Q: Your novels are often set in the Midwest, but why set a trilogy in suburban Chicago?
A: I wanted it near a major metropolitan area in the Midwest. I wanted it big because my recollection of the early 1970s is strongest ‘73 onward. I was in suburban St. Louis and the stuff that was happening in suburban St. Louis was probably happening a year or two earlier in Chicago. For that reason, the book begins in late 1971. I could be more assured of getting the cultural references and spirit right. But also, gosh, the Midwest just recurs in my work, right? I was born in suburban Chicago, I knew Chicago starting from the mid-70s on. Both of my brothers moved to Chicago, and with a novel, it’s nice to feel like you know the streets in a place. It’s that extra research you don’t have to do.
This leads to two related questions:
Can a great cultural work be set in the American suburbs of the postwar era? Can the space that is often criticized for sprawl, conformity, exclusion, and dullness serve as a compelling setting?
Are the suburbs of a city like Chicago, set in the Midwest, a kind of shorthand for central or normal America?
Of course, the simpler answer may be what is above: Franzen is familiar with the Chicago suburbs and its ways of life. But, the questions above still stand: are there great cultural works set in the suburbs? In a country where a majority of the residents live in the suburbs, I would suggest those experiences have not necessarily translated into critically acclaimed or very popular cultural works.
One of the key things wealth can buy is the ability to make decisions and change your circumstances. Money gives you options and choices. For everyone else in the vicinity of Just Getting By (or worse), choice is often little more than an illusion. Most of us fall into the latter category and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Netflix Korean series “Squid Game” has become such a global phenomenon since premiering last month, with its brutal critique of capitalist imperatives and the traps therein…
Because is it really a choice — such a slippery word — when you’re this desperate? Is it really a choice when the systems we live by are put in place by the rich and powerful to deliberately create that desperation? Put another way: Scarcity in modern life is as manufactured as the life-or-death scenarios in “Squid Game.”
In the show’s view, we are powerless to band together, to refuse to play along or create a different reality. When pushed to the brink, we become selfish or scared or just beaten down. And ultimately, we turn on one another. Another clear thematic through-line: It is men who run and enforce these games, and it is men who watch them from afar as spectators numb to (or thrilled by) the suffering at hand…
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the real-world embodiment of the show’s exploitative VIPs — tweeted congratulations to Netflix’s head honchos before adding: “And I can’t wait to watch the show”? Nothing bizarre or surreal about that, nope, nope, nope. Is this the part where I also mention that Netflix and Amazon are among the studios playing hardball with the union for TV and film crews in the U.S. on issues like livable wages, reasonable work hours and meal breaks? Everything is fine, pay no mind to all the contradictions we live with every day!
So wealthy studios, streaming services, and individuals put together and promote a series critiquing capitalism and there is plenty of money to be made off of this.
Second, consumers are regularly asked to purchase items or experiences that funnel money to worthwhile charities and causes. This could be celebrity-backed lines that donate a portion of the price to charity, religious organizations or civic groups selling items, or companies donating money through purchases. All of this assumes that purchases will be made and that consumers will want to purchase products or experiences that give back as opposed to ones just sold for profit. Consuming is the way to give, as opposed to just giving without the need for consumption.
Perhaps this is a consequence of the fact that anything can be made into a commodity. This includes items needed for daily survival to luxury goods to experiences to things that once were “sacred.” If anything can be bought and sold, including objects that critique the very system under which they are bought and sold, is there hope of a different reality?
Consumerism is also a powerful force. Whether consuming TV shows – binge-watching a critique of capitalism? – or consumer goods, the consumer is in a particular position of taking things in. I like the distinction I have heard from multiple sources over the last decade or so: there is a difference between being a consumer and a citizen. The first primarily takes while the second contains the ideas of duties, responsibilities, and obligations alongside personal or collective benefits.
A while back, I encountered Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” two different ways. In one instance, a radio host closed out an eight year run by playing the song and reflecting on the years of conversation. In the second instance, another person thought about their life thus far and used some of the words from the song to wonder what life might hold by the end.
Here is my sociological question: does this song represent American individualism in the twentieth century?
