Literary culture (as in: everything to do with books) is under threat. Libraries are closing, media coverage is shrinking, book prizes and literacy initiatives like Quick Reads (please somebody save Quick Reads) struggle and disappear, most authors earn next to nothing. Will Self has a regular gig on the Death of the Novel. As an author, avid reader and book blogger, my feelings about all that aren’t too hard to guess.
The intricacies of the decline in fiction sales across different genres, formats and markets, are extremely complex and I leave that discussion to those who can get their heads around the data. What interests me more is the common perception that books are threatened by the popularity of box sets (it’s annoying that I’ve lost track of the particular newspaper article which inspired me to write this). Well of course they are; every time the stand-off between print and ebooks rears its head it feels like a distraction from the fact the competition lies in all the other portable, accessible forms of entertainment people can choose instead, especially on-demand TV box sets.
And some people do, as is their absolute right; the whole point of free time is doing what you like with it. But for many of us, it’s never going to be an either/or. My book-loving friends devour box sets and so do I. I’d be surprised if many who genuinely loved reading before this technology was available have chosen to give it up – they’re both ways to tell a story but they offer a very different experience. My life revolves around the written word and I’ll defend books to the last, but I don’t think there’s room for the slightly superior attitude that reading is a more inherently worthwhile pursuit than watching TV drama, which is easily dismissed as a passive, superficial alternative.
That’s not how I see it.
I spend around two hours a day reading: over breakfast, coffee, lunch, in the bath, on public transport, late at night, and much of the rest of my time is taken up writing fiction or writing about books. When I want to switch off, I need a break from it. Add in my husband and complete opposite, JC. His idea of relaxation is cycling 300km, or to work and back on a normal day, he reads about two books a year and works long hours. When he gets home, we eat dinner, very late by most standards, with our younger son so we all catch up and then JC and I watch an episode of whichever box set we’ve got on the go, sometimes alternating between two. Luckily we tend to enjoy the same ones – often crime or thrillers, which I prefer on screen to reading – and spend ages chatting about it, swapping theories, praising or critiquing how it’s done. The point is, it’s something we do together.
When I look back on the best storytelling I’ve encountered in the past ten years or so, much of it was on screen – or maybe I have a more visual memory (my recall of books, even those I’ve loved, is pretty shocking). The character development in Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking Bad is so complex and nuanced that I can’t recall certain scenes without feeling the emotion I felt watching them. Screenwriters may not have access to characters’ internal landscapes – one of the big differences between writing for page and screen – but this can be offset in shows which run for years where viewers really come to know and care about the protagonists and see behind their masks. Don Draper is a magnificent example but for me the ultimate was Tony Soprano, whose therapy sessions undoubtedly played a part in inspiring and informing that aspect of my novel Paris Mon Amour before I had experienced it myself. Respect to the late James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco and all the other brilliant actors who bring the stories to life.
Like many novelists, I have read and studied screenwriting texts (I reviewed Robert McKee’s Story here) gaining valuable insights into structure, conflict, pace and all the other essentials. Whilst they focus on feature-length productions, authors can learn from the episodic formula of box sets (did I really say this was relaxing?): the contract being that something has to happen every time. Given how many people do consume both books and TV, this starts to have an influence on what readers expect, enjoy and demand from a novel; lengthy descriptions and uneventful meandering are mostly over, whilst a lot of contemporary fiction leans towards shorter chapters, flashbacks, tight pacing and vivid, natural dialogue. When I was struggling to get on the ladder, I resented being told you need to hook the reader immediately regardless of the genre – now, as a reader, I have little patience when that doesn’t happen. I don’t want to choose between great writing and a story. If this sounds daunting for authors, there are advantages too: the increase in ‘original’ content commissioned by streaming services is generating opportunities and income for works of fiction which would never have made it to the big screen.
The anglophone world is notoriously resistant to translated fiction but in the UK, subtitled foreign language TV drama seems to have taken hold, possibly linked to the cross-media appeal of Scandinavian crime and thrillers which brought The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen and many more to our screens. One of my top tips, Before We Die (Innan Vi Dör), on the Croatian mafia in Stockholm, comes under that category – it is superbly gripping and well-plotted. At home we watch a huge amount of French TV drama, firstly because there’s some excellent stuff – Spiral, Spin, Paris and the very funny Call My Agent (Dix Pour Cent) set in a Paris talent agency (it takes a lot to make the literary world look sane) – but also because it’s a great way to keep up with cultural references and the way people speak, even though I go to France often. Last summer I managed to resurrect my rusty intermediate Spanish quite dramatically ahead of our family holiday whilst watching twisty and sophisticated thriller I know who you are (Sé quién eres), set in Barcelona.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this, and your box set recommendations, of course. That’s it from me now until my Summer Reads selection on 23 May – I’ve got a lot of reading to do before the final cut as well as a book of my own to write.
The novel will never die!