Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Liking books, TV shows and movies: Affect

This is the sixth and final part of a series in which I examine elements of the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show. I disclose and discuss my own personal preferences here, but I believe that the approach is more generally applicable: just substitute your own preferences for mine.

In previous installments, I covered character, setting, plot, craft, and idea. As the final aspect, I consider affect. The schema I describe in these articles is a development and extension of a schema proposed by librarian Nancy Pearl.[1] Affect is the second completely new characteristic which I add to hers, and considers how a book, film, or TV show makes me feel.

Generally, I value a story that can make me feel intensely. In some cases, the feelings that a story brings out in me might be my main reason for liking it. One example that springs immediately to mind is Nanni Moretti’s film La stanza del figlio (‘The Son’s Room’). This is an intimate observation of the grief of a family as they cope with the death of a teenager. The characters are unremarkable people, there is little actual story to speak of, and while competently filmed, nothing about its production stands out for me. But I found watching it a devastating, wrenching experience. This is a film which, for me, the main appeal is entirely in its affect. As another example, while I certainly enjoyed the clever and quirky ideas in The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s the way that the book made me feel that has made it one of my all-time favourites.

I can think of one case, however, where my intense feelings about a book worked against its appeal: American Psycho, which I found gratuitously cruel (yes, I understand that was the whole point). The revulsion I felt at the text meant that I abandoned the book before I got very far with it. This is an exception though.

The appeal of comedy lies almost entirely within the realm of affect. If I don’t find a comedy funny, then it doesn’t really matter to me how well put-together it is, or how otherwise appealing I might have found its setting or characters. Given my strong preferences for science fiction and fantasy, I really expected to like Red Dwarf and the Discworld novels. However, as examples of comedies that I didn’t find funny, any appeal for me in them remains unrealised and theoretical.

‘They’ve jammed the radar!’
Spaceballs, copyright MGM
Conversely, funny is all I really need from a comedy. Sure, great use of language or well-observed characters might certainly add to the appeal, but the sight of goons dragging a giant comb through the desert as they are combing it for fugitives (get it?) is all the reason I need to like Spaceballs.

I like feeling frightened by a well-told horror story, I like feeling romantic from being told a love story, I like the sense of awe and wonder (admiratio) that epic science-fiction or fantasy can instil in me.

As I’ve been outlining appeal characteristics in these articles, I've been looking for interesting things that various commentators have said about each characteristic. I’ve been surprised by how little authors and critics have had to say about the importance of affect. I had assumed that the ability to make a reader or viewer feel something deeply would be a central and prized characteristic of storytelling, but apparently not.

And of all the characteristics I’ve described, affect is certainly the most subjective and the most difficult for which to create a litmus test. The test is the emotion itself. Did I laugh? I probably found it funny. Did I cry? I probably found it sad or tragic. Did I feel on edge and jumpy afterwards? I probably found it scary.

That, then, is the system I currently use to think about why I liked or failed to like a book, TV show, or movie. Did it hold any appeal for me via any of:
  • its characters
  • its setting
  • its plot
  • the craft (writing or production) with which it was made
  • the idea it presented
  • how it made me feel
Synthesised, these characteristics might work together something like:
If you’re going to tell me a story about mundane people in some dull place doing unimportant stuff, you’d better have a helluva idea to get across, or your writing had better be effing spectacular, or you better know just how to pull my heartstrings just the right way.
I can’t emphasise enough that all I’m doing here is trying to characterise why I liked or failed to like something. I make no pretence about my personal preferences correlating with anybody else’s, nor with whether a particular book or TV show or film is any good or not in any kind of objective sense.

I’ll write something on the difference between claiming ‘it was good’ and reporting ‘I liked it’ some other time [update: here it is]. I’d also like to present a few practical examples of how this schema might apply to some actual things I’ve read or watched.

Thanks to anyone who has stayed with me this long! :)

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