Roger Goodell, the NFL, and the Outrage-Industrial Complex

Don’t worry, I’m not defending Roger Goodell or Ray Rice by any stretch of the imagination.

What Ray Rice did is indefensible. He had to go. Roger Goodell, well, he’s doing what Roger Goodell and the NFL have been doing for a long time: the least amount of change that will pass as acceptable to a fickle public that routinely makes demands of well-entrenched institutions and then forgets about them.

Right about now is where I want to reiterate that I’m not defending Roger Goodell. By all accounts, the guy is a piece of shit, and something of a moron from more than one standpoint (not just PR). I’ll certainly shed no tears for the man if he steps down, free then to live out the rest of his days trying to spend the $44 million he made last year. Rough future ahead of that guy.

The thing is, I’ve known this about Roger Goodell for a long time. And you’ve known it. Hell, everybody who pays any sort of attention to football and organized sports at all has probably known that he was a terrible person for years and years, and even somebody with no particular affinity for football has probably heard one or two friends bitch about it enough that they get the general picture.

It’s normal–commendable, even–that the public is outraged over Ray Rice punching his girlfriend in the face and knocking her unconscious. Any man hitting any woman should be met with outrage. But we knew, all of us, that Ray rice had beaten his wife a long time ago. We knew. Don’t pretend like we didn’t. We all knew. And we all knew that Roger Goodell was going to let it go with a slap on the wrist and wash his hands of it and pass the buck to the Ravens organization (who ultimately did the right thing, I suppose, but they didn’t exactly come out of this smelling like roses either), or the US justice system, or anybody else who might take some of the stink off the commissioner of a league that has existed for quite a while now as the new plantation system in America.

Once again, for posterity, I am not defending or excusing or hand-waving any actions undertaken by any NFL player, but the league has been an exploitation factory (acting in conjunction with the NCAA) for a long time. It’s not secret that a majority of the league’s players are men of color, that a disproportionate number of NFL hopefuls flame out before even being considered by a professional team, and that even those who do end up having successful careers in the league often find themselves broke, skill-less, jobless, and with the body of a 78-year-old coal miner in their 30s. Again, we have known this. It is known.

Still, we dutifully rend our clothes and gnash our teeth when the league displays yet another despicable and tacit approval of horrific violence. Still, we are shocked, shocked to find that other players who have terrorized their spouses or girlfriends went on to play in week 1. Still, we are outraged. Time and again. Yet still, we let it slide. Still, we watch.

I don’t excuse myself from any of this. Just this past Sunday I attended a New York Giants game (though the ticket was paid for by somebody else), and I purchased concessions, and I followed the scores of other games with my Fantasy app. I’ve raised my eyebrow at story after story after story about players with guns, players murdering people, players killing themselves, players raping, assaulting, etc, etc, etc, and I’ve hand-waved it all. I suppose that makes me either a massive hypocrite, a terrible person, or possibly both. I could say something here about not looking to these guys for tips on how to live my life, only wanting them to play football, and that their personal lives are none of my business. That might be true (if not a little shortsighted), but it is the business of the league that pays their massive salaries. And time and again, that league, under the reign of Roger Goodell, has given players tacit approval to behave in almost any manner they wish, both on and off the field.

I’m not outraged, though. I’m not surprised. I’m disgusted at the behavior exhibited by Ray Rice, I weirdly expected something close to what (allegedly) happened with Goodell and the elevator tape, but I’m not outraged. Outrage implies that a brazen contempt for civilized standards has taken place, and that’s not what has happened here. This sort of behavior and the associated dodging are now so associated with the NFL that it’s become patently absurd to pretend that we’re outraged.

Furthermore, why are we outraged about Ray Rice beating his girlfriend after the tape surfaced? Are we so bereft of brain cells and human decency that we needed TMZ, an exploitation farm if ever there was one, to be the voice of moral authority? Did we really lack the critical reasoning skills necessary to know that a grown man, and a fiercely powerful professional athlete at that, beating his girlfriend was stomach-churning? I don’t feel outraged, I feel ashamed.

What’s done is done, and after immense pressure and being caught in the latest in a long series of lies and evasive maneuvers, Goodell has been cornered into (sort of, kind of) doing the right thing. The Ravens have cut Rice and he’s been suspended indefinitely by the league. Any talk about Goodell needing to step down is warranted and perhaps commendable, but let’s not forget to temper our outrage, the only feelings that seem to matter in the world of social media anymore, with an appropriate amount of shame.

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A Brief History of Jamaica

Photo: realmystictransportation.com

I rarely engage in this sort of thing, so if you will, indulge me this one #humblebrag: Leigh and I are going to Jamaica.

I’m looking forward to it immensely. I haven’t been out of the country in years, and haven’t ever taken an international vacation with a significant other (though the Caribbean seems like it shouldn’t count, for reasons we’ll get into later), so it’s going to be a real treat, and with the way scheduling worked out, it’ll be a great respite from what’s sure to be another bitter New York winter, followed immediately by a long stay with family in Dallas.

