A somewhat interesting question arises from an uninteresting debate: can books be both cinematic and literary? How much can we expect to get from a work of art, if artists deliver everything to us in an easily digestible manner?
Even by the already low standards of internet-based ponderings over the nature of art, the whole question of “Should adults read Young Adult Fiction?” is a particularly stupid one. Sites don’t raise it to encourage meaningful conversations, they raise it to take advantage of Harry Potter and Hunger Games traffic. Even now, bloggists are likely dusting off their essays on the modern myth-making of The Avengers.
And even when the discussion doesn’t fall into the Danielle Steele vs. Madeline L’Engle trap, the people bemoaning the dumbing-down of American society never have to substantiate their claims. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the idea that of course reading anything non-literary is a guilty pleasure at best, that we immediately go on the defensive. We read smart stuff too!
So it was interesting that an entry in the Books & Beer podcast raised the first non-immediately dismissible argument I’ve heard around the topic. One of the podcasters, Greg Brown, makes the claim that books usually labeled “young adult” are primarily plot-driven and use “cinematic” storytelling. But I was disappointed that the claim just lay there and wasn’t taken any further.
On Twitter, Chris Remo expanded on that by saying that cinematic storytelling is focused on delivery: “pushing” content and meaning to the audience, instead of encouraging readers to “pull” it for themselves. He went on to say that it’s unfortunate to see another medium forced into the same stylistic constraints as movies (presumably, as video games, comics, and television already have been). And finally, he said that this style of storytelling actually discourages interpretation; it trains audiences not to analyze the meaning of a work too deeply.
All interesting, reasonable points!
Before I go into how wrong they are, a disclaimer: I’m completely side-stepping the clunky “young adult” label, which invariably spins off into unproductive tangents. There are plenty of shallow books aimed at adults, just as there are plenty of great books that are typically categorized as being for children. Instead of “adult” vs “young adult,” I think it’s a lot more interesting to talk about genre fiction vs. literary fiction, and plot-driven storytelling vs. (for lack of a better word) “introspective” storytelling.
Art Finds a Way
First, I can definitely sympathize with the argument. When I first read Jurassic Park, I absolutely loved it. I read several of Michael Crichton’s books afterwards, and Jurassic Park remains the most successful example — both artistically and commercially successful — of his formula: take a concept rooted in “real” science, and then spin it off into an adventure story that gives a Popular Science-level overview of the concept.
Jurassic Park was my first introduction to chaos theory and the idea of “the butterfly effect.” It was filled with genuine quotes from actual scientists, and had its own wisecracking scientist on hand to explain everything! It was based on a fascinating concept spun off into speculative fiction, but based most of its action on actual facts: there really are species of frogs that change their sex when the population becomes unbalanced. And even though he took extensive liberties with the details, he gave a genuine overview of contemporary knowledge of dinosaurs. The velociraptor and dilophosaurus were actual species, which was a big deal for those of us whose knowledge of dinosaurs began and ended with The Flintstones.
But then I read a quote from Crichton, where he was asked what he was working on while writing Jurassic Park. He (half-jokingly) replied “I’m writing the most expensive movie ever made.”
I felt like I’d been duped! He wasn’t writing a real book, he was just writing some shallow pre-novelization! Just trying to cash in. I’d gone away from the book believing that I’d actually learned something in a clever and entertaining way, but that just made me look as stupid as if I’d said, “Yeah, The Matrix really opened my eyes, taught me a lot about what it means to be human.”
The problem with that type of thinking, of course, is that I did actually learn something. It’s not like Ian Fleming’s claim in You Only Live Twice that sumo wrestlers can suck their testicles into their body; most of the details included in Jurassic Park were based on actual contemporary scientific understanding.
But of course, facts aren’t meaning. And that’s what I thought was most clever about the book (and still do): Crichton used his formula for double duty. One of the concepts — cloning dinosaurs from DNA found inside a parasite — drove the plot, while the other — concepts of chaos theory — drove the theme.
