As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can control in a reader’s experience. Word choice, sentence length, paragraph structure, chapters… and writers and publishers together, or writers who self-publish, can control layout, paper quality, cover art. These are all important. They are also only part of a reader’s experience. When this is discussed, there’s often a focus on things about the reader – some within the reader’s control, and some not. Does the reader have personal experience of things described in the book? Does the reader’s mood accord with the mood of the book? Does the reader have time and space to read attentively, or are they skimming or distracted? Writers try to guess things about readers (like which words they know and what kind of story they want to read) and readers try to use clues like covers and blurbs and reviews to pick writers who relate appropriately to their expectations – sometimes wanting comfort and sometimes wanting challenge.
But another things readers or media consumers do is to put different texts in dialogue. Sometimes this is very considered – for example, last year I went on holiday to Whitstable, and I went in Harbour Books and asked for novels set locally, and read two very different stories, both set in the same town, in relatively quick succession. Sometimes it’s even controlled by an editorial hand, as when poems are collected in an anthology or essays in an edited collection, or suggested by an publisher, as when books are placed in a series. Sometimes it’s an accident. This can happen with fiction, and it can happen when some of the texts are factual, too.
Does the news count as a text for this purpose? On the one hand, it obviously isn’t like reading a novel or watching a film, and rolling 24-hour news coverage is different even from a journalistic nonfiction book. On the other hand, sometimes it arrives in similar ways. Last night, instead of putting the news on, we watched The King’s Man – but we watched it on the same TV, and whatever its other pros and cons as a film the way I thought about it was undoubtedly affected by the world context. Sometimes creators see this sort of thing coming and make changes, more or less successfully, to account for it. A Spiderman film had the twin towers removed after September 11th; one theory about the weird plot of Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was that it had a storyline about a pandemic removed. The parallels between The King’s Man and the situation in Ukraine probably aren’t strong enough to justify such a reaction, even if it hadn’t been released before the recent events – and much of what it uses and plays with is real history anyway – but sitting on my sofa last night, it was impossible to avoid making the comparisons.
This seems inevitable. I don’t think this specific effect did The King’s Man, a movie which swings wildly between the tragic, the comic, and an uncertain tragi-comedy, any favours, but as often as it causes problems it can be a positive and enlightening experience. In January I read Darryl Cunningham’s Supercrash, a graphic novel which investigates politics and financial structures. I had that freshly in my mind as stories about inflation and the rising cost of living were getting traction on news agendas, and it helped me to think more widely about the implications of what was being reported and ask questions (usually ones I can’t answer) about why things are the way they are.
That being so, I have no moral to draw out of these musings except to keep on reflecting on how particular combinations might be affecting my responses to any given piece of media. Would I have like The King’s Man better in a different time? Possibly. Would I have appreciated Supercrash less if it hadn’t seemed relevant? Probably. Will I try and create stories which respond to the world around me? Probably. Will I be able to write something which speaks to the moment in which it is published? Probably not!
Have you had the experience of media/situation pairings which worked especially well or especially badly?