August 18, 2009
Continuity in Nonfiction
Speaking of intertextuality, probably no readers are more explicitly intertextual than mainstream comic books. Everything you know about genres, the characters, the world(s) they inhabit, their history/histories, and how to read and make sense of what you see, comes from your experience with other texts — usually a lot of them, and not all of them comic books.
Readers see that experience as an investment in literacy. At O’Reilly Radar, Brett McLaughlin looks at comic book fans’ (and presumably, fans in other media/genres) investment in story continuity:
Putting aside issues of story, I’m struck by how much looking back and forth I tend to do in reading a comic. I’m scanning a bit ahead, and reflecting back on what I just read and saw, even while reading the current panel. I’ve got this constant sense of context; I have a continuity in which what I’m learning (about a comic book character, about a love interest, about an island that’s about to be submerged by supersonic waves triggering earthquakes along fault lines, etc.) fits.
So why would we simply accept that in non-fiction—especially projects and products that purport to actually teach something—we can’t have continuity?
I guess weblogs are one solution to this problem; and in its own way, academic writing is another. Both have mechanisms make their own continuities with other writing explicit, and signal when they’re about to reboot.* But general nonfiction, especially journalism? Harder than it probably ought to be. More rewarding when it does pay off.
Which begs another question; why do readers get such pleasure out of continuity? Is it the happiness that comes with recognition, a feeling of belonging to a community, a function of reduced learning/transaction costs when you approach something new…?
*I think rebooting in a series actually pulls in more of your unconscious knowledge about characters, genres, etc. than even continuity does - not only are you establishing all of these new contexts, you’ve got this layer of old context, too — “oh, that’s how they’re handling this event/character/place.” It’s like building a city on top of another city. This is why the ultimate trick to pull is to do a reboot that isn’t really a reboot.