Typically, a litblog’s traffic pales in comparison to image-based sites. For example, I recently came across one called The Sartorialist. It’s based on a grabby idea: just a series of snapshots of people who are in some way well-dressed, with commentary underneath. And then when I looked at the number of profile views the site had received, I—well, I blanched with envy.
Even more heavily visited, of course, are the big name sites with enough corporate dough behind them to generate high-octane buzz. Otherwise sensible newspapers such as The Washington Post or The Guardian have blogs that deal with literary subjects. But while these latch onto the cool of the blogosphere, they do not partake of its democratic nature. Therefore, you, dear reader, are supposed to visit these sites, but they will not visit you.
And then there are the “bloggish” big-money sites. These are not even blogs at all—they are homepages attempting to manufacture their own street cred. An example of this is a site I recently saw put together by the BBC for a white hip-hopper. Grabby, for sure. But its grabbiness proceeded precisely from its use of image, and its images were effective because they were assembled by well-paid designers.
In any case, the question of the power of the image—the great seduction of looking—is one that litbloggers have to wrestle with. Some dispense with images altogether. Some use them tastefully. Neither approach is better than another, since it’s important to remember litblogging is time consuming and almost always a labor of love. No point criticizing blogs for not doing things they’re not intended to do.
But here’s the thing: litblogging, like literature itself, is currently caught in a death struggle with the powerful draw of the what-can-be-seen. Simply put, images pull away readers. They seduce them. We know this. There is an entire body of theoretical work devoted to the subject. But literary fiction tends to shy away from the trend of image-based culture, which not only venerates the image, but venerates the attractive image.
And this is what it comes down to: the power of the image to attract. The power of the image to override all common sense and—oh! it’s embarrassing to even admit one aspires to this!—seriousness. And these images do not even have to pretend to have any high-brow value. They are just there . . . an addictive click away: the Victoria Secret homepages, the bikini thumbnails, the travel ads (more bikinis)—all the images that really aren’t interested in the attitude or education of those who view them, because they know that in the end none of these things matter. Only desire does. Desire is the great emotion of our time. It is more powerful than thought. And all we can do, then, is think about it; try to make some sense of a feeling that is inescapable but not unmanageable.
There is, of course, an enormous amount of writing about desire: Portnoy’s Complaint remains, for me, not just an extremely good example of literary writing but also an example of what the autobiographical novel might have become if it had been allowed to merge more closely with stand-up (a development that would have been a good thing, in my opinion). And once you get started on the question of writing about desire, it’s not so much a question of where to start, but where to stop. Other examples that immediately come to mind because they capture something of desire’s ability to electrify and humiliate a person in rapid succession are: Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, William T. Vollman’s Butterfly Stories, Russell Smith’s How Insensitive, Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, David Plante’s The Catholic, and Elizabeth McNeill’s literature-by-a-hair Nine-and-a-Half Weeks.
But there’s not much literary writing about the complex relationship that exists between sexually arousing imagery and desire itself . . . at least, not much that I’m aware of. (I’m open to suggestions.) One piece that I came across from was an article in a magazine. I can’t remember the author, can’t even remember the magazine. But in it, the nameless author commented that looking was such a source of bliss/torture for him that he wished he were blind. In his case, he wasn’t talking about photographic images per se, he was talking about all that he saw. And this illustrates the complexity of the topic, since, of course, the works cited above all do deal with “the seen.” But they don’t deal with the interrelationship between what we-see-in-the-world and what we-see-on-the-page-or-screen.
And then, there are plenty of characters in books who have porn fixations. But they tend to be limned over rather quickly, as if sure, we all know what they’re doing is totally empty and pathetic. They tend to be portrayed as hooked on porn because it is the sole source of sexual “contact” they achieve. But leaving aside the fact that almost all men, at some point in their lives, go through a period when they are obsessed with the images of pornography, the capacity to look at imagery that is sexually exciting has become such a cornerstone of contemporary culture that it’s almost like a sea upon which we float.