While I’m not going to claim that the book is earth-shatteringly profound, I have grown to have a renewed appreciation for what it says about arrogance and knowledge. Obviously, it’s a contemporary spin on Frankenstein, with the theme of “tampering in God’s domain.” But it’s also an observation of the changing role of science at the end of the 20th century — we’d moved away from the unbridled optimism of the turn of the century, when we had every reason to believe that we could control and understand everything if only given enough time and enough study. We were starting to come to the realization that the universe is made of systems that are almost inconceivably complex. We’re no longer aspiring to become Conquerors of the Unknown; we just want to better understand the unknown, so that we can coexist with it.
And that message is still in the book, no matter what the motivation was for writing it, no matter how many good and bad movies were made from it, and no matter how entertaining, accessible, and “cinematic” it was. Sphere and Congo? Cinematic and also predominantly dumb. Rising Sun? Cinematic and also tedious, pedantic, and just shy of being irredeemably racist. But the material that’s “real” in Jurassic Park isn’t diminished or made any less real or less valuable just by virtue of its being wrapped in an adventure story.
The question remains, though: is my comprehension of that material diminished by the fact that Jurassic Park hands it to me in the form of a wisecracking scientist and a rampaging T. Rex? Can I really say that I “get” it, when I didn’t have to work for it?
Lost in Translation
Before you can talk about that, it’s necessary to figure out exactly what’s meant by “cinematic” writing that’s supposedly common to Young Adult fiction, and the “stylistic conventions” that are infecting real literature.
I’m assuming that it means plot-driven stories with writing that is more descriptive than interpretive. Since The Hunger Games was such a quick and effortless read, and since I read it in the middle of its major motion picture hype, I’d assumed it was a perfect example of that. But it wasn’t until I actually saw the movie adaptation that I appreciated how much the book actually does, thematically and stylistically.
After the movie, I was talking with someone who’d read the books, and she said that for the first several pages of The Hunger Games, she had no idea that the protagonist was female. I didn’t read the book until well after it’d be synopsized all over the place, and until after the movie casting had already been announced, so I knew from page one that it was written from the first-person perspective of a young woman. But going back over it, I saw that it’s deliberately left ambiguous, until she first speaks to another character. That’s a pretty big deal. For a book that adamant about presenting its target audience with a strong, responsible, and flawed but heroic female role model, it’s absolutely crucial that she’s introduced in terms of her thoughts and her capabilities, and not her appearance.
The part of the book that bothered me the most was the over-reliance on a teen love triangle, the “oh dear which cute boy shall I choose?” that’s not only a well-worn staple of stories aimed at teenaged girls, but which seems to undermine the whole notion of an independent female role model. In the movie, it’s every bit as shallow and predictable as you’d expect: teen romance set against Battle Royale. That cinematic adaptation — the switch from a first-person perspective to a third-person one — makes all the difference, and it highlights the novel twist in the book that the movie lacks.
In the book, she’s constantly aware that she’s on camera, and she’s constantly playing to the camera. The line between reality and what’s done for show is so blurred, that she’s never quite aware what she’s really feeling: is she actually falling in love with this guy, or is it just keeping up appearances? And again, for a novel targeted at an already emotionally tumultuous audience dealing with peer pressure and constant exposure to the media, that’s a big deal. It forms the basis of half the novel, but it’s never quite spelled out explicitly.
This Section is About Fevers and Fight Scenes
As for stylistic conventions, I’m going to invite jeers and/or swooning from the literary-minded people in the audience, by comparing The Hunger Games to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Incidentally: I’ve seen The Road dismissed as “genre fiction,” but anyone who doesn’t acknowledge its literary merit is someone I just have no common frame of reference with).