I have, however, been to Jamaica before. As a matter of fact, my grandparents used to own a piece of property in Montego Bay (you can still rent it from the Tryall Beach club if you feel so inclined to visit a place I toddled around in my salad days), though I can’t remember much of those early, early days in the island nation. My immediate family visited again when I was in high school, and it was an exquisite and relaxing time. This is how the country of Jamaica sells itself to potential travelers, as one of a slew of Carribean locales that has built its economy almost entirely around the trade of tourism. As I finalized details of our tropical getaway, I wondered how exactly such a thing happens. How does an entire nation of people become a vacation spot (and little else) to foreign tourists? My hunch is that massive amounts of colonization, financial pressure, racism, and political maneuvering is involved, so let’s jump right in.

A little history: the indigenous peoples of Jamaica, the Arawak and Taino, originated in South America and settled the island sometime between 4000 and 1000 BC. First contact with the West was made in 1494, when Christopher Columbus made his voyages to the Americas, and claimed the land for Spain. Conquistador Juan de Esquivel arrived with troops in 1509 to formally occupy the country, and in doing so, wiped out most of the native population. The Spanish, who at the time were absolutely gold-crazy, were disappointed in the lack of jewels and riches yielded by the island, and used it mainly as a military base for operations in the Americas whilst simultaneously beginning the import of African slaves to the region. During this same period, Jamaica also saw an enormous influx of European Jews, who had fled the continent to escape the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition. These refugees referred to themselves as “Portugals” and practiced their religion in secret. This ethnic enclave would also prove invaluable to the invading British in the mid-17th century, when they were instrumental in forming the strategy of encouraging piracy in the city of Port Royal, a location that allowed bandits to plunder Spanish trading vessels and weaken its armed forces.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy (illustration: piratesinfo.com)

Under British rule, which was formally established in 1655, the island became a haven for pirates and lawlessness. This entire period seems incredibly fascinating, as a number of notorious pirates and sailors all spent time in Jamaica and Port Royal in particular during this period. Upon their defeat at the hands of the British, the Spanish colonists freed their slaves, who dispersed amongst the mountains of Jamaica’s interior and joined up with the Maroons, previously escaped slaves that had formed free cities with the surviving Tainos, who had escaped the earlier Spanish genocide. The Maroons would go on to fight with the British colonists for the better part of the 18th century, battling the empire in two separate wars and winning nominal victories in the name of independence as the UK gradually transformed the island into a slave-dependent, sugar plantation-driven economy. It was during this period that Jamaica shifted to a majority black population, a fact that alarmed British imperialists once the United Kingdom began its gradual abolition of slavery, beginning in the early 19th century. By 1838, slavery in Jamaica had been completely abolished. At that time, former slaves made up nearly 85% of the country’s population.

Jamaica began a slow creep towards independence over the next 100 years, becoming a province of the Federation of the West Indies in 1958, and then gaining complete independence upon leaving the Federation in 1962. Initially, the country enjoyed solid financial growth and economic prosperity, but class disparities (which had been a contentious issue since the early days of British rule) lingered, spurred on by the government’s focus on luring private wealth to the country, most visibly in the form of relaxed regulations surrounding investment in mining and tourism, the country’s two biggest industries. I have to admit that economics is not my strong suit, but there’s a wealth of writing surrounding the subject of Jamaica’s economic downturn and slow recovery.

I’m unable to find a lot of concise and verified information pertaining to Jamaica’s transition to a tourism-based economy, but the country did became a popular draw for traveling Americans and Europeans, especially the British, from the 1950s onward. Celebrities like Errol Flynn promoted the island’s then fledgling tourism trade, and by the time Jamaica gained independence in the early 60s, it only seems logical that the newly formed government would seek to prop up the rather considerable beam of the country’s economy by any means necessary. Again, I’m speaking solely through conjecture, but my gut tells me that this early prosperity and the sudden economic boon for a very young country gave way to widespread corruption at the hands of meddling foreign investors.

Privately-owned resorts and clubs ring the beaches of the island (photo: royalcaribbean.com)

It’s a glum outlook, but it seems that if interventionist foreign powers couldn’t control the island of Jamaica outright, the next best thing would be to grab large portions of wealth and power in the country by means of investment in tourism and mining. Whether the Jamaican government has colluded in these sorts of matters or been taken advantage of by bullying foreign capitalists is a matter for somebody more well versed global economics than I.

I feel like something of a hypocrite writing all of this and then realizing that my vacation may very well be contributing to the wealth disparity in a country that’s been more or less put on fiscal life support by the tourism industry. I’m also rather intrigued by Jamaica’s fascinating history, yet I can’t say with conviction if my six days in paradise will find me traveling very far from my all-inclusive resort. At the very least, I can take a little bit of the guilt off my plate via my own lackluster education, and I can hope that others who are thinking of making a pleasure pit stop in the Caribbean might take a few moments to learn about the place they’ll be a guest of.

SHOOTING BLANKS: “BLADE”

Blade, we hardly knew ye (image: herogohome.com)

Blade (1998)

Directed by Stephen Norrington

Written by David S. Goyer

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson

Blade seems like a movie that should have more of a following. At the time of its release, the dark and pulpy flick enjoyed generally favorable reviews, as well as a respectable box office showing, closing out its lifetime worldwide grosses at $131 million. This was a period when all but the most recognizable comic book adaptations carried something of a stigma in the world of entertainment, and in that light, the marketing for Blade positioned the film more as a vampire action flick that happened to draw on a comic book as its source material. In this vein (pardon the pun) too, Blade was something of a tide-turner, belonging to the select group of pre-2000s vampire movies that weren’t completely mired in schlock (its compatriots being Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Interview With the Vampire). Still, these days Blade is largely forgotten, and I think there are several reasons why.

