Are Fewer TV Characters Reading?

Outside of Mad Men, conversations between and among our favorite television characters about contemporary fiction are rare. (Hey, in the early 60s, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything was contemporary fiction.) But the appearance of books (printed or electronic) in general is getting rarer still, and that disturbs me.

I get it. Who wants to watch someone on television reading a book? Total snoozer, right? But do you remember The Cosby Show? Home Improvement? Mad About You? The rash of domestic comedies that followed? Pick any one of these shows and they probably had at least one scene that opened with a character reading. When a second character came into the room, the book was put down and the conversation began.

Lately, though, when a book is on the set, it’s often used as a metaphor. As in, “I’m just going to sit here and read my book and ignore you.” Or it’s a prop, intended to show personality. The super geniuses of The Big Bang Theory don’t seem to own any books, but least one has a Kindle, displayed on set in screensaver mode. (Inevitably, the non-owner would believe screen-saving mode to be less efficient than simply turning the thing off.)

Often, in comedies, novels are portrayed as something to be avoided. Hence elaborate plot lines involving kids blowing off book reports, using Cliff Notes, or, in one of my least favorite Seinfeld episodes, George spends more time trying to obtain and watch a copy of the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s than actually reading the book so he can impress his girlfriend at her book club. Novelists are often ridiculed as posers. Or, like Nathan Fillion’s Richard Castle, are rarely seen writing.

What are we showing kids? People who read books are suckers? Reading and writing books requires too much work? People who have books in their homes are either rich or snobby?

Some say that certain behaviors shown on television, like sex and violence, have influence on the more easily influenced of us. Others defend the content as merely holding up a mirror to our culture. Do you think this dearth of small-screen reading is a reflection of the evolution of our society, or a slippery slope to illiteracy?

Maybe I should simply spend more time reading.

(Photo courtesy of Fox Animation)

Terra Nova: Nothing “Nova” About It

I’d seen the previews for Terra Nova on Fox months before it actually appeared.  Cleverly, their marketing people had positioned this as Jurassic Park meets Lost.

But for me, the actual show did not live up to the hype. The setup was kind of interesting, if not a little politically correct: a home planet we had ruined, 150 years in the future, by overpopulation and pollution, where signs on the street flashed with directions on how to breathe, where children were only allowed two to a family and had never seen clouds or the moon except in picture books.

Then, after some heavy-handed drama that went on too long, we follow our main characters, the Shannon family, as they enter Terra Nova. This is a new, old world originally found, or so goes the tale, through a crack in the space-time continuum. Terra Nova has dinosaurs, big, scary insects, and it’s run by the rather pompous, arrogant Nathaniel Taylor, played by Stephen Lang from Avatar. His character reminded me of a cross between J. Peterman from Seinfeld and “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the Dos Equis beer commercials. Every time he appeared on screen I kept hearing, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

In short, the dialogue was ponderous, the characters and situations clichéd, the plot predictable. One of the few moments that hinted at something freakish about Terra Nova, discovered by a band of teenagers who (surprise) took a road trip beyond the colony’s gates and got into trouble, was wasted by having several characters continually point it out. We get it. It’s weird. Stop telling me it’s weird. Have they ever heard of dramatic tension? Seeding a few clues here and there, and leaving it to the viewer to wonder, and keep tuning in?

Sorry. I’m tuning out. I’d rather watch Jurassic Park again.

Drawing Breath: A Serial Novel

Charles Dickens did it in magazines. Stephen King did it with The Green Mile. I’m very excited to announce that now I’m doing it: publishing a novel in serial installments, which you will be able to download to your favorite electronic device.

In Drawing Breath, sixteen-year-old Caitlin Kelly wants to be an abstract painter, and wants to learn from her crush-worthy upstairs neighbor, Daniel Benedetto. An artist in his mid-thirties, Daniel suffers from cystic fibrosis, a chronic and often debilitating disease that usually kills by age twenty. Although he’s on borrowed time, with a sister who frets over his every move, he longs to live as normal a life as he can. And if Caitlin’s mother agrees, that may include taking the girl on as a private student. Whether that’s a generous act of mentoring or a recipe for disaster remains to be seen.

