Sunday, October 26, 2008

This is the Story (About the Stories We Don't Really Want)

Last week, the #4 best seller on the New York Times list of nonfiction books was the sensational autobiography of the woman who played Marcia Brady. Meanwhile, the #4 movie at the box office was Oliver Stone's sensational W, a George W. Bush biopic.

On the surface, this would seem to imply that public interest in the life stories of politicians and celebrities is roughly equal. However, such an interpretation fails to take into account the differences in these two markets. Given the glut of books and the relative dearth of major movies opening in a given week, Bush's showing isn't all that impressive. Consider that he was unsuccessful in beating out a movie called Beverly Hills Chihuahua (would he have stood a better chance against Capitol Hill Chihuahua?). I read a review of the Stone film which predicted failure on the basis that nobody wants to think about Bush anymore; that he is yesterday's news.

Yet isn't this the ideal time to pause and consider the Bush legacy, now that it is at a close? A compelling case can be made that no other single individual had as much impact on the world in this century as George W. Bush. And whatever your thoughts about the president Bush, I don't think there can be any dispute that the man has a fascinating history, the kind of biography that led in the early days of his national prominence to comparisons with Shakespearean character Henry V.

But some may argue that we are a fickle society, always looking for the "next big thing", more prone to grasping blindly forward than ruminating on what has already been. According to this thinking, by virtue of being in the public spotlight for over eight years now, Bush's "brand" is stale. But if that's the case, shouldn't the money that we save from not going to W be instead invested in a John McCain and Barack Obama bio or autobiography?

Certainly, both of those men have written autobiographies which have received media attention. But I get the feeling that media members are the only ones who have actually read the books. To be sure, the public is familiar with the basic life story of both of them, and can recite the Cliff Notes version: McCain went from POW to a maverick political career, Obama from humble beginnings to community activism and eventually a "meteoric" rise in politics. Yet these basic facts and conventional wisdom have been repeated so much that there doesn't seem to be much interest in the complexities and nuances in their life stories and histories.

Some may say that this is not necessarily a bad thing, since personal history may not be relevant to the question of whether someone can be an effective politician. But this brings us back to Marcia Brady. We can't get enough celebrity gossip and dirt. In an era where the boundary between celebrity and politician is being blurred in all kinds of other ways, why not this one? Less speciously, artists of all stripes have long been scrutinized by biographers. An 850+ page tome on the life of John Lennon has just been released, and not because there was previously a void in the market for John Lennon biographies. Every rock star of the baby boom generation could probably support their own library, the way that ex-presidents do. (And some could live comfortably if they never got another royalty check for their music: Keith Richards got a $7 million advance for his autobiography).

Why do these books proliferate? There is a widely held belief that an artist's background can be examined for "clues" into their work. Biographies and autobiographies tantalize us with the perceived opportunity to solve riddles, to demystify. Ultimately, 800 page biographies serve to reinforce that artists and celebrities are at heart no different than the "swinish multitude". We take pleasure in knowing that Marcia Brady was not perfect, was no better and in some ways worse than us.

But do we really want to know that John McCain dated a stripper? Do we want to really know that Barack Obama smokes?

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Pumpkins

I had an epiphany today. I was thrust in a situation where I had no choice but to consider the pumpkin as cultural artifact. Being stuck on a one-lane rural highway behind an open trailer filled to the brim with pumpkins will do that to a person.

I realized that my perception of pumpkins had been dulled by familiarity. I don't think I've participated in a pumpkin carving for a couple of decades now, and it has been about that long since I've seen the Charlie Brown Halloween special, but due to the ubiquitousness of the pumpkin this time of year, every year, one can't help but become inured. Still, seeing so many, perched so precariously, has the effect of shocking a person out of complacency.