I haven’t read enough young adult fiction to know whether the claim that most of them are written in a “cinematic” style has any merit. Since there’s no way in Hell I’m ever going to read any of the Twilight books, I’ve only got Harry Potter. And those books would definitely apply. They’re told in an absolutely conventional style; every scene and every moment is given roughly the same weight.
But I’d insist that The Hunger Games is pretty impressive, stylistically. It’s not what I’d call “experimental,” but it does have the most remarkable pacing of any book I’ve read in recent memory. The shift between slower, more introspective moments and bursts of action is seamless. What’s most interesting to me is how the actual structure of the writing changes: as the book transitions from the build-up to the games themselves, the paragraphs transform. Sentences crash into each other. Details that would’ve warranted a couple of sentences earlier in the book now only get a passing reference, as if everything is happening at once, glanced out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Later, when Katniss is drugged, the sense of time seems completely elastic, scenes are stretched and compressed, and you’re never quite sure if what you’re reading is real or a hallucination.
The Road establishes mood with its structure, as well. Its characters remain nameless, and its dialogue remains barely offset from the rest of the text, all to give the story the quality of a fable. It repeats words over and over — you’ll be reading a lot about grey ash — and uses long stretches of sentences all with the same rhythm and cadence, all to drive home the feeling of oppressive doom and despair. There are relatively few action sequences, but in those sequences, the rhythm of the sentences transforms. The structure of the sentences conveys as much of the mood as the words themselves: an unexpected word suddenly appears in a long stretch of sameness, just as a threat suddenly appears in a bleak expanse of featureless ash. Later in the book, the main character suffers a fever, and we lose track of what’s real or imagined, and time becomes elastic.
And I’m going to be super-bold and make the claim that on a purely stylistic level, in those scenes, The Hunger Games actually did it better. With one, I never lost the sense that I was reading about a character involved in a life-or-death struggle. In the other, I couldn’t maintain that sense of detachment: I was actually getting tense as Katniss scrambled away from one attack after another, and I felt as if I couldn’t keep up with the action as quickly as it was moving on the page. With one, I was aware that I was reading about a character with a fever; in the other, I was genuinely disoriented, unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t.
Of course, the books are in no way equal in “weight,” in what they’re setting out to accomplish, or in how much of the meaning of the book is conveyed through stylistic choices. The ending of The Hunger Games sets up a sequel. The ending of The Road is completely rapturous, a sense of the inherent beauty of humanity that can be understood only after a prolonged journey through Hell.
But both books demonstrate how the reader’s interpretation of a book isn’t wholly cerebral, but visceral. It’s immersive, exploiting the direct connection between the creator and the audience that’s achieved when the medium disappears. That kind of direct connection would seem to be inherently “cinematic.” But it’s not merely descriptive: it doesn’t tell you that the character is disoriented or afraid, but makes you feel disoriented or afraid.
Common Trash and Horns with Fire
Maybe the best way to highlight the differences between “cinematic” writing and bonafide literature is to look at two books adapted by people who have a perfect understanding of how to translate literature to film: True Grit and No Country for Old Men, both adapted by the Coen Brothers.
I haven’t actually read No Country for Old Men, which makes it more than a little difficult to talk about it in a literary context, to be honest. But I’ve read that the film is an extremely faithful adaptation (and that the book was originally conceived as a screenplay). I can believe that, since it’s the most “literary” film I’ve seen in a long time, possibly since The Remains of the Day. Practically every word out of Tommy Lee Jones’s mouth has a ghostly whisper behind it: This is important. This means something.
It’s a perfectly fine film, and you can’t even make the complaint that it’s too arch, or too distant. There are moments of shocking brutality every bit as stomach-turning as they’re intended to be. You’re genuinely taken through the emotions of fear, despair, and even the perverse fascination with horror, instead of feeling as if you’re watching them from afar. It’s neither artificial nor ponderous, but it’s still self-consciously weighty. It practically begs the audience to interpret it, to acknowledge that there’s a message contained inside.
