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.

James Joyce: last (English language) writer to grab the novel by the scruff of the neck and smash it against a wall for fun.

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.

About floppybootstomp

Lecturer, teacher, writer and traveller all perfectly good nouns aren't they? Do they have anything to do with me? Ask the taxman.

Posted on April 9, 2011, in Writing Stuff and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It could be argued that people ARE writing experimental narratives which flip the reader, the characters and the story into wonderful multi-dimensional threads and they are doing it in the medium of Video Games. So does this make video games the evolution of the novel? Only, I suppose, in the same way that movies are.

    There was a similar effect on painting with the advent of photography, although strangely it seemed to be the reverse effect. Once photographs could record the world, painting was freed up to explore weird new ways of representing ideas.

  2. Well the novel and the video games work differently in terms of narrative. Video games are evolving apace and their narratives (by and large) are heading in directions different from the novel. It is useful to highlight the fact that the novel is not interactive: you read the story and cannot alter anything that the author choses to put in front of you. You can use your imagination to ‘picture’ the events or second-guess what’s going to happen, but a reader has no real input into the story. Video games on the other hand offer interactivity at every turn (as games should). I agree with your analogy of painting, it did blossom from its confines of realism after photography came on the scene. My hope is that both the novel and video games will change in weird and wonderful ways. Indeed in some cases they already have. Cheers!

  3. Of course reader-response theory does say that we interpret fiction each in our own way, re-inventing the story to suit our own particular psyches (as a sort of literary Rorschach patterns). But then again, if a character in a novel jumps over a river and fall in, you can’t save the action before it happens and have them jump again until they get to the other side…

  4. i honestly can’t see how a novel or story loses value simply because you can’t control it. All the instant gratification and control exercised in modern media is unrealistic and if too much time is spent immersed in this world I can see how it could manifest into people who need to control every situation they find themselves in, don’t you think? there is something to be said for experiencing a story from another viewpoint and enjoying the challenge it presents. Books and storytelling are also a significant way to pass along traditions and customs among cultures as well as provide a way to see where we have been and experience that from the lens of someone who is there. “progress” and technology are great and do have benefits, but so much focus on the here and now is not healthy for society – as with all things, moderation and balance seem to be the important factor both with reading and all forms of media

  5. Jen,
    You are right that tradition and storytelling are important factors in formulating identity. I also take your point that books (novels) can present a challenge to the reader. The point of my post, is that they don’t do it enough. In a sense I’m also arguing that it is literature that’s moving in the direction of instant gratification while TV/films/games are become more complex, nuanced and innovative in terms of their narrative structures.
    Your main point about interactivity is a complex one and I don’t suppose I addressed it with the seriousness it deserved. Yes, interactivity is not per se better than the more reflective/challenging aspects of literature, but it is also empowering to take control and do your own thing (the punk ethic if you like). I would go with both for a healthy cultural diet. On the dangers control freakery deriving from interactive media, I’d hold fire until the neuroscience gives us a better idea of what video games do.

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