Good afternoon to all and welcome to this online debate between John Doyle and Russell Smith on the relative merits of television and novels in the current age.
Hi there, Russell, and welcome. We are just waiting for John to join us.
John Doyle is here. It's a way-busy life writing about Tv and arguing about books...
Hello John. I very much enjoyed your column about the CBC today.
Hi John, and welcome too. Let's get started right away. You have raised the ire of a lot of writers and book lovers who accuse you of announcing the death of the novel. But I'm not sure that's what you were saying. Can you give us a brief reiteration of your position?
Thanks Russell. yiou've wrutten too about CBC and its status in the culture. Almost as fruitful a topic as Whither the novel?
Let's do the CBC another day.
I have to say at the start that part of the motivation for writing Monday's column was the surviving snobbery about television in the literary and publishing rackets. The return of Mad Men was an occasion to raise that old issue.
I'm not really sure the snobbety you describe still exists. That too has changed. Nobody with an interest in narrative representation could fail to see the importance of the new brand of uncensored, serious tv shows on cable networks. We all watch them, and indeed we are dying to get jobs writing for them -- it pays so much better.
It is quite vicious in Canada. As you know the Canadian publishing and literary rackets are fragile things. A precous self-regard about books and writing is part of the package...
I think most of us like books and tv too. They are not in competition. They do different things.
A lot of people like books and TV, yes. But, based on some of the mail I get and based on interactions with publishers, including my own in Canada, I can assure you the snobbery is alive and well
Isn't John saying that the essential task of telling a story is being done better on cable TV than in literary fiction, which tends toward a certain preciousness?
Yes, Peter, that's what I put out there as a suggestion. And not just to irritate some people.
I happen to agree with John, for what it's worth. Thanks to James Joyce, novels have become about the novelist. It's like that scene in the first season of Mad Men when they're looking at the Volkswagon ad and realize that the goal of the ad is to make you talk about the ad itself, not the product. Too many modern novels seem to be more about the author than the story.
Good question by DB. It is, of course, pointless to claim all TV, or cable TV series, are superior to novels. My point was about storytelling and the signifcance of what such series as Mad Men can achieve.
It's a point that has been being made, even within the literary world, particularly in the US, for some time, that the novel has grown too "artistic" for want of a better word and less ambitous when it comes to representing the world at large, its social structure, how it functyions politically -- as the realist novel of the 19th century did. Tom Wolfe said this famously in Harpers in the 1980s, and jonathan Franzen upset people by saying it recently. Interestingly, Frantzen's novels are very ambitious in that 19th century large-scope way. So are a lot of others' (Jennifer Egan's for example). But what if the novel has evolved into something else? Does it have to have the same role as tv?
Don't get me started on Joyce. I can recite entire passages from Ulysses. At the same time I recall, more powerfully than most novels I've read recently, a heated conversation between Don Draper and Peggy in last season's Mad Men, about work and personal responsibility. Draper's words were devastating...
Peter, do you really have no interest in the kind of word-play that a skilled -- even introspective -- novelist can explore on the page? I love some story-less novels if the language is fireworks. Liker Nicholson Baker's, for example. How do you represent a metaphor on the screen? It can't happen because it's abstract.
Russell has a goint point about Nicholson Baker, whose work I enjoy. At the same time I tend to read poetry for inspiration about language, not so much the fiction any more
I love novels, but am frustrated by the cult of the author. The nice thing about good serialized cable TV shows is you don't really know who the "author" is. It just doesn't matter. People at cocktails parties say, "Have you read Franzen's latest?" With TV, all you talk about is the story and the personalities.
It's funnjy, I'm writing a screenplay right now, based on my last novel, Girl Crazy. It's frustrating because there are so many things I can't do in the screenplay format -- like interior monologue, for example. Like summary of long periods of a character's life or a place's history. (So great a part of 19th c. novels is summary.) Like metaphors and similes. Like el;idion -- not describing things that are on the scene, keeping them hidden...
I meant to type elision. Eliding.
Peter, I hate the cult of the author too. That's the fault of the media!
Our publishers and our agents are pushing us to do this. It's just business.
I disagree slightly with Peter here. The rise of the TV auteur means that people tend to be interested in a writer's work automically, the TV writer's name is a brand. We have some in Canada too - Chris Haddock is a superb writer by any standards, original and gifted in his ability to portray a city, a type of people...
Let's start down a new path: The novel is obviously not dead, but what could it be taking from TV to make it more relevant in the cable TV age? John? Russell?
That's a very good point, Oksana -- people read novels, especially novel series such as Twilight, really feeling that the characters are real people. They become fans of the characters, not the author. Just like tv.
Both Oksana & Cate K raise excellent points. And some writers take up too much space in the media, forgetting that writing is about attaching the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair and putting words down..
Well, first let's admit that tv has taken some of its greatest attributes from novels -- length, for example. All the great series John has praised -- The Sopranos, the Wire -- are not meant to be watched as individual episodes, but as a very long whole. That's a very recent development in tv and a great one.
What novels can learn is that long periods of reflection without much action or dialogue seem to be boring people.