Caught in Play

Published on Thursday February 25th, 2010

An excerpt from Peter Stromberg’s excellent book, Caught in Play: How Entertainment Works On You:

I have before me as I write this an insert from my Sunday newspaper. On the cover of this insert, I am informed that it reaches 41.7 million readers each week.  The cover story is a compendium of advice, comprised of pointers from–among others—a natural healing expert Andrew Weil, a fitness coach, a therapist/relationship expert, and a ubiquitous lifestyle consultant cum felon.

Most of what I read is unexceptionable, sensible, hard to argue with. The natural healer advises me to take time for myself:  “One afternoon or evening a week, resolve to do something just for you: Take a drive in the country, listen to music you love, get a massage.”  That sounds good, I’d love to do that, although I’m not sure my employer will be completely supportive of my taking an afternoon off for a drive in the country.  The fitness coach suggests a minimum of 3-4 days a week of strength training with weights, “combined with 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise.”

The relationship expert insists that I take at least 20 minutes every other day to give my partner my undivided attention, as well as stressing the importance of a monthly “romantic overnight getaway.”  Let’s see, so far we’re running, with showers after the exercise, around 11 hours a week out of my normal schedule, plus a couple of full days a month gazing into my partner’s eyes at a bed and breakfast. Then there’s the advice about things to accomplish.  The lifestyle consultant suggests that I restock my pantry with “pastas, cooking wines, wasabi, [and] dried spices,” that I create my own cookbook “by organizing [my]…recipes in a loose-leaf binder,” and that I experiment with table decorations.

I could go on, but the point is probably clear.  There is little possibility that any of the 41.7 million readers could actually follow all this advice, or even a small part of it.  The situation becomes especially clear in light of one of the natural healer’s stress-beating recommendations: Downsize your life.  “This is a good time of year,” he counsels, “to think about what you can get rid of.” Okay, I can do that, and probably the best place to start is the 20 or 30 things I’ve just been advised to add to my life.

So, if there is no possibility, and no serious expectation, that anybody is actually going to do all this, why is this the lead article in this very popular magazine?  The reason, of course, is that it’s enjoyable to read about doing these things.  The “advice” is in fact a form of entertainment that presents images of an improved existence—a realistic fiction. Yes, I believe I’ll take a deep breath and spend the morning reorganizing my pantry, then take the afternoon off just for myself.  It’s not going to happen, but it’s pleasurable just to think about it.

In general, advice is not to be followed; its purpose is to present fictions about what life could be like.  And notice that, precisely because the advice is quite reasonable, those fictions are not outrageous, they are quite conceivable and therefore more believable and enjoyable.


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