From Dickens to LOST, part 2
Should Novels Be More Like TV?
It has become a banality to describe a television series as “novelistic”, as has pointing out that in borrowing from the basically defunct literary practice of serialising a story, television has replaced novels. There is probably some grain of truth suffocating beneath the dead weight of commentary, but on the scales of aesthetic judgment, that kernel cannot outweigh the wealth of properties novels innately hold that cannot be replaced by television. It’s like the emergence of photography and its impact on art: People might well have asked back then, “Does photography make painting obsolete?” And yet, while photography became an art form in its own right, the Impressionists and others went on to explore those things painting could capture that are not dependent on photorealism.
Netflix’s Vice President of Product Innovation said recently that television may soon look a lot more like books: Citing Faulkner’s single-sentence chapter in As I Lay Dying, he predicted episodes varying drastically in length. Credit sequences might only appear in the first episode, as happened with The OA, a show that also let the pilot stand as an extended prologue until the “opening credits” appeared ten minutes before the end of the episode. But television acting more like literature is actually an innovative step forwards; for books to resemble TV in serialisation is merely a step back. So what can literature take from the best of modern television to find new ways forward? Can TV offer something new to novels or would books do better cutting their own path in the cultural wilderness? Should novels be more like TV?
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
~ A A Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
In recent years, art has attempted to respond to shortened attention spans and decreasing free-time in the internet age. Flash fiction and tweets-as-stories have tried to convince people to switch their gaze during the morning commute from cat videos to literature. But this performs an enema on fiction, purging it of valuable qualities to force it into the narrow cultural space left for literature. Occasionally, the truly creative can utilise limits imposed and platforms offered by the internet: I spend my breaks during the writing day watching the thought-provoking video essays of Nerdwriter1 and Lessons From The Screenplay on YouTube, or reading brief articles and short stories. (I hope, rather immodestly, to be offering something of worth in these relatively short, monthly essays.) But these are exceptions, and too often creators cater to the whims of amnesiac attention-spans, creating works that are short enough to fit between other tasks and entertaining enough to capture the consumer’s attention. Most of these, however, miss the vital third ingredient: being insightful enough to provide some glimpse of meaning amongst the cacophonic frenzy of life lived in perpetual motion.
Countless articles, essays, and books have been devoted to how reading can improve your empathy, reduce stress, and do many other things no one ever consciously picks up a book for. Many of these apply to full novels and micro-stories equally, but there is one advantage that only pertains to longer works and is augmented by serialisation: increasing your patience. In a world that defines “here and now” as “this current five minutes and this specific room” (I’ve borrowed this from Brian Eno), it’s tempting for creators to accommodate the short burst in which the public now consumes art. But this is worthwhile only if your goal is to have more people read whatever you can tailor to their whims.
Instant gratification is what technology increasingly offers and so instant gratification is increasingly what we demand (and we want it now). But it is often the least satisfying kind of gratification. The deepest, most thoughtful explorations of the self and the world take time and commitment. Equally, the qualities of great storytelling – complex characters you want to kiss or give a swift kick, stories with multiple interpretations, interwoven subplots, rich mythologies, and an open approach to questions without simplistic answers – require time dedicated to them and therefore patience from the reader. With our society squeezing mental space into five-minute, multi-tasking segments (it’s no longer even possible to stand quietly in a queue and reflect on life for two minutes without music, advertisements, and social media notifications demanding your attention), literature is one of the few spaces left in which to think and grow.
The best literature and television balances the intellectual and the entertaining, which cannot happen in a straightjacket of limited space and time. Shows such as Lost and books such as Don Quixote demand much from the audience in terms of attention and make wide use of literary, philosophical, and theological references, while The OA or The Lost Time Accidents play with genre and audience expectations, and Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones explore nuanced and often difficult moral questions. It’s very difficult to engage in such deep reflection on issues in the five minute window it takes to read micro-fiction.
“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
Novels have a Herculean task in competing with television, movies, and video games for your attention. The current standard model for marketing books is reminiscent of a drowning man desperately waving his arms before disappearing beneath the water: An insultingly simplified blurb, some “Buy this because I said so” quotations from other writers, and (if lucky) a full review appear in the dwindling literary sections of newspapers; the book sits near the front of a few Waterstones for a week or two; if extremely lucky, it gets shortlisted for or even wins a competition; then the flame reaches the end of the match and goes out. The author strikes a fresh match a year or ten later with the next book to do the same all over. Hercules may have been the wrong Greek god to invoke a moment ago; all of this can seem as futile as Sisyphus rolling his rock.
One vital difference between this model and that of television is that the book audience must go to it: Most of the relative success of books is down to those who bother to read reviews and haunt their local bookstores, paying attention to posters in the window, displays on tables, and bookseller recommendations. But films and television come to you. Just count how many times you see an ad for a movie or new series without seeking them out, before the video you want to watch on YouTube, on billboards as you walk to work, on the side of the bus that passes by, on the backs of the magazines (which are not movie magazines) you read. Then count how many ads you see for books outside of the culture pages of newspapers or on literary websites you visit. You cannot avoid hearing about new movies, but you’re lucky to learn about a new book, especially by a new author.