The first thing that one realizes upon having their eyes opened anew is that the pumpkin is an utterly absurd object. I suppose gourds in general fit that category, but at least other members of the gourd family come with coloration patterns that appear natural. Pumpkins, with both their size and their color, seem downright artificial, the Pamela Anderson of the vegetable kingdom (even though it is technically a fruit, further adding to the absurdity).

It struck me that pumpkins are more renowned for their vulnerability than their utility. I struggle to come up with another object sold in supermarkets that is regarded for its decorative or commemorative value moreso than its nutritional qualities. And there is no natural product more fastidiously anti-Darwinian than the pumpkin. It flourishes precisely because it is unfit for survival. If pumpkins weren't so easy to carve, or indeed to smash, their commodification would be null (and I wouldn't encounter a trailer full of them on the highway).

But as I further considered why these objects command such a prominence in our culture and ritual, I realized that the pumpkin does have one thing going for it that few other products of nature can claim. It resembles a human head. And I guess I should have realized that before today, but better late than never. If a lethal pumpkin virus eradicated the species overnight, I'm not sure what could be used as a substitute for the creation of Jack O'Lanterns.

But here's another thing to consider: why are Jack O'Lanterns scary? I've got to think that if I encountered a guy with a pumpkin head, I'd be more inclined to laugh than to run away. Yet, I can see the primal cause behind the pumpkin head as a projection of fear. There are few things more terrifying than the prospect of a body that acts without rationality, an entity that has all the potential of a human being, but lacks the mind to moderate that potential. That could be one definition of a "monster." Jack O'Lanterns, with their human facade but hollow interior, represent a return of the repressed fear we have that actual bogeymen walk among us. In carving them out for ourselves, we try to assert control over them. In smashing them, we assert power over them.

And in transporting them, we slow down traffic.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Wall Street and Frodo

In the current discussion about the economic state of the country (and the world) a word that is prominent in the lexicon is "confidence." Whatever the vagaries of the markets, there seems to be an agreement among analysts that the ultimate determining factor in the overall health of an economy is "confidence" (or more specifically "consumer confidence" or "investor confidence"). While there are many analytical models that can be used to determine levels of "confidence," there is, as we are finding out this week, no sure-fire way to directly manipulate those levels.

If "confidence" truly were something that could be harnessed and controlled, it could be the first example of human telekinesis actually working. Forget bending spoons, if enough white-collared folks concentrated hard enough, they really could do miracles ("miracle" defined here as a manipulation of reality using nothing more than the powers of the mind). But the reason these miracles will never come to pass is because even as financial culture is dissected and prodded with data, numbers, formulas, and complex objective algorithms, it is still ultimately governed by old-fashioned irrational psychological impulses, one notably being "fear."

But the optimist might ask why we can't rise above such primitive notions, particularly given that it was a long time ago now that FDR laid bare the spectral nature of that particular impulse. My response would be that "fear," despite all of its unreasonable permutations and manifestations, is a primal and necessary check on another primal impulse: "confidence." It doesn't take a genius to see that confidence is both necessary and dangerous. Not enough confidence, and you will starve to death. Too much confidence, and you will be eaten. So to complicate the aphorism: "We have two things to fear--fear itself, and the denial of fear."

From this perspective, a look at the vast majority of narratives throughout human history and across cultures can be read as the attempt to strike the balance between confidence and fear. The hero must take risks in order to accomplish something, but must use prudence to mitigate those risks. If the hero dies, we call this a tragedy. And traditionally, the tragic flaw that brings about this death is hubris, or too much self-confidence. But even in stories where the hero lives, they must often overcome a hubristic flaw.

This formula has been in place since ancient times, but an example that continues to resonate in contemporary culture would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Several of the protagonists are forced to negotiate a balance between confidence and fear, most notably the central protagonist, Frodo. He fits the reluctant hero archetype--fearful and even timid from the outset, he learns to overcome that fear with ever-increasing doses of confidence. However, his self-confidence swells upon his maintaining possession of the ring (which in granting invisibility also grants complete fearlessness), and all would have been lost had in not been for the intervention of Gollum.