And while it is true that pornography is, largely speaking, erotic culture for males, there are other forms of arousing visual imagery geared specifically to women. In fact, the pleasure any of us get from looking is intricate, and there is a widespread hypocrisy in our culture about the fact that almost all of us, to some degree, are now addicted to what academics refer to as “the gaze.”
© 2006 Finn Harvor
(For the record, I find a large amount of porn distasteful, especially when one reads the accompanying text. It usually reveals the man who made it to be a sociopath. But . . . some other of these images are beautiful. And they have a pull.)
Two works that deal honestly with the relationship between looking and feeling from a male perspective are John O’Brien’s Stripper Lessons and Ian Brown’s essay in What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men. Importantly, both are specifically about strippers—a marrying of image and performance.
One of the elementary appeals that men feel for strippers is the fact that, as in porn, the naked beauty of a woman can be instantly perceived, yet the woman is also there, as genial and smiling as a flight attendant. It is these two elements—the enticing image and the proximity of another—that makes the experience compelling. The continual popularity of strip clubs is evidence that what we consider “image” and what we consider “real” are not necessarily separate. Perhaps there’s something to be learned here in how sensual images and real feelings combine.
To refer back to the point made above about imagery specifically geared to women: it might be more accurate to say this is imagery geared to everyone, because it is available to everyone, whether one looks for it or not. It is the imagery one finds in mass market magazines or on TV. The effects of the magazines range from the secret crushes one develops on Duncan Hines chocolate cake ladies in Family Circle, to the jarred sense of seeing porn where it’s unexpected in the deliberately provocative fashion shoots in Vogue. And TV shows achieve analogous effects by relying on good-looking actors, form-revealing wardrobes, and sexually suggestive dialogue: Sex and the City isn’t pornography. Ergo, it’s not explicit. Yet its dialogue is sexually explicit. Therefore it’s—oh, well, never mind.
And finally, there is the material that is unabashedly pornographic, such as how-to sex tapes, but labeled differently (usually as erotica). This is not necessarily marketed at women. But it’s consumed by them.
In South Korea, where I live, the kind of sexually explicit imagery that one finds all-too-easily in the West is illegal. In fact, South Korean culture is still so superficially prim that virtually all lingerie models are Westerners. This is because Korean women “would not do that sort of thing.” The ambivalent relationship South Koreans have with the capitalist market ethos they have embraced and the imagery of capitalism is worth an essay in itself. But in any event, the simple reality is this: there is much less sexually explicit imagery in South Korea than in a Western country, and it is of a tamer sort.
Interestingly, however, there is no shortage of imagery that is arousing. And whether one defines it as sexual in the literal sense, or something that simply achieves a broader reaction, there it is, right in your face: the “sexy dance” videos on TV, the come-hither lipstick billboards, the endless parade of fashion shows. In this sense, to step out into the world in a major Korean city is no different from the experience of stepping out into a city in a Western country: you are surrounded by seductive images, you are bombarded by them.
© 2006 Finn Harvor
© 2006 Finn Harvor
Moving from these general observations to the question of how arousing imagery affects reading habits: in Korea, as in the West, reading is declining. Of course, one can blame the ubiquitous TVs. They’re on some of the subways here, and also on the latest cell-phones. And that, of course, is a major reason why Koreans are turning away from buying books, especially literary books.
But Korea has a very strong literary tradition. Because students are taught a very consistent curriculum in school, most people know the same works. These include Oh Jung-hee’s Chinatown (Jungguk-in Geori), Hwang sun-won’s Rain-shower (Sonagi), Park Gyung-ri Land (Toji) , and Yi Jung-jun’s Snowy Road (Nun Gil).
And many of these works are touched by an emotional power that can only be described as genius. So the tendency of contemporary Koreans to turn away from reading literature is not only discouraging, but a real loss; good writing is at risk of fading into obscurity. Furthermore, South Korea needs this literature. It is a very essential form of truth-telling in a country where the truth has repeatedly been quashed by the destructive forces of history.
