Books and TV
Five people walk into a room. They’re all what may be called active readers in that they read at least a book or two a month. One of them brings up a book. None of the others have read it. One only reads award-winners and bestsellers, another is reading her way through Dickens (last year she did the same with Trollope), that guy only reads genre, as do the last two, but it’s a different genre than the first guy’s, and these two are reading at the opposite ends of it. Maybe there’s a book they have all read and can discuss. Inevitably this book will be tied in with a class somewhere at which point the conversation will drown itself in nostalgia.
Across the street, five people walk into a room. They’re all active television viewers. They follow at least one TV show a week. One brings up a show. They may not all like it, but they all talk about it. Conversation achieved.
Conversation achieved, but in much the same way dinner is achieved when you go through a drive-through. I think time spent by readers merely attempting to feel each other out for a mutually enjoyable literary discussion is probably of much better quality than TV watchers yammering on about television. And I’m not exactly an active reader these days (except technical manuals on server operations).
Although if you search on YouTube for “portlandia did you read” I think you’ll get a laugh– it’s related to your topic. I don’t want to post the link here because I don’t want to embed a huge video like I did yesterday. Sorry ’bout that.
The friend I stay with when visiting NYC made sure I watched that “Portlandia” skit this last trip. It’s true. I laughed.
Funnily enough, my perspective is a little different. I despair when having to make an example about a type of narrative because my Korean students have seen almost no movies, read almost no books, listened to almost no music (except boy-band/girl-group stuff). Maybe they’re watching Korean TV gag shows, I don’t know, but they absolutely don’t have a shared cinematic and literary culture. Making examples for them is insanely hard, and I usually have to use a film like Avatar or Titanic or The Host because they haven’t seen anything else. (The only book from the English-speaking world that everyone seems to have read is Jonathan Livingston Seagull, because it’s on an official recommended reading list for high schoolers. Even major Korean books, if they were not assigned in school, draw a lot of blank looks.)
In contrast to that, the people I know who are nuts about TV, movies, or books tend to be nuts about them all. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between ground among the people I know here, except among one circle of people I know who are passionate about something else — homebrewing. (Lots of TV, much less reading.)
Anyway, the people I know who are eager to follow up on book suggestions are also usually eager to follow up on TV or film suggestions, or music. And I find myself eager to follow up on their suggestions most of the time because I continue to trust their taste, generally, even after the occasional bad match with my own.
But I will say that the people I know who read and watch TV usually have more interesting things to say about TV than the people who just watch TV. (Whereas people who mainly just read and don’t watch much TV don’t seem to be comparably ill-equipped to talk about books.)
My experience is, of course, subjective, and also: the demographics point brought up below is likely even more true among expat teacher populations in Korea. (Where a minimum level of schooling and a Liberal Arts background tend to be the norm.)
I suspect there must be a lot of common ground between students though. (I don’t see Korea having many youth subcultures, well, beyond the “career-minded” and “juvenile delinquent” divide imposed by parents/authority figures.)
Agreed on much of the above, but you’d be surprised at how little your average frat brother English teacher has read.
Oh, there must be common ground between students, I just don’t think pop culture/entertainment plays the kind of role for them that it does for a lot of us Westerners (or the way books used to do, for us).
In my Anglophone Popular Cultures course, we’ll be discussing that idea next week — the idea that sometime in the 1920-30s, with the beginnings of SF Fandom and the comic book industry and the flappers and other movements like them, young urban Americans started using pop culture (including literature) as a way of defining other identities for themselves, alternate self-conceptions from the received type (like “Be a good Jewish boy,” or “That’s not ladylike, my dear!”).
I’d say Koreans aren’t really yet doing this beyond tiny pockets, which remain well-hidden. (Like SF fandom here, or the small proportion of young Koreans who’re into local indie rock groups, or people who are fanatics of foreign TV shows, or of a particular foreign literature or pop music, or what have you. I’ve run across a number of people who were the only one in their circle of friends to like a given thing: Wagner, Turkish pop, Baudelaire, The X-Men. I’ve met very few who were aggressive about sharing that passion with friends, because social situations tend toward the things everyone will enjoy for sure, like soju and food and, er… soju and food.)
