Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Story Arcs

"The world is in fragments, sir. My job is to put it back together", (Peter Stillman in Paul Auster's City of Glass.)

I read in the Guardian Review last weekend that whilst 125,000 books are published in the UK, only 1% are ever reviewed. Blogs are bound to widen the critical spotlight, provided that the long tail proceeds to broaden tastes as planned. Steve Johnson's contrarian theory that junk culture is good for us continues to get more than its fair share of column inches.

Everything Bad is Good for You floats along on one of those sneaky little arguments (remember James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy?) that kicks off with some apparently reasonable observations few will have any trouble agreeing with, then leads you on inexorably to conclusions that don't follow from them.

Malcolm Gladwell's review in The New Yorker suggests that he might have been suckered here too. In it, he appears to accept that contemporary TV is better because it is harder, and agrees with Johnson that from this it follows that it is a hidden source of cereberal nutrition. There are a couple of obvious objections to this:

  • No pain no gain? The relationship between time spent exercising in the gym and performance improvement is clear and linear. Yet just because you can describe watching The West Wing as a "cognitive work-out" doesn't make the analogy a valid one.
  • Most people that grow to enjoy many different kinds of serious music start with the most accessible forms. After hours of listening to Mozart their taste might become more sophisticated and eventually they may come to appreciate modernist tunes (or not so tunes) by the likes of Schoenberg, Britten, Birtwhistle and who knows, even Alexander Goehr. Experimental contemporary compositions might be harder, but can we really say they are better than the classics or that forcing ourselves to listen to them improves our intellects? (Some have pinpointed Mozart in particular as an IQ-booster.)
  • Johnson sees a feedback loop - today's junk culture is smarter because yesterday's made us smart in the first place. Yet while increasing cultural sophistication is practically inevitable, increased meaningfulness isn't.
Johnson's points about story arcs and multithreaded narratives are interesting, but don't necessarily lead to such straightforward conclusions. He points out that Dukes of Hazard was "linear" and Dallas "glacial". (Dallas was a classic American soap, rolling narratives that deliberately break most of the rules of storytelling, not least the one that says characters ought to change and develop as opposed to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.) Yet is linear really so wrong? The fact that you have to think hard to make sense of a cultural experience may not mean that it's doing its job properly. Plot difficulty or inaccessibility is often a sign that the writer is trying to make a little go a lot further than it otherwise would. Ambiguity is not the same thing as depth; and as we saw with the Mozart example, neither are complexity and accessibility identical.

Sometimes the number of different story arcs represents a weakness not a strength, even if it does mean you go out to buy the DVD just to make sure you understood what was going on! Wooliness sure sells them plastic discs!

Some comparisons between American comedies that I recently mulled over are perhaps worth stating here:
  • Friends successfully used a two apartment-six person formula to blend together a number of different short, medium and long-term narrative strands, the latter not unlike that of a soap.
  • Will & Grace tries to do something similar but two of four main characters are flatter and the living arrangements are less congenial to the techniques. Some episodes feature two entirely separate storylines which hardly connect at all.
  • King of Queens often kicks off with a great idea, but the writers seem averse to having 'spare' characters on screen at the same time and the constant well-timed entrances and exits are highly artificial.
  • Perhaps the best of the bunch from a writing perspective is Everybody Loves Raymond. One funny idea is usually explored through different combinations of the five main characters and the writers seem to enjoy piling new people into a scene to ramp up the comic potential. The one drawback of the format is that the characters (in the later series at least) are comparatively complex and the comedy depends to a large extent on our familiarity with them.

Steve Johnson ask us to imagine how critics would have responded if books arrived on our cultural scene thousands of years before we gave our minds a regular work out with complex video games:

"You can't control the narratives - reading is not an active, participatory process, it's a submissive one".

Sound familiar? This argument against the written word is ancient and crusty. Books "stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain the most majestic silence...if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on saying the same thing forever." (Socrates)

When did you last enjoy reading a book that tried to reach all the right conclusions for you? In fact, how many of your favourite stories are seriously multi-threaded?

Anyway, in the light of all these thoughts I'm still fretting about the validity of my recent dig at Paul Auster and the postmodern style. Call me old fashioned but I believe the writer's primary job is to explore for truth in Nature's murkiest forests.

"The noveslist works with things that pass unobserved by others, captures them in motion, bring them out into the open." (Jão Guimaraes Rosa)

Yet if the environment explored is itself at least partly artificial, surely all the truths that are revealed share to some extent in that un-reality? It's all too easy to give the reader the sense of revelation when you lead your protagonists through a labyrinth of your own creation.

What then of the horror genre? Unreality is a given here surely; and yet some inner truths of human psychology and imagination are certainly touched on. More on this another time perhaps.

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