Monday, November 23, 2009

The Changing Reader

As I mentioned briefly last week, I spent Friday at the first ever Footnotes conference, subtitled thus: New Directions in David Foster Wallace Studies. If you're interested, you can read what Twitter (or, mostly me) thought of the conference. And if you're at all interested, you should check out Nick's recap on The Howling Fantods!, which is way more thorough and informed than any review attempted by me could hope to be. But I do want to elaborate on one point that seemed to recur throughout the conference: readers, as "consumers" of media, have changed as much as, if not more than, media in the last 30-40 years. This is true, I posit, even for forms that have been around all those years, namely, fiction and television/film.

The ways in which postmodern literature and film differ from their predecessors is fairly well established. There is no shortage of information on these changes on your friendly neighborhood internet, but since I've already linked to this once before, here's The L.A. Times' Jacket Copy blog's list of postmodern attributes. But perhaps not quite as developed is a study of how readers and film-watchers have changed over that same time period.

Consider, for example, something as simple as establishing shots on television. If you watch something as recent as Seinfeld, you'll notice the preponderance of establishing shots. The exterior of Jerry's apartment, the diner: these are some of the show's most iconic images. Compare that to "Souvenir," the eighth episode of the third season of Mad Men. If you haven't seen it, here's Alan Sepinwall on the cinematography of this episode (sans significant spoilers):

Included in the stylistic template of "Mad Men" is a reluctance to use establishing shots. Though we occasionally see the outside of the Sterling Cooper building, most scenes don't get any kind of transitional image to tell you, "Okay, now we're moving from here to here" or "Okay, we're back here on the following morning." It's not always that noticeable because the show does such long scenes, but there were several sequences in "Souvenir" where we just followed either Betty or Pete throughout their day, bam-bam-bam - no establishing shots, no dissolves or other obvious transitions, just one quick cut after another of their frustrated, empty lives.

I'm not saying that a lack of establishing shots is postmodern or that Mad Men is postmodern because it lacks establishing shots. But, in a way, this episode only works for sophisticated TV viewers who can follow extremely quick cut jumps, a skill which may require having watched countless hours of television to understand the conventions of the medium.

So what similar examples are true of readers? We may be more distrustful of narrators than readers of forty years ago. This questioning of authority is connected with the fact that, to paraphrase DFW, we're been marketed to very effectively for the entirety of our lives. Which came first? Authors going out of their way to make narrators inherently distrustful or readers learning not to take the written word at face value?

And since this post was inspired by a conference called Footnotes, let's think about footnotes. Reading used to be a basically linear activity. Except for reference books, you started reading on the first page and kept going until the end. Unless, of course, the author incorporated footnotes and endnotes, like DFW did, in a conscious effort to disrupt the narrative flow. But the way we read on the internet is unrestricted and deviating. I click from one page to another, with half a dozen tabs open at once. I do most of my reading on devices that can perform a multitude of tasks. It's surprisingly rare that I read one thing at a time, without distractions. Blog posts and, especially, Twitter seem to cater to this limited attention span reading environment. How will our reading expectations affect contemporary and future literature?

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