There is pop culture that is likely shared among everyone in my classes, but it’s more like filler than the sort of thing one gets passionate about — TV shows where pop stars in school uniforms sing karaoke and get bonked on the head with trash can lids, for example, or interchangeable soap operas. But I find for a lot of my students, narrative entertainment in either language just isn’t a big part of their lives.
Ha, maybe it’s just they’re busy with homework from my classes… but often in certain classes that homework is to watch a film or TV show and think about it, and you’d be surprised how often students don’t even do that! (Or maybe you wouldn’t…)
I could be wrong though: would hate to be the person who says something isn’t there because he doesn’t know about it. But this impression is informed partly by Korean friends of mine who are frustrated at how *their* friends aren’t into anything…
Also: oh, the fratboy who has not cracked a book in years… ha, yes, I remember. (With horror.) What horrifies me more is how people like that also get professor jobs in this country. What horrifies me even more is that it’s not just the dumbass expats. Sigh.
And it’s not like Korea is any less of a consumerist country than say the USA. It might just be that personal identity is not related so much to what you consume. That’s actually kind of nice in a way, or would be if there was more tolerance for self-expression instead of a drive to conform.
But I think I see a stigma here in SK against the person who does or is interested in something no one else is/does, even if/when that stigma is valid (for instance, spending all your time inside playing videogames — but maybe even this is a reaction against the main trend of society and misguided or failed rebellion). So, yeah, everyone is into food and soju.
That’s sad about professors, but not surprising.
“And it’s not like Korea is any less of a consumerist country than say the USA. It might just be that personal identity is not related so much to what you consume.”
Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say in the bit where I talked about my course in Anglo Pop Culture. We’re just at the 1920s/30s now, and are starting with SF and moving on to flappers soon. I’m curious what this group will have to say about the idea of pop culture as a major element of personal identity. I know some students who chatted with me about identity in the context of identity politics) said they felt it was time for younger Koreans to start defining themselves in some other way than the received identity-set, but that they felt most people as a matter of course would define themselves using pretty much the same categories or markers: Koreanness, sex, age, home region, university, in that order (with some variation), was their guess.
“That’s actually kind of nice in a way, or would be if there was more tolerance for self-expression instead of a drive to conform.”
Well, as you say, if there was room for more variety along other axes, it’d be nice. I’ll be honest, I’ve always found it pretty much as baffling that an adult would define himself or herself as a “punk” (and build an identity out of that identification) as the idea of clinging to one philosophical school in intellectual work: When a so-called intellectual declared herself or himself something like a “Marxist feminist,” or a “queer theorist” or a “poststructuralist Lacanian” I always felt sad for all the other interesting perspectives that got cut off by that identification and practice.
As you say, there’s a stigma against publicly expressing your interest in stuff that’s not popular in your circle. You can be interested, as long as you keep it to yourself. A friend of mine observed that this was why indie rock was so slow to grow in smaller communities: if someone was into it, they would have to go alone (anathema) or convince their group of ten friends to try it out (impossible). In the absence of both options, nothing was left in the end but game board cafes, soju, and food. The game board cafes have disappeared since. Of course, when they get old, at least there will be screen golf (or its equivalent).
Of course, I suspect by the time they’re older, more people will be into more things. We’ll see…
Gord, were your students more into pop culture when young?
Now, it’s a bit silly to compare my students to yours, but I’m about to do it anyway, and say that among my students a good amount are into SF books/comics culture. Granted, maybe that’s where it’s allowed and all of it gets flushed out during the course of growing up and going to high school and college. Or maybe this is a recent phenomena occurring with a new generation. I suspect more the former than the latter.
