DRMacIver's Notebook

Popular Culture Reference, David

Popular Culture Reference, David

(A quick post today, due to needing to get on with other things very shortly)

From How to talk about books you haven't read by Pierre Bayard, page 61:

The most common literary confrontations are those that occur in our social lives, and of these the most vexing are those in which we are expected to express ourselves in front of a group. On such occasions, the conversation may turn to a book we have not read. If the book in question is assumed to be known by all cultivated individuals [...]

The thing that struck me about this is how much it doesn't happen to me. I don't think I have ever had a conversation in which someone is surprised that I haven't read a particular book, except very occasionally as a joke because they assume I've read everything. I can't think of any examples of books that have that level of cultural penetration among people I know.

Most of this is probably a difference between me and Pierre Bayard - he's coming from a French literary scene. His friends' notion of "all cultivated individuals" probably doesn't include me or my friends.

He's also quite a lot older than me, and my suspicion is that he's describing an event that is genuinely less common these days, because instead our shared cultural objects seem mostly to be TV shows and movies. And there I get that a lot. It's a running joke: "Popular culture reference, David, you wouldn't understand."

This is not, I hasten to add, because I'm too classy for TV and movies. Movies don't really work well for me as a format, but I do watch a lot of TV, most of it not very good. I just skip out on a lot of mainstream stuff because it doesn't work well for me (for example I cannot stand embarassment based humour and have no interest in watching things that make me whole body cringe).

I'm generally OK just saying that I haven't watched it. This does, often, result in a bunch of pressure to watch things. "You absolutely must watch it! It's amazing!" is somehow perfectly socially acceptable, despite a single season of a TV show probably being at least twelve hours of watching, but people get edgy and defensive when I recommend books to them.

I understand why this is. It's easy to find twelve hours to watch TV, it's hard to find five hours to read a book, because the latter requires focus and causes people to confront all sorts of unpleasant emotions about their relationship with reading, while the former allows them to palliate by fast-forwarding their brain through those twelve hours.

(There's nothing wrong with doing that if that's what you want to do, but I think people are kidding themselves about this)

I think in some ways TV shows also just work better as a shared cultural object than books, because there are so many fewer of them. It's very expensive to produce a TV show. It's not cheap to produce a book, but it's cheap enough that there are several orders of magnitude more books than TV shows. Even best sellers rarely have the penetration of a moderately popular TV show (with a few outliers like Harry Potter).

Unfortunately creating sharedness of our cultural objects by making them expensive to produce isn't so great. It creates a very high barrier to entry on whose voices become part of our shared culture, and it creates an incentive to make it accessible to as broad an audience as possible. It prioritises relatable over insightful.

That's not to say that TV shows are necessarily bad shared cultural objects. There are some very good ones. I'm genuinely very grateful to The Good Place for existing. Trigonometry (which I still need to finish watching) is some great representation.

I'm not going to say Stargate is a good shared cultural object (or, frankly, a particularly shared one - it's not unpopular by any means given how long it ran for, but it's not something I can reasonably expect people to have watched), but I still like it and will enjoy talking Stargate with people.

But it does leave a popular culture that is strangely anemic. Fandom fills in the gaps, fleshing out the world of shared culture with the voices it lacks. Fandom is its own popular culture, building a richer world on top of the shared cultural objects provided to us. It is, however, a relatively niche thing that most people don't seem aware of or participate in - I'm only on the outskirts of it myself, and I don't really know how I would go about participating more deeply (or whether I want to).

I don't really have any closing thoughts, except that it'd actually be quite nice to have a group where there was a shared canon of books that actually I could assume everyone in that group had read.