Sunday, October 24, 2010

Narrative Consumption: Ignorance vs. Discernment

I may be an English teacher with a love of the literary classics, but I am not ashamed to admit that I have affection for the paperback thriller. I had actually never read one until a few years ago, when stuck without any reading material and time to spare, I found myself in a hotel gift shop with limited options. After perusing the back covers of their inventory, I settled on a book called Killer Instinct by a guy named Joseph Finder. The plot was laid out for me on the back cover: a salesman named Jason befriends a tow-truck driver named Kurt, gets him a job in security at his company, then faces a severe moral dilemma when a series of unfortunate accidents take place within the company, all of them somehow benefiting Jason. The obvious implication is that Kurt is orchestrating these events, and the book jacket implies that Jason knows he doesn't want to risk getting on Kurt's bad side. This seemed like an intriguing story to help me pass the time.

Unfortunately, the book didn't take up as much time as I wanted it to. Despite clocking in at over 400 pages, I breezed through it. But I still felt I got my money's worth. It was one of those proverbial page-turners that you can't put down, and in the end I was thoroughly satisfied with both the money and time I invested in it. Of course, the plot summary on the book jacket was what drew me in; I wouldn't have bought it otherwise. And therefore, particularly throughout the first half of the novel, there weren't any great surprises.

I've read a couple of Finder novels in the years since, and I've always glanced at the back cover to get a feel for what the story would entail. I imagine this is pretty standard procedure for most people. Particularly given the time investment that a novel demands, most of us are going to want to know in general what is in store for us before deciding to commit. And even though a movie or a television show requires less time, I would expect that very few of us go into these experiences totally blind about the plot. Certainly, it is hard to envision anyone plunking down movie tickets without doing a little bit of due diligence, and ditto for purchasing or renting a DVD or download. And even in viewing television, it seems unlikely that anyone with digital cable would sit down to watch a show or movie without hitting the "info" button on the remote.

The prevalence of entertainment options and the power of marketing campaigns have normalized all of this, and it is taken for granted that part of the entertainment experience involves the hype machine. But recently, I purchased another Finder book, and I started reading it without so much as glancing at the back cover. I was surprised when a plot twist occurred about forty pages in, one that almost certainly would have been trumpeted on the back cover. There is no doubt in my mind that I have derived greater enjoyment not knowing anything about the plot before jumping into it.

And this has made me question whether our society's approach to consuming narratives compares with previous generations. Cinema existed before television. In the early days of movies, did people simply go see whatever was playing, or did they have some idea of what they were going to experience? Did people who purchased novel serializations in 18th Century magazines know what they were getting into? Did playgoers in the Elizabethan era even know if they were going to a tragedy or a comedy when they bought tickets to the Globe?

Obviously, there is a trade-off. What we lose in narrative immersion we supposedly gain in discernment. But are we more satisfied customers than those who consumed entertainment less discerningly in previous generations (assuming they did)? Do we really sit through proportionately less turkeys and clunkers than our grandparents did? And even if we do (which I somehow doubt), is the trade-off worth it? Are we really enjoying our narratives as much as we could if we know what is going to happen? Can we really immerse ourselves in a story if we are constantly thinking back to what we have already learned about it?

Perhaps we can't put the genie back into the bottle, but for the most part, we can choose to individually opt out. It is possible to go to the movie theater and ask for a ticket to the 7:00 show in Cinema 4, and see what unfolds. It's also possible to log onto Amazon and order books that others might recommend, even if we don't so much as read the back cover. I would recommend anything by Joseph Finder.


Blogger Layla said...

Dr. Azor- Great blog post! I never start reading a book without knowing a little background. The book you read sounds very interesting to me, I love thrillers, true crime and especially Stephen King. He may not be the most talented writer, but his books are incredible and definitely my favorite. I'm probably going to go find an interesting one by Finder after I finish the two King novels I'm working on. Thanks for the insightful recommendation!

7:41 PM  

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