Monday, April 9, 2012

Hot and cool prose qua McLuhan

I started reading Marshall McLuhan's "Understanding Media" this week, and it's already proved rather rich in insights. One thing that really struck me was his distinction between "hot" and "cool" media. Hot media is that which prevents or discourages audience participation by providing a deep immersion in multiple senses; cool media is that which demands or encourages audience participation by refraining from same. In some ways, McLuhan's analysis of different media like radio, TV, and movies according to these categories is rather troubled and just plain wrong, especially since he seems to consider content a non-entity, but rather another type of media (i.e., the content of one medium is always another medium... huh?). But the categories themselves are incredibly interesting, especially (for me, at least) when applied to reading and writing.

For example, in the past year I've become a big fan of Michael Cisco: I really enjoy his work, at the same time that I find his writing very difficult to read and sometimes so convoluted it's annoying. I used to explain this by saying his writing was too "thick" at times, but now I have a better explanation: Cisco is a hot writer. His stories involve immensities of description that utterly refute the reader and prevent the audience's participation in the story. This has both positive and negative effects; as I like to say, "when it works, it works." Indeed, fantasy in general is a pretty "hot" genre: world-building is avidly discussed in blogs and podcasts, ignoring the fact that world-building and info-dumping are activities that bore the reader precisely because they exclude him or her. But then, they can also excite the reader by plunging them into wholly new worlds. The power and originality of Cisco's worlds is what makes his heat sizzle.

On the other hand, you have cool writers, like Cormac McCarthy, who use a sparsity of prose to force the reader to build images in their head. I really dig this kind of writing, too. Again, there are positive and negative effects: when I read a couple McCarthy books last week, there were times when my head was filled with lush images, and other times where I was actually lost vis-a-vis what was happening in the story. Like, I literally didn't know who was who or what had happened. So, yeah, that's bad.

Anyway, these aren't normative evaluations: they're positive categories. So don't take "hot" and "cool" to mean what they may mean as normal adjectives. Still, I think it's an important distinction to make. I think "cool" writing is a lot easier to read: it actually requires less of the reader even as the reader has more chance to involve him or herself in the reading. That's probably why cool writing is constantly toted by literary establishments: you know, cut those excess words and adverbs and all that crap. It doesn't make your writing any better unless you are cool, but it is without doubt easier to read. Hot prose, on the other hand, is more like poetry--it requires more attention to enjoy--and so it can be harder for (not to sound like a conceited jerkwad here, but) less sophisticated readers to appreciate.

Anyhoo, sorry for the lack of textual examples, but laziness prevails over the bookshelf today...

-bn

P.S. "Qua" is not at all the right word. WHATEVER I'M NOT EVEN MAD.