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The TV-Novel Complex

6 March 2016

From Flavorwire:

Throughout its history, television has often relied on literature for a shot of self-esteem. In the 1950s, when TV lost its luster as a luxury item, when it became a mass product, it looked to literature for a boost – especially in Europe, where broadcasters in Germany and England adapted thousands of plays and novels for their “high cultural value.” Later, in the 1970s, American broadcasters needing to hook viewers over long stretches of time copied a hyper-literary “British” model that relied on adaptations of novels, old and new. Thus was born the television “miniseries,” or “novel for television,” the most noteworthy example of which was Alex Haley’s Roots, adapted by ABC in 1977.

Today, though, with the rise of prestige and streaming TV, the nature of the relationship is blurred and maybe even reversed. To be sure, when the growing army of TV critics needs an epithet to describe a serialized TV show that is particularly layered and robust, it conjures up the ghost of Charles Dickens — it relies, to an extent, on the past glories of the Victorian or Russian novel. On the other hand, the cultural power wielded by TV in its current (and seemingly endless) Golden Age means that it is free to instrumentalize its former friend. On its way to America now is a series called Dickensian that chops and screws the works of the dead novelist into a murder mystery. Ongoing, now, too, is the BBC-produced adaptation of War and Peace, which remakes Tolstoy’s essay-novel into a version of Downton Abbey, which was, in and of itself, an adaptation of a never-existing British novel.

Like any change in relationship status, the new arrangement between TV and the novel is weird, a source of elation and anxiety for both partners. Things are moving fast. This month alone, we’ve learned that two of the most read and revered literary novels of the last year have given themselves over to adaptation. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity will now be adapted into a 20-episode drama starring Daniel Craig. We’ve also learned that Franzen himself will co-write the series, in a move that will remind many of the Hollywood turns of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Dos Passos. And just a few days prior, Europe’s Sky network announced that it will adapt each of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels into an eight-episode season. Fans of the quartet are already dreaming up their fantasy casts.

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Just as Eisenhower was a former general, a man versed more in military strategy than industry, I am a literary critic who knows more about the novel than I do about television. On this basis, I can tell you that the contemporary literary novel, especially its American variety, increasingly looks to televisual forms that are often rooted in the most adapted novelist in literary history: Charles Dickens. This is to say that, more and more, literary novelists look to recreate the “seriality effect” of Dickens’ fiction, even if their novels aren’t published in serial form.

Several things align to create this Dickensian effect. To begin with, the novel needs to be fleet, it needs to have an episodic, page-turning quality that favors layers of plot over labored characterization or mood. In order to achieve this quality, it relies on the fuel of both the TV show and the Dickensian novel: coincidence. Increasingly, the contemporary novel is one of coincidences, which require many pages to play out convincingly. This also explains why novels are getting longer.

Let’s just look at some of the most discussed novels of the last year. There is, of course, Franzen’s Purity, an episodic, ensemble novel that relies heavily on coincidence; even its title character, Purity “Pip” Tyler, takes her name from Dickens’ Great Expectations. There is also the superior, Man Booker-winningA Brief History of Seven Killings. Its author, Marlon James, calls himself a “Dickensian” and cites the latter’s “plot, surprise, cliffhangers.” It was no surprise when HBO optioned the screen rights to the novel in December; nor did it seem unusual when James pitched his forthcoming novelistic project as an “African Game of Thrones.” And then there is Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling A Little Life, a page-turning novel of coincidence. When the novel was taken to task by Daniel Mendelsohn for manipulating its readers, its editor defended Yanagihara by comparing her to Charles Dickens.

These are but the most prominent of potentially hundreds of examples of literary novels leaning toward TV-ready plot structure and binge-worthy pacing. But the best illustration of the emergence of the TV-Novel Complex is Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, one of the most televisual novels in recent memory. Hallberg’s 900-page, coincidence-drunk debut, readers might remember, sparked a bidding war that netted him $2 million dollars. Not only that, but Scott Rudin optioned its film rights before it was published; presumably, his eagerness was based on the novel’s deeply televisual structure and ambition — it is, as Frank Rich described, a “Dickens-size descent into New York City circa 1976-77.” When it was published, I was struck by City on Fire’s reliance on TV tropes, given that it was billed as the second coming of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (a novel that attempts to subsume television rather than be subsumed by it). And I wasn’t the only writer who thought so. Writing for The Atlantic, Erik P. Hoel cites the book’s “undeniable televisual quality.” City on Fire, he adds, “represents a natural progression in the aesthetic influence of television — for better and worse.” It was no big surprise to learn that the structure of Hallberg’s novel was inspired by The Wire.

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9 Comments to “The TV-Novel Complex”

  1. Is it me or does this article have snob written all over it?
    Maybe it IS me. I’m recovering from a cold and everything annoys me right now.

  2. Not just you, Rob. The snobbery made my eyes glaze over. But I’m not a fan of lit-crit in general for that very reason.

  3. My eyes glazed over too. But something that struck me: didn’t Dickens write in serials? So what’s the issue? I think the topic of serialization is worth discussing, but I couldn’t stomach reading the whole article.

  4. “seriality effect”

    Sounds so much more snobish than calling it by it’s true name.

    Soap opera …

  5. P.G.

    I loathe Dickens.

    Pompous, charlatan adulterer, novels full of weird names.

    Off wif ‘is ‘ead!


  6. As to the term Dickensian and the reliance on coincidence to move a story forward, I’m annoyed when this is frowned upon. Many of the decisions I’ve made in regards to the forward momentum of my life have been based upon series of coincidences. As well, when telling a story, random detritus is annoying and a non-foreshadowed happening is the old deux ex machina. Make up your minds, o’ literary critic.

  7. He focuses on “lit” novels, but as I recall it, the most successful US made-for-TV serials were based on genre or genre-ish novels. THE THORN BIRDS was a popular novel, though of course not a romance. One could argue CENTENNIAL and TAI-PAN and SHOGUN were not literary novels. Of course this author might counter with BRIDESHEAD REVISITED and other imports. But I don’t think made-for-TV is owned by lit fic. Wasn’t my experience in the 70s in the US.

  8. “Let’s just look at some of the most discussed novels of the last year.”

    They might be the most discussed in some circles, but how are their sales?

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