While Blade may have helped lead the charge towards the future of respectable comic book movies, as a pioneer, the film was bound to be left behind. In 1998, studios were still trying to wrap their heads around the notion of turning comic books, then viewed as kid’s stuff, into films that were marketable enough to all four quadrants to justify their massive budgets. Development executives seemed to struggle especially with the idea of “adult” comics, insisting on layering adaptations with loads of camp that often resulted in strange, tonally confused Frankensteins, such as Joel Schumacher’s Batman adaptations, and Alex Proyas’ reworking of The Crow. While David S. Goyer may have “only” been a writer on Blade, it’s arguably been his baby from the beginning, and helped firmly establish him as a go-to comics guy in Hollywood. Blade still clings to some of the vestigial camp of its predecessors, but the dark and gritty atmosphere identity that would become synonymous with Goyer’s name is present and accounted for. As Tinseltown began to realize the untapped potential of comic book franchises, new marching orders came down and “dark and gritty” became de rigeur. Goyer would lead the charge, contributing writing to Christopher Nolan’s rebooting of the long-dormant and presumed dead Batman franchise, as well as the Nolan-produced Man of Steel. Oddly, Goyer is at least partly responsible for a tonal shift in comic book films that left Blade looking more than a little quaint.

Goyer also penned two sequels, Blade II and Blade Trinity, both of which tried to fall in line with emerging trends but wound up playing as overcorrected, grim-faced nonsense romps (and the addition of the always-annoying Ryan Reynolds didn’t help). A few bad movies won’t always sink a franchise (Batman), but an emerging property with a lot of x-factors couldn’t really afford the consequences of two back-to-back stumbles. The sequels didn’t do terribly at the box office, but by the time Trinity rolled around in 2004, the comic book races were off and running, and the incredibly violent, R-rated franchise based on a lesser known and less than marketable character was soon put out to pasture. In my opinion, the fun and quirky brutality of Blade has been eclipsed by the eye-rolling tedium of its sequels. As such, it’s been relegated to less-than-prestigious cult status, doomed to live on only in the hearts of fedora-wearing neckbeards and guys who regularly attend anime conventions.

Last but not least, the falling star of Wesley Snipes may have sunk the half-vampire vampire-killer altogether. While the actor’s tax troubles weren’t common knowledge until around 2006, chances are that talk of Snipes’ financial philandering had begun to circulate around Hollywood much earlier: a look at the one-time star’s filmography reveals that he sank into the direct-to-video abyss immediately following Blade Trinity, and did not return to theaters until 2009, with Brooklyn’s Finest. It seems more than likely that Snipes was considered too “complicated” to work with by 2005, and became persona non grata in the world of big budget filmmaking as a result.

If we’re going to speak in massively hyperbolic metaphors, it’s important to remember that those who lead the charge are seldom immortalized as heroes. Rather, they’re the first to die facedown in the mud, their backs trampled by the waves of others coming behind them. Blade may not be a masterpiece, and the story of Blade slipping back into the shadows of the public consciousness may not be a tragedy, but as we wrap up a month that saw the box office dominated by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s important to remember that thing weren’t always like this.

Whether or not that’s a good thing, well…that’s for another article.

Contents Unchanged

First published at LitReactor on October 3rd, 2011:

Shortly after the new year, when it became apparent that Borders Books and Music would be shuttering its doors, my father wrote me an e-mail and reminded me that I might want to spend any unused gift cards I had laying around (these being a favorite of outer-orbit family friends and relations). Once the chain had sunk for good, they would be worthless. It wasn’t until months later that I happened upon a still-operating location here in Austin, and scoured the shelves with my roommate Peter.

I was amazed at how packed the place was and how thoroughly it had been picked over. Large signs throughout the interior announced that every article had been slashed by 60% off cover price, and that each bulk purchase would be cut by an additional 10%. Needless to say, the gift cards I had accrued over several years would stretch for miles, if only we could find anything worth reading. Our first few forays into the stacks for specific titles told us in no uncertain terms that a less discerning plan of attack would be necessary. We spent the next two hours slowly walking the Literature, Biography, Science Fiction, and Horror aisles. Anything that was 1) a classic 2) was written by someone we had heard of or 3) looked interesting got pulled from the shelves. Soon, I had a mighty stack of books tucked under my chin, and was thumbing through a horror anthology when I saw something on a nearby shelf that gave me pause. It was a copy of The Inferno, a book I had read excerpts from in high school and had always wanted to read in its entirety. Everything about this purchase met my criteria: a well-known classic, and one I had been meaning to get through for ages. Nothing about the work within the pages or the time it would take to plow through Dante’s epic made me hesitate. The problem was packaging.

Anyone who keeps up with video games might remember the “Dante’s Inferno” title that Electronic Arts released not too long ago (I haven’t played it, but it received middling to low reviews from what I remember): a sophomorically EXTREME blood ‘n’ guts romp that was loosely built around a plot that kind of had something to do with hell. This book I held in my hands was a “promotional” copy that had been printed to coincide with the video game release: the cover was plastered with shiny concept art from the game, glossy screenshots were buried within the middle of the binding, and above the title, bold font identified the book as “The literary classic that inspired the epic video game from Electronic Arts.”

