Hook, Line and Sinker

Flyin in ur otakusphere shooting at ur postz

Flyin in ur otakusphere shooting at ur postz.

I’ll take the bait:

[L]iterature (as a medium in general) is more cogitative than other media and that its primary purpose is to instruct before it entertains (at least it is for the books I read). [. . .] I’d argue that this is proven by the fact that it is easier to stop reading The Sound and the Fury compared to watching an anime classic like Cowboy Bebop. I think it’s also easier to stop reading that novel compared to watching a film classic like The Godfather. All are representative classics of their own medi[a].

It’s silly of me to do so, since Michael includes his own qualification parenthetically as that first sentence came to a close, and especially since we agree on so much (I liked Lilim Kiss too). But some things are just inevitable; of late Owen hasn’t been regularly baiting us all, and I’m beginning to have withdrawal symptoms. It is delicious bait. I must eat it.

It is of course true that a lot of literature was written primarily as thought-food. Indeed, for a long time writers tended to argue, not always convincingly, for their work’s worth on the grounds of its educational value. To pick a highbrow example of something that really was meant as instruction, On the Nature of Things is a philosophical text in verse. More pragmatically, there’s The Art of Love; Crusader writes in a long tradition. Except that, like Crusader’s post, Ovid’s advice to lovers isn’t serious, and his poem is more a parody of didactic or instructional literature. Furthermore, it’s The Art of Love which is more famous, and Ovid who’s more well-remembered. (What would you rather remember from your schooldays: slogging through a philosophical text, or being told by an eminent poet that the theatre is a great place to pick up girls?)

This difference in success ought to tell us something about the contrasting fates of instruction and entertainment in any medium. As extreme examples, Duck and Cover and Protect and Survive are both didactic, and both make use of moving images, a mixture of animation and live action; I submit that when they are watched today, they are watched primarily as entertainment. The Sound and the Fury is a good novel, but it’s also a critic’s novel, so perhaps its proper counterpart is a critic’s anime. (Like Kaiba?) Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, is a line of pure fun laid out for sniffing, so perhaps its proper counterpart is a well-written, yet cheap, airport thriller. The recent Kanokon adaption is, then, the equivalent of a good bonkbuster: not pornography, but happy to splash the service around. (Notice how that ANN Encyclopedia entry lists Kanokon‘s genres as ‘comedy, romance, supernatural’ but categorises ‘ecchi’ as a theme?)

I suppose trying to find works with similar positions in different media is a rather arid pastime – or rather, since it doesn’t seem arid to me, more like a parlour game without much significance. (‘Welcome to blogging’, I hear you say.) Is the novel a medium anyway, or is it a sub-division of text? And what do we say about text used within anime? Or when something travels the perilous wormhole between two different media and comes out the other side looking distinctly odd?

23 responses to “Hook, Line and Sinker

  1. I actually thought Cowboy Bebop was apt. It is critically acclaimed, after all, and its storytelling is anachronistic and fragmentary, just like The Sound and the Fury. While the series didn’t have a Benjy, its fragmentation involved a lot of occurrences out of place and time (especially those regarding Spike) which served as some sort of Benjy-narration.

    I really don’t think Bebop should be taken as a cheap or a light airport thriller. It was action-packed, granted, but what truly impressed upon me was of the depth of the characters.

    The series was actually what elevated me to appreciate anime as more than just another medium.

  2. Directly speaking of McLuhan’s take on hot and cold media, it depends on the content of the medium. I guess from historical statistics, then yes, print is much more cognitive than “low-brow” animation. I don’t know if there’s a way to quantitatively measure the thing anyway.

  3. I always thought visual mediums tend to be more instructive in telling stories but maybe that is because I feel that words, as a medium, are more ambiguous in nature.

  4. Pingback: “lelangiric” » Anti-Gershwinism on Yoko Kanno

  5. Heck, I can’t not participate in this discussion after you’ve linked me so generously. ;)

    Michael’s quote deals in generalizations, which you go on to debunk quite aptly by pointing out that, hey, a lot of books aren’t didactic (or even intelligent) and a lot of anime isn’t low-brow “hyuk hyuk” entertainment. Can’t disagree with that.

