"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Abridge Too Far



In his cranky old man masterwork, 1938's diatribe-as-autobiography The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham recalls the story of a ruler who wishes to have all the knowledge of the world distilled into readable form. As the ruler gets older and assumes more responsibility, he refuses round after round of multi-volume condensations as too great an imposition on an increasingly busy schedule. Upon retirement, the monarch finds his newly-found free time is more than balanced by a basic inability to find things — mental deterioration makes necessary yet another round of abridgment. The end result is a one-volume, super-concentrated wisdom of mankind, the idea of which is enough to make Maugham drool: "It was some such book as this that I sought, a book that would answer once and for all the questions that puzzled me, so that, everything being settled for good and all, I could pursue the pattern of my life without let or hindrance."

Maugham provides a romantic construction of a belief popular for hundreds of years, that works can be summarized in a way that maintains their value but reduces the amount of time one needs to spend on them. That belief thrives today, and stretches across media. But for Maugham and his generation, truth was an issue of the written word. The 19th Century in which Maugham was schooled was the good ol' days for fans of abridgment and synthesis. The American publishing industry from 1840-1890 was one big scan and send of successful British works, often trimmed for stateside audiences into popular paperback formats. Charles Dickens shortened his own works for author's readings, a step necessary for a British dance hall that might not have been so for your local Barnes and Noble. The desire for the one-volume superbook expressed by Maugham rolled into the 20th Century intact, finding expression in the synthesized world histories of H.G. Wells and the Durants, the later writing of Sigmund Freud, and in hundreds of children's textbooks dense with facts in a way that would frighten the modern graduate student.



The spirit of abridgment soon settled upon Reader's Digest, to the point that "Reader's Digest version" became common vernacular for a truncated version of a more complete story. Lila and DeWitt Wallace's publishing empire was built with direct mail solicitations of taut, poetic magnificence erected on a solid foundation: the myth of core, transferable knowledge. Today, Reader's Digest's Select Editions program provides for its subscribers four books in one volume, a reading experience which two out of three pained-looking authors are quick to note is just as good as the real thing. Like Cliff's Notes for cocktail parties, Select Editions no doubt continue to make good on their promise to keep readers abreast of current trends in fiction. But pointing to the mainstream dissemination of writers like John Updike flatters everyone involved except maybe Updike. And in a world where even book clubs slip into discussions of movies and television, what good is that?

Luckily, the concept of essential knowledge is a versatile one. The greatest use of the capsule review in recent memory was not by Reader's Digest but by that other digest-sized publishing phenomenon: TV Guide. Nearing its 50th year of publication, TV Guide has been subjected to any number of theories about its enduring popularity, most of which miss the point entirely. Arguing that the magazine's living-room ubiquity has helped engineer gradual mainstream social change is sort of like saying the Official Game Program helps Super Bowl ad revenues — nothing is more widely-seen than television itself. Don't let anyone fool you: TV Guide's great contribution is its listings, the summary statements used to describe hundreds of television shows per week as compiled from in-house reviews and the publicity machines that provide them. As Glenn Altschuler and David Grossvogel pointed out in their 1992 book Changing Channels: America in TV Guide, simply having the shows described in such a manner forced viewers to reconsider their television watching in terms of consumer choices. Not nearly so much that they turned the set off, of course. And for every couch potato who dedicated himself to the idea of "dialsmanship," there were probably ten for whom the essential banality of a listing for F Troop was as reassuring as the ingredients on a can of Chef Boyardee mini-ravioli. But whether one orients oneself toward or away from certain types of programming, TV Guide's summary of a show serves as a precursor to or even a shoddy substitute for viewing the original.



Our way of understanding art, and by extension the world, creeps closer and closer to the TV Guide ideal. Arts writing has moved from expansive criticism to reductive review, and the reviews become smaller and smaller every year. Annotated links between web sites are summary reviews of what's to be expected on the other side, while "My News" smorgasbords inevitably become abstracts of world events. People even write capsules of themselves on personal web sites and in relationship want ads, the various forms having become so familiar that each brings with it specific contextual implications. They are genres to be subverted, such as in a man's description of himself in a personal ad as "portly and average-looking," or a bus poet's declaration that "she is not comfortable talking about herself."

TV Guide itself has changed, its listings becoming more intrusive. Made conceptually possible by the comfortable computer screen interaction of image and text, TV Guide's interactive listings are the ultimate capsule reviews. Provided to digital cable users — primarily cable giant TCI via an exclusive deal signed in Spring 1999 — interactive listings allow the viewer to bring up a screen version of television scheduling. The full menu allows for sorting one's television experience by genre, channel, or special programming function. But on one's screen, the summaries become part of the viewing experience, sometimes more baffling and compelling than the show itself. Why is one sports show given two sentences while another an elegant five, including the date of its debut? One movie is "forced" and "threadbare;" another features "strong performances" and a "charming heel." The programs without any summary at all are mysterious and foreboding, the same way barely-receivable UHF station programming seemed exotic to whitebread Midwesterners in the pre-cable 1970s.



But what changes even more is how the listing effects the viewer. While the menu replicates the connoisseur function of TV Guide, the largest button on the remote is reserved for bringing up a capsule listing of the show one is currently watching. The end result is the opposite of the consumer's distancing suggested by Altschuler and Grossvogel, instead serving as constant reassurance of the show one is watching and its basic meaning. It's not uncommon for the summary to be called up several times in a half-hour. On those occasions when TV Guide Interactive is wrong, such as in June's placement of a synopsis for the forgettable Val Kilmer-Mira Sorvino weepie At First Sight with the execrable Dan Cortese-Jonathan Silverman buddy movie of the same title, the effect is disturbing. It's not so much that one wants to see one movie over the other — okay, maybe one would in this circumstance — but that the reassurance of my role, what I'm watching, is no longer available. If I watch a tree falling in the woods, but TV Guide Interactive tells me it's an episode of New Zoo Revue, did it make a sound?

Somerset Maugham and many of his contemporaries believed reducing information down to its core elements left the reader with the truth. Watchers of digital cable know that what is really revealed when information is pared down are the malleable facts that serve as blocks equally suited to build belief systems or advertising campaigns. The act of simultaneously experiencing something and watching oneself experience something promises a more interesting way of interacting with the world, but you're really just watching television. Given today's expectations, the emperor in Maugham's story who desired the world's knowledge would, on his deathbed, be given a slim, slim volume of his own biography.

courtesy of 40th Street Black
picturesTerry Colon

40th Street Black