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July, 2009 : Feature:

What's Louder than Noise?

Signals 22

About twenty years ago now, I wrote an opening to an as-yet unfinished novel about the aftermath of the dissolution of the United States. It's a fantasy novel and I might finish it someday with major revisions. Some of the politics in the book are naïve and some prophetic, but one part is just plain wrong.

I had California survive because of the export of entertainment. In those days, I saw the entertainment industry as an American-dominated monolith that could not be conquered.

I was wrong. America no longer dominates—no one does. Now we have a much more interesting, unforeseen problem—one I alluded to last month: The Noise. How do you, as an artist, or you as a consumer, rise above the Noise?

In order to explain exactly what I mean, I'm going to delve into some history, and do it in a personal way because (I think) that will explain it best.

My mother was born in 1918 into a large family in a small Wisconsin town. My grandfather, a German immigrant, was the minister at the German Reform Church, which was Protestant. There was at least one other church in town, the Catholic church, but I know of no others.

My grandparents spoke German in their home. They had a Bible and German-language newspapers, but I'm not sure what other reading material existed there. My mother, as the youngest, had only vague memories of those years.

Her father died when she was very young—six, seven, eight?—I'm not exactly sure when. Her father's word was law among the religious Protestants in that community—the entire world to most of them, since the outside world was very, very far away. It filtered in through days-old newspaper reports and through gossip. What happened inside the community was much more important than what happened outside of it.

His death was a large catastrophe for the family and for her. Her mother did not work and they had no savings. The church elders bought my grandmother a home and she ran a boarding house to make money. All of the children slept in the attic so the boarders had private rooms.

In that attic, in the late 1920s, my mother and her beloved brother made a wireless radio using a crystal set they had saved up for. (This process is mysterious to me eighty years later.) With that radio, they finally heard the voices of the outside world—and those voices, for the most part, were forbidden. My mother and uncle listened to that radio late at night, under the covers, the way that children of my generation read forbidden books.

Through that radio, new ideas entered the household, which got hit again with tragedy when my grandmother died in the early 1930s. My mother went to live with married siblings, and went to work at a very young age. Scraping together what little she earned, she went to the movies at least once a week—watching newsreels and seeing images of people far away. Those images had an impact: a late 1930s picture of my mother shows her with a Claudette Colbert haircut and a sweater and skirt straight out of one of Colbert's films.

Enter my father, great reader and sports fan (who listened to a baseball game on the radio at his wedding reception). My parents married in 1939 and listened to the radio as the war approached. (E.B. White has a great essay on this—how it felt like the world was stalking him—in One Man's Meat.) Then the tsunami of war hit, and that isolated life my mother had been born into was gone forever.

After the war, my parents bought a television set, which brought outside images in. I was the last child of four, born in 1960, and my memories of home include a radio on 24/7 (even in my parents' bedroom), and the TV on in whatever room my mother happened to be in. My parents bought a lot of books and subscribed to four daily newspapers—two morning papers and two evening papers, which my father read religiously. My parents also subscribed to a dozen magazines, including Time and The Saturday Review of Books.

We all went to church on Sundays, but our church was one of many, and the minister was simply another human being with learned opinions. The town we lived in, while small, had a lot of different opinions, many formed by the things we watched or read or heard.

But there were only three television stations (four if you counted PBS, which no one did in those days), and a handful of radio stations. Books did divide into subcategories, but the "good" ones got reviewed, while the rest—science fiction, gothic romances, hardboiled mysteries—were considered "pulp" and beneath people with taste. Those genres all developed their own version of The Saturday Review of Books. Locus, for example, started up in the late 1960s as a fanzine. The subcultures felt they had to defend themselves, and often closed ranks.

When I was in high school, we all watched the same TV programs, saw the same movies, and listened to the same music. Not because we had the same tastes—we didn't—but because the other things were hard to get. With only three television stations and a new movie opening every week, we didn't have a lot of choices.

Music did divide up into classical programming, country western (of the twangy variety), the pre-Beatles popular song stuff (Sinatra, etc.) and cutting edge rock 'n roll. I listened to the Top 40 program every weekend, and it only included the top 40 hits on what was then called the Hit Parade, which meant it was mostly rock music.