And although it was interpretive, not descriptive, the end result was the opposite for me. I felt as if I’d just been lectured by the nihilists from The Big Lebowski. It seemed not only that everything the movie had to say had already been said by Fargo, but that Fargo said it more effectively, since it took the form of an undercurrent instead of a full-bore, all-channel assault.
On the other hand, I can authoritatively state that True Grit is an outstanding adaptation of an outstanding book. In fact, the one scene that’s significantly different feels as if it was supposed to be in the story all along, and was just cut from the original novel for time or pacing constraints. Both the book and the film exploit the strengths of their media: the Coens use both amazing vistas you’d expect to see in a Western and “smaller” scenes that are no less striking and memorable, and they combine music and editing and dialogue perfectly because, well, they’re the Coen Brothers. And Charles Portis has such a singular gift for characterization through dialogue that he can even make punctuation funny. (Mattie Ross writes, “…I knew if the rattlers got behind me I would be in a fine ‘pickle.’” and you know just from the quote marks how much it pains her to use something as vulgar as slang). They work in concert so perfectly that they don’t even seem like an original work and an adaptation, so much as two manifestations of the same thing: a plot-driven account of the meeting and adventures of two unforgettable, perfectly real characters.
In terms of descriptive vs. interpretive storytelling, I believe it’s the perfect counterpoint to No Country for Old Men. True Grit is plot driven; it’s a story of revenge. It’s not introspective; Portis takes complete advantage of the fact that the story’s told in first-person, but he achieves all of his characterization through the quality of the language, not by extended passages describing Mattie’s innermost thoughts. (In fact, the strength of the character comes mainly from the fact that she’s so absolutely certain of her convictions; any self-doubt or reconsideration would feel wrong).
And most importantly, any “message” contained in the book is there for you to take or leave. It’s not trying to tell you anything, it just is. The characters aren’t symbols of anything, they just exist. If the claim is that a straightforward account of the actions of a group of well-realized characters can’t be as profound as a more introspective character study, then Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn shoot that theory apart. And while it’s true that it’s shallow to have a character explicitly say, “Men shouldn’t be tampering with things that they don’t fully understand,” it’s not significantly more substantial to have a character tell you about a dream he had about his father and a horn of fire, and then leave it hanging there for the audience to figure out what it means.
The Frosted Mini-Wheats School of Literary Theory
It’s counter-intuitive, but: whenever you bemoan the loss of art that demands the audience have to interpret it, you’re actually undermining the true value of interpretation.
We all have a long-held notion of the clear division between the stuff we read just for entertainment, and the stuff that’s “good for you.” Junk food vs. roughage. But that analogy assumes that all of the “nutritional value” of a work is contained in the work itself, and reading it is simply digestion. It assumes that accessibility is at best the sugar coating that makes the content easier to swallow, and it asserts that most often, it’s just empty calories.
To violently switch analogies mid-thought, it puts the writer in the role of puzzle-master. All the answers are contained within; the savvy reader will be able to figure them out, and the process will be so much more meaningful to him because of the effort. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses.
But interpretation is more than just digesting or deciphering; it’s a kind of creation. Even the most insightful piece of writing can only work by triggering connections, correlations, sense memories, and value judgments in the reader. The reader isn’t merely piecing together the concepts laid down by the author, but can form connections the author couldn’t ever have intended. One of the most often-cited examples of that is a sky “the color… of a television tuned to a dead channel”, which to the author was a dull gray but to later readers became a vibrant blue. That implies that even a meaningless string of obscure or archaic allusions and non-sensical stream of consciousness could be interpreted by an insightful reader to have profound meaning. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses. (I admit that I don’t understand how Ulysses works).
There are plenty of people who steadfastly insist that interpretation is the sole purpose and value of art; that once a work is made public, it exists as its own entity, completely separate from the artist. The artist becomes just another voice in the conversation, and the artist’s intent is all but irrelevant. There’s no such thing as an invalid interpretation.