Regrets, I’ve had a few But then again, too few to mention I did what I had to do And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course Each careful step along the byway And more, much more than this I did it my way
This is a man reflecting on a full life. He planned it, he executed it, and did it “my way.” Later in the song:
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried I’ve had my fill my share of losing And now, as tears subside I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that And may I say – not in a shy way Oh no, oh no, not me I did it my way
Similarly, thinking about the emotional aspects of life, the singer notes that he was not shy and “I did it my way.”
It would be hard for any single cultural work to stand in for an entire people or country. Yet, at the same time, there are certain works that become popular, stand the test of time, and embody particular values and practices. Is “My Way” one of these songs or does it fit a particular subset of Americans better than others?
To go back to the beginning, how does Gill conclude her study of poetry and the suburbs? Here is the final paragraph:
Postwar suburbia has been understood and depicted as a place where little of significance can be said, where there is a profound absence of meaning, where communication is stylized, superficial, muted almost into silence. Yet as the poems discussed in this study indicate, suburbia is replete with meaning. Its poetry is bold, innovative, and engaging – both formally and thematically – in its evocation of this space and time. Indeed, the suburbs we know are known to us, in part, because of the ways in which poetry has constituted and mediated them. In turn, this poetry shows the signs of its own discursive, spatial, and historical contexts. As Doreen Massey has argued, “Social space is not an empty arena within which we conduct our lives; rather it is something we construct and which others construct about us” (49). For Roger Silverstone, suburbia is a “geographical, an architectural and a social space,” but it should also be understood as “an idea and ideology, as form and content of texts and images and as product of a multitude of social and cultural practices” (ix). Poetry, as this book has demonstrated, plays a vital – if until now overlooked – role in these processes. It offers a startling lens through which to view suburban landscape and architecture and to understand the nuances of the suburban everyday, and it demands of us that we read it with acuity and sensitivity. In its diversity and frequent ambiguity, poetry breaks the stranglehold of polarized thinking or, what Robert Beuka calls, “our continued cultural reliance on a restrictive binary system in defining the suburban milieu” (10). The Poetics of the American Suburbs has argued that the poetry of this time and place is critical, interrogative, evocative, expansive, and suggestive in turn. Most importantly, it is a poetry that is often skilful, occasionally luminous, always intriguing. The song it sings is sometimes familiar, sometimes subtle, sometimes discordant. As I hope this book has demosntrated, it deserves a hearing, and rewards attentive listening. (Gills 2013: 181)
This is a good description of what Gills does throughout the book, analyzing both popular and more literary poetry, showing how the constraints and possibilities of poetry help lead to insights about the suburbs, and how poetry reacted to and was shaped by suburbia. I recommend the book for those interested in studying the interaction of cultural works and the suburbs.
As I reviewed this academic work, it led to a few more thoughts on patterns within the work:
One idea that emerges from a number of these texts: understanding the suburbs requires analyzing what they mean and how narratives about them develop. Cultural narratives are influential and these cultural works contribute to an ongoing conversation about what the suburbs are and how they are to be regarded. For sociologists, both the facts about the suburbs – how did they arise, how are they changing, what social forces affect life there – and the interpretation of the suburbs – what are the processes of meaning-making around them – matter.
The academic literature addresses both works that praise or celebrate suburbia and works that critique suburbia. There are many works in this latter category, particularly in more recent years.
This is truly an interdisciplinary endeavor with scholars across a number of disciplines – Communications, English, Geography, Sociology, History, and more – contributing. These different perspectives help illuminate varied aspects of the cultural works and what they mean.
Related to #2, much of the work I have seen in this employs close readings or case studies of particular works or collections of works. There is less work that takes a quantitative approach to such cultural works.
In sum, I am grateful for all of this good academic work. It has helped me think more comprehensively about the suburbs and be more aware of how cultural works contribute to and/or challenge my and our perceptions of the suburbs. I am sure the academic conversation – and the public conversation about suburbs as well – will continue as suburbs change, new cultural works are produced, and the larger social context evolves.
With all of this academic study, I want to highlight the work of one scholar whose work I have found very helpful in my own research on suburbs on screens. After that, I will list several other books that cover similar ground from different angles.