Awful, right? I thought so. Then I bought it anyways. My reasons for doing so were wrapped up in the events of the previous few weeks, when I had suddenly, and without practical motivation, become a vicious proponent of eBooks and eReaders. As a  writer and a lover of the written word, I feel it is my duty to take up arms. Simply put, the case against eReaders is couched in arguments that are selfish, inane, pretentious, and dishonest.

In order to understand the true reasons behind the anti-eReader movement, it’s necessary to first look at what I understand to be a relatively new phenomenon: the transformation of books into talismans. Be forewarned, I am not a sociologist or a statistician and I don’t have any hard numbers to back any of this up, only my own limited observations and my understanding of the world that surrounds me and what people seem to agree on. That being said, there are a few broad observations I think we can make. The first is that people, on average, don’t read books as much as they consume television, movies, and music. When comparing book sales to album and ticket sales, and when comparing the popular reaction and spotlighting of authors versus directors, actors and musicians, it doesn’t seem like a leap of faith to assume that the average American spends more of their leisure time consuming media other than books. As a result of this, reading has, in its own sad way, become something of an unusual activity. One of my favorite headlines in The Onion once screamed “Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book”, and a popular survey that made the rounds on Facebook once invited users to check off how many titles they had read out of a list of 100 books compiled by the BBC (the survey always notes the low number “most” Americans have read, and respondents almost always post that they have read more than this number). This, in my opinion, has everything to do with the rise of other forms of media that require less time and money of their audience, two resources that are in heavier and heavier demand as time goes on, and less to do with most Americans being unread slobs, but I digress.

The point is, books, in their physical form, seem to have been given an almost mystical quality. A friend of mine from Los Angeles recently showed me a website dedicated to publishing photos of attractive men reading in public. In this case, the book has quite literally become a fetish object, imbuing these anonymous men with newfound status and a qualifier: I read, therefore I am interesting. Another friend in college once refused my offered loan of a title she wanted to read, claiming that books were “just too personal” to pass around in such a fashion. This same friend also claimed I “ruined” her copy of an Ibsen play by scrawling some nonsense in the inside front cover of the paperback.

My opinion has not changed in years, and, given the recent reactionary comments in my friend-circle towards eReaders, has only become more galvanized: books are collections of ideas and experiences bound within pages and covers. The most important parts of a book, in fact, the only important parts of a book, are intangible. Sure, there’s no denying the inherent pleasure of holding a novel in your hands or of beaming with pride at your fully stocked shelves, but ultimately, the physical form of a book is little more than dead trees smeared with ink. It is impermanent and wholly unrelated to the most transcendent aspects of reading, literature and art itself. What is shared between two people when they read or write a book has nothing to do with the binding, the print, or paper stock: all of this is useless window-dressing and the emphasis on such trivialities is inane. It is however, not without motivation.

As with many other forms of media, books, perhaps as a direct result of their niche status in terms of popular appeal, have become signifiers of cultural capital. Like it or not, in our modern world and certainly amongst younger populations, ownership of books makes a statement about one’s self to the outside world. What exactly this statement consists of remains open to debate, however the more cynical side of me guesses that individuals who make a stink about the alleged superiority of Books (traditional) versus books (eReaders) see themselves as part of the cultured elite: the few and proud who cling fast to valuable cultural artifacts as the very essence of culture crumbles in the wake of disconnecting technology. They find their identities, or at least parts of them, in rising up against imagined adversity, namely, the imminent destruction of the written word at the hands of eReaders. This logic hinges on the belief that as printed books go, so goes reading and writing in general. Thus, once the Book has been extinguished by the eBook, it will only be a matter of time before quality literature, and even reading as an institution, crumbles. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of why printed books will not die the universal death that some see on the horizon (though chain bookstores may be doomed), but I will reiterate that the pose being struck by book-toting, would-be academics worldwide is selfish and contradictory. eReaders do not spell the death of reading. Aside from their status as a luxury item, which is sure to dwindle over the next decade or so, everything about eReaders makes books and reading more accessible and widespread than ever before. These wondrous devices hold hundreds upon hundreds of titles at a time, and many works that have long since gone out of print have been made newly available in electronic format. Thanks to innovations like Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/), a dizzying array of masterpieces that might have previously been prohibitively expensive or extremely rare can now be acquired with the click of a button, and for free. To discount these truly astonishing advancements in accessibility, ease of transport and affordability is foolish and hypocritical. E-readers advance the cause of reading. The method by which one chooses to consume literature is a matter of taste, but to deride a wonderful and exciting new way to read and share books simply because there’s no more paper is staggeringly stupid.

The truth behind why some people have such visceral reactions to eReaders is a bit more depressing than many might surmise. Those who create their identities in books and use their book collections as cultural capital are not actually interested in the advancement of reading and literature. They have a vested interest in keeping reading firmly entrenched in the ghetto of eccentricity: an act reserved for the educated and culturally superior. In short, the cultural capital of books must be maintained. As technology advances, and culture is spread to more people more cheaply, the capital of that culture is diminished. To put it bluntly, many who deride eBooks as “the death of the written word” are in fact terrified at their identities crumbling once reading becomes “normal” and books lose their totemic status (of course, there is the very real possibility that printed books will create a new class of consumer comparable to modern-day vinyl enthusiasts, but that’s a different post).

