The Failure of Imagination

On my way to and back from the World Fantasy Convention, I managed to squeeze in reading several books – and a bit of writing.  One of the books I read, some three hundred plus pages long, takes place in one evening.  While I may be a bit off in my page count, after reading the book, I thought that of the more than three hundred pages, the prologue and interspersed recollections and flashbacks amounting to perhaps fifty pages provided the background for the incredibly detailed action, consisting of sorcery, battles, fights and more fights, resulting in… what?  An ending that promised yet another book. To me, at least, it was more like a novelized computer game [and no, it’s not, at least not yet].  If I hadn’t been on an airplane, and if the book hadn’t come highly recommended, I doubt I would have finished it.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more it bothered me, until I realized that what the book presented, in essence, was violence in the same format as pornography, with detailed descriptions of mayhem in realms of both the physical and the ghostly, with just enough background to “justify” the violence.  While I haven’t done as much reading of the genre recently as I once did – I read 30-40 books in the field annually, as opposed to the 300 plus I once read – to offer a valid statistical analysis, it seems to me that this is a trend that is increasing… possibly because publishers and writers are trying to draw in more of the violence-oriented gaming crowd.  Then again, perhaps I’ve just picked the wrong books, based on the recommendations of reviewers who like that sort of thing.

And certainly, this trend isn’t limited to books. In movies, we’re being treated – or assaulted, depending on one’s viewpoint – with more and more detailed depictions of everything, but especially of mayhem, murder, and sexually explicit scenes. The same is true across a great percentage of what is classified as entertainment, and I’m definitely not the first commentator to notice that.

Yet… all this explicitness, at least to me, comes off as false.  Older books, movies, and the like that hint at sex, violence, terror, and leave the reader and viewer in the shadows, so to speak, imagining the details, have a “reality” far more realistic than entertainment that leaves nothing to the imagination.

This lack of reader/viewer imagination and mental exploration also results in another problem, lack of reader understanding. I’m getting two classes of reader reviews on books such as Haze, in particular, those from readers who appear truly baffled and those who find the book masterful. The “baffled” comments appear to come largely from readers who cannot imagine, let alone understand, the implications and pressures of a society different from their own experience and preconceptions… and they blame their failure to understand on the writer.  The fact that many readers do understand suggests that the failure is not the writer’s.

All this brings up another set of questions.  Between the detailed computer graphics of games, the growth of anime, manga, and graphic novels, the CGI effects in cinema, what ever happened to books, movies, and games that rely on the imagination? A generation ago, children and young adults used their imagination in entertainment and reading to a far greater extent. The immediate question is to what degree the proliferation of graphic everything minimizes the development of imagination. And what are the ramifications for the future of both society and culture?

4 thoughts on “The Failure of Imagination”

  1. Matthew Runyon says:

    There are still games and movies that despite their dedication to impressive graphics and the like still leave plenty of room for imagination. The very best place you in the world, and fill it with such detail that you don’t /have/ to imagine the action, and leave you to focus on other points, be it the moral of the sequence, the theoretical underpinnings of some system, or wherever else they choose to direct the entertainee.

    Bioshock comes to mind. I have read a lot about it, and talked to several people about it, over the course of over a year, and not once did anyone mention a single thing about the graphics or combat system after the first week after the game was out. They were both good, but paled in importance to the story and the way it reshaped your thinking.

    All but one of the people I talked to said that it changed the way they saw every other game, and not in particularly comfortable ways.

  2. LRK says:

    Those are very interesting questions, thanks for bringing them up.

    I’ve also wondered why the more “graphic” something is, the more “adult” it’s supposed to be? One of the most “adult” movies I’ve seen is Sunset Boulevard – scarcely anything is shown; it’s merely implied – and the reason we understand is because we are adults. Why do we need to be told everything?

    Also, what I actually wanted to say, though, was that I’ve noticed a trend – people seem to judge a movie/drama/tv series by how good the CGI is. It’s one of the first things they will comment on. Personally, I like good CGI as well as the next person – as a tool of storytelling. It is, however, not my MAIN concern. Surely story, character and so on are far, far more important than the quality of CGI? It had better be, since however great or “cutting edge” any CGI may be today – it will be dated (and visibly dated) in only a few years.

    They also seem to judge how good anything is by how graphic it is as well. A thread on IMDb springs to mind where a commenter assumed that an adaptation of “The Eagle of the Ninth” (now simply called “The Eagle” for whatever reason) would be ruined because it was not R-rated… Apparently if a movie is PG-13, it cannot be good. The mind boggles. (For those who may not know the movie is based on the MG/YA book by Rosemary Sutcliff – it being R-rated would be very, very weird indeed…)

    Sorry for rambling on so! This is my first comment here, and I’d like to thank you for the time when I missed getting off at my train station because I was absorbed in “Scion of Cyador”.:)

  3. Joshua Blonski says:

    One of the most tense and suspenseful scenes I have ever read is a chase scene from The Island of Doctor Moreau. Out of context it’s probably not as suspenseful, but during a read-through of the book, a particular scene has Edward (the main character) leaving the forests and running for his life down the beach while something chases after him. Nothing violent truly happens. We never even “see” the creature through the text. But we know it’s there, we know it’s getting closer, and we share Edward’s fear. As a whole, actually, that book is very short, and yet Wells packed so much story into it. I do find it interesting that, outside of a few scenes, most of the details are left to the imagination.

    In Alien, Ridley Scott chose to never show the entire alien head to toe (except when it’s shot off into space, but that’s at the very end and serves its own purpose). There’s only one scene that even comes close to doing so. Scott’s reasoning, if I remember correctly, was not because of a lack of visual special effects. He simply didn’t want this stunning, incredibly dangerous and alien creature to resemble a human or even a humanoid on screen. By showing the creature in close-up and segmented ways, all humanity or human similarities are stripped away. This also makes our imagination fill in the rest at any given time, and it makes for a much more fearsome creature.

    In summary, I think you’re on to something. The imagination will provide much more than explicit written or visual details if given a nice platform to expand upon. Provided we don’t train it out of ourselves, anyway.

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