I’m definitely not willing to take it that far, since I believe that art is fundamentally communication. But I believe that it’s two-way communication, always, whether the artist intends it to be or not. So a book (or a film, or a video game) is neither a lecture nor a puzzle, but a conversation. An asynchronous and often one-sided conversation, maybe, but still a conversation. In those terms, a work that invites the reader to “pull” meaning from it is no less didactic than one that “pushes” its meaning onto the reader. Neither accounts for the constant back and forth that all audiences engage in with media, even seemingly “passive” media.
It also doesn’t account for the fact that all audiences are always looking for meaning, constantly. Even when they’re not supposed to be looking for it, and even when they’re not particularly interested in finding it.
(Nothing But) Condescension
I do actually believe that there’s art that’s “good for you,” that we as audiences can become better at interpreting works, as we form new connections that build on old ones. As we’re introduced to new concepts, and just as our tastes change, we lose our appreciation for some works and gain new appreciation for others. It’s almost always a gradual, shifting process. But I can tell you exactly when I stopped liking the band Talking Heads.
It was when I saw the video for “(Nothing But) Flowers”. The song itself is fine; it’s essentially an ironic cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” done with David Byrne’s newfound interest in “world music.” And really, whatever: it was the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, and everybody was getting heavy into irony and Ladysmith Black Mambazo back then. But the video (which isn’t easily available online in the US) had everybody singing about the downfall of society while being superimposed with factoids illustrating our slow decline into corruption and apathy: bureaucratic waste, increased gun ownership, depletion of the rain forest. In the midst of all that, one of the factoids stood out: it laments that 29% of Americans have said that they were “moved to tears” by a greeting card.
At the time, it struck me as impossibly pretentious and condescending, but it took me decades before I was able to articulate exactly why. That opportunity came when I was standing in a photography exhibit at the SF Museum of Modern Art, listening to other museum patrons’ conversations about the photographs. A woman was there with a few of her friends or relatives, and she was looking at a picture of San Francisco from the early 1970s and pointing out specific buildings. Here was where she lived with so-and-so before he died, and here was the building where they’d had a really nice dinner before so-and-so’s baby shower.
My gut reaction, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that she was doing it wrong. This wasn’t a series of snapshots, it was an art exhibition. She was supposed to be commenting on the composition of the shots or architecture of the buildings, or at the very least, making note of how socio-political changes in the city’s population have been reflected by, resisted by, and influenced by the layout and architecture of the city as a whole. Even after being familiarized with the notion of soup cans and comic strip panels and even urinals as “art,” and the concepts of Modernism, post-modernism, and form vs. meaning, I was still clinging to this idea that art has a purpose and a value, even if the purpose was to say “this has no purpose,” and even if its value was only in its ability to question its own value. I was still attached to the idea of a “right” way to interact with art, that one-way communication from artist to audience.
But it took that one incident for me to really appreciate all of those artistic movements, ones that until then I’d only understood on an intellectual level. How arrogant is it to assume that the most a member of the audience can get from a work is already predetermined by the artist? The woman in the art gallery had immediate reactions to a photograph, memories from a lifetime of experiences — how is that not more profound than my detached (and more than likely, shallow) appreciation of the way the photograph was composed?
And how is it anything other than extreme arrogance to assume that someone moved to tears by a greeting card is too dim-witted or easily manipulated to comprehend that the sentiment is simplistic, trite, and maudlin? He’s not moved to tears by the writing’s purity of form or its universal statement of the human condition; he’s reacting to a profound summation of experience, one that the card somehow manages to invoke perfectly. I know I’ve yet to read any piece of literature that’s affected me as deeply as the greeting card I got from my father in the hospital.
