Getting Snarky About Anti-Television Rhetoric

I'm rereading Kathleen Rooney's Reading With Oprah, a book that I read about the time I wrote my thesis and which I found enormously helpful. Rooney creates a scholarly and surprisingly objective response to the OBC 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 (I think the latter is more probable than the former, personally, since my experience is that most people read/watch whatever they want. Unfortunately, I think Rooney may have been influenced in her writing by the academic 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 very 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 bookclub, for that matter? Girl, I hate to mention it, but that's par for the humanities course. (Interestingly enough, the bookclub I now attend, which is composed mainly of ladies from my church, is far less reductive [to borrow Rooney's term] than most bookclubs, 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, stulifying 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 infantilizes 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 perfectly sane and defendable. 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.

"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 insert popular culture, film, and show-based references throughout their scripts on a constant basis. 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 last episode of season 1.* In one episode, you have three plot lines running simultaneously plus an overarcing plot line, which is 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 plot, must make an instantaneous impression on the viewer. *[NOTE: It is, in fact, the second to last episode coupled with the last scene of the final episode; if you watch the two consecutively, the final scene of the final episode, where you hear "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones, is the pay-off for the previous episode.]

And we haven't even mentioned the fact that the writers manage to use House's staff plus Wilson (on top of all those extra characters) to develop various plot points.

Oh, yeah, and then there's the backflashes. And the editing (which is always excellent with House), the acting, the lighting, the dialog, and the camera shots.

And lastly, the music, which is excellent, especially in that particular episode.

And all of it is seamless and 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, multi-layered 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 oevure beyond the purileness 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 (one of my favorite Lois Lowry passages is from her YA book Taking Care of Terrific: in the book, the narrator's housekeeper is reading Moby Dick which she imagines rather like a cruise with whales, a cruise where Gregory Peck just might show up. The narrator decides that the problem with the world is that most people have lost the capacity to believe that "Gregory Peck might be along.")

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.


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