Back then, it was still possible to write the Great American Novel—the book everyone discussed for an entire year. It was possible to record the Great American Rock Song—the best song of the year (I'm still sick of "Hotel California" because I heard it so much the year it came out). It was possible to have one movie change the entire direction of cinema—from The Godfather to Jaws to Star Wars.

For a very, very brief period of my mother's lifetime, American culture was a monolith. The entire country watched, read, and heard the same things.

That started to change with the advent of cable, the expansion of the music business, and the rise of genre fiction into the mainstream. Suddenly we could move between subcultures; we didn't have to hide in them.

By 1990, the music industry separated its Top 40 categories to include adult contemporary (whatever the hell that is), country, R&B, classical, and a bunch of other subgenres I don't keep track of. Each publishing genre started keeping its own bestseller lists. Magazines like The Saturday Review died off. Newspapers died. The internet became a dominant force.

Suddenly, we aren't a monolithic culture any more. Within the same household we can participate in completely different parts of American culture without touching anyone else's interest. MP3 players make it possible to listen to music without bothering anyone else. We can watch TV shows from Britain on the internet before they get to the U.S. Films open in some cities, but not others—and the big films become the topic of discussion for one week, not one entire year.

The Great American Novel is no longer possible. You can write a literary masterpiece that gets well reviewed in literary circles, and may win an American Book Award or the Pulitzer (talk about a blip: Pulitzer coverage this year lasted all of an afternoon). You can write a great science fiction novel that sweeps the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award. You can write a wonderful mystery novel that wins the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Shamus. But it's a rare book that will cross genre lines one into the other. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union did so a few years back, winning the Hugo, the Edgar, and several mainstream awards, but was it the Great American Novel? Not by the 1950s standards, it wasn't. Because people on the street weren't discussing it.

Only a few novelists have managed year-long discussions. Stephanie Meyer is doing so now with Twilight. Dan Brown did it with The Da Vinci Code, and J.K. Rowling managed nearly a decade-long discussion worldwide. But those are rare instances. Even James Patterson, who just made the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most book titles on the bestseller list, isn't the kind of household name that Ernest Hemingway was in his heyday.

Because the noise has increased. In some ways, we've gone back to the world my mother was born into in 1918. She entered a small community of like-minded people, who discussed things of interest to them. In 1918, they happened to live in the same geographical region.

Now the members of this community may live all over the world, but they still interact based on shared interests. I adore the SF communities on the various social networking sites, but I also cross into other communities.

In fact, I'm overwhelmed by the Noise in some ways because I want to know as much as possible about everything. I subscribe to one newspaper and read two others irregularly. I subscribe to a dozen magazines, and buy more books per week than I can read in a month.

I surf the web, trying to keep up with what's going on in all my areas of interest—politics, romance, mystery, young adult fiction, publishing, world events, movies, baseball, basketball, television programs, and (oh, yeah) science fiction. I can't absorb all the information that passes my desk in one day, let alone what happens in one year.

Yesterday, I left home to go shopping an hour away, spent the day with friends and in bookstores, and returned home late last night. I missed the hourly news updates on NPR, didn't finish my newspaper, didn't scan all the websites I usually read, didn't watch any newscasts on TV, and didn't read messages on the social networking sites.

Today, as I started into my routine, I felt extremely disoriented, lost because I had missed the thread between discussions. News grows and changes, assuming that we're all following the stories from day to day. Within hours a story can go from breaking news, to analyzed, to reëxamined, to passé. And not just political news or national news, but SF news and publishing news.

How does a book climb above the Noise? How does a short story do the same thing? Or a movie? Or a comic book? By lots of recommendations, yes. But are there other ways?

No one knows. As I write this, Book Expo America, the big publishing trade show, has just ended. The show addressed the topic of Noise in a variety of ways, but didn't come up with any solutions.

No one has solutions. Not yet. I'm not sure there are any. I think we may go back to community-based living, but the communities will remain worldwide. The key is to somehow expand our community to include not just the people in our small village, but the people in our county or the people in our state.