    Very few works have tried to make the jump from one to the other, and I’d argue that such a jump is poised to fail every time, simply because we’re dealing with different media after all. Overwrought descriptions (such as you can find, in its most extreme form, in Les Misérables, for example) can have no viable equivalent in anime; conversely, the heart-pounding action or visual exploration that populate anime would die an excruciating death in any written image without the benefit of fast-moving images.

    So we’re left with trying to compare “good” anime with “good” books. Except, again, that they belong to two different media who play by different rules. I’m reminded of the furor Roger Ebert elicited when he said video games aren’t art. To him they aren’t, because he’s a movie buff, but ask anyone who’s played Portal or Silent Hill 2.

    Rant over!

  6. And Jane Eyre is supposed to cure insomnia.


  7. @lelangir: Well, you can quantify it with brain-scanning technology and extensive knowledge of what different areas of the brain do, when they do it, how they do it and why. For example, it seems as if TV generally puts the brain into a low-energy mode after a certain time akin to daydreaming or the like, which would mean that yes, reading is more cognitively active than watching. Whether this is more stimulating or not it seems it is, in a strictly healthy sense – well, it seems as if frequently used neurons and synapses are less likely to suffer necrosis. Information-content stored in your brain however totally depend on the material. A Biggles book (however much I love that trashy pulp) is definitely less stimulating material than, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion (or for that matter anything above Ramen Fighter Miki).

  8. @ Michael: I suppose I was looking at how the works are received: The Sound and the Fury has nothing like the popular success of Cowboy Bebop – indeed, the latter is considered a ‘gateway anime’ (Harry Potter is considered a gateway book). I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the plot’s truly fragmentary, but certainly like The Sound and the Fury it revolves around the ramifications of events that happened some time ago. And I wouldn’t want to reduce CB to the level of a good airport thriller; I want to bring good airport thrillers up to the level of CB, if you will.

    @ lelangir: Hmm, hot and cold media. I hadn’t encountered that idea before, and I like how he finds a way to distinguish TV and film.

    @ The Sojourner: Words slip away more easily from their author’s intent, perhaps. Or they’re subtler . . . this is bringing out my literature student prejudices.

    @ Korasoff: Linking, all a cunning plan. The jump between media is an interesting one . . . I’m told that light novels, which are the texts most commonly used for anime adaption, come in short atomic paragraphs (the translation I have of the original Welcome to the N.H.K.! bears this out) and I know Kikuchi (who writes the Vampire Hunter D series) has been intentionally shifting his prose style in this direction in recent years, presumably to make adaption easier. They say.

    Then again, Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a novelistic anime in its use of dialogue and pacing.

    As for videogames, that reminds me of an article by Gillen on the Shalebridge Cradle level in Thief: Deadly Shadows . . . tomorrow I’ll see if I can hunt it out and link to it.

    @ drmchsr0: I’ve never read it, actually. So I can’t speak for its soporific qualities.

  9. @ Kaiserpingvin: Personally, I think The Camels Are Coming is a fine piece of writing. Surely ‘because it keeps you healthy’ is a rather soulless reason to prefer reading, though?

  10. Pingback: anime|otaku » Blog Archive » Debating with Daniel: Cowboy Bebop is not a cheap airport thriller!

  11. I think that when a franchise jumps from one media to another the likely result is something a sort of mutant spawn that while outwardly similar to the source material is an all together different creature. Take Lord of the Rings for example the books are excellent and the movies have won their fair share of acclaim as well. However there are quite distinct differences between the two and while the books came first it is hard to argue that the movies were some how lesser works.

    At least within a novel you can write things down and just leave it at that, but within the context of bringing it onto the screen it presents a whole slew of problems. Take the episode where the Ents march off to war, the scene is not rather specific in goblin and orc crushing details, so Jackson had to fill in the gaps in places to show how a bunch of trees ran rough shod over Isengard. Even in anime it is not enough to have good writing, you have to have good cinematography as well and making both run in harmony and complement each other is rather hard. Fact remains writing it self has always been hard, for every Heinlein there is a platoon of game developers who write 40k fiction with mixed results.

    Anime is also limited in what it can get away with as they still have to get past the censors before they can broad cast unless they just put out a DVD like the hentai subset. With a book or non-image based medium there is much more freedom in what an author can do, for instance the story of Medea has no equivalent that I have seen in anime where woman betrayed would go to such lengths to get revenge on the husband who betrayed her. Suffice to say having a woman kill her own children is not something that happens often if at all in mainstream anime.

