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Teaching the ‘Law and Order’ Short Story

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At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.

The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.

Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.

Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.

This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.

What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.

I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.

When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”

“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”

(General murmurs of approval.)

“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”

“That one is amazing.”

Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.

I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.

Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.

Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.

What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.

One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.

I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.

Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.

Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.

Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.

Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.

In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.

My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.

They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.

Breaking Good: Broadway’s Golden Age Reborn on Cable

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1.
It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars.

For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America.

My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades.

Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever.

Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television.

The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values.

Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is.

2.
You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation.

But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as
a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized…So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America.
Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience.

To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere.

3.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns.

But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein.

This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream.

But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play.

4.
Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity.

But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared.

In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right.

But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016.

What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it.

Image via studentrush.org

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