Siskel & Ebert & About a Billion Other People At the Movies
Every discussion of “genre” fiction vs. literary fiction invariably has at least one example of a statement that’s trivially true, presented as if it held tremendous insight. This one is no different: people shouldn’t be concerned about high art vs. low art, but good art vs. bad art. If people are able to get a profound feeling of emotion from a greeting card, then they’ll be able to find meaning anywhere, whether it’s Jurassic Park, The Hunger Games, The Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, Neuromancer, Harry Potter, or, regrettably, even Twilight and The Fountainhead.
Of course, that’s not saying that each of those books is equivalent in depth, literary merit, or value; if art is a conversation, then the reader’s interpretation will never completely outweigh the author’s intent, or lack of intent. Nothing is ever going to elevate Two and a Half Men and Jack and Jill to the level of valuable contributions to culture.
But the real value in a work lies in its ability to provoke a meaningful interpretation from the audience. (Even if using that overly inclusive definition means that I have to acknowledge that Stephanie Meyers’s and Ayn Rand’s books have “value,” as long as the meaningful interpretation is “the ideas presented in this book are absolutely horrible.”) That leaves one question: does the emphasis on descriptive, plot-driven writing actively discourage this interpretation? Does it “train” readers not to analyze what they’re reading too deeply?
I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that it does, and in fact, you could make a pretty convincing case that the opposite is true.
I can say with confidence (if not actual data) that today there are more people writing about, discussing, and interpreting art than there have been at any time in history. For decades we’ve been living in a culture that’s so media-saturated, critics and commentators have become celebrities. Add in the interactivity promised by the internet, and you end up with a society of people conditioned to believe that their interaction with a creative work isn’t finished until they’ve expressed an analysis of it. For better or worse, we’re living in the age of TV Tropes. (Mostly worse).
For Christmas one year, my family took me to see The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou on opening weekend. It was over my objections, and those objections turned out to be valid — I was sitting in the theater sobbing profusely, while they were mostly bored. That’s not in any way a value judgment; it’s simply not the type of movie that would speak to them. But during the car ride home, they all made it clear that they wanted it to speak to them. “I felt like the movie was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t get what it was.”
Whether you believe that’s some inherent quality of art, or it’s a more recent side effect of living in a society of movie blogs, message boards, and book clubs, it’s clear that audiences are constantly evaluating, analyzing, and interpreting everything. Even the people who insist that “you have to turn your brain off” to appreciate Transformers have at least analyzed the movie enough to recognize that there’s nothing worth further analysis.
And I know from my own experience that I enjoy horror movies not because of any inherent love of the genre — I’m easily startled, and I have such a low tolerance for gore that I can’t even watch the Ring video without getting the shudders. I enjoy them because they’re so easy to pick apart and analyze. The Friday the 13th movies and the millennial Castle film remakes are my sudoku. And picking them apart isn’t just a pointless exercise; it makes it easier to recognize when accomplished filmmakers either exploit the same techniques, or subvert them.
One thing the high art vs. low art “debate” doesn’t want to acknowledge is that over the years, popular entertainment has been steadily getting better. (Television and comics without question, but I’d make the same claim for games and movies). Audiences accustomed to analyzing and deconstructing works of art, instead of passively absorbing them, have grown up to make their own works that invite analysis and deconstruction. When The X-Files first aired, it was groundbreaking in introducing (or more accurately, re-introducing) the concept of season-long story arcs and self-referential storytelling to episodic, dramatic television. Now, you can find that in the most unexpected places: Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated and Transformers Prime. (Seriously!)
That’s why I put so much emphasis on pop culture and on mash-ups across multiple media, and why I insist that the line between high art and low art — or genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or young adult books vs. real books — has become irrelevant. It doesn’t mean that that there’s no such thing as a completely vapid piece of entertainment — we all know there’s an abundance of those. It simply means that art doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The communication between artist and audience, combined with our overwhelming desire to analyze, interpret, and re-invent, gives rise to a culture in which there’s the potential for “meaning” anywhere and everywhere.