  12. Visual mediums, to me, need to be a little more instructive as words cannot convey emotion as well as images and sound can.

    Also, bonkbuster is a word? THANKS.

  13. ZOMG. This entire post, comments added, screams intelligence at me. So I bring you my brief thoughts to balance, and risk sounding weird, but that’s okay with me.

    I can’t say much about Kaiba being the counterpart to the Sound and the Fury because I haven’t read that yet. But “Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, is a line of pure fun laid out for sniffing, so perhaps its proper counterpart is a well-written, yet cheap, airport thriller.”? Interesting. Loved this – “line of pure fun laid out for sniffing” (great phrasing XD). To me, Cowboy Bebop wasn’t bad, but isn’t the greatest. Even so, it probably deserves more for a counterpart. Most love it, and consider it a classic.

    No worries, read your comment – “bring good airport thrillers up to the level of CB”. Which now makes me wonder what you consider for Samurai Champloo…

  14. @ Crusader: 40k fiction? Mixed results indeed, though I do remember reading one story about Tyranids in White Dwarf which had some merit.

    The Lord of the Rings and its movie adaption are a good example. As you say, the movies were outwardly similar to their source material, but sometimes – as with the destruction of Isengard – there was a sense of divergence. Several people commented to me that they found the Ents in that sequence to be rather comic, which I suspect is a minor aspect found in the novel which was given full rein on screen. This is all before we get to the vexed question of excision (about which I could go on at length, but I imagine there are Tolkien forums for this sort of thing).

    I’d certainly buy a four-episode OVA adaption of Euripides’ Medea. Parents killing their children are indeed a rare sight, though 00 gave us a child killing his parents, if I recall correctly.

    @ C.I.: I’m not sure – you can do a lot with the sound and the connotations of words to convey emotion, which is perhaps more the business of poets than novelists. And yes, bonkbuster. The joy of the OED is that it includes any word which becomes sufficiently widely-used.

    @ Hoshi: Maybe you’re being too easy on me in your last paragraph. It’s true, Cowboy Bebop has had a lasting impact which airport thrillers tend to lack. It’s hard for me to talk about Samurai Champloo: I only watched the first seven episodes. I did admire its chronoclasms and cultureclasms, though that could just be things I like rather than things which are good.

  15. @Daniel (I can call you Daniel, right?): Depends on what meaning you put in “healthy”. After all, enjoying life, increasing your horizons and enriching existence is pretty healthy, and that’s exactly what reading does.

  16. I never really bought into the whole “literature is superior to all other media” that seems to pervade literary types these days. It is true that there are a lot of well-respected novels, but there’s also a lot of novels, period–I walk into the local bookstore (which is bigger than the local chain book outlets) and I’m surrounded by books of all sorts and sizes and of every subject matter possible (my manager has recently pointed out to me the appearance of a “paranormal knitting romance”).

    The other problem with “books are art and film is not” is that, setting aside the racks and racks of Harlequin romances and mystery novels with puns in the titles, book publishing is an entertainment business, just like TV, movies, music, and so on. Editors and publishers aren’t interested in publishing a book because it’s well-written and hauntingly beautiful in its sweeping portrait of the human condition–they’re interested in publishing a book because they think it will sell.

    This is a fact I’ve seen repeated over every novelist’s advice webpage, book, whatever that I’ve seen–they don’t care how good you are at writing, they only care about whether or not you’re going to sell copies. An editor will take a badly-written book over one that is brilliantly written, if the former will sell better, or fits a market in need of material. If there isn’t a strong market for a book, it’s not going to get published unless you can find a small press willing to take a risk, but small presses are extremely focused in sub-sub-sub-genres, so there’s no telling if you can shoehorn your novel into one of them.

    And, hey–Shakespeare’s full of sexual humor, Charles Dickens had people waiting in throngs at the dock for the next installment of his serial novels, and Chaucer was more interested in being bawdy than in anything else. Popularity and quality aren’t linearly equated.

  17. @ Kaiserpingvin: Yes, you can call me Daniel (it’s on the About page, after all) . . . I suppose reading’s good for the ‘healthy mind’ but not perhaps so good for the ‘healthy body’ that it’s meant to be in, given the potential eye damage (The Return of the Native style) and lack of exercise.

