Reading and Watching: Near and Far
In marketing, we often talk about adjacencies.
If your book has a lot to do with a character whose hypnosis treatments seem to turn up multiple personalities, then practitioners of hypnosis are an adjacent group of potential consumers for your books. Adjacent to them are those mesmerizing folks’ professional associations. Adjacent to them are their doctorate programs on university campuses, classrooms in which you should be guest-lecturing so they’ll find (and buy) your book. Then there are the caregivers who work with multi-personality disorders. And so on.
What we don’t talk about as often are adjacencies that impact a writer’s work itself–choosing what to read or watch according to what level or kind of adjacency it might have to your own work.
The crassest example I can offer will send you screaming out into the night: I hate comedy. In all its forms. I don’t want to sit back and relax. I want to sit forward and be tense.
I refuse to watch comedies on television or film, I refuse to read them, and I refuse to waste my time in discussions about them. What makes this all the stranger is that I love to laugh and generally take a joking pathway through conversations. But that, it turns out, is the key.
I’ve learned over the years that one of the things I have the least respect for in a story is camp. I’m referring here to camp not as being necessarily related to homosexual humor, which is one connotation of the word, but as any effort to send up an otherwise serious subject, to “camp it up.”
As soon as I catch an author camping up his or her work, the book is sailing across the room. The “irresistible” joke can always be resisted and should be. But it’s surprising how many writers, playwrights, screenwriters, and others seem to think themselves very witty for camping up their work.
If anything, I find that I admire more and more the writers who can “stay serious.” It actually takes a lot of work and control of your material to get there and stay there these days, not least because the consumer base largely thinks that “laughter is the best medicine” (they also think clichés are clever), and they’re frequently displeased if a story “never gets funny.”
The Postman Rings More Than Twice
Do you know Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business? Postman wrote it in 1985. Penguin published an anniversary edition in 2005. It’s still important reading, not least because Postman (who died in 2003 at age 72) was able to foresee how the force of the commercially propelled entertainment culture would pervade everything.
In my early days as a critic on Broadway and off-Broadway, for example, dramas not only were plentiful but they were anticipated and celebrated. Arthur Miller in an interview with me about 10 years before his death talked about how there had been a day when theatergoers and readers who met him would demand to know–cordially but urgently–what he was thinking next, what was his latest theme? By the end of his career, he said, nobody cared about what writers were identifying as important issues–nor for dramas built on them.
And while we’ll only touch on this subject glancingly, it does need to be said: Imagine what Miller might have thought if he’d lived to see the surreality show of Donald Trump in the White House?–in some interpretations (you need not agree, we’re moving right on), the arrival of the real-estate-and-reality-show-president is the apotheosis of a decades-long trend in which entertainers and entertainment have become international leadership material in the minds of many.
That, Postman wants us to remember, is a way of “amusing ourselves to death.”
So when I’m “choosing content,” as we moderns say these days, I find that I’m looking for work “adjacent” to my own, in terms of humor and seriousness. There are several other important adjacencies relative to my current work, but this is one of the biggest because I find my admiration growing for writers so formidably in command of their intelligence that they can start serious, stay serious, and end serious, unafraid of honking off the people who “just want to laugh and have a good time.”
Want an example? Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (the screenplay from Faber & Faber, and Garland’s film). Its humans are hardly with out a typical capability to get off a line in a funny way, but the story itself is deadly serious and makes no apology for that.
Want another? Jackson’s Dilemma by the late Iris Murdoch, an astonishing study of isolation.
What I’ve learned about my own writerly inclinations is that I’m able to stay closer to the seriousness of my work if I don’t expose myself more than is necessary to the “goddamn laugh riot” (Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band) of society’s current preoccupation with humor. The temptation to camp something up is exacerbated by being around people who can’t write–or read–their way from one end of a book to the other without getting off a few good guffaws. (On the planes, these are the people who laugh aloud at funny passages they’re reading, know the ones I mean?)
So a contextual or conceptual adjacency I find myself looking for in material these days is what we used to call a “straight drama,” meaning a piece the intent of which is serious. I learn from reading and watching such material. I get a lot more out of work that’s serious over silly, determined over ditsy, meaningful over heart-warming, intelligent over emotional.
All the Way to the Bank
That’s just me (Mercifully, right? I mean really.) And it’s easy to imagine other possible adjacencies that could mean things to other writers engaged on other works in progress. And that’s my provocation for you today.
Do you learn from material that focuses on relationships? Or does your work’s focus lie adjacent to stories about high-concept social issues, policy matters, corporate challenges, scientific exploration?
Does your creative focus these days get more nourishment from reading something from history or something futuristic? Are your topical and creative adjacencies showing up more readily in tales of faith or crime? In stories of confusion and loss or struggle and achievement? In books about youngsters and idealism or about mature citizens grappling with hard truths?
Drop a line in comments here about the adjacencies that mean the most to you at this point. Because the funny (gosh, did I laugh?) thing about adjacencies is that you may find that someone else’s are much closer to yours than you’d expected–more … adjacent to your own.