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Fiction is not entertainment - Why analyze fiction? - (Part 1)

People say fiction is mere entertainment, but it may be something far more important, and strange!  This is part one of a series of articles on why analysis of fiction is crucial to understanding and creating our stories.<--break->

Are we lazy?

boy watching tv

According to recent Nielson reports the average American adult 18+ is engaged in over 40 hours of linear media consumption a week. That is over 5 hours per person, per day, with many demographics reaching much higher numbers. Add in other media such as games, radio, and internet activity and we are exposed to over 70 hours of media a week and the numbers keep increasing. If the motivating factor comes from a desire to be entertained the conclusions we must draw from these facts are bleak. In the words of Neil Postman we may be "amusing ourselves to death". These figures invoke an image of a nation of lazy drop outs; entertainment junkies who seek nothing more with their free time than escape.

But does this really match our own experience? Does this actually explain the behavior we see around us?

Believing that fiction is merely "entertainment" or other form of distraction leads to some very difficult to support conclusions. For instance, are millions and millions of youth really in love with Harry Potter and Katnis Everdeen because of their ability to keep them entertained? Do fans gather in massive numbers to attend conferences and book signings and write stories and pictures and post comments about their favorite games, books, and movies because they were a good temporary escape from boredom? If it turns out we are just escaping, then we are surprisingly industrious in our escapism. We can interpret the amount of fiction we interact with as an indicator of laziness and dissatisfaction with our lives, but only if we already assume that fiction is primarily entertainment and escapist in nature. If we suspend that assumption, then the numbers seem to be saying something, not about our nature, but the nature of fiction itself.

The hypothesis that truly helps describe the behavior we see around us (and our own) is that fiction does something else for us that is extremely meaningful and relevant. We use it for something so vital and important for us and our lives that we devote increasing and unprecedented amounts of time and money in its pursuit. With this outlook, the numbers make much more sense and fall into line with the statistical and anecdotal evidence we see around us. We are hard working, industrious people, and we engage in fiction far too much for it to be mere entertainment. It must be "something else".

This presents us with another challenge however. If fiction means something personal to us; something vital, then what does it mean? Why would we, as a society, spend billions of dollars on superheroes, zombies, and boy wizards? The short answer is, "we wouldn't".


Are we insane?

death of Rue in Hunger Games
Death of Rue in Hunger Games - © Lionsgate

The number one grossing movie in America last year (domestic sales 2013) was The Hunger Games : Catching Fire which is a movie about children forced to kill each other on a reality tv show. The first movie in the series, which dealt with an almost identical plot device, was also the third highest grossing movie in 2012. If movies could be seen as meaningful to our lives, and the content of movies were taken at face value, how utterly chilling it would be to imagine that this was what Americans were enriching, or even entertaining, themselves with.

TV viewing was even more macabre. The Walking Dead was the No. 1 rated scripted show of the 2012-13 season with unprecedented numbers. In fact the most viewed fictional tv shows of last year were full of zombies, serial killers, paedophiles, rapists, terrorists, and murder murder murder everywhere. Included in the top 25 most watched shows of 2013 were NCIS, NCIS : Los Angeles, Walking Dead, Elementary, Blue Bloods, The Following, Person of Interest, etc. Just the popularity of weekly crime dramas and police procedurals alone would seem to suggest a nation of lazy sociopaths and sadists.


Walking Dead
The Walking Dead © AMC Networks


An argument could be made that these movies and shows are not condoning the crimes they portray, but condemning them. That would seem to be a pretty flimsy reason to watch murders, abductions, and worse night after night, week after week. Crime is bad? At best that would turn us from sadists into simpletons if it even made any sense.

Of course this may be why we are so quick to demote the importance of fiction to "entertainment". In other words, we're NOT really that interested in savage deaths, aliens, drugs, sexual deviancy, magic, and superheroes so fiction just can't be that important to us. It's just a quick diversion, a little "light" amusement that really doesn't really have much of an impact on us. After all, what's the alternative? Everyone binge-watching Dexter on Netflix is obsessed with serial killers? It just can't matter that much to them because they are obviously NOT obsessed with serial killers.

Traditionally this has been a problem with interpreting our interactions with fiction. If fiction is seen as entertainment we seem lazy and indolent. If we view fiction as being meaningful and important, then the subject matter of popular fiction comes under close scrutiny with disturbing implications. The time and money we spend interacting with fiction can not be explained by the "entertainment" theory, and yet the subject matter can't in any way be said to be personally meaningful, germane, or even tolerable to sane people in "real life". Are we doomed to see ourselves either being somewhat lazy or insane when we interact with fiction? That certainly isn't how we usually feel, but how do we explain it?

There is another, more radical, explanation. It may be that the show Dexter isn't about serial killers at all.

If people are relatively sane and yet pursue fiction because it has something valuable to contribute to their real lives we have a disconnect. Zombies, serial killers, and naval criminal investigations do not generally contribute meaningfully to our lives (apologies and/or condolences to those to whom it does). If this is the case then maybe we aren't really watching zombies, serial killers, and naval criminal investigations. Maybe the number one top grossing movie of 2013 is NOT about children forced to kill each other on a reality tv show but about something else, the topic of which is somehow hidden or obscured beneath the surface. Crime dramas are not about crime. Serial killers are not really serial killers but signs for something meaningful, relevant, and personal. A type of language that can communicate partly subconsciously and emotionally with us.

If fiction is important to people and people are sane, than fiction can not be "about", what it is literally about.


catching fire
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) © Lionsgate


For instance, most fans who watch or read The Hunger Games have never been in danger of being; starved, oppressed by a dictator, forced to kill other people, hunted to the death, or pressured into acting as the leader of a revolution. They are not remembering these events, or preparing for them as realities, and they have no real world reference for them at all. Still, we are emotionally effected by these fictional situations just the same. The same for Star Wars, or Walking Dead, or Harry Potter, etc. There can be no doubt that these stories are personal, intimate, important, and a part of our internal worlds. We care about these characters and their actions; but the fact is that we may not care about them in a literal sense.

The stories we engage in may have meanings and uses radically different than the surface of sparkling vampires and splashy murders. Revealing what is important to us about fiction and how it really affects us is the kind of analysis that we are attempting do at Curiouser.

In fact, the truth is that dragons, vampires, killers, and aliens all play a crucial part in our every day lives and analysis reveals how and why.

It should be noted that this perspective in approaching fiction is important not just in the analysis and understanding of fiction, but also in it its production. If producers think that they are trying to create "entertainment" and temporary distraction when that isn't what really motivates people, it's no wonder that it seems puzzling to them that one car-chase bullet ridden special effects movie flops, while another soars. That's because even though many movies are entertaining, only a few have a story people can really use. On the surface they will appear very similar and so expensive, good-looking, exciting, distracting, and entertaining movies fail all the time because they fail to also deliver on the real, more hidden, less obvious core that makes fiction so valuable to us.


This is part 1 of an ongoing series of articles about fiction analysis. Our next article will explore how and why we communicate with words, dragons, pictures, zombies, and other symbols.

Keep reading to the next article in our series on analysis, The Difference Between Milk And Zombies.