The Most Dominant Storytelling Form of Our Time

TV critic John Doyle asserted in a recent column that television has replaced novels as the "most significant storytelling form of our time". This is Michael Redhill's response:

I agree with John Doyle, up to a point: such shows as Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Treme and The Wire have proved that television is capable of all the beauty, depth and subtlety that any mature art form can achieve, in the right hands. There’s no doubt we’re living through a golden age of television right now.

But the distinction between TV and books is not an aesthetic one, as Mr. Doyle would have you believe. These two ways of storytelling are more different than they are similar. Television is social. It’s looking at bodies and reading facial expressions and processing vocal tones and having emotional responses to music and light and colour. Television is a room in your house and there are people in it.

A book, however, is not social. It’s solitary in a fundamental way – both in its making and its consumption. The world of a novel appears on the screen of the reader's mind through an alchemical process of craft and imagination that is transmitted not through the airwaves, but through the acts of writing and reading. And the process is one of creation, not reception.

To wit: There is only one Don Draper in the world. We all know what he looks like, sounds like, what he does with his face when he’s listening, what happens in his eyes when he’s overwhelmed by emotion. But there are millions of Emma Woodhouses, millions of Pi Patels. Your Brobdingnag looks subtly different than mine does, and the madeleine of my youth doesn’t taste the way yours does. Anna Karenina lives and dies, over and over again, in the minds of her readers. I like a world with that many people carrying their own Anna Kareninas around in their heads. Television doesn’t “triumph” over that.

And it doesn’t have to. It’s something else entirely. Novels are not TV on the page and TV is not novels brought to visual life. I may be delighted by Deadwood or The Sopranos, but I don’t abjure the novel because of them. Will photographs triumph over paintings next? Movies over theatre?

But I don’t think John Doyle is actually making an aesthetic case for television over novels. I think he’s saying that novels bore him, that they are obsolete because television fills his story-well faster and easier than books do. He’s right. No book ever comes to its reader. But now that it’s normal to spend much of our time living outside of ourselves – broadcasting our thoughts and activities over the Internet; filming our lives; journaling our experiences for the consumption of others – a book may be the last place where it’s possible to have a meaningful experience all by yourself. Our lives are crowded by others, actually and virtually. A book can make you go into yourself. That’s an increasingly underpopulated place: yourself. In suggesting that we crown one mode of storytelling over another, or consider its earlier forms obsolete, John Doyle invites his readers to think of their inner lives as vestigial and unnecessary. Maybe he just needs some alone-time. I can recommend a book to spend it with.

– Michael Redhill's most recent novel is Consolation. He is the publisher and editor of the literary magazine Brick.