If I ever go back to that fantasy novel, I'm going to have to change the section about the monolithic entertainment industry. I would have to change a lot of things.

The world is a very different place than it was in 1990. I suspect it'll be a very different place twenty years from now.

Do I want to go back to the monolith? No. I love the diversity. I just wish I had time to pay attention to all of it, instead of the part that filters into my consciousness. I wish I could hear each voice that makes up the Noise—and better yet, understand it all.

But I can't. Not yet, anyway. Maybe not ever.

Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at


Jul 3, 01:08 by IROSF
Comment Below!
Jul 3, 13:23 by Nader Elhefnawy
I fully agree about the issue of Noise, and what now seems like the impossibility of a "Great American Novel" (or, I suspect, a Great British Novel, a Great French Novel, etc., even though I've always found those to be more feasible concepts).

I remember being in literature courses many a time, and seeing students and instructors alike try and grapple with the issue of where we are in literature now, and having a very hard time with it because of this problem-and alas, often rarely suspecting it.

If anything, I might even go further. Even the science fiction community has long since ceased to have anything like that older unity (a point I've actually been thinking of writing about myself, incidentally). The fact certainly strikes me when reading histories of the genre because of how fuzzy they often get around 1980; that sense of a whole picture seems to disappear, and we get scattered bits and pieces of what's been going on since.
Jul 7, 16:54 by David Bartell
Well, the Great American Novel is but a minor casualty. But yes, excellent presentation of the problem. Church was the center of culture for a long time. It was where people went to socialize, hear music, dance, everything. Mass media has replaced most of that, at least for most Americans. The addition of more "channels" for media has facilitated the fracturing of culture. This is new ground for our society, and I am concerned at the effects. I'm not sure a credible case for strength in diversity has been made. There is an obvious strength in the unity we once had. Diversity is more democratic in a sense, but does it really empower America as a nation?
Jul 9, 15:12 by Bluejack
You raise a lot of interesting points David. A few immediate reactions: I think historical unity is found more by rose colored glasses than by historical analysis. Even if you only mean unity of culture, in the USA that needs to overlook native americans and waves of immigrants each subjected to wage-slave conditions and, of course, slavery itself. European nations without the "melting pot" history are often conglomerations of distinct peoples and have only achieved unity when a single dominant cultural/linguistic group completely subjugates all others: if the Normans could have pulled a Hitler in 1066 they would have.

The idea of strength through diversity is a new one, and culturally, it has tremendous potential for the obvious reason that if wildly different talents can be harnessed toward a common purpose the range of abilities will outclass a monoculture. Which idea is drawn directly from our experience of monoculture based agriculture, which is a precarious dance with nature's obvious love of diversity. The common purpose thing is one difficult aspect. Another is the harnessing part: with all the Arab and Persian Americans signing up for military duty after 9/11 you'd think we could have done a more culturally sensitive job in Iraq.

But I suppose you are really only trying to speak about diversity of "channels" -- even so it might be worth considering that diversity is not a problem, but rather an opportunity. Even diversity of channels: for technology has destroyed the barrier of distance and changed the meaning of community from one of proximity of space to one of proximity of interest. This brings creators into direct contact with consumers, no matter how far. Book, EBook, Film, TV, Web Page, Video Game, Graphic Novel, Twitter Stream. These are all vehicles for story, and with thousands--hundreds of thousands--millions of creators all flooding all the channels, the "Great American Novel" becomes meaningless not because greatness is obsolete, but because Novels are not the only game in town, and because nations as divisions between people (or as arbitrary prefabricated communities) are what is obsolete.

The transcendent phenomenon of something like Harry Potter is both an exception to the norm and a pointer of things to come. With our densely interconnected interest-based communities, our incredible options of broadcast communication, suddenly something can catch the fascination of--not just America, not just a generation, but the entire f*@#ing WORLD!

From a diversity of languages, a diversity of channels, a diversity of mediums we stand at the brink of something unprecedented: a united world.

What will overcome the noise of ten billion people chattering away? The amplified voice of those who can seize the global microphone.

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