Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bradbury: Beware the Evil Factoid

If you've ever heard Ray Bradbury give an interview, you'll know that he's, well, unique and sometimes a bit hard to follow. Call him frenetic, I suppose. So this just in from
Writer's Blog:
Ray Bradbury, who writes every speaking out about Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury now says that his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship; it's about the dangers of television...
Hmmm, okay.

From the original interview:
"Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was," Bradbury says, summarizing TV's content with a single word that he spits out as an epithet: "factoids." He says this while sitting in a room dominated by a gigantic flat-panel television broadcasting the Fox News Channel, muted, factoids crawling across the bottom of the screen.
So the world is perishing from an orgy of...factoids. Alrighty.

If I were an author of a junior high textbook on literature, I wouldn't rush to change my study guides for Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps just adding a chapter on unreliable narrators would do the trick.


Adrian Hester said...

"Bradbury now says that his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship; it's about the dangers of television..."

Well, to some extent that's in the novel, but then so's censorship. That's one of the striking things about the vision of the world he has in Fahrenheit 451--the government burning books and the great mass of the people utterly acquiescent in it. When I read it the first time (I was about 11 at the time, I think), that was one of the things that puzzled me about the story--did people fall out of love with books and the government then start burning them, or did it all start with burning books and television and radio filling the void? The second time (I was a couple of decades older, I guess), I just said it didn't matter--Bradbury's really good at coming up with striking stories that exist in their own world like dreams, but it's not fruitful much of the time to dig deeper. (And if you accept this, you might wonder whether Bradbury should insist so strongly on only the meanings he himself finds in his stories, but also whether you should exclude them.)

Of course, Bradbury's been tilting against TV towers for some time now. One of the selections for his section in one of the NSFA Grand Master collections was a jeremiad against the mass media similar to what you find in that interview. These just don't ring true with me, or at least ring fully. Yes, TV does seem to act like a mental soporific, but its malign effects only accompany a decline in literacy in the wide sense (pleasure in the written word) and broad education. I watched a lot of TV growing up, but I also read a lot and enjoyed it from a very early age (I learned to read when I was 2); the two were just different media and TV was more relaxation than a mainstay, and usually bone-headedly stupid to boot...yet even some of the stupid stuff had something to offer, you just had to watch it attentively. And Bradbury is right there, I think, in that there's little emphasis in mainstream culture on cultivating one's continuous attention in entertainment. Or at least such is my off-the-cuff thought; ask me tomorrow and I might say different.

marayner said...

I was going to make a thoughtful comment along the lines of what Adrian just wrote, so instead, I'll suggest that "Orgy of Factoids" would be a great name for a rock band.

Toiler said...

Hey, Mark.

I can only imagine the kind of comment you might have left "along the lines of what Adrian just wrote". Say, something like a comparison between Kraftt-Ebing's seminal Psychopathia Sexualis and modern forms of sycophantic utilitarianism as revealed in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 -- or something like that.

Before you try showing off your smarts around here, be warned: You don't want to get in an argument with Adrian Hester. It will be your last. :-)

Toiler said...

Adrian, FYI, Mark writes off-the-wall satire, so my comment is a friendly retort aimed at him, not you. I'm away for the weekend, but I'll comment more when I get back.

Toiler said...

As for Bradbury, me thinks he pulls off the occasional O'Henry, but he has to be in rare form (take his short story "The Veldt", for example). Like many writers, the length of his stories seem to be inversely related to their quality. Also, his best stories end with a simple denouement rather than a climax. By simple denouement, I mean a story that casts the merest flash of light over some singular facet of life. No wider issue has to be inferred from the story in order to appreciate its simple meaning.

I mention "The Veldt", his most classic of short stories. That one squarely warns parents against using television as a babysitter, and I think he's dead on about that. How frightening, letting "the boob tube" take over the responsibility of feeding a child's mind! Contrast that with the parenting that I see among my better friends, parents who so actively explore and learn about their own world and pay attention to what's coming into and going out of their own lives, let alone their kids' lives, that they don't have much time left for television. (Not to say that TV is bad per se, but it is a bad babysitter, IMO).

Incidentally, I grew up through most of my childhood without TV. I remember how excited I used to get when I would stay over at a cousin's house and get to watch, not just TV, but cable TV! I would watch one or two shows -- usually something racy if no one was paying attention -- but then I would get restless and have to do something active. Anyway, at some point in my life, I realized that I could always entertain myself no matter where I was or what I had to work with, whilst many of my cousins seemed drugged out on entertainment. If it wasn't a circus or a movie or a carnival ride, they weren't interested. I imagine that said cousins probably hated coming over to my house, and my offering to make castles out of mud pies in the back yard probably didn't help the situation.