This blog post is going up a little late. The biggest reason for this is I was visiting my parents this weekend. My sister and nephews were also there. As usual, the thing that most strikes me about every visit to my parents' place, and this is only exacerbated by my sister when she's around, is the sheer omnipresence of television. Don't get me wrong, we watch some TV here at my place. Since my father-in-law came to live with us, we even have cable for the first time in five or six years. But most of the TV the wife, kiddo, and I watch is on Netflix or DVD. There are no commercials and we are only watching what we want when we want.
That's the big deal right there. Commercials are obnoxious and we aren't bombarded with random programming just because we feel the need to have the TV on. This leads to, generally, a much quieter existence at my house. Going from my place to theirs is always a jarring experience and, despite our best efforts, the wife and I can't help but ask to turn things down, or off, or just wander around looking for a room that isn't filled with television noise. Pretty much from the moment we walk through the door, we feel like this:
Another aspect of this is I forget the sheer volume of dreck that's on television when you don't filter anything. I mentioned this in a somewhat confrontational way and my sister accused me of elitism in my choices of entertainment. Oh, she didn't put it that way, but that's what she was getting at. She accused me of thinking that whatever I was watching or reading was the best thing ever and everyone should be watching or reading it.
She accused me of entertainment elitism.
The guy who can tell you what time Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered. The guy who spends way too much time reading crime and detective novels. The guy who gets most excited about e-publishing because it allows something like the old pulp magazines to happen again. The guy who argues constantly that genre fiction can still be art. I'm the guy who is elitist in my entertainment. I was flabbergasted.
But then I realized what the difference is. When it comes down to it, it isn't what you read or watch, it's how you read and watch it. If I read Dickens but shut my brain off, then I might as well be reading People magazine for all the good it's doing me. If I'm reading superhero comics and looking deep for mythic themes and the interplay of cultures and ideas in an overtly symbolic way, then I'm obviously getting a good mental workout from it.
Now, that's not to say Dickens and superhero comics are a straight apples to apples comparison. There are certainly a handful of superhero books I'd elevate to the level of literature, but they are definitely not the majority. But let's take another one of my personal loves, the cop/crime drama. HBO's The Wire is smart, complex, nuanced, and deeply introspective of the American urban mindset and landscape. It doesn't shy away from the desolation any more than it does from the glimmers of hope. In this way, The Wire is decidedly Dickensian and I'm not the only one who thinks so.
Now I have friends that have and are watching The Wire and recognize it as a high quality show but they are never, ever, ever going to make a Dickens connection there. And I have friends who have read the handful of superhero comics I'd call literature and dismissed them as just another superhero story. This isn't because they're dumb necessarily, it's because they aren't reading/watching these works in as critical (meant in the sense of being discerning) a manner as I do.
This comes to a head in the conversation with my sister because she accused me of specifically giving her a hard time about watching soap operas. Don't get me wrong, I think soap operas are generally pretty slap-dash affairs as far as writing, production, characterization, acting, and everything else goes. But what she completely refused to recall was that I'd often compared superhero comics to them. In fact, with two shifts, they're basically the same bits of fiction (including, sadly, the slap-dash feel of them). All you have to do is switch out money for super powers and sex for fights. BAM, X-Men = Guiding Light.
I could be standing inside a gold mine and, if I don't at least have a shovel with me, I'm not going to get any of its riches. That's the person who refuses to engage a fiction no matter how well crafted. I don't expect to find gold everywhere, but if I bring the right tools for the job and a little bit of brain work, I might find something redeeming buried in my own backyard. That's what happens when I bring my A game to typically-dismissed genre fiction. Most of it isn't very good, but every now and then I find absolute gems. In the meantime, I find a lot of arrowheads and buried pennies. I may be wasting most of my time panning for gold in low art but those other folks waste all of theirs if they never even try.
I maintain you can find something valuable in almost every piece of art, high or low...except, that is, for the thing that started this conversation with my sister in the first place. Pay attention to my warning, people! Reality television is a blight on the mental landscape and is actively working to make you stupider! There is nothing redeeming to be found in watching idiots go through their lives with a camera following them around so that they can become even more famous for being famous. I'm honestly not very uppity when it comes to my media consumption, but if you find yourself watching more than ten minutes of reality TV then follow these emergency steps.
- Turn off the TV immediately!
- Look yourself in the mirror and insist to yourself, "I am better than reality TV! I am smarter than reality TV! I don't need famous assholes to be entertained!"
- Repeat step 2 until you really believe it.
- Read a book. Honestly, any book will do, but for the love of all intelligence, READ!
Just those four easy steps should keep you from becoming something like this: