(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)
“If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” George Gobel
Prior to television taking over virtually every home in America by the end of the 1950’s, there were several hundred weekly and monthly magazines in America publishing multiple short stories per issue and paying thousands of writers good money for those short stories. And there were also hundreds of daily newspapers publishing short stories and serialized novels and paying well for the privilege. Before 1960, the vast majority of American novelists, playwrights, and humorists developed their talent by writing short stories and submitting those stories for publication.
By the time I sold my first short story in 1975, there remained but a few dozen monthly magazines in America that published a story or two per issue, and only a handful of those magazines paid more than a pittance, though by today’s standards those pittances were small fortunes. Television is famously known for ending The Golden Age of Radio, circa 1930-1955, but less well known for terminating The Golden Age of Short Stories that was the foundation of our literary culture.
Now in 2014, as a former voracious reader of short stories, I very rarely encounter contemporary fiction that interests me—my taste formed in a bygone era—and I will sometimes watch an episode of the George Burns and Gracie Allen television show from the 1950’s on my computer in hope of satisfying my hunger for a good short story. Alas, George and Gracie do not satisfy this craving, but their goofy shows do embody that seminal moment in our cultural history when television supplanted reading, radio, movies, live theatre, and hanging out at bowling alleys as the thing most Americans did with their spare time.
As contemporary writing continues to evolve, fewer and fewer people can discern the difference between what I used to call good writing and now call classical writing, from what I used to call bad writing and now call modern writing. In thinking about the vanishing of this particular kind of discernment, I am reminded that reading and writing of any kind are barely discernible blips on the timeline of human evolution, whereas watching and listening span the entirety of mammalian and human evolution and are as significant in our specie’s development as procreation and digestion. And that is why television is both irresistible and addictive to humans: watching and listening are what we were born to do.
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.” Satchel Paige
Our ever evolving watching and listening powers supplied our simultaneously evolving brains vital information for taking action to secure food and mates and safe places to rest and sleep. Our survival depended on skillful watching and listening and the application of information we gained thereby. Advanced applications of information accumulated from watching and listening made possible the development of all sophisticated human activities, including drawing and writing and composing music and baking bread and sailing and bowling.
Watching television, however, has nothing to do with survival or giving our brains vital information or enhancing our lives. This is in small part because of what our overlords put on television for us to watch, but is largely a function of the hypnotic, numbing and deleterious effects of the medium itself. Indeed, for the likes of me, the best hour of television I have ever seen was a depressing soporific compared to taking a walk or reading a good short story or picking blackberries or playing the piano or going bowling.
“You can observe a lot by watching.” Yogi Berra
Born into a literate household in 1949, I grew up gobbling books. My parents bought our first television in 1954 to watch the McCarthy hearings, my father a publicly vocal opponent of the Korean War and therefore fearful of being added to The Big Black List of Subversives! However, my siblings and I were not allowed to watch television on weekdays and were only allowed to watch for an hour a night on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Being a kid obsessed with playing ball and riding my bike all over creation and reading books and listening to Ray Charles, I was never much of a television watcher. In 1969, when I quit college to pursue a career as a writer and musician, I decided to give up television entirely. Save for watching a few playoff games over the next forty-five years, and nowadays watching sports highlights and the occasional George and Gracie episode on my computer, I have adhered to my decision.
Why did I make that choice? To echo the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, with one minor change: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by television.
A few days ago someone was showing me a few things on her smartphone and after a few minutes of gazing into the little screen while she tapped various buttons to bring up various apps, I felt my psyche disintegrating. I think it must be the way I’m wired that makes me hypersensitive to stuff projected on a screen. Indeed, the way I’m wired makes it imperative I avoid violent movies, and for that matter violent prose, because I experience the violence as real.
Did you ever see the movie Taxi Driver? 1976. I was living in Medford, Oregon, working as a landscaper and writing short stories. I was an avid moviegoer and fledgling screenwriter who avoided violent movies. One day I got a letter from my friend Rico, a psychotherapist who knew all about my aversion to violent films. He wrote, “Saw an interesting little flick you might enjoy. Taxi Driver. Check it out.”
That being the sum total of what I knew about the movie, and never thinking Rico would steer me wrong, I went to see Taxi Driver at Medford’s one and only multi-screen movie house. Why I didn’t walk out after the first few minutes when my skin was crawling and my heart was pounding to a bossa nova beat, I can only attribute to my faith in Rico. To this day, thirty-eight years gone by, just thinking about that horror movie gives me the creeps.