For instance, the Korean War was a major event in Korean history—modern Korean history is often divided into the late Joseon Empire, the period of Japanese Colonization, the Korean War, and post-war. Westerners tend to have greatest information about the post-war period, but few know how ideologically Byzantine the situation was in the lead-up to the war (see My Innocent Uncle by Choi Man-shik) or how much the war divided families ideologically as well as physically (see The Rainy Spell by Yun Heung-gil).
Furthermore, few Westerners know how dire the situation remained in South Korea in the decades following the war. The country had been brought to its knees. Wide-spread poverty was common (Chinatown again). Political freedom was suppressed (see The Grey Snowman by Choi Yun for a depiction of politics and poverty intersecting). And American involvement in Korean politics remained cynical and meddlesome.
One interesting example of the latter is The Innocent. It is a novel by Korean-American author Richard E. Kim. Published in 1968, it is a fictionalization of Park Jung-hee’s coup d’etat in 1961. The story is quite simple: an ambitious colonel with dreams of saving the country, but also a thirst for power, organizes a coup. The principals involved in the coup are a group of junior Korean officers. But it turns out that some senior American officers who are stationed in Korea also have foreknowledge of it. In fact, they are quite happy the coup is being plotted. It serves their larger aims.
The book is, of course, a fictionalization. But —as with so many events that followed the defeat of the Japanese in 1945—it can neither be characterized as accurate nor inaccurate because we simply don’t know all the facts. The Park Jung-hee coup was just one of several pivotal events in modern Korean history about which the official story makes no sense. Only a few thousand soldiers actively participated in the coup, and they were outnumbered and outgunned by the U.S. garrison that was stationed in the army base at Yongsan. (Yongsan is a massive complex in the very heart of Seoul.) Furthermore, the Korean army was under operational command of an American general. In short, the coup could almost certainly have been prevented if U.S. armed forces had chosen to do so. But no attempt was even made to do this, and the question of why has never been satisfactorily resolved. A novel such as The Innocent demonstrates, though, that this resolution is wished for. In this regard, the novel can be read as an indictment. But however it is read, the novel is an essential record of an important part of Korean history.
Returning to the giddy present—a media-saturated age when many people feel history does not matter: ultimately, the forces driving the loss of a literary audience to a mass culture of images are so complicated that any one explanation cannot describe them. However, it seems undeniable that it is the seductiveness of the arousing image that is helping fuel a broad-based sense that literature is “boring.”
If what is happening in Korea is any sign of what is happening in the West, then literary writers will have to think in new ways if they want to literature to remain widely popular. On the one hand, we will need to be more open-minded about merging literature with images, and in this way acknowledge that in a culture as image-saturated as our own it is essential that we occasionally use that same energy in the name of literary art.
And to return to how this essay began, and the relationship between the relatively small world of litblogging and the massive world of the image: what’s been said here doesn’t mean all literature needs to incorporate images. But it does mean there needs to be conscious recognition of the role images now play, for better or worse, in our culture. So we need to be more open-minded about experimenting with new forms. This means not only recognizing that the book can be both text and image, but also that maybe this is a tendency that should be encouraged. Images can work with art rather than be a distraction from it.
And for writers who prefer the printed word alone, there is a fair bit of work on the relationship between arousing images and our actual feelings. But, as was said earlier, most of it is theoretical. (See, for example, Bound and Gagged by Laura Kipnis or Hard-core by Linda Williams.) We need more fiction on this theme. Or rather, we need more fiction on this theme that is given substantial critical attention.
Because the relationship between arousing images and real feelings is very complicated, we, as a culture, cannot presently claim that we have come to a widespread understanding of it. But that’s exactly what we need to do. The future of reading depends on it. And the future of literature depends on the future of reading.
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