Why does most academic writing make for unpleasant reading? Critics often complain about the dull, jargon-filled prose, but I’ve begun to wonder if that’s not merely a symptom of a much larger problem: an utter lack of interest in the audience.
Take Mark Browning’s new book, Stephen King on the Small Screen. Unlike the worst examples of academic writing, Browning doesn’t try to pour old wine in new bottles by inventing a brand new vocabulary with which to exclude his readers. Yet, Browning’s book fails. It fails on almost every level, which is sad, because there is the shadow of a good book lurking between the covers—two or three good books, actually.
Browning attempts to focus on a presumably narrow collection of King adaptations—those produced for television broadcast. It’s easy enough to imagine how a good critic might help the reader appreciate the virtues of the original Salem’s Lot or the ambition of The Stand. That could make a mildly interesting book.
Likewise, a King scholar could produce a fascinating discussion of the relationship between King’s writing and the format, production values, and delivery methods of television. Does King’s sensibility meld particularly well with television, and if so, why? That could make an equally interesting book.
On a more conceptual level, a cultural theorist might use the King films as a jumping off point for exploring whether “television” even means anything in today’s world where theatrical films are often shot and projected digitally and “television” is frequently downloaded on smartphones and iPads. Is there such an artistic medium as “television” or does the word merely describe a viewing device? Since we don’t listen to “mp3-player music” or read “e-reader books”, can we really watch “television movies”?
Even though Browning flirts with all three of these approaches, he fails to make good on any of them. He begins with a theoretical chapter where he tries to define “television”, although the rest of the book promptly ignores all these ideas. He also concludes the chapter by trying to define a typical television series as comfortable entertainment with static characters, an unchanging status quo, lots of commercials, and self-censorship. That all makes sense, I guess, if it’s 1963 and you’re talking about Bonanza.
Browning also fails when he occasionally tries to draw connections between King’s writing style and the medium of television. In his introduction, he attacks other critics for not treating television seriously on its own, unique terms. However, he then informs us that he is looking not only at television productions, but also some theatrical films that simply weren’t very popular. This is the sort of decision that helps the writer but ignores the audience. How do we make sense of someone using the standards for one medium when discussing another? Several of the films featured in this book, including Children of the Corn, Needful Things, and The Mist, were conceived for and released in theaters, but he never labels them as such. This makes his comments about the “televisual aesthetic” of The Mist both factually invalid and highly misleading.
All of which leaves us with his close analysis of the individual films. Here, though, he once again ignores the needs of his readers by consistently refusing to provide any context for the films he discusses. In one section, he provides a detailed analysis of Ghosts, an extended music video by Michael Jackson with which King was tangentially involved. In that one sentence, I just gave you more context than Browning. He never even uses Jackson’s first name. He just starts writing about the video, describing it as “an attempt by Jackson to hit back at his critics”. Moments like this one make the book feel like a Mulligan stew of Browning’s writing portfolio with excerpts of essays slapped together without much editing.
His chapter on The Mist, while providing some of his better observations, is written in an entirely different style than the rest of the book. It’s noticeably longer than most of the other chapters, complete with subheadings and subtitles. Perhaps it was intended for another book. Regardless, it feels so sloppily pasted on that you can almost see the Elmer’s glue bleeding through the back of the page and the edges of the paper curling up.
Browning’s most impressive skill is pointing out similarities to other works, but none of these is really explored. Did you know that the scene in It when the characters are eating at a Chinese restaurant is like the opening credits of the sitcom Rosanne? Neither did I. (Actually, I still don’t.) Browning often makes five or six of these types of alllusions per page, but he almost never suggests that such connections are deliberate, nor does he explore how their similarities might affect the audience. Like a bird dog, he just points them out.
For example, in a discussion of King’s The Golden Years, he notes that one character is similar to a character from The X-Files and that the actress who played the character later appeared as a guest star on The X-Files, and that (hang on to your hats) Stephen King actually once wrote an episode of The X-Files. Granted, the episode guest starring the actress had nothing to do with King’s episode or with The Golden Years, but still . . .
Browning calls his approach “genre theory”, but there’s a fine line between this brand of genre theory and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. In fact, for a book on genre theory, there is surprisingly little about genre. His first full chapter, focusing on vampire stories, begins with a chapter about It, of all things. His introduction tells us that It provides a good “control” case for thinking about genre and vampires. However, the only connection he makes to vampires is a reference to one closeup of Pennywise the Clown’s teeth, which he adds, aren’t actually vampire teeth. But still, Pennywise has teeth; vampires have teeth. It’s the kind of logic that cries out for novacaine.
So what did I learn? I learned that Browning spells “Sam Mendes” with a “z”. I also learned that B.B. King apparently sang the theme song for Stand by Me. I’m sure that will come to a shock to Ben E. King fans. I also learned that you don’t have to write a complete sentence with a subject and a predicate if your sentence is a little complicated and includes a quotation. Most strikingly, I learned that you can quote an entire paragraph of dialogue from a film without using quotation marks, block-style indenting, or any introductory phrases.
What I did not learn in this comprehensive study of Stephen King television adaptations is anything about The Shining, even though that is one of King’s most famous mini-series and was commissioned specifically because of his unhappiness with Stanley Kubrick’s feature film. I assume Browning must have included it in his earlier book, Stephen King on the Big Screen, but he never says so. It’s part of that “no context required” approach to writing.
Which is why I suggested that the central problem here is an attitude toward the reader that borders on contempt. What are we to make of someone who subtitles a discussion of the eight Children of the Corn movies, “Stalk and Slash?” but never acknowledges the inherent pun? Is he aware? Presumably so. It just doesn’t seem to be worth his while to follow up on the joke.
I’m not suggesting that Browning is personally contemptuous. It’s simply that the support structure for this type of writing requires no audience, and that absence takes its toll. Academics are largely forced to publish for their own professional preservation. The writing often becomes not a work of art or one’s “baby”, but rather a line on the vitae and exhibit A for the tenure and promotion committee. As long as it’s published, it doesn’t matter if it’s well written. It doesn’t matter if it’s coherent and logical. It doesn’t even matter if it’s read.
Sadly, this one was.