But the presence of Gollum also complicates the "confidence/fear" binary. He introduces another factor--greed. Greed is an element which can tip the balance between these impulses. Greed feeds confidence and eradicates fear, at least at first. Once greed has run its course, the balance is reversed, as confidence is crushed and fear is unleashed. One more thing about greed: it is an irrational impulse that can't be factored in algorithms.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Only Future for the Newspaper? The Past.

"Have you ever noticed how often you pick up a newspaper in a restaurant or barbershop and see that the sports section is missing?"

This rhetorical question was posed a few years ago on a sports talk show I was listening to. The host was attempting to justify the importance of his profession, and the importance of sports in society. Whether or not his premise was valid, based on my own experience, I couldn't argue with the evidence. To add to this, being a newspaper-phile myself, as a student I used to frequently carry around a paper to read during downtime in class. When people weren't making fun of me, they would invariably ask to see the sports section.

Now however, I don't have trouble specifically finding a sports section quite as often-- because I'm having a harder time finding any sections at all. Places that previously set out newspapers for patrons to read aren't always doing so anymore. I can only see this as indicative of a decline in overall importance of the physical newspaper in society.

Of course, many newspapers are finding a wider audience than ever before, but only in a digital format. The problem for newspaper companies with this phenomenon is that advertising revenue on-line is nowhere near enough to make up for what they are losing in print revenue. Googling the words "newspaper sales" will give one a clear picture of the problem. This article, from one month ago, concisely states the gloomy state of affairs.

Conventional wisdom is that when an industry is confronted with a paradigm change, survival depends on the finding of a niche. The print newspaper industry is still searching for how they can differentiate themselves from cable news and the Internet. I would say that I have a radical solution, but I don't. I actually have a reactionary proposal. I've noticed that most newspaper websites only have digital archives going back about a decade or so. They need to go further back then that, and they will find the answer. They need to go down to the deepest bowels of the archives room and pull out the yellowed copies of newspapers from the 1920s and 30s.

And the solution indeed can be found in the sports sections. I don't think cable companies want to consider the implications of how many subscribers they would lose if someone waved a magic wand and erased the letters "E, S, P, and N" from the alphabet. The sports section can be the backbone that carries the newspaper back to prominence. But why would anyone need to pick up a sports section when they can get their boxscores and injury news from the Internet, or in-depth analysis from the aforementioned cable channels?

Cue Grantland Rice:

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.

Although this 1924 passage is probably the most famous paragraph that his sportswriter penned, it is indicative of his regular style. And he was not the only one of his era to write like this. It was common for sportswriters to approach their subjects with a literary or poetic inclination. And why shouldn't they? We are often told that sports are "an escape from reality," so why should the sports section conform in tone and style to the other sections?

I think there are a confluence of factors that would allow for a return to this gilded age of sportswriting. NFL Films has established that people are willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to their games; in other words, no matter what we know to be true intellectually, we are not averse to seeing our athletes as gladiatorial warriors playing for something more than filthy lucre.

On the other hand, we are more aware than ever before of the banalities that now permeate the sports lexicon. We recognize "coach speak" and cliches when we hear them. Bill Belicheck is more than a stereotype; he has shown an awareness of the vapidity he permeates in press conferences. This makes him a parody. And increasingly, the sports fan is becoming savvy to the banality of media commentators. (See the excellent blog for more). The final effect is that for many readers, you could cut out large swaths of what is currently published in sports sections and not lose anything of value.

A final factor: one medium that has been relatively unaffected by the digital revolution is the bound book. E-books haven't caught on, perhaps because of the way people process information. Whey they are more interested in leisurely absorbing something thought-provoking or literary, they turn to the tangible product. When they want bite-sized information, they go to the Internet. Perhaps if newspapers changed their niche from providing facts and data to providing a literary immersive experience, they have a chance to survive, and the medium itself just might become as immortal as the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.