Monday, January 23, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
PLAYING DUMB IN POPULAR FICTION
Here’s a little reflection that fails to keep me awake at night.
Why is it that in popular fiction and genre writing, characters seem to know nothing about the popular culture that surrounds them?
Reading Stephen King’s novel “11.22.63”, about time-travel, I ask how come the hero has to be educated in time paradoxes that are common knowledge in pop fiction. Maybe this is one key difference between pop fiction and literary novels. In pop fiction characters apparently have not heard of most pop fiction.
For example if King’s 35-year-old time-travelling hero was really somebody of average intelligence living in the USA in 2011, then he would have felt the cultural impact of Back to the Future, 12 Monkeys, The Butterfly Effect, that episode of The Simpsons where Homer Simpson travels back to the dinosaur age and manages to wreck everything in the present, not to mention at least a couple of hundred novels, movies and TV shows that have played with time travel and dissected all possible time paradoxes. He would have known about the danger of unforeseen consequences; the possibility of self-duplication in a time loop; and how perilous it is to bet on things you “know” are going to happen in the future.
But we have to pretend he knows none of this. By experience, and by conversations with others, he has to find out all the things that we readers know from all the other time-travel stories we have encountered.
I’m not criticising Stephen King for a particular defect in his hero. Indeed, I note that the hero of “11.22.63” is fairly clever and does actually get to discuss Ray Bradbury’s story The Sound of Thunder, one of the key time-travel-paradox stories of science fiction (and the story that was parodied in that The Simpsons episode.). I am simply taking King as a fairly typical example of a pop novel strategy.
To win a mass audience, you have to persuade them that they are smart and are in some ways one step ahead of a novel’s hero. What better way to do this than by not allowing the hero to know some things that are common knowledge to readers?
This phenomenon of “playing dumb” with characters is not confined to science fiction or fantasy novels. How often in thrillers, police procedurals, detective novels etc. do you want to shake the dozy characters and remind them of how much trouble they could avoid, if they only remembered all the other novels and movies that featured the same situations as those they are facing?
But then if pop fiction became too self-referencing, it would not only spoil readers’ happy suspension of disbelief. It would come to resemble highbrow fiction which is currently a jangling echo-box of pop culture references.