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So Mad Men is in its final victory lap, and I really have to hand it to Matthew Weiner.  I mean, imagine trying to pitch a television concept about a group of more-or-less middle-aged characters struggling to make it in the advertising business to a bunch of age-averse entertainment industry executives.  And set it in the 1960s—which means that the lead characters will all belong to my parents’ generation.  And don’t even try to frame it as a comedy.


Wow, that took a lot of imagination, not to mention perseverance.


But beyond the kudos, which we will be hearing a lot of as the series winds down, and the possible speculation as to whether Jon Hamm (Don Draper) will go the way of such hopelessly typecast television stars as Lorne Greene (Ben Cartwright), Richard Thomas (John-Boy), and Henry Winkler (the Fonz), there lies the story-telling genre in which Mad Men firmly belongs: that of literary realism—which would not be remarkable except for the fact that realism, in this era of superhero blockbusters and fantasy favorites (from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen and a mess of Starks and Lannisters), has not exactly been on the upswing in our popular culture.  And therein lies a semiotic tale.


Oh, you might point to the enormous success of such shows as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and, more currently, House of Cards, while the entire category of Reality Television (RTV) would seem to indicate that realism has been all the rage for quite some time.  But, as literary theorist György Lukács put it, realism depicts the lives of typical human beings in typical circumstances, and there is nothing typical about being a mob leader, a meth king, and the President of the United States; RTV manages to take the typical and turn it into game show, soap opera, or farce.  And though a case could be made that the continuing tradition of the family sitcom belongs to the category of realism, the need to tell the story in the form of contrived situations, punctuated with one-liners and laugh tracks, substantially undermines any reality that might be found there.


Not that Mad Men doesn’t have its own rather soapy moments, but that is a result of a challenge that literary realism has faced from its beginnings, as authors have struggled with the problem of depicting the typical lives of ordinary people while somehow making it all entertaining enough for readers to want to read.  And even An American Family, that early pioneer of reality TV, lapsed into soap opera after a valiant attempt to capture life as it is really (that is, typically) lived.


So, I’ll refrain from nit picking and concentrate on what Mad Men accomplished.  By focusing on Americans at work in what is probably America’s second most iconic industry (the entertainment industry comes first, I suppose, but advertising is what America runs on), Matthew Weiner and his writers held the sort of mirror up to reality that can make us think about who we really are.  And by setting his series in the 1960s, Weiner took the additional step of causing his viewers to think about a critical threshold in American history that saw the transformation of the country in ways that we are still coping with today.


That is the fundamental value of realism: rather than distracting us from reality (as fantasy, in its myriad of forms, does), realism makes us think about ourselves.  That can make realism uncomfortable, but it also makes it a more mature venue for entertainment than fantasy can ever be.  That Matthew Weiner managed to hold onto his audience for eight years (albeit on cable, with Nielsen numbers that are only a small fraction of the top network programs, not to mention its AMC colleague, the fantasy series Walking Dead) is therefore quite an accomplishment.


And while I do rather wish that fans of the show would focus more on what it can tell us about how we got to where we are today as a country than on its clothing fashions and steamy affairs, that, I suppose, is part of the price that realistic entertainment has to pay in order to get anyone to pay any attention at all.

Andrea A. Lunsford

O Canada!

Posted by Andrea A. Lunsford Expert Apr 16, 2015

This month found me returning to Canada, land of dreams for me ever since I taught at the University of British Columbia for ten years (1977-1987).  This time I was in Calgary, at Mount Royal University, where I gave a talk as part of their Distinguished Lecture Series and then participated in a colloquium on writing and teaching writing that brought together scholars and teachers from other Alberta Universities.  Calgary still has a frontier feel to me and I loved being in “big sky” country once again.


Professor Sarah Banting of Mt. Royal’s English Department and Writing Program, convened the colloquium, which began with tea (in real teacups!) and pastries.  And it really was a colloquium, one that left plenty of time for talk and interaction, and that featured panels that were more like conversations than lectures.  (You should check out her blog, Issues in Teaching Writing: A Mount Royal University Conversation.)


One major standout:  five students and one faculty member responding to questions from a moderator.  The students were thoughtful, insightful, and witty, reflecting on their experiences with writing, writing classes, and writing instructors—and on their sense of the role writing may play in their future lives.  One student, a biology major, was particularly eloquent in describing what she had learned about herself through writing and about how she expected to use writing for the rest of her life.  Other speakers described innovative courses and assignments and explored new uses of technology in the classroom.  Heather and Roger Graves (both of the University of Alberta, where Roger is Director of WAC) talked about the development of a fascinating project, The Game of Writing, which allows students to monitor their own writing processes, making progress step by step, and also to receive multiple forms of response to their writing.


An extra bonus was seeing Nick Sousanis, now on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Calgary.  Sousanis is a comics artist who visited Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project a couple of years ago when he was writing his dissertation at Columbia University, in comic book form (!).  The book based on his dissertation—Unflattening—is just out from Harvard University.  A shape-shifting, deeply engaging meditation on the relationship between words and images and on visual thinking, it’s a book you should check out soon!


As always, I came away from this colloquium energized and happy to be part of the writing studies community in North America.  After 45 years in the field, it’s good to feel that if I were starting all over again, I’d choose the same path!