Roman circuses and serious writers

I think I’ve mentioned reality TV on this blog before but I haven’t really tried to deal with it. Because it’s not just television that I want to talk about; it’s the Roman circus that so many of our lives have become – on TV, on the web, everywhere.

Nancy Bentley, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a book with the wonderful title, Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920. It’s all about the emergence of novelty and sensation in popular culture, and the reaction of literary culture to it. Bentley opens with what seemed then like a new kind of public entertainment, when, in 1896, the public was invited to the staged head-on collision of two steam locomotives in Waco, Texas. Three spectators were killed by flying chunks of metal. 40,000 people attended, far more than would ever go to concert halls, libraries and museums. I don’t know if the author speculates further about the number, but it’s probably proportionately the same as would attend the infamous encounters of Christian martyrs and lions in the Roman coliseum, the burnings of martyrs in the course of the Inquisition, the hanging of  murderers in England or beheadings of revolutionaries in France, or, also proportionately, the mayhem and murder thrillers that regularly appear in our contemporary movie theaters.

I always wondered what these kids were watching. I'll bet the trains were about to collide.

I don’t think I’m wrong to find a similarity between these events and those of reality TV when an expert provided by Dr. Phil gives a lie detector exam to the wayward husband of a disappeared woman and her relatives plead with Phil, after the husband fails the test: “Is she dead then?”- and all of this, plus the tears and screams of the suffering family, all for our delectation, on national (or international?) television. I guess celebrities have been baring all on radio, in magazines and on TV for some time, but today, more and more “ordinary people” are telling all – their lies, infidelities, drug use, yes, and more and more, their violence against their nearest and dearest.

Says Bentley about the early 20th century, “Mass culture seemed to offer only novelty and sensation rather than reflection. It valued profit over refinement or learning. And the American population was far more interested in these new kinds of mass entertainment than in serious literature.” In response, she says, “highbrow writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton and W.E.B. DuBois started to incorporate images such as Wild West shows, disasters and train wrecks into their works…. They discovered that mass culture might actually offer clues and insights about modern society that literary culture had not yet detected.”

Well, maybe. I don’t know. What about today, when the disasters are just as often the personal lives of you and me broadcast to a public of millions, as they are train wrecks for 40,000? What are highbrow writers to learn about their craft from these other disasters, disasters that used to be stories whispered behind closed doors, murmured confessions of poor souls on psychiatrist’s couches, confidences between close friends, or maybe even fictionalized accounts of life that tried to figure out what it all meant?

Facts: 1) most successful novels today include many instances of violence and at least one murder (even though, in my 70 years of life I don’t think I’ve ever met a murderer or the victim of a murder); 2) more and more best sellers are memoirs, not novels, as if people want more than a good story – they want one whose protagonists make claims for its literal truth.

In other words, people want true stories about violence and murder. They want “frantic personal panoramas,”  Roman circuses whose victims are real people. They want reality TV and thrillers.

And how should writers respond? If they should. I truly don’t know, but maybe if I worry about it in my next post, maybe I’ll come up with something.

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