13 September 2010

Mad Men, Life on Mars, and Dickens for this Century

What is literature?

I have struggled with this idea many times, and we, as a society, are constantly struggling with it. We do, after all, divide even the writing category "fiction" into two parts - "fiction" and "literary fiction" - suggesting that we are constantly trying to limit what "literature" means.

In the 1830s the way "literature" was presented began to change. Rotary printing presses, which would be powered by steam in the next decade, combined with machine-made paper, created a "popular press" for the first time, the cheap dissemination of print media to the masses. Into this new technology stepped a writer named Charles Dickens, who leveraged the new technology through the serialization of his writings.  "Serial publication had several advantages. For the reader, it substantially reduced the cash outlay required to pay for fiction: for a novel in monthly installments like [The Pickwick Papers], one had to pay only one shilling a month, instead of a guinea (21 shillings) or more for an entire novel. For the publisher, it expanded the market for fiction, as more people could afford to buy on the installment plan; it also allowed the opportunity to advertise, as ads could easily be incorporated into the little booklets in which a typical Dickens novel was issued. And for the author, it created a greater intimacy with the audience, something Dickens always relished."

If you read Dickens today, you will still see how this embrace of the technology of the time altered the style of writing. Chapters became something different when presented this way. "Blogging" (see American Notes) became possible.

I thought of all this as I watched the last installment of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men. Television, certainly, has always been the "modern" equivalent of the serialized novel, but at its best, when it emulates "literary fiction" in complexity of construction and in intent (feel free to challenge that statement!) it takes on the role in today's world that Dickens' fiction held a century and a half ago.

So as I think back on my favourite serializations in television: Mad Men, Life on Mars, China Beach, Homicide: Life on the Street, I see deeply rendered portraits of contemporary or near historical times, which are written and allowed to unfold for the "reader" over a long period of time. These stories are hard to rush through, unless you wait and back out of the mainstream conversation about them. But if you do wait, you lose the cultural impact of participating with a vast group in a common literary experience.

This is literature. Complex characters and themes, sophisticated writing, powerful photography are joined in a truly effective way of getting people to see things they have not seen before. And as we investigate them together, through the contemporaneous reading which serialization provides, we get to analyse the texts together, in a way we rarely do with any other media. Just Google the "News" or "Blogs" re: Mad Men to see both the quality and quantity of conversation which explodes every Monday.

So, I find it odd that those who most embrace the common reading experience, whether via classroom assignments or "one book, one community" events, are often the least likely to bring this contemporary literature into the educational mainstream.

Now the National Endowment for the Arts, which has worked hard to limit the definition of reading, has one idea. But I wish high schools and universities would more often embrace the literature of today alongside "the canon." Not only would it ask our students to "read" and comprehend the full range of literature they will be exposed to, but it would allow "the world" into these often very limited conversations. After all, is considering the Peggy/Joan elevator scene in Mad Men's Sunday "Summer" episode (season 4, episode 8), really any different than analysing any moment in Great Expectations?

We would also expand our education to include the most "read" bits of literature today, and to include the visual component of literature (often so left out of school that some English teachers have students read Shakespeare and other plays).

Too often in teaching literature we allow ourselves to be trapped in the past. And while there is nothing wrong with the past, and - in fact - I am a fan of "the canon," the past becomes much more relevant if we understand how literature continues to evolve, yet often dwells in the same themes.

So this week, consider sending your students home to watch television, and let the world join you. It took half centuries for Dickens or Fitzgerald to find their way into American education. Don't repeat that mistake.

- Ira Socol


Jerrid Kruse said...

Love it. (not a lit teacher, but love it). I find similarities to the work I do in "nature of science" in which we try to help students understand the discipline. That is, how scientists work rather than just the "facts" of science. I use many historical examples to illustrate how science changes. When we simply teach science as a rhetoric of conclusions, we don't teach science as a process. Your post helps me see how literature is a process. Great!

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