Coming back to my adventure in the cleaned-out Borders, I realized that, considering my opinions on eBooks and eReaders, I HAD to buy this gaudy, cheap-looking edition of The Inferno, because it met all of my criteria for books that I wanted to purchase and enjoy. Would I have preferred a beautifully crafted, leather-bound tome with gilded pages? Naturally. But to throw away the opportunity to read one of the most lauded literary achievements in history for a great price because of bad packaging would have been ridiculous.

 

Generation Active

First published at LitReactor on December 13th, 2011:

I want to make a promise to the readers of LitReactor: I, John Jarzemsky, hereby solemnly swear that my next column will not involve technology, and how it will or will not affect the worlds of books and storytelling. I also promise that I’m not a robot hell-bent on making The Matrix into a reality.

Now that we have that out of the way, I have a few things on my mind: namely, the difference between active and passive narratives, and how they are most often dictated by medium. To clarify, when I say “passive” and “active” I’m referring to the level of agency and involvement afforded to the consumer of a particular narrative. Nearly all narratives fall within the former camp. Be they films, novels, plays or television shows, most media takes the form of a passive narrative: the storyteller tells his story, and the audience listens. His or her reactions to the story have no bearing on the work itself. It was only very recently that active narratives began to enter the collective consciousness in the form of video games.

Heavy Rain is what got me thinking about this (I know I’m late to the party, bear with me). Like many of their peers, the designers of this particular title started with the notion that they wanted to craft a narrative experience that hinged on choices made by the player. While I would argue that Heavy Rain leaves its peers behind in terms of execution, the basic conceit has been alive in the gaming world for a few years now: players are intermittently faced with different choices that have rippling effects on the game’s branching storyline. In theory, this means that any two people who play the game are likely to have completely different experiences, and that anyone should be able to replay the game a number of times, receiving a varied story each time. Practically speaking, the results tend to be a little more clunky, but Heavy Rain is perhaps the closest thing to a playable film noir that is currently available.

With a few exceptions, nearly all other forms of media have steered clear of giving the audience such agency. I’ve been wracking my brain for examples of active narratives outside the medium of video games, and I can only come up with a scant few. Certain forms of live theater use audience participation to change the final outcome of a staged production. There was a brief period in the 1990s when the idea of “graphic adventures” was on everybody’s minds, although these seem laughably bad in hindsight (one example, Dragon’s Lair, constitutes one third of all video games present in The Smithsonian), and despite the use of full-motion-video sequences, they tended to be lumped into the “game” category of entertainment. The closest thing we have in television is the avalanche of “reality competition” shows that hinge on audience voting, although this is a big stretch, since there isn’t really a “narrative” as much as there is “drama”, and it’s impossible to verify the degree to which the audience’s choices are being consciously or subconsciously manipulated. In the world of literature, the only thing that springs to mind are the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books, and these are targeted exclusively towards children.

Could it be that the very notion of an “active” narrative is considered juvenile and artistically irrelevant in and of itself? Video games, despite having advanced leaps and bounds in terms of both content and presentation, are still not considered “art” by the mainstream media (see Roger Ebert’s fire-starting article, in which he incorrectly uses the term “art” as a signifier of quality), and in the minds of most, are considered little more than a hobby of overgrown children. Ebert’s arguments notwithstanding, it seems that the very notion of inviting the audience to be a part of the craft negates a narrative’s importance in the minds of certain critics.  Those who deride the relatively poor and simplistic dialogue, stories, and characters in video games often unfairly overlook the inherent challenge present in attempting to tell a story that is at once engaging and simultaneously modifiable, not to mention the fact that the medium by which game narratives are delivered is constantly changing. If publishing houses were consistently one-upping each other with a new way to present books every two years or so, you can bet that the world of novels wouldn’t be nearly as complex. For the time being though, let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine a work of near unimpeachable quality, likeCitizen Kane or The Great Gatsby or The Wire, and imagine that when it was first completed, instead of being a stand-alone, start to finish passive narrative, it sprang into being as a branching, multi-faceted story with different endings available. Imagine that the quality of writing, the richness of the characters, and the quality of the prose hadn’t changed a bit (I realize this may be difficult), but there was only more of the work to explore each time you consumed it. Would the public still regard these pieces of art as favorably, or would the very notion of allowing audience members to influence the unfolding of narrative events taint the work forever?

Perhaps the more important question to ask is this: given the pace of technology and the tide of public opinion, is this the direction that all narratives are eventually headed towards? Design by committee tends to yield unmitigated crap, but if recent trends are any indication, consumers are feeling more and more empowered by technology, and it’s not altogether far-fetched to imagine that the public’s demand for involvement will spill over into the world of storytelling. In a sense, Hollywood has been listening more and more to the demands of its audience over the years (somewhat paradoxically, or maybe predictably, nearly everybody I know tends to agree that most movies nowadays are terrible). Snakes on a Plane comes to mind, as does the abominable X-men 3: The Last Stand (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”). It’s still not the norm, but as time goes on, more and more producers and show runners seem to be going back to the age-old adage of “give the people what they want”.Lost had a very prominent feedback loop going in its heyday. That show’s fan base was so loud and strong I remember discussing it in more than one media studies class, and it’s pretty hard to argue that the series wouldn’t have been radically different if nobody who was involved in its creation or consumption had access to the internet, but I’m beginning to digress.

