The Reverse Sleeper Curve
… or How The Novel Makes Us Stupid.
In his polemical volume Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson sets out the thesis that cultural commentators have got the media all wrong. His analysis focuses on the conventional wisdom that TV and computer games somehow damage our brains and render us stupid. He argues that far from this being the case, TV and games make us smarter [as he calls it, the Sleeper Curve]. My aim in this little post is to add a corollary to this thesis; that the modern novel, and particularly highbrow literary fiction, is having a reverse effect – making their readers dumb and uncritical.
So, what does Steven Johnson claim and how’s the evidence is presented?
First, he analyzes TV narrative structures historically. Before the 1980s, in the US, there was just a handful of broadcasters all relying on advertising revenue (which accrued, roughly, according to viewing figures; i.e. the more viewers you had, the more you could charge for your ads). The broadcasters, therefore, had to maximise their number of viewers. This meant appealing to a mass audience and doing nothing to confuse or upset them (or they might switch channels, upping the viewing figures for your competitors). It drove the networks to make programmes that were safe, bland, easy to follow. Technology, however, changed the game completely.
The key technical development was the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR). Before VCRs, most TV dramas employed a simple narrative strand from beginning to end. Star Trek, Columbo, Happy Days etc would all follow just a singe plot-line because adding complexity was deemed to be confusing. In a sense, this was understandable; if you misread a storyline in an episode of, say, Kojak you could not see it again to check until the episode was repeated months or years later (very irritating), so TV companies made sure plots were real simple and easy to follow. The VCR enabled other narratives to develop.
The first programme to take advantage of a post-VCR world was Hill Street Blues. With its multiple plots, complex story arcs and large cast of characters, it bombed when first broadcast. Viewers simply couldn’t understand what was going on. Slowly, however, audiences got it. Having a video of an episode to hand, they could now replay it and have a second chance (or even a third, fourth and fifth) to understand what was happening. An appetite for more intricate storytelling grew and the TV networks began (belatedly) to respond. Fast forward to today and the layered, multiple storylines in Lost, 24 and The Wire. All these narratives are now driven by the plot complexity required to sustain repeated viewing of the ubiquitous DVD box set (where most TV shows get a large portion of their revenue). TV shows have never been richer or more sophisticated in terms of structure. Even crap TV (argues Johnson) is getting better.
Second, we have video and computer games. The real story here is that, contrary to popular belief, these games aren’t simple, repetitive and easy. Most modern games are bloody hard! Take as an example Grand Theft Auto. Each edition of GTA has got more complex, abstruse and open-ended. The walkthrough is hundreds of pages long. It’s a huge complex world where you will be making choices (logical, spatial, narrative, moral) again and again and again. Mind-expanding stuff. Some evidence exists of changes to our brains that (arguably) make game-players more adept at certain tasks than non game-players.
So far so good, I hear you say. An interesting argument about the effects of the mass media that challenges popular stereotypes. What does this have to do with Literature? Surely the novel, the high-end literary fiction, lauded by Bookers, is clever stuff? Reading such novels can’t possibly be making us dumber… surely to goodness!
Well, here’s the thing. As TV has expanded its range of narrative structures and techniques, the reverse is becoming true of literature. Fewer and fewer experimental novels are hitting the shelves and Lit- Fic is stagnating. There is almost no variation in modern novels from the narrative techniques of the 18th century (first and third person narrators, flashback, multiple storylines merging, the epistolary, rambling existential angst… old hat. Don’t pretend to be a literary writer if you can’t challenge these established forms in some way). No contemporary author, it seems, has picked up the cudgels for structure and getting the novel to do things differently. Look at the winning Bookers over the past 20 years. Any innovative narrative structures there? Anything truly original? Anything?
Sadly no. Since Joyce, the trend in English language narrative has been to sideline innovation. Even the terms of engagement have changed. Parts of the writing craft that were once assumed as a given are now lauded: voice, plotting, nice story arcs. The stuff that Lit-Fic was supposedly there for (to challenge, innovate and push back boundaries), has been jettisoned without a bye or leave.
The really disturbing effect of this trend, however, is on expectations. Already publishers, creative writing courses etc have sidelined the experimental or any exploration of narrative structure. Why? Because readers can’t take it. Where 1950s TV execs told their writers ‘don’t, whatever you do, confuse or irk the viewer’, the same message is now drummed into novelists: the reader is an idiot, don’t bother trying to stretch them. You want to write a novel with six main characters with two stories running backward chronologically or to tell their stories as a fractal spiral in two sentence snippets? No dice. I mean, what if a reader somewhere didn’t understand your plot, got upset and gave you a 1 star-rating on Amazon? No, we want one character’s PoV from the beginning of the book to the end. If you do include a flashback, do it in italics so nobody can possibly get confused.
And so it goes. The more we simplify, the less challenge the readers can take. Eventually the novel becomes effortless. Everything comes ready diced, chewed and pre-digested. All the reader has to do now is swallow. English Literature; a form that once provoked, made us struggle to be worthy to reach its heights, is now just a playpen full of ‘voices’. Perhaps it’s time to put down your Roths, Amis’s and Updikes and take up your Playstations. Your braincells may well thank you for it.