Monday, December 21, 2009

Jon and Kate Plus...Wait?

As of 18 December, Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC reality program Jon and Kate Plus Eight announced that their divorce was finalized after a hiatus of the hit show. Since the couple first announced the death throes of their marriage, they have become the veritable eye of the reality television tornado. I’d go so far as to say that their domestic drama--through the medium of television--sucked in thousands of viewers, kept hundreds perched on the edge of their seats.

The only reason I knew about the split was because it made the frontpage of the “Life” section--the fourth section--of The Altoona Mirror. But I heard whispers about it everywhere I went: grocery store checkout lines, the Verizon store in the Logan Valley Mall, some folks flipping through the glossies at the news kiosk, the one that used to sell fountain drinks for a dollar and ten cents.

But there was something about the Gosselins and their domestic crumble that, despite all the gaudiness of the media circus surrounding their swelling brood and the dissolution of their marriage, that draws in viewers and television commentators.

In a word: drama. But what is drama?

The everyday, the quotidian, but made extraordinary. Something so plain, so normal, that it becomes--to use a clichĂ© that I’d much rather shirk--larger than life.

We can summarize most pieces of literary fiction in this manner. Okay, ready? Let’s go, then. Ulysses: Leopold Bloom is afraid of his wife’s affair, so he spends the entire day meandering around Dublin. Jane Eyre: Jane, raised by her aunt, wants to find a family where she can fit in, feel important, and be loved for who she is. Persuasion: Anne Elliot, who listened to other people and therefore screwed up her best shot at love, just wants to pull off a second chance with the beau of her dreams.

And the trend works in contemporary literature, too. Writers such as Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley have earned themselves a great deal of renown for their treatment of everyday events as ways of looking into the deep, underlying tensions in human life. Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist begins with a moment where a couple, driving their car through the rain, reflect on the death of their son; the drive becomes a metaphor for their failed relationship, and the marriage splits--within the first dozen pages--with the reader in the passenger seat. More optimistically, Jane Smiley gives us The Age of Grief, a novella in which her characters--both dentists, oddly enough, though I doubt most non-dentists know only one dentist in real life--discover the ties that bind them together: children, sickness, work, and our own little insecurities.

So though we gawp at Jon and Kate Gosselin (and though reality television is 1/3 voyeuristic, 1/3 ridiculous, and 1/3 strangely enticing), we’re drawn to it precisely because these crumbling, treacherous domestic situations are made of all the stuff of good stories. Drama. Personal conflict.

The stuff might be hackneyed and trite, but it at least knows where the story is at.


  1. I protest your description of Jane Eyre!! I hold that it goes beyond the everyday "drama" and into "melodrama"-- a realm where "everyday" for the characters is filled with the sublime, grotesque, bizarre, and quasi-supernatural. After all, how many people do you know who, at eighteen, fall in love with their Byronic employer, are betrayed by him at the altar when you find out he is keeping his mad wife locked up in the attic, run away and almost starve to death, then have a psychic connection with said employer across many miles??

  2. @nikeshizu

    You're absolutely right--Jane Eyre is fantastically gothic, fantastically super-natural. And those things don't happen to most people. But what I think makes Jane Eyre an interesting character is that she's in this melodramatic, dark, gothic world but still experiences all of these genuinely humanemotions--love, hate, fear, regret, desire. And so there's all of these human relationships--exploded, because it's the Gothic mode, after all--that make the book possible.