I don’t really have a good answer for that question, but I can hazard a few guesses:
1. Certainly there is a degree of “putting away childish things” but that seems to happen in the last years of high school, not at departure to college. I’ve known plenty of people who were passionate about music, art, whatever, and then it came time to study for the Uni Entrance Exams; there’s always a sad wistfulness about any discussion, but they always say, “I had to stop playing music” or “I had to concentrate on studies.” This is usually, for males, exacerbated by the experience of military service. This seems to be true for comics, but to a lesser extent, though comics do seem to be seen as a bit childish for adults: the stereotype of the unemployed man is that he hands out in “manhwa bang” (comic book rooms). Videogames too. My students tend to be pretty much in line with their parents regarding video games: in the throes of a moral panic about their ostensible addictiveness.
2. Probably my students and yours are different along other demographic lines than age, or at least the kids you were teaching in the countryside (you’ in a city now, right?); a lot of the students I teach are pretty fluent English speakers — a self-selected group even within our department — and I’d guess a lot of them spent a lot of time as kids in hakwons, studying, etc. rather than exploring pop culture like kids who have a little more free time.
3. Weirdly, a lot of Koreans I know who do seem passionate about pop culture seem to be passionate about American pop culture, not Korean stuff. Maybe they just don’t talk about Korean pop culture with me — students do sometimes ask, “Can I say the title of the movie in Korean?” for Korean films and books, so they are obviously reticent to talk about stuff they assume I don’t know about — but I’ve noticed a lot of buzz in recent years among undergrad papers and presentations regarding a Korean craze for American TV shows (like Sex and the City and Prison Break, specifically). I think a lot of Korean TV and film is made for “adults” (in the terms where “adult” is what even my college students call their parents’ generation) and so it’s probably harder to get passionate about it. Gag shows, of course, people do seem to watch, but almost nobody ever gets truly passionate about those kinds of shows, not even back home.
Them’s my guesses.
Yeah, my students are likely from lower income backgrounds than yours. Some may go to Hagwons, but not all and a few actually get to have childhoods where they spend afternoons biking around their neighborhood. Right now they’re into reading these Horror story mini-books they buy at the stationary shop across from the school.
Interesting about Sex in the City, my co-teacher loves that show and a lot of other American pop culture (movies/TV), so that does match your experience. I’m not sure what she likes for Korean shows.
Even with the large number of shows on cable, the number of TV series is tiny compared with the # of novels. And despite the intense genrefication of fiction, TV focuses far more intently on demographics. People who know and are compatible with each other have probably had their TV shows pre-selected for them.
“People who know and are compatible with each other have probably had their TV shows pre-selected for them.”
That’s a brilliant observation.
I wish I was sure it was original
You blogged: “Of course I also remember you mentioning how often you get together with writers and they talk about nothing but TV.”
It’s beyond fiction writers yammering about TV, short stories (at least in writing workshops in the spec fiction genre) are constructed like TV shows, complete with the cold opening which in the story is a description of the landscape, apartment, car interior in which the first “scene” of the story will take place. There’s also the brief epilogue comparable to that brief last scene stuck on to keep you watching through the final commercial and to assure you the same characters will be back next weekk at the same time.
And scene breaks where the commercials would go.
To be honest though, I’m possibly as guilty as the next person when it comes to writing stories like that. It’s the tailspin loop of bad writing habits.
I’ve noticed in my interactions with people that aren’t necessarily prolific readers that, fairly often, when the conversations turn to books, they expect it to work the same way that you described the tv shows.
But when it comes to people who do read a lot, maybe we haven’t read the same thing, but they’re generally more likely to be open to recommendations. And then we’ll have read the same thing and can discuss it.
Movies tend to be the same as books, too, come to think, expect for the biggest blockbusters. Everyone’s seen a different one.
Yes, I don’t know of a reader who doesn’t have a list of books to buy along with a massive to-be-read pile based on recommendations. TV viewers follow recommendations too — but it’s easier to catch up on Dexter in a week or two than to read through five novels in the same period of time.