Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Cable Series Tell Stories Better Than Novels? A Mad Idea

John Doyle had a column on Monday that should interest anyone who cares about fiction. As he points out, he's not one of your TV critics who never read a book, but a pretty well educated man (BA and MA from University College, Dublin, the latter in Anglo-Irish studies.) And he contends, using Mad Men as an example, that "cable-TV series have replaced the novel as the most significant storytelling form of our time."

Whew! That's a pretty big claim. I should admit in recent years that I haven't been watching television except for news. Life is too short to sit in front of the box. When I want a story I read one, in part because books (even in e book form) are so portable. You can catch a couple of incidents while you're on the Metro or the bus, or while you're waiting for the coffee to be ready, or stretched out in bed. If you fall asleep in the latter, you can go back immediately to where you left off: the book is always there and you can read and re-read something that interests or puzzles you.

Doyle says: The novel’s rise as the principal literary form, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, depended on twin virtues transcending mere storytelling or entertainment – its sociological importance and psychological depth. Typically, important novels offered a portrait of social distinctions, social groupings and social values. And, typically, the focus on one central character or a small group of people allowed for insight into how people feel, react, change and grow." The cable series, he says, does that better today than any other medium.

Hmmm. Better than movies? Better than creative non-fiction? Better than novels like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom? I have my doubts.

Doyle talks about a Canadian writer who made snobby remarks about a review he had written of a novel some time ago. Literary snobbism is a fact, but good stories are being told in print or its computerized equivalent today and will be for a long time, I suspect.

1 comment:

Blork said...

Well, I'm not prepared to say that television shows "tell better stories than novels," but I will say without hesitation that some of the cable network show that have been on television in the past 10 years have been exceptionally good in terms of narrative and storytelling. These are not the dumbed-down mainstream shows of earlier times; things have changed, and some of the best writers, directors, and actors in the cinematic industry are now putting their energies into these cable shows.

I speak as a person who barely watched TV as an adolescent because I thought those shows were too stupid, and I didn't own a TV during my university years and a few beyond. But ever since "The Sopranos" (of which I've only managed to see one season; hard to explain why) things have been different.

A few shows of note include "Six Feet Under," "Breaking Bad," "The Wire," "The Corner," and of course, "Mad Men." These shows take storytelling and narrative to places never seen before on the small screen.

Another one to mention is the re-do of "Battlestar Galactica." My spouse has exactly zero interest in sci-fi movies with spaceships and ugly creatures, etc., but we were both completely hooked on that series because of the very strong character-driven narratives and the mix of short episodic arcs, longer seasonal arcs, and even series-level arcs.

Really, really good stuff, all of these shows. It's a different experience from reading, to be sure, but this new wave of shows is very smart, stylish, and narratively strong.

Just my two cents! :-)