If this indeed is the place that popular entertainment is heading, what does the future hold for books? As recently as five years ago, I would have said that it was hard to imagine books embracing (or being ensnared by, depending on how you look at it) this kind of novel approach to storytelling, but with the advent of the eReader, it seems less than impossible, and maybe even downright likely. Even in their current rudimentary form, it seems like an easy leap to reinvent the “choose your own adventure” line of books into something more adult and contemporary by way of eReaders. The most pressing related question is, will authors be interested in embracing this new storytelling medium? It’s hard to imagine somebody like Cormac McCarthy writing a multi-branched eBook and selling it exclusively on the Internet, but given the pace of current events, the tactics publishers are using to react to technology, and the rate of success that unknowns are having with self-publishing online, it’s more than likely that the next generation of authors who achieve the same literary status as McCarthy (or any other semi-household author) will do so via less traditional methods. And, if audiences continue to want a larger say in the creation/execution of the art they consume, then an altogether new class of writer may very well emerge.

Make no mistakes: this is all very speculative. However, in the current age of RSS feeds, iPads, eReaders, and “games” resembling playable films more and more each year, it’s no exaggeration to say we’re living in the Star Trek era, and the Holodeck is definitely on the horizon. The question is, what role will human beings (you know, the folks who brought you everything) play in all of this, and how do we want to proceed?

Required Reading: Pros and Cons

First published in LitReactor on January 11th, 2012:

I didn’t know how to read until I was seven years old.

This is a fact that sticks out no matter how far removed I am, and one that I’ve carried with me into adulthood. I can distinctly remember being in kindergarten, around 5 or 6, and feeling the miserable isolation that comes with not being able to read Hop On Pop out loud.  I can’t distinctly remember if there was mockery or teasing involved, but it seems likely.

Early into 1st grade, however, everything suddenly clicked. What had seemed impossible now came as easily as breathing. It was so easy, in fact, that I soon surpassed my peers in terms of reading comprehension and began to receive private tutoring sessions in lieu of English classes. Over the next few years, I had changed from the kid who couldn’t read to the kid who got in trouble with teachers for reading on the playground (yes, this actually happened). I was completely happy with my newfound status as a voracious reader (and I wish I had kept up that volume into present day), but it was only a matter of time before a grim specter reared its ugly head.

Required reading. What a terrible term it was. It wasn’t that I was being forced to read: I could get behind that. The resentment I felt was tied to the fact that I loved reading, but teachers and administrators and whoever else had all conspired against me to keep the books I wanted to consume out of my hands. This was little more than a minor annoyance through most of elementary, middle, and junior high school, since the required reading assigned to these grade levels was usually on the lighter side of 100 pages. I would breeze through these in a day, then go back to my own private stacks.

Once I reached high school, however, the entire game changed. Required reading wasn’t easy anymore. The print was small! The chapters went on forever! Most of all, they were boring! By this point, my own private reading levels had dipped considerably, since my post-puberty self had many other things with which to occupy his time (namely girls and other intoxicants). But I still resented being told what reading was important, and, being the conniving slacker that I was, often skimmed just enough to pass the quizzes I knew were coming the next day. On more than one occasion I wrote an in-class essay on a book I hadn’t even opened up to that point. Make no mistakes, I was a bastard of a student, and probably one of the more confounding bad students because I seemed to do fairly well despite the iron resolve of my laziness.

There were required reads I encountered in high school that I loved.On the Road is more precious to me than perhaps any other novel I’ve read. The Great Gatsby may be the closest thing we have to the mythical “Great American Novel”, and I still consider Hemingway’sA Clean, Well-Lighted Place the greatest short story of all time. I am eternally indebted to the extraordinary teachers who introduced me to these wonderful works of art. However, as I get older, and re-read more and more of the classics that were foisted upon me in my high school days, I have to wonder: is this the best way to try and teach kids about the importance of reading, literature, and the written word?

Like I said before, I love On the Road. I first read it when I was around fifteen years old, as one possible selection on a required summer reading list. Getting loaded and hitchhiking across America sounded pretty good to me, and I tore through it, often wondering what it would have been like to live in an America that seemed so wide open and full of possibilities. Shortly after I turned 23, I found a copy lying around my house, and having some free time, re-read it. My experience had totally changed. I still loved the book, and I still found Kerouac’s writing impossibly beautiful and romantic, but my reading of the text had been completely reversed. The things I had once found invigorating and the lifestyle I had once envied now seemed desperate, heartbreaking and lonely. What I had once approached as a possible handbook for living I now held up as a tragic anthem to failed ideals and disconnection.

By that same token, I did enjoy Gatsby quite a bit when I was younger. Re-reading the novel at 25, I asked myself something I had never thought to ask before: why are we teaching books like these to teenagers? There is of course a wealth of information to be gleaned about writing and language from classics like Gatsby, and I stand by my conviction that these lessons are invaluable, but what is there in Gatsby for a sixteen-year-old to relate to? It’s a novel about failure, deception, love, loss, and the inability to escape one’s past. Perhaps I led a sheltered adolescence, but I have a hard time imagining a typical teenager finding much that speaks to him or her in the pages of Gatsby. And while I’m not advocating that our educational system capitulate to the whims of hormone-addled teenagers and only require that they read Twilight books, let’s face facts: teenagers, and teenaged boys especially, are extremely headstrong creatures, and liable to resist anything they are told they must do. I loved reading from the get-go, and continued to love books well past the age when anybody (save for editors) required that I read anything. I can’t say how common this is, but is there a possibility that kids who are forced to read books they find dull, monotonous, and irrelevant are turning into adults that associate reading at large with those feelings?