I’m looking forward to sharing this tale of literary suspense with you. Chapter One is now available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Chapter Two should be up by the end of this week. Installments will appear monthly (or so) after that.

Nook version to come, as well as fantastic cover art from my favorite illustrator.

More Reasons Why I Hate Your Website

A while back, I wrote a post about irritating website features. I’ve just done another round of heavy Internet research, and ran into more disturbing trends–not as much in the data, but in the execution. Maybe these features sounded like a good idea when you planned your website, but consider their effect on the user. Or at least on this user. Here are six more reasons why I hate your website:

1. Slideshows. Oh, how I hate slideshows. When I’m doing research, I’m on the clock. I want my information and I want it quickly. If I’m writing an article on cooking with insects, I don’t want to manually scroll through 45 separate windows containing a paragraph each on different ways to serve Madagascar hissing cockroaches. This makes me not only want to leave your site and never return, but write you a nasty letter demanding a refund for all the time I wasted going through all those slides. Yes, they can be fun and entertaining. But please, either limit your slideshows to ten panes or offer the information in a quick list form.

2. Save your surveys. Imagine that I’ve just arrived at your home page. I’m quickly scanning the information, looking for what I need. I find the right link, and just before I’m about to click on it–Bam! The entire window fills with an invitation to take your survey. I am not happy. I don’t know you, you’ve done nothing for me, but you’re asking me how I like your business. If I approached a brick-and-mortar establishment, and a salesperson stopped me as I was opening the door to ask what they could have done to improve my shopping experience, I’d wonder what she’d been imbibing during lunch break. If you have given me information, for instance, if I’ve downloaded something or signed up for your newsletter, if I’d spent a lot of time on the site or was a returning customer, then I’d consider your survey invitation more seriously. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. New Balance’s website, shopnewbalance.com, has this down to a science. They wait until you’ve bought a product to ask for your comments.

3. Readability, people! I was recently sent an HTML e-mail chock full of links. It was for something that I really wanted: a fun-filled day at ComicCon as a reward for attending a trade show last year. Unfortunately, these links were dark blue on a black background. I couldn’t even read them to figure out what I wanted to click on. Prevent this from happening by sending a preview of your HTML e-mails to someone over 40 before you blast them to your entire database.

4. The geek factor. Now, I love geeks. I am 70% geek, by my estimation. Even if your website was designed by your IT department, don’t make it look that way. Dead giveaways? Type that runs all the way to the edge of the windows. Lots of charts. Too many fonts and no apparent thought as to their alignment. More attention given to navigation than design. For the best combination of user appeal and user friendliness, your site should be designed by an artist who has been trained to create websites, rather than a technologist who has been trained to create art.

5. No means no.  Unless I’ve experienced a power failure, leaving your website requires a decision and a physical action. When, upon deciding to leave, various windows keep opening imploring that I reconsider my decision to go elsewhere, it smacks of desperation. I’ve made my mind up. Leave me alone. Okay, maybe I’ll tolerate one reminder in case I’ve accidentally closed the window. After all, my software says, “Are you sure?” to my decisions throughout the day, so I’m accustomed to one bit of nagging. But that’s all. I mean it. Don’t make me come down there.

6. Proofread. Just because you can make changes to your website any time you wish does not excuse you from throwing it up there full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. We’re all human (gasp, even me!) and we all make mistakes. But when the errors are excessive or unfortunate—for example, “pubic” when you meant to write “public” (yes, I’ve seen this, in an e-book)—it makes your pages unreadable and seriously undermines your credibility. If proofreading isn’t your thing, hire a professional. Otherwise, I’ll be navigating somewhere else.

What are you seeing lately on the web that ticks you off? Anything going on that you especially like? Let’s talk!