But what if novels came out after twelve months or more of sustained, active interest by readers, increasing demand for the story through word-of-mouth recommendations between friends, the way that television grows its viewership via grass-roots marketing as simple as the phrase, “Have you watched ‘X’ yet?” It seems that comics have long made use of this. There are several models for how comics are published, but generally speaking, it looks like this:
Single issues come out, usually one a month, and these are the cheapest to buy in terms of one-off purchases. Issues are like TV episodes, each progressing a larger narrative but self-contained with a beginning-middle-end and carrying the reader emotionally up through the arc of conflict to a climax.
Every six or so issues are then collected into a trade paperback, which is cheaper for the number of issues it contains than buying them individually. Trades are usually called Volumes, with a number to indicate their sequential order, and are much like a season box-set of a TV show.
Some series such as The Walking Dead also release compendiums that collect multiple volumes. If the series is not too long and finished, one compendium might hold them all, like a series box-set. If the story is too long and/or still running, there will be multiple compendiums.
There are undoubtedly questions of economics that must be addressed regarding such publishing models, but I am not the person to raise or answer them. My interest here is in creative what-if approaches to the way books reach readers. And I am certainly not the only one considering this issue. In 2015, Mark Z Danielewski – no stranger to playing around with the limits of literature (especially at a structural level) – released the pilot episode of the first season of what will be a five- or six-season series of books. It was an idea he says he would not have conceived without the “sudden efflorescence of great television”. Although I have not yet read The Familiar and despite some negative reactions to it, the idea is sound and a bold example of what I am advocating here.
“When I was your age, television was called books.”
~ The grandfather, The Princess Bride
To some degree, I am talking about a skeuomorphic approach to literature. (Skeumorphs mimic the design of similar, often obsolete objects; electric candles, fake leather, and the floppy disc icon you click to save work are all examples.) But there is a danger in overhyping the retro quality of serials. In praising the brilliance of classic serialised novels, literature can look like a dusty, nostalgic remnant of a time before TV. The periodicals of Dickens’ time can indicate a structure with which we can play, but our approach should not be rigidly kept to a 19th Century construct. Even looking sideways to modern television is inherently a backwards gaze: As far as television now resembles literature, it resembles literature from long ago, so for writers to simply emulate TV would mean taking a step back. We need to move forward, from Victorian serials to golden age television series to something new. We will rally once again to the modernist call: that art must adapt to reflect modern life and must find new tools to do so.
And there have been more and less successful attempts to revisit serialisation in literature: In the 1980s, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was published in 27 parts in Rolling Stone; Stephen King published a never completed epistolary novel in segments; countless authors self-publish serialised fiction, some struggling to find readers outside of sympathetic family, while others (such as Worm, one of the most popular web serials) reach a readership comparable to that of New York Times bestsellers. And let’s not ignore the wild successes of book series from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, its author so beleaguered by fans desperate for the next instalment that he has resorted to an ill-tempered one-finger response to those demanding more. Readers want serialised stories, and it’s easy to see why.
“This may be the most important proposition revealed by history: ‘At the time, no one knew what was coming.’”
~ Haruki Murakami, IQ84
Serialisation would not be suited to every book or every writer. I understand Curtis Sittenfeld’s concern that “serializing would force me to commit to certain plots even if I subsequently decided they were weak”. It is hard to imagine how a book by Ishiguro could be augmented by having to wait a week between chapters, or how such a model would, in a practical sense, work with the experimental structures of books like The Unfortunates, House of Leaves, or Invisible Monsters Remix. But there are many novels for which serialisation would not only work but would add to the reader’s engagement with the text. There are few things more satisfying than the sustainment of anticipation. (It is sometimes even better than the resolution of suspense.)
And books should not be dismembered according to a blueprint into a prescribed number of “episodes”. It would no more work to cut up a novel written without serialisation in mind than to cut a movie into twenty-minute segments and call it a mini-series. There are disparate and distinguishing features of successful series and standalones that should be respected, just as there are between literature and television. So, should books be more like TV? A qualified yes and no. Literature should explore new approaches to serialisation and, in doing so, would do well to look to the best of serialised TV for ideas. Books should proudly own what they can do better than other media and utilise some of the methods of TV to do those things even better still. Which raises a question worth considering some other time: What other artistic media could books look to for new ways of doing things?
• ‘Netflix to make watching TV like reading a book’, The Times (2017)
• A A Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926)
• The Princess Bride, from the movie, not the book (1987)
• Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities (1984–1985)
• Stephen King, The Plant (2000–?)
• Wildbow, Worm (2011–2013)
• Haruki Murakami, IQ84 (2009)
• Curtis Sittenfeld, quoted in ‘Bring Back the Serial Novel’, The Washington Post (2015)
• B S Johnson, The Unfortunates (1969)
• Mark Z Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
• Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters Remix (2012)