    @ OGT: Well, I doubt it’s a modern innovation; propagating the idea that literature is superior is an obvious thing to do if literature is your area of expertise. You don’t hear the British Potato Council singing the praises of rice as a source of carbohydrates. As for the idea of literature’s superiority itself, I don’t sign up to it – beyond subjectively enjoying literature more than other media, but that’s just me. And even Michael’s post didn’t overtly suggest that literature was superior, just more cogitative. Does being more cogitative make a medium superior to other media? Superior as what? (Entertainment? Edutainment? Health-promoter?) You tell me.

    You’re spot on about commercialisation, although, taking the long view, a work’s status in The Canon (which I’m going to capitalise, so there) can be quite disconnected from its commercial success (or lack thereof). But canonicity is not the primary concern of publishers, or any author who seriously wants to make a living out of writing. One advantage of the patronage of tyrants is that it partially de-commercialises literature: Horace and Virgil were paid in advance, and they were only paid in a very indirect manner. Of course, the Aeneid is keen to tell us how great Augustus is, so Virgil plainly knew which side his bread was buttered on.

    (I’m going to have to disagree with you, however, about Chaucer. The Tales are surprisingly un-bawdy, for the most part, given their reputation today – and the Tales aren’t even his best work. Though – returning to commercialisation – they certainly have sold well.)

    I’d love to know how Dickens would work as the writer for something like Code Geass, given the similar episodic structure of television.

  18. Well, of course the status in The Canon has nothing to do with how many copies it sold; but neither does the status in The Canon have anything to do with how many copies are sitting around unsold, either. The Canon is important, insomuch as knowing where the roots are of what’s happening now in intellectual (or otherwise) discourse. And, hell, even trash can survive and be important–Horatio Alger novels are still being printed and sold today, and Alger is considered important historically if one wants to understand late 19th-century America.

    And, yes, having rich tyrants/patrons pay you money to do whatever the hell you want to do is a wonderful system that spurred some great thought in classical times–but it also can backfire, as The Satyricon was (possibly) written to criticize Nero, who was, of course, Petronius’s patron. And it’s the friggin’ Satyricon, it’s full of sodomy and pederasty and God knows what else in the missing segments.

    And, yes, you are correct–promoting literature is natural when it’s your field of expertise (such as I promote anime, since it’s more or less become my field of expertise), and it requires much more coginition on the behalf of the reader than watching television does–but I’m sure some pop culture scholars can sit all day in front of the television and still be having grandiose thoughts and theories about what they’re seeing.

    I still support the encouragement of reading, as there are wonderful books out there that don’t have alternate media adaptations (and likely won’t), or, if they do, the adaptation is inferior to the original work. But it’s still possible to read a lot of books and essentially be the equlivalent of a couch potato–hence why it’s more important that you think about whatever media you prefer, rather than sit and consume mindlessly. With reasonable exceptions, of course.

    (Do I even think about the media I consume? Hell if I know. I think I do, but maybe not)

  19. Well, The Satyricon might have been a bad deal for Nero, but I’d say we (inheritors of a literary tradition) did rather well out of it. Even if it’s trash, it’s interesting in a Horatio Alger kind of way (and since people deliver papers on Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom with a straight face, The Satyricon must be ripe for some modern scholarship). I’m sure it has an audience that will love and respect it for what it is, even if they’re people I wouldn’t necessarily want to go to the pub with.

    I think one good point from Michael’s original post is the idea that there are some books which will force you to think as you read, or give up. Whether this is true of much that is on television, I couldn’t say, but then it may be an unfair comparison, as the library system means the choice of reading available is probably broader than the choice of television, even with the number of channels nowadays. And there’re several other questions there: are we allowed to call anime (the anime which isn’t delivered as a feature film) ‘television’? isn’t a library better being compared to a DVD rental service? do I ask too many rather vague questions?

  20. Is the opening picture from the Read or Die OVA? If so, LOLZOR.

  21. Well spotted: it is indeed from Read or Die! I have to love an OVA whose title sums up my whole existence.

  22. Pingback: Getting off the High Horse: Picking on Cowboy Bebop « In Search of Number Nine

  23. Pingback: [43] Anti-Gershwinism on Yoko Kanno « “lelangiric”


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