One of my constant regrets is that I don’t read novels as often as I should. Half of the problem is that I’m constantly distracted by films, television, comic books, and the Internet, and the other half is that I’m often intimidated by the prospect of starting a new novel.
There’s always that initial feeling of awkwardness and uncertainty when I crack open a new book. Am I going to like this? Is this going to work out? It’s kind of like going on a blind date. At what point do you simply say, “you know what, it’s not you, it’s me. This just isn’t working out?” Usually, I tend to stick in there until the bitter end, hoping that a rocky start will smooth over and that my commitment will pay off in the long run.
With books, that is.
Regardless, I’ve noticed that I’m a little less patient recently than I used to be, my attention span a little shorter and fussier. The last couple of novels I’ve read have, in my estimation, taken their sweet time getting to the good stuff, and I’m still conflicted on whether the fault lies with the authors for not advancing the plot quickly enough or the more likely culprit: an audience–namely me–expecting fireworks every five pages.
I tell myself that when you’re raising yourself on a steady diet of more visceral, graphic media, it’s little wonder that returning to novels would prove a little challenging. Obviously, storytelling for a visual medium is very different than storytelling for a novel, despite the fact that, ironically, many successful films are adapted from popular novels.
In most mainstream cinema, for instance, there is an expectation of forward momentum, a quick and steady advancement of plot developments and the occasional character beat or dialogue exchange thrown in here and there to tie actions together. Generally, most television shows and films use plot and action to define character, rather than the other way around.
In a novel, plot is usually less integral than character development, and the way in which that development is conveyed involves the narrator either getting directly into the head of the protagonist or detailing their actions, movements, and interactions in an intricate and intimate fashion. Oftentimes, action and plot developments are slow to fruition and usually only after a substantial amount of time has been spent with the protagonist, getting to know them and understand their motivations before a conflict arises and he or she must act to bring about a resolution.
Both storytelling methods are perfectly acceptable, but they each have their strengths and weaknesses. The very nature of graphic storytelling encourages the artist to focus on images and possibly sounds to get their point across. That’s great for well choreographed fight scenes and car chases; it’s not quite as good for getting into someone’s head and telling us exactly what’s on that person’s mind.
On the other hand, novels are good for that meditative, kind of meandering speculation about the world. They give us insights into human behavior and charm us with characters that we can relate to or feel in some way connected with. They can spend page upon page pointing out injustices, poking fun at human behavior, and romancing us with poetic descriptions of locales both gorgeous and obscene.
But novels require us to work for it. You have to be willing to care, to imagine, and to work to understand. With a novel, you are engaging in a kind of collaboration with the author to create a world and characters inside your imagination. A character in a novel will often share more in common with you than a character on film because the way that you imagine him or her is a reflection of your own preferences and biases.
By contrast, a film is a far more totalitarian form of storytelling. You are being manipulated and within the confines of a dark theater your state of immersion and susceptibility to the filmmaker’s will is absolute. A powerful film can resonate with you and linger in your memory, the images can be indelible, the action unforgettable. But more often than not, a filmgoing experience has more in common with a dream than anything else. When you’re in the middle of it, the rest of the world might as well not exist. But when you come of it, it often fades and is more easily forgotten.
Novels, by virtue of the imagination you must commit to them, are an exercise in rewiring your mind. There is something unforgettable about those certain novels in our lives that change our outlook on the world, that speak to us with a philosophy that is more complete and deep and rounded than anything we can pull from a two hour film. A novel whispers to you over the course of days or weeks or months, it lingers in the air, it reshapes your consciousness and causes you to look at the world with a different tint.
But again, that’s only if you’re willing to work for it.
And that’s been my problem. There have been a couple novels recently that I haven’t been able to “get into.” When you’re too distracted or bored, and you’re concerned more with reaching the end of a chapter than understanding the intent of the words you’re digesting, you’re not getting the full effect. Part of the problem might be the individual material that I’m looking at, but if I’m honest with myself, I think it has more to do with a creeping attention deficit on my part. The meandering character-first works that I’ve been ingesting haven’t gone down as easily thanks to my diet of plot-driven narratives with escalating conflicts and jaw-dropping hooks.
In short, my mind is out of shape.
And that’s a very bad thing.
The trick for all of us as either artists or audiences or both is to keep our minds fit and open. Exposing yourself to only one kind of media ill-prepares you for other experiences. As an audience, it’s crucial to be flexible to different storytelling methods; as an artist it’s doubly vital that you recognize the options you have at your disposal; there is no particular one right way of doing things.
Of course as I chide myself for being close-minded and impatient with particular styles of storytelling, I see this behavior reflected in others–friends, family, acquaintances–in even more exaggerated examples. Viewers who start to play with their smartphone whenever things aren’t blowing up in the movie they’re watching, audiences that binge-watch television episodes and then don’t retain any lasting memories of the viewing experience, or simply those who avoid novels altogether, because they don’t want to risk potential boredom in their downtime.
That’s kind of sad to me. Any art, whether it’s a novel, a film, a piece of music, a television show or something sitting up on the wall in a gallery, deserves the opportunity to be examined and appreciated. You need time to do that, you need focus and an open mind. When we use art as a crutch to kill time, that’s a ridiculous waste of art. It’s like using a bazooka to open a door.
On a larger scale, I’m concerned by the extent to which society goes to dodge boredom, as if we were all afraid that if we had a single moment in our lives where we weren’t being completely captivated by whatever was before us that we might actually start to think and ponder and reflect. An integral part of the human experience is the gap between actions, the distance between momentous events. Without the ability to confront these moments sans irritation, where will our imaginations go?
There is a value in appreciating quieter, slower, more mundane things, whether it’s a chapter in a book where nothing really happens or it’s a moment sitting on the bus when your eyes aren’t glued to social media on your smart phone. Convenience, impulse, and constant stimulation are available to many of us, but robbed of the opportunity to reflect, to imagine, to allow our minds to wander down more subtle, cerebral paths we are missing out on a crucial component of the human condition.