Reading, "True Detective," and Twitter
The other day, a popular site on the Internet posted an article on True Detective and the various theories surrounding the show. I had a very bad reaction to this article, claiming on Twitter (the World’s Most Reliable Opinion Source!) that it was “anti-reading/anti-thought.” People got upset. Very upset. There was name-calling. It was so Twitter!
But, seeing that 140 characters isn’t really enough to explain what I meant—and why I think this particular article is both insulting and dangerous—I thought I’d use this space to expand on my original sentiments and try (maybe) to use this post about a hit HBO show to say something about reading culture in general.
First off, if you haven’t been watching True Detective, close this tab on your browser and download the first six episodes now.
For the rest of you, you know the basics: In 1995, two homicide detectives attempt to find a serial killer. Meanwhile, in 2012, thanks to a ritual killing with similarities to the earlier murders, those same two detectives are being questioned by two new cops about the events of 1995. (And 2002.)
Simple enough. More or less. But, as with any well-formed piece of art, there are references (primarily to weird fiction and The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers), there are visual and verbal hints at how the whole story fits together, there are interesting techniques (like the birds in the sky) that complicate the point of view and the way the story is being told . . . In other words, this is—at least through the first six episodes—a carefully put together piece of art opening itself up to be “read.”
Every spring I teach a World Literature & Translation course, and at least a couple of sessions revolve around the unanswerable question of “why we read in the first place.” (Which is further complicated when you ask “why we read literature in translation at all.”) There are many reasons to read—for entertainment, to be educated, etc.—and one thing I like to talk about is the difference between the way the brain works when you read neo-realistic, “cinematic” writing (e.g., if you read about walking across sticky linoleum, opening the refrigerator and feeling the cold air on your face, your brain fires in a way very similar to what happens when you do that in real life) versus more “puzzling” prose in which it isn’t immediately clear what exactly is going on (e.g., The Sound and Fury and many other books that beg for you to pay attention to something other than the immediate descriptions). “Reading,” as I’m defining it, is paying attention to, and making sense of, the things an artist does that aren’t just painting you a straightforward picture.
Bob’s Burgers is a fantastic show. My kids endlessly repeat its funniest lines. I don’t think it’s as entertaining as Archer, but it’s rock solid. It’s not a show that I feel like I need to “read.” For the most part, it’s all right there. Quick witted with predictable characters that you think you “know” and episodes that follow the “normal” sit-com structure.
But if someone got really into “reading” Bob’s Burgers, that’s great! That’s what makes art fun to experience. That’s why—and granted, Bob’s Burgers isn’t equivalent to Kubrick—Room 237 is so damn good. It’s a documentary on how people read. How they see and interpret patterns. That’s the best thing you can hope for as an artist. That someone will think about your work in a way that takes it from the “cold air of the refrigerator” to something grander.
That is not what the aforementioned article is about. In fact, the opening two paragraphs pretty much insult anyone who has approached True Detective in this way. And, in my opinion, that series of insults is dangerous.
Possibly you’ve noticed, but a lot of people on the internet are obsessing over True Detective. A great many of them seem to be either unemployed or underemployed, because they’re hanging out all day every day on Reddit or the True Detective Facebook page, offering frankly incredible levels of detail in their analyses of the show.
If you’re capable of understanding that words mean things, you already know where I’m going to take this. According to this author, anyone who is “obsessing” over True Detective is “unemployed or underemployed” (aka A LOSER) mainly because they are posting their incredibly detailed thoughts on Reddit (NERD!).
Basic Message: People who “read” True Detective and share their thoughts, ideas—you know, pretty much the shit that makes you excited about experiencing someting interesting—those people are nerdy unemployed losers.
The amount of intricacy involved in their interpretive work would impress some biblical scholars, I think.
Interpretation: In case you didn’t get my first set of insults, here’s one more.
There are a fair amount of places where it feels like people are departing significantly from the text to get to their theories, so to speak.
Not only are you spending too much time—you unemployed nerd!—talking about this show, but you’re essentially wrong.
As someone who’s been watching the show more for the languid beauty of it and the greatness of Matthew McConaughey’s acting,
What the hell is this? So, you watch the show for two reasons—it’s languid beauty and Matthew McConaughey—and are subtly implying that those who don’t are doing something wasteful and wrong?
I confess that reading all this stuff over the last two days has been a revelation. First of all, I discovered that people really . . . see a whole lot of layers here that I don’t.
In other words, you don’t believe in their “readings” and therefore, they are all wrong. And should just watch the show for Matthew McConaughey (who, admittedly, totally kills it).
I think of this as a good document of the journey of two troubled detectives through a years-long movie case, but the internet audience’s reaction seems to be conditioned by years of puzzle shows like Lost to expect an ulterior motive behind every plot development.
I’m not sure I follow this sentence at all, but leaving aside the “years-long movie case,” I just want to open up a bit of a gap between the “puzzle shows like Lost” and noticing motifs and deciphering hints and making connections in a very well-done TV show that involves three timelines and some mysterious symbols and a bunch of murders.
And boy oh boy, are they experts at dreaming those ulterior motives up.
There’s no way to see this line as anything but one last insult.
To sum up: Sharing ideas and theories about a well-crafted TV show means you’re unemployed and that you’re watching for all the wrong reasons. It’s just entertainment, man! Just watch Matthew McConaughey and leave the thinking alone!
This is not good. This is a bad message. This is not what we need.
Personally, I’m very invested in a future filled with people who love to read books that aren’t simply “escapes.” Not that they shouldn’t read “escapist” literature—in which you feel the refrigerator’s coldness—but that they can also enjoy books/movies/TV shows/music that provides your mind with enough space and images to think and puzzle and read and enjoy. Without that sort of art—and more importantly, an appreciation of that sort of art—I just don’t see the point.
What’s funny/sad is that the website in which this article appeared receives more than 3 million visits a month. That is WAY more than Three Percent. And INFINITE times more than the number of Twitter followers I have. So why exactly did my tweet—claiming this article is “anti-reading/anti-thought” for the unstated reasons described above—generate a couple dozen angry tweets from the writers and editors at this website? I’m not sure. I have some ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself.
But that’s it. That’s why that article irritated me. I would say the same thing if it appeared in the New York Times. Although I’m sure the editors at the New York Times wouldn’t be quite so defensive. On Twitter.