It makes sense that there is more academic work on television and movies and suburbs. As mass suburbanization picks up in the United States after World War II, television spreads rapidly and Americans quickly devote hours a day to watching the box in their living room. And television often had a particular angle on the suburbs, as the studies above suggest. While films had been around longer, the prosperous postwar era expanded their reach. Furthermore, while poetry or novels might appeal to a smaller slice of the American population, these mediums are clearly popular and accessible. Together, these dominant visual mediums in the twentieth century provided many images of the suburbs.
Tomorrow, I will come back to the question at the start of Gill’s book – “who sings the song of suburbia?” – and address studies of music about the suburbs.
At the same time, the study of other cultural products or works about the suburbs is alive and well. Today, I will profile several academic studies involving novels and the suburbs. Poetry and novels might be very different forms of writing yet there is some overlap in themes. Additionally, writing and reading a novel might be more similar to poetry than other forms of cultural products – like television and film – which I will address tomorrow. (On Thursday, I will address a fourth category of works – music – that some commonalities with poetry.)
Two scholarly books, in particular, are great introductions to examining novels about the suburbs. In the 2001 book White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth Century American Novel, Catherine Jurca looks at how such works discuss the homelessness of suburbanites even as they have succeeded by acquiring the suburban single-family house and the representation of suburbanites as a whole – “empty white people” – as a sociological fact. In the Introduction, Jurca puts these two narrative strands together:
this study examines the tendency in twentieth-century literary treatments of the American suburb to convert the rights and privileges of living there into spiritual, cultural, and political problems of displacement, in which being white and middle class is imagined to have as much or more to do with subjugation as with social dominance.
For the authors and filmmakers I discuss, the suburbs present a reflection of both the values and the anxieties of dominant U.S. culture. Their various gazes into the heterotropic “mirror” of suburbia reveal a landscape both energized and compromised by manifold cultural aspirations and fears.
These two books cover a lot of literary ground: there are a number of novels that explicitly address suburban life. Additionally, their analytical lenses help shed light on important themes and patterns. There are lived suburban experiences and then there are narratives about suburban life. Both are important and influence each other – both facts and interpretation matter for a full understanding of suburban life.
More broadly, novels are important. Long, important books are signs of culture and sophistication. I am thinking of sociologist Wendy Griswold’s work on the development of a reading culture that requires a number of elements to come into place for producers to create novels and a reading public to consume them. Perhaps it is not surprising that a number of novels and the suburbs converged given the significant social change of suburbanization as well as the development of the American literary scene. For novels and fictional works to coalesce around certain themes involving suburbia matters.
Tomorrow, several of the important scholarly works I have drawn on that analyze television and film representations of the suburbs.
“Who sings the song of suburbia? Where is its poet?” In his conclusion he answers his own question firmly and in the negative: “There is no official school or philosophy of suburban culture; just as there is not poet, artist, or sculptor to present its voice, its face, or the dimensions of its imagination” (206, 208). (Gill 2013:1)
Before I go on to read the entirety of Gill’s text, these are provocative questions about who speaks for the suburbs and whether there is a specific suburban culture. I will offer a few thoughts on these questions today and then in subsequent posts highlight several scholars whose work I appreciate in helping to answer these questions regarding cultural products and suburbs.
There is indeed a specific suburban culture. The particular way of life connected to the American suburbs involves single-family homes, an emphasis on family life, driving, exclusion, middle-class expectations and lifestyles, a preference for local government, and proximity to nature. See my seven posts on Why Americans Love Suburbs. But, I suspect this is not the target of Nicholson’s question. What great cultural works have come out of the suburbs or what ideas and works have been created with a suburban ethos? A typical look at this might instead emphasize the consuming nature of suburbs where suburbanites take in culture from elsewhere rather than focusing on what is produced in suburban settings. And if culture is produced in the suburbs, is it worth considering or is it tacky and low-brow?
Tomorrow, I will continue the discussion of academic work that examines cultural products and suburbs by focusing on works that I have drawn on in my own research on this topic.
