Sunday, January 14, 2018

A simple reason to read novels in the age of TV

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, writing.
This is a somewhat random thought I've had for a long time, one that—to my surprise—I've never seen anyone else put down in words, though surely someone has. I'm scribbling it down just to get it out there, since I don't see any point in sitting on this particular idle musing.

There's a lot of talk these days about how TV, much of it very good, has taken the place in our culture that the novel used to hold in the 19th century: a medium in which we think about any number of issues of major public importance through imaginative fiction that reaches across divisions of class, religion, etc. The Victorian age was the heyday of the social problem novel; it was also one of the artistic high points of an ambitious and self-confident genre. A broad public audience looked to the novel to tell them about who they were; just the title of Trollope's The Way We Live Now suggests a certain representational gutsiness. Who shows us the way we live now? At least among most of my friends, as well as any number of writers and critics, you're more likely to hear names of TV shows—The Wire, Girls, Black Mirror—than titles of novels. And you're more likely to be able to have a conversation about them with a random person on the street, too. A wildly successful book sells 150,000 copies in the first week. Even if you sold that many copies every week for a year, you'd only have half the audience of a single episode of the show This Is Us (a title of Trollopesque ambition).

There are any number of reasons to keep reading print fiction anyway, including "I like reading" and "novels and TV shows are different art forms that do different things well." (No one pits sculpture against chamber music.) But it seems clear to me that one of the most compelling reasons to read novels in an age that is so concerned with representation of the previously under-represented or disempowered is that it's far easier for the under-represented or disempowered to write a novel than it is to make a TV show or a movie. TV shows and movies are, with rare exceptions, massive productions that require huge amounts of capital to produce and distribute. They also require significant technical expertise to create, usually with a large team of people working under creative supervision. The financial resources needed to bring a short story or novel into being are infinitesimally smaller. And while there are multi-year degree programs in fiction, you don't need to work your way up the ladder of a studio before anyone gives your the resources to write a novel. You can just write most of the thing and then submit it to an agent.

This is not to say that the novel is costless, or even cheap. Virginia Woolf famously pointed out that if you want to expect a group of people to produce art, you need to give them a certain degree of material stability and even comfort—"£500 a year and a room of one's own." Dandelions might sometimes spring from cracks in pavement, but flowerbeds don't materialize in parking lots. There is a reason why scions of the leisure class have historically been overrepresented among novelists and poets. And after the manuscript is done, a writer still generally needs the resources of an industry—agent, editor, publisher, bookshops—to get the thing out in the world; there are judges and gatekeepers.

Still, if you are listening for the voices of people from the margins, from unusual walks of life, the ignored, the obscure—and especially if you want to hear such people speak on their own behalf—it seems to me far more likely that you'll find them in the words of a novel rather than on a screen. For all the shortcomings of publishers in finding such voices, I routinely find their catalogues to be far more various and diverse than the reviews of TV critics. Which is the more likely place to find someone who has enjoyed fewer privileges in life: a novel requiring a few hours a day of calm and undistracted free time alone and a roof over one's head, or a TV show requiring a staff of dozens and a budget of six or seven figures? 

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