mermaid, The Fox and the Hound, The Aristocats, Winnie the Pooh) bear a lot of similarities to earlier films (101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi*). The leap that was made after Toy Story is profound, such that newer films are just in a whole other league (Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia).

Almost as big of a leap as children’s book have made since Hans Christian Anderson was writing.

The source material behind Disney’s animated classic, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, is a surprisingly metal fairy tale. Let’s take a look at all the ways the filmmakers changed the source material, talking crabs and all! It’s time to ask What’s the Difference?

* But not Dumbo. That film has aged badly. There is a lot to cringe at in Dumbo and the film itself climaxes with a very short scene, so it feels a little underdone.

The Beauty and Anguish of Les Misérables!

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It’s Lit! returns to discuss Les Miserables.

Yeah, I haven’t read it, nor seen the musical nor the musical movie. A title that literally means the miserable and a narrative to match isn’t really my cup of tea. The issues discussed in Les Mis were very real, if romanticised somewhat, and still bear some relevance to the modern day. I discussed one such issue in a previous It’s Lit post.

Maybe I’ll read it one day. Meanwhile, quick overviews will have to suffice.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is one of history’s most famous novels and one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history. On this special episode of It’s Lit! we explore how Les Miserable became both a national and revolutionary anthem, and so publicly adored that all 1,900 pages never went out of print.

Fan Fiction is Awesome

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I’ve never understood authors, directors, or other creatives who have a problem with fan fiction (and other derivatives). What is wrong with fans showing their love for something you’ve created by creating something of their own? Sure, it won’t be canon, and they might not get the feel of your work right, but does it really matter?

With that, I give you a fan fiction short from Rocket Jump.*

*Yes, this post is just an excuse to share the above video, even if it is only for the Firefly reference.