Close One Door So Another Might Open

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-03-10 16:00:00-05:00 No comments

First: If you are not reading Ted Gioia, do so. Of all the folks out there with a Substack, he is one of the few witchers worth tossing a coin to, as the saying might go.

Second, his most recent post is titled "Audiences Grow Weary of Stories that Never End." How can I resist such a claim?

We begin reading (or watching) a story with the sure expectation that it will come to an end. These endings have changed over the centuries—Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) pursues a very different form of closure than, say, Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) or Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). But each is effective in its own way.

Stories without closure collapse into unruly chronos—the passage of time reduced to, in Kermode’s words, “one damn thing after another.” But that chaotic narrative-without-destination is increasingly the norm in contemporary storytelling.

Earlier in the same article:

... even literary fiction has been corrupted by movie economics. That’s why so many novels nowadays are constructed as film treatments—but this corrupts the idiom. I remember how shocked I was, a few years ago, when I read a highly touted debut novel, which I was enjoying—and I planned to give it a glowing review. But in the last chapter, nothing was resolved, and the author devoted all his energy to setting up cliffhangers for a sequel.

To say I was disappointed is putting it mildly. I was shocked that a young author publishing his first novel would do this. But nowadays I wouldn’t be surprised in the least. I understand that this is how the book business rolls in the current day.

But it’s not how human psychology operates.

Emphasis mine. The reason for many novels published today being constructed in this fashion is because books aren't where the money or attention is. Adaptive media is. What better sign you've "arrived" as a cultural presence than to have your work filmed, or made into a video game, or adapted into a comic, or turned into a line of toys (or vice versa)? Licensing and IP are where the money's at, which tells me contagiously marketed hype is the real thing marketed here, not books or movies.

I have several friends who are unapologetic fans of the extended universes created by Marvel and DC (chiefly Marvel/Disney, meaning also including Star Wars). I don't grouse about those things because they are in themselves bad, but because they set bad examples for creators — for anyone who isn't Marvel or Disney. They teach people the only things worth doing are the things you can turn into a franchise. In my day job, which is writing about enterprise IT, we see a similar problem where the tone for how corporate computing is to be performed is set by a tiny, unspeakably wealthy circle of companies whose solutions to their problems are infamous for not scaling to be solutions to our problems. (You probably do not need Kubernetes. Heck, you might not even need containers.)

If the culture industry is in the business of leveraging human psychology for its own lucrative ends, you might ask, why would they adopt a strategy that is contrary to such psychology? Maybe because they are only contrarian enough to get away with it. If one puff of a cigarette killed you, there would be no market for them. You have to smoke for a long time for the adverse effects to really show up, and in the meantime the tobacco merchants can front-load you with an addiction that has proven harder to break than heroin. The same goes for this kind of abortively cyclical storytelling: you're frustrated, but you don't know why, and so you think the relief from that frustration is going to come from returning to that particular well. When the real relief comes from walking away entirely, and seeking out something that isn't simply part of a cynical ploy to string you along.

I don't doubt for a second that many of the people involved in making this stuff are sincere that they want to make something great. But they are as helpless in the guts of this beast as any audience member gobbled up by it. The culture industry's job is not to produce culture, but to produce dependencies on a certain kind of culture — one whose lack of resolution is marketed as a feature, not a bug. (Did we charge you for the platinum edition?)

The first book I wrote that I put out under my current imprint (back when it was "Genji Press" and not Infinimata), I ended with the vague sense that I might entertain sequels. After finishing it and putting it out there, I spent about a week mulling sequel ideas. Not one of them worked. All of them felt like I was forcing my own hand. Then I remembered something: there had been an SF book I'd read as a much younger man, one that had ended on a more or less completely resolved note, but which had been responsible for two sequels. I couldn't find the second book, but I did find the third, and the first ten pages of it were atrocious — everything about the original premise had devolved into self-parody. I don't want to turn into that, I thought.

It wasn't until later, looking back, that I found the language to express what I had been feeling: I'm done with that stuff. I've said everything that seemed to need saying. What else is there?

Why are we so allergic to the idea that things ought to be brought to an end? Maybe for the same reason decades of fast food and ultra-processed meals make it harder for us to enjoy what the real thing tastes like. I don't want to step in the same rivers twice, because I know it's simply not possible. And because I know all I do with that is repeat myself. I have to close that door so others might open — other doors that will take me other places.

Tags: creativity creators storytelling