TV vs Literature

Novelist Moshin Hamid is awed by advances in TV storytelling (NYT):

Recently we’ve been treated to many shows that seem better than any that came before: the brilliant ethnography of “The Wire,” the dazzling sci-fi of “Battlestar Galactica,” the gorgeous period re-creation of “Mad Men,” the gripping fantasy of “Game of Thrones,” the lacerating self-exploration of “Girls.” Nor is TV’s rise confined to shows originating in only one country. Pakistani, Indian, British and dubbed Turkish dramas are all being devoured here in Pakistan. Thanks to downloads, even Denmark’s “Borgen” has found its local niche.

I now watch a lot of TV. And I’m not alone, even among my colleagues. Ask novelists today whether they spend more time watching TV or reading fiction and prepare yourself, at least occasionally, to hear them say the unsayable.

Adam Kirsch, meanwhile, insists on a distinction between novels and TV shows:

Spectacle and melodrama remain at the heart of TV, as they do with all arts that must reach a large audience in order to be economically viable. But it is voice, tone, the sense of the author’s mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and they exist in language, not in images. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grateful for our good TV shows; but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they give us what only literature can.

Gary Shteyngart reflected on similar themes in a recent interview:

Why and to where do you think our attentions have shifted?

The need for stories is always there, but what is the water cooler conversation now? It’s beautiful shows like Breaking Bad, or Mad Men, or Girls. That’s where it’s migrated, and I’m not against any of that—in fact, they’re trying to turn [my book Super Sad True Love Story] into a TV series. I love those shows. But I do feel that because they satisfy a certain need for narrative, they’ve pushed books out of the way. Also, our attention span has shrunk to such an extent and it’s harder to concentrate on text for a very long period of time, especially when it’s not on a screen. People lack that capacity.

I lack that capacity. I was doing a reading in upstate New York, way up in the mountains, and I started out from New York, of course checking my iPhone while trying to read a beautiful Chinese novel in translation. I had so much trouble getting into the book because it was in a different culture with all these other signifiers. Meanwhile, the iPhone is just pinging with messages and I’m answering and tweeting like crazy, all while trying to read this book. Then we got into the mountains and the signal died, and when the signal died, I remembered what it’s like to read a book and I started really getting into the book. I started inhabiting the world of the book until everything else was crowded out except for the book and the characters in it. I thought “So that’s what reading is.” Fifteen years ago, that was how I read. Now I have to end up surrounded by mountains to do it. I do this professionally—what is it like for the casual reader.