TV Time

David Foster Wallace, the novelist who recently committed suicide, wrote a pretty long and good essay on television’s effect on writers of fiction. He thinks those effects have been rather grossly underplayed. One place in this essay he wrote something that gave me pause:

The U.S. generation born after 1950 is the first for whom television was something to be lived with instead of looked at. Our elders tend to regard the set rather as a flapper did the automobile: a curiosity turned treat turned seduction. For younger writers, TV’s as much a part of reality as Toyota or gridlock. We literally cannot imagine life without it…. We have no memory of a world without such electrical definition.

As a person born before 1950 and having been raised without a TV set till I was ten or eleven, I have such a memory–of a world without TV. Not that I haven’t watched plenty of it since. But that’s not the point exactly. I tell my students that I don’t understand them and I mean it. What I mean though has not always been clear. But this TV thing is part of it–of this difference I don’t quite get.

At some elemental level because of those early years without TV I cannot quite step into a world of students who have known TV forever and for whom TV is part of what Wallace calls "reality." At some level I just don’t feel TV is part of reality in the way a Toyota is or gridlock.

I must be bone headed. According to what I have read the only thing people do more than sleep is watch TV. They watch on average at least six hours of it a day (though perhaps the figures are changing some what with the internet.). But if you think of that–six hours a day!–you better get the feeling that TV is–how to say–a significant "experiential unit" in the overall fabric of reality that includes such things as work, driving to work, school, or other life shaping activities.

My students tell me they have bought things just because a celebrity they admired wore the thing they bought. This idea has never crossed my mind.

Wallace knows what my students feel better than I.

He writes:

We try to see ourselves in them [TV characters]. The same I.D.-relation, however, also means that we try to seem them in ourselves. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV because all the more attractive, a cycle which is great for TV. But less so for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identity with.

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