For the sake of objectivity and nostalgia, I got in touch with the very patient woman who helped me through those dark high school years. Dr. Fran Hillyer retired from teaching some years ago, no doubt driven away by frustrating do-nothings like myself. She also had quite a bit to say in defense of required reading. “There are reasons why certain [books] have been pushed into high school. The Great Gatsby is a good example because it is uniquely situated in American history as well as in American literature. If you’re lucky, when you’re in high school you’re studying American history at the same time that you’re studying American literature, so when you get to Gatsby you can refer to all kinds of things… prohibition, manifest destiny, the American dream, class warfare… it’s just such a rich text in so many ways.”

This was one point I hadn’t considered: that certain parts of the literary canon fit neatly into a well-rounded high school education. “The meat of the book …some people are going to get it completely. Most of them probably won’t, but they’ve gotten something out of it that they wouldn’t have gotten out of a lesser work.” It’s a fair point: even considering those kids who do get The Great Gatsby or Catch-22 forced down their throats and grow up to resent it/swear off canonical literature forever, from an objective standpoint, they’re still a better person for having slogged through it. They’ve undergone self-improvement at the hands of a teacher, even if it was while kicking and screaming. Dr. Hillyer even took some issue with my supposition that the concept of “required reading” might turn off potential lit-heads. “Anybody who loves reading is probably not going to be scared away from reading by one book… Readers read.”

Perhaps this is the harsh reality: readers read, and by the time we get to high school, a choice has been made as to whether or not we want to continue to improve our literacy and take an active interest in reading, and even the best teacher will be somewhat powerless to stop that. When I asked Dr. Hillyer if she thought required reading ever had the unfortunate consequence of turning a kid off of reading or going back to the canon, she asked me pointedly “Did you do that?” The answer is no: I just picked up Crime and Punishment for the first time in ten years because it’s part of the canon, and I didn’t understand it at all when I was sixteen.

I can’t say what it is that made me into a reader. Maybe it’s something that’s innate, or maybe it came from the household I was raised in. My parents are both avid readers (my father has belonged to a book club for as long as I can remember, and my mother goes through about five mysteries per month), so it just seemed to make sense that I should have my nose buried in something. Much in the same way I began reading newspapers (so I would know what the hell everyone was talking about at the breakfast table), reading was something that brought me closer to the people I loved. If kids aren’t lucky enough to have reading pushed on them at home, it stands to reason that it should be pushed on them at school (this is, after all, where we traditionally improve young people against their will).

In a best-case scenario, required reading forces a kid to slog through (or at least attempt to) a great book that they end up loving and later thank their teacher for introducing them to. At worst, a kid either refuses to read, or reads just enough so that they’ll stop being bothered. In the latter instance they’re probably better off for it, and in either instance the teacher is kind of at the mercy of the student.

I’ve often wondered how the teachers who were stuck with me did it. Teaching a 16-year-old kid about literature might be the worst job in the world, as it’s incredibly frustrating, demanding work, and it is perhaps one of the most thankless and poorly compensated jobs available. Was my own high school English teacher resentful after all those years? The answer is no (and I hope it still is after she reads this article):

“That’s why you become an English teacher…you say ‘I want to share what I know with somebody else’…It would be nice to get [the material] through their skulls, but whether I get it through their skulls or not, I get to read it and enjoy it, and show how excited I am by this book… in high school, who’s going to get anything, when it comes right down to it? All you’re doing is opening a door.”

The Age of No Controversy

First published at LitReactor on February 22nd, 2012:

After my last column on required reading (and after leaving my newly purchased copy of Crime and Punishment on a plane), I decided to put my money were my mouth was and picked up a digital copy of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel I had tragically under-read when it was assigned to me in high school. While reading, I found myself wondering about the controversy Golding’s tale generated upon its release. Themes of man’s inherent inclination towards violence, individual welfare versus the common good, and the potential corrupting properties of religion were just beginning to be explored back in 1954, and Lord of the Flies remains one of the most frequently challenged books still taught in classrooms today.

Looking back, one can find a myriad of titles that caused a similar furor upon their release or inclusion in libraries and classrooms. Catcher in the RyeThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita are all prime examples. Up to a certain point in history, it seemed that when novels were deemed shocking or controversial, it was almost always due to the thematic content of the work, and most often for overt political or social themes. The “controversy” that erupted out of a work of art knocked down established social and political mores, and forced the reader to think outside of their own experience.

While the attempted suppression of books is alive and well in the United States (the preferred nomenclature is “challenged books”, seeing as outright bans of material are quite rare), re-reading Golding’s classic made me stop and wonder: when was the last time a book caused such a public stir? I have to remind everyone of the fact that I am not a teacher or a librarian, and thus I am not clued in as to what books have over-protective parents in an uproar these days. I can, however, look back at a few books that garnered the attention of national news outlets recently, and while the controversy surrounding these titles is very real, rarely is it rooted in the potential for social change or radical thought that so many challenged titles of yesteryear were.