So is it a good idea for movie makers to pursue Oscar nominations? Rossman and Schilke’s research suggests that it probably is not. Rossman and Schilke use data from the Internet Movie Database to identify the themes of a very large set of movies. They then look to see how well each movie’s themes match the themes of Oscar nominees in the five years before the movie was released, to figure out how well the movie matches the “Oscar formula,” while also accounting for other factors (e.g. the studio that released the movie) which could affect the movie’s Oscar chances. This allows them to figure out the ‘Oscar appeal’ of each movie in their dataset. On Rossman and Schilke’s measure, movies like The Hottie and the Nottie have very low Oscar appeal, while movies like Out of Africa have high appeal.
The problem is that there are lots of movies with Oscar appeal, but far fewer movies that get nominated. Because the Oscar nominee list imposes a sharp cutoff (movies either get nominated or they don’t), movies that just failed to make the Oscar nomination cut are likely to do far worse than movies that just about got on the list, even if the two are of more or less equal quality. The financial losses of the failures counterbalance the success of the nominees.
As Rossman and Schilke conclude:
..net of achieving Oscar nominations, Oscar appeal has a negative effect on financial returns. In essence, there are two types of high Oscar appeal movies—those that do not receive nominations (and tend to lose money) and those that do receive nominations (and tend to make money)—but taken together these two types of movies are no more nor less profitable than movies with low Oscar appeal.
This seems to fit other evidence that it is very difficult to predict which mass culture products will be successful – whether movies, music, or books – and the more successful ones can make enough to offset the losses from producing all the rest.
The budget for the film was $180m and, Meaney says, “it was breathtaking that it was under serious consideration”. There were dinosaurs and tigers. It existed in a fantasy prehistory—with a fantasy language. “Preposterous things were happening, without rhyme or reason.” Meaney, who will not reveal the film’s title because he “can’t afford to piss these people off”, told the studio that his program concurred with his own view: it was a stinker.
The difference is the program puts a value on it. Technically a neural network, with a structure modelled on that of our brain, it gradually learns from experience and then applies what it has learnt to new situations. Using this analysis, and comparing it with data on 12 years of American box-office takings, it predicted that the film in question would make $30m. With changes, Meaney reckoned they could increase the take—but not to $180m. On the day the studio rejected the film, another one took it up. They made some changes, but not enough—and it earned $100m. “Next time we saw our studio,” Meaney says, “they brought in the board to greet us. The chairman said, ‘This is Nick—he’s just saved us $80m.’”…
But providing a service that adapts to individual humans is not the same as becoming like a human, let alone producing art like humans. This is why the rise of algorithms is not necessarily relentless. Their strength is that they can take in that information in ways we cannot quickly understand. But the fact that we cannot understand it is also a weakness. It is worth noting that trading algorithms in America now account for 10% fewer trades than they did in 2009.
Those who are most sanguine are those who use them every day. Nick Meaney is used to answering questions about whether computers can—or should—judge art. His answer is: that’s not what they’re doing. “This isn’t about good, or bad. It is about numbers. These data represent the law of absolute numbers, the cinema-going audience. We have a process which tries to quantify them, and provide information to a client who tries to make educated decisions.”…
Equally, his is not a formula for the perfect film. “If you take a rich woman and a poor man and crash them into an iceberg, will that film always make money?” No, he says. No algorithm has the ability to write a script; it can judge one—but only in monetary terms. What Epagogix does is a considerably more sophisticated version, but still a version, of noting, say, that a film that contains nudity will gain a restricted rating, and thereby have a more limited market.
The larger article suggests algorithms can do better at predicting some human behaviors, such a purchasing consumer items, but not so good in other areas, like critical evaluations of cultural works. There are two ways this might go in the future. On one hand, some will argue this is just about collecting the right data or enough data. Perhaps we simply aren’t looking at the right things to correctly judge cultural products. On the other hand, some will argue that the value of an object may be too difficult for an algorithm to ever figure out. And, even if a formula starts hinting at good or bad art, humans can change their minds and opinions – see all the various cultural, art, and music movements just in the last few hundred years.
There is a lot of money that could be made here. This might be the bigger issue with cultural works in the future: whether algorithms can evaluate them or not, does it matter if they are all commoditized?