Friday, 11 December 2015

Will the Revolution be Televised? - Catherine Butler

Thailand, June 2014
What’s that you say? Where do writers get their ideas from? It’s a refreshingly original question, young’un, but isn’t the answer obvious? They get them from the telly, of course! For example, here’s Suzanne Collins on the origin of The Hunger Games:

I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.

Reading this, I wonder whether Collins had ever come across Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), which turns on the similarity between watching a war on television and playing a video game. Or even Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern essays on the first Gulf War, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991)? They are very different books from hers, of course, but all three writers focus on the tenuous relationship between the physical brutality of war as it is experienced by those at the sharp end, and the etiolated, edited, highly mediated version available to most of us in the West, for whom war is a series of images on a screen, footage from a drone, the puff of smoke from a distant building, the fleeting sight of a field hospital just before the ad break.

A muffling cushion lies between us and the brutal violence involved. But are books part of that cushion? Or do they help make us more aware, bringing war’s horrible reality home more sharply?

It’s a complex question, of course. In some ways literature shields us from suffering: it diverts and entertains, stylizing and aestheticizing even tragic subjects and putting the unbearable into a form that can be coped with. But perhaps this is no bad thing. If we felt as much grief at the world’s suffering as it warrants we might be disabled from doing anything about it: we’d have no energy for anything but tears. If literature helps us steer a course between indifference and despair, it’s earning its keep.

Then, fiction is particularly good at making large and general things reveal their personal and particular aspects. One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic, as Joe Stalin pointed out, and a single dead child lying face down on a beach may have more impact than a hundred daily reports telling us that “So-many-score migrants drowned today.” Similarly, fiction typically makes us care by showing us individual lives, lit from within.

The complementary danger is that we can become fixated on a few human interest stories and lose sight of the larger picture, of those who suffer equally just out of shot. As Byron put it in Don Juan:
If here and there some transient trait of pity
Was shown, and some more noble heart broke through
Its bloody bond, and saved perhaps some pretty
Child, or an aged, helpless man or two—
What’s this in one annihilated city,
Where thousand loves, and ties, and duties grew?
Fiction typically fixes our attention not only on individual people but on imaginary ones. To cry more freely at the death of a fictional character than at news reports of actual suffering may seem shallow, and perhaps it is; but fiction is better calibrated to the way that we engage affectively with the world than is TV news, with its rhetoric of distant objectivity. The challenge is to find a way to channel our capacity for empathy and compassion towards real people as well as invented ones, and large numbers as well as individuals.

It helps that the border between story and reality is not as well defined or closely guarded as we imagine – a fact exploited by novelists and propagandists alike. For example, once there was a terrorist called Guy Fawkes. After his execution he moved from ordinary reality into the realm of national myth, as a figure burned annually on bonfires. That in turn gave rise to Guy Fawkes masks, which (if you didn’t make them yourself) you could buy from shops or perhaps get free in a comic. The Guy Fawkes mask inspired Alan Moore when he came to write his graphic novel, V for Vendetta, and was further refined in the film of the same name. From there it was adopted by the anti-capitalist hacker organization Anonymous, and so Fawkes found his way back to reality and the streets. The real and the fictional are perpetually engaged in a complex pas de deux, each influencing and responding to the other.

It should be no surprise that the Hunger Games franchise, which plays so cleverly on the intertwined relationship of war and its media presentation, should itself have inspired revolutionary acts. Last year, when the penultimate film was released, cinema-goers in Thailand adopted its three-fingered salute to show their rejection of the military government that had staged a coup a few months earlier, with the promise of free elections “When the time is right”. (We’re still waiting, President Coin - I mean, General Prayut.)

The leaky border between story and reality is open in both directions, and there’s a thriving smugglers’ trade. Writers get their ideas from the TV news, it’s true. But the news gets its ideas from writers, too, holding a fairground mirror up to nature and showing us ourselves in the fantastical shapes of things that are and might be. Literature is not merely parasitic on reality, it moulds and illuminates its meaning in return, and inspires many of its changes. That is why writers are (as Shelley almost wrote), the unacknowledged TV schedulers of the world.


Susan Price said...

Witty, perceptive and heart-breaking, Cathy.

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks for this, Cathy. It put into words some questions I've struggled with. This especially:

In some ways literature shields us from suffering: it diverts and entertains, stylizing and aestheticizing even tragic subjects and putting the unbearable into a form that can be coped with. But perhaps this is no bad thing. If we felt as much grief at the world’s suffering as it warrants we might be disabled from doing anything about it.

I delayed reading The Hunger Games for a long time because the premise of it seemed unbearably brutal. When I read it, I realised that the way it was written actually minimized the inherent brutality and suffering, by presenting the story as a thrilling and exciting adventure story. This is not to criticise the Hunger Games. I think the way it explores certain issues is remarkable. But I think the violence itself had to be presented a certain way, and the heroine had to be a certain kind of person, for this book to reach a wide audience. Because the real suffering and hopelessness, in all its grimness and agony, would have been impossibly painful to read.

I feel certain subject matter – whether real (like the Holocaust) or imagined (like the Hunger Games) imposes an obligation on a writer not simply to “stylize and and aestheticize” but to somehow be true to the core of their subject. I think Suzanne Collins certainly does that.

Penny Dolan said...

All so interesting and well thought through, Cathy. Another aspect of fiction/story is that the drama of it drives towards "An Ending". I fear that rolling news stories often seem to be driven by the need for "An Ending" as soon as possible, when life is rarely such a neat story arc.