Off the top of my head, a few books spring to mind. Most recently: The Da Vinci Code and Twilight. The former seems to prove the old adage “controversy sells” correct, as Dan Brown had sold over 80 million copies of the novel as of 2009. Like many similar instances in the 21st century and beyond, The Da Vinci Code was considered “controversial” because it dared to offer alternative histories to those found in religious texts (a surefire way to get people talking, it seems. See The Satanic Verses and The Last Temptation of Christ). While the book was the toast of the town for a brief period, its star quickly fell, perhaps due to the fact that the film version, starring Tom Hanks, didn’t propel the book into the cult status of Stephanie Meyer’s vampire/werewolf/teen chastity romp.

The Twilight series—which, I must disclose, I haven’t read—has remained in the public consciousness since the first novel’s release in 2005, due in no small part to the runaway success of the films. Opinions about literary merit aside, what can’t be denied is the conversation surrounding Twilight: the argument over what this book says about gender roles and feminism has been going back and forth for some time. However, the paradigm presented by Meyer is decidedly regressive, which has made Twilight something of a unique phenomenon in that it’s been harangued both by conservatives (paranormal, the occult, teen sexuality, violence) and progressives (themes of feminine helplessness, unhealthy models for romantic relationships, etc).

James Frey’s “memoir” A Million Little Pieces was the subject of much controversy shortly after it’s release, but once again this, didn’t have much to do with the content of the book, even though it was what some might consider objectionable. Frey’s tale recounted his years of drug and alcohol abuse, time spent in prison, and a general descent into depravity. However, when presented as a memoir, and a tale of overcoming adversity, it was lauded by none other than Oprah Winfrey and her famous book club. The uproar came when Frey was exposed as a fraud, someone who had exaggerated (and in some cases, completely fabricated) parts of his life in order to sell more books, and, arguably, to find a market in the always booming memoir trade (Frey later admitted that he had tried to sell A Million Little Pieces as fiction to numerous houses, but was rejected).

The Harry Potter books are barely worth mentioning, as the “controversy” surrounding their release was an irrational reaction by hypersensitive Christians who couldn’t deal with the fact that their children might be reading something that involved magic or wizards. None of the themes or narrative arcs of the novels were found to be objectionable, only the window-dressing. However, this undercuts a larger observation about the state of controversy in our modern world: we are no longer shocked and shaken up by books with challenging ideas and themes that force us to take another look at our lives and the world around us, or stare a different point of view straight in the face. Cynics might say that this is because we’re living in a sanitized generation that can’t deal with this sort of art, but I believe the truth is a bit more complicated.

We live in a world that is almost wholly interconnected. Over the last few decades, the area mankind has made the most incredible advancements in is access: for the price of a cup of coffee I can and will be exposed to a dizzying array of content from places across the globe. There have never been more opportunities for exposure to other modes of thinking and points of view. By sheer virtue of living, almost any given person is bombarded with diametrically opposed ideas on a daily basis. Fittingly, there have been two very different consequences of this: first, it has become harder, by and large, to shock people on an intellectual, rather than visceral level. In other words, people are no longer scared by ideas. Whether this is because people are generally becoming more intelligent or if technology has granted us the proper tools to increase our intellectual capacity (perhaps it’s both?) is for other, more qualified people to decide.

The second consequence is less encouraging: while it’s become easier than ever to challenge and educate one’s self, it’s also infinitely easier to filter out content you may find objectionable on any level, as our incredible levels of access have led to increased specialization in media. If the lines of the culture war were drawn sometime post World War II, every beachhead had been established sometime between the late 1980s and mid to late 1990s. In the 2000s, adults are not typically forced to deal with popular art that doesn’t conform to however narrow-minded they want their worldview to be.

The upside of this factionalizing is that true challenges to art and media have been few and far between in recent memory. When confronted with the vast content dump that is the Internet, the average media consumer is going to stick with things that conform to their mode of thinking, that were recommended to them by like-minded people, and that seem to be in their political and moral “safe-zone”. When there is unlimited access to unlimited content, the potential for somebody to be outraged is drastically reduced, because they have a plethora of alternative options to choose from. The downside is that while this potential for challenge, censorship, et al has been decreased, so has the potential for debate and discussion. It’s not that literature or art itself has gotten less controversial, it’s that the audiences that are moved to pick up a book that might be challenging are probably not going to be challenged by it, and those that might benefit are going to stay mired in the realm of opinions that reinforce their own.

Of course, it would be unwise to overlook the possibility that this phenomenon is a direct result of the public’s gradual decreased interest in books and literature, at least when compared with other popular media such as film, video games, and music. Video games tend to generate great swathes of outraged pundits every few months or so. This is probably due to the fact that most people still consider this medium to be a realm devoted solely to children, despite all evidence to the contrary. Game developers have been targeted by politicians and family values groups time and again on the grounds that they are “selling violence to children”, an assertion which hinges on the incorrect assumption that the industry as a whole is supported almost entirely by people under the age of eighteen. Films, like video games, are visual, and thus subject to closer inspection by those who would like to decide what we as a public do and don’t need to consume. Music, while occasionally prompting outraged diatribes from parents or legislators, seems to have become less of a hot-button medium since the industry was scaled back greatly by the advent of file-sharing, et cetera. All these art forms seem to be scrutinized more closely than books, leading me to wonder: as go the masses, so go the censors?

What should we take away from all this? In the age of no controversy, is there any room for authors to be daring and still connect with a mass audience that has broken off into their own spheres of consumption?