Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Novels vs. Serial Television

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Novels are big. It’s something you recognize when you’ve got a draft and you need feedback – what a big favour it is to ask someone, a friend or acquaintance or agent, to spend a dozen or more hours of her life reading something that probably needs work. I am always grateful to those who do it, and ensure they are rewarded not just with an acknowledgement and a finished copy of the book, but dinner, drinks, eternal slavery, etc. Fellow authors are good to approach for this effort, not just because of their insights as writers, but because it offers the opportunity for debt-repayment when they ask me to reciprocate with their own novels.

I never stop appreciating the gift of time and effort a test-reader grants. Thanks to all of you – I still owe you kegs of beer.

(I often joke that in my next life I’m going to be a singer-songwriter. “Wanna hear my new song? ... Wanna hear it again?”)

Novels. There are few artistic experiences that demand so much investment from an audience. Add to their substantiality the fact that reading, unlike watching movies or TV or listening to music, is an active experience, and you are already in deep trouble in a world where everyone is busy as heck, and distraction rules the attention market. A song or a movie just rolls at you. A book must be read.

It seems everyone wants to write a novel (if only everyone wanted to read one, or read many – ah, but we’ll deal with that quibble in a future post). There’s something important about writing a novel, something impressive about the effort, hence its place on many bucket lists. I often consider the idea of writing a “lite” novel, one that’s short, with a blithe theme, but for me the exertion says “epic.” If I’m going to throw that much of my life into a creation, it’s got to be ambitious in topic, style, length, and strength.

Considering that humans appear to desire such monumental and long-lasting relationships with a story and characters, I wonder if something more than simple distraction is drawing audiences away from novels. Could it be television? Not the old, fragmented style of past series; a viewer could tune in to any episode of Gilligan’s Island because everything he needs to know is established in the opening credits. I’m talking about serialized television. You’re not going to start watching Game of Thrones at season three, episode five, because you will be completely lost (Lost). That’s one thing. The other is the new on-demand state of television. Serials have existed since the beginning – think of soap operas, everything from The Young and the Restless to Dallas. In the past, you couldn’t arrive late in the game and expect to be satisfactorily positioned to understand the story. “Previously on 24” is never enough to recount the entire nuance of the plot and players. Now, however, you can discover an existing series, start from episode one, and binge dangerously by watching on platforms like Netflix. You can get that 12-hour experience of story, character,and place that was formerly served by novels, and you can do it effortlessly from your couch, after your work day, meal prep, and homework battles, while the kids are finally slumbering (or maybe, hopefully, surreptitiously burning through Erin Hunter’s Warriors series, or taking a second crack at Harry Potter or Percy Jackson). The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Sherlock, House of Cards. When in history has there ever been such high-quality, extensive, accessible, long-term experiences of story, available on-demand…except when the big game in town was the novel?

It of course begs the question of whether or not a serial television show can substitute for the novel as a significant aesthetic experience. A recent study suggests that reading literary fiction can improve empathy. Can watching six hours of Downton Abbey have a similar effect? Television can’t compete with fiction when it comes to putting you inside the mind of the character. Conversely, television steals away mental engagement by “showing” you everything. With written words, the mind must invent images and sounds and other sensations from description. The whole point of those reading experiments – which single out literary fiction, as opposed to pulpier works – is that literary novels do not offer full disclosure, creating a kind of vacuum that the reader’s mind must fill, and this is what leads to empathy. The reader participates in the creative process. Television, on the other hand, is a full-service experience.

I'm assuming of course that you think empathy is a good thing for humanity. I'm of the mind that persons in a position of authority should be required to read literary fiction. Cops who read Joyce may beat you with less vigour at the next economic summit.

The other problem with television is that a series is rarely crafted with a finite life in mind. Series in which the producers refuse to accept the entropy of their idea invariably end up “jumping the shark.” Good literary novels are written with an ending in mind, a firm conclusion. Better to burn out, than fade away.

I’m inclined to keep writing. There will always be someone out there who wants to read a novel.


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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Brian Panhuyzen

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of the short-story collection The Death of The Moon (Cormorant, 1999) and a novel, The Sky Manifest (ECW, 2013).

Go to Brian Panhuyzen’s Author Page