Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dumbing Down

I have been a huge fan of The Wire for quite some time - before it became The Wire, you could say. Many years ago, I read the book by David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. He literally spent a year with Baltimore homicide detectives and the resulting book is fascinating. A few years later, it was made into a fictionalised series called Homicide: Life on the Street. I hadn't initially taken too much notice of The Wire because, like many "difficult" TV shows, the channel it was showing on programmed it late at night at all kinds of weird times.

But when it came out on DVD, I began watching it, and was totally entranced by both the characters and setting, but even more so by the structure of the storytelling. It was demanding. You had to watch every single minute of it, and pay attention, as some strands only appeared every second or third episode. There were dozens of characters, with different relationships to each other, and although there was usually one over-arching storyline for each series, there were also multiple storylines inside, plus some that carried over to other series. When I got to Series Five, knowing it was the last, I kept putting off watching the last episodes, not wanting it to end!

So I was interested to read an article in this week's Green Guide in The Age newspaper, written by David Simon, about what their aims were in creating The Wire. He says, "As a medium for serious storytelling, television has precious little to recommend it..." Why? Because everything is written around the ad breaks. How can you create something cohesive and, yes, challenging, when every 9 minutes, the viewer has to cope with 3 minutes of advertisements? A US channel called HBO has changed that, and it's where The Wire, as well as other shows such as The Sopranos are shown. On HBO, "nothing other than the stories themselves was for sale" and the viewer decided if he/she wanted to engage.

Simon also says, "We had it in mind that we would not explain everything to viewers..." and that this restraint meant the audience was "free to think hard about the story, the different worlds that the story presented and, ultimately, the ideas that underlie the drama." So, like all those people who discovered Charles Frazier's book, Cold Mountain, and told others about it so that it became a bestseller by word of mouth, a similar thing has happened for The Wire. Cold Mountain is not an easy book either. Twice I have set it as a class text for reading and discussion in my second-year novel class, and a lot of students who were not used to reading something that challenged them said they hated it. I suspect it was more that its complexity scared them off, and they weren't prepared to do the hard yards.

I suspect that this is what causes the great divide these days between those who love Dan Brown's books (The Da Vince Code, etc) and those who hate them. Brown writes page-turners, easy reads of very short chapters that never slow down and use simple language. The biggest questions readers have about his books always seem to revolve around whether they're based on truth or not. Those who hate the books complain about the bad writing, the lack of complexity, the cliches, etc. They're readers who want more from a book than a few quick thrills. They want to dive into language and ideas, to be enthralled by complex characters and complicated relationships, to see much more in the story than just a single concept.

In children's and YA books, like any other area, trends come and go. Vampires are on the way out (yes, just think, in ten years we'll have forgotten all about Bella and Edward, thank goodness) and now it seems to be werewolves. There will always be series that seem slight and not worthy of reading, but in the same way that kids will refuse broccoli, they'll refuse any attempt to shove award-winning books down their throat. Those of us who were keen readers when we were kids will remember forever the books that changed our lives, and they may not be the ones everyone else cites. But they were the ones that took us to another world, that challenged our ideas about who we thought we were (or might become). They weren't dumbed down at all, and we discovered them on our own. Like adults who discover and love The Wire, I hope kids today who are reading all find those special books, one way or another, that give them plenty to think about and imagine.

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