‘There’s a new sheriff in town’

Timothy Olyphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock in Deadwood. The Movie Network.

I’ve been reading an article by my friend Neil Cross, that has made me sit up and think about how I feel about fiction in a fundamental way. You can read Neil’s piece here.

Neil asks how the novel, as a form, can continue to be relevant as a representation of reality in such rapidly evolving times. It is far from being one of those slightly tedious ‘the novel is dead’ articles so beloved of literary journals (which are really just a posh way of saying ‘we’re bored by the novel’) and looks much more interestingly at how the novel has become an increasingly out of touch vehicle for reflecting our experience.

At root we read novels because one of our fundamental needs as human beings is the need for story. Story is our way of understanding and explaining the world, of marvelling at its complexities, empathising with our fellows and laughing at its absurdities. As a species, we are pretty much hard-wired to both tell and enjoy stories.

But I don’t think we are hard-wired to do so through novels, and what’s more, I now believe its possible the novel could recede in importance as a form in inverse proportion to its current dominance as the story telling vehicle.

At the advent of television there were many predictions that it would be the death of books. Now, of course, that didn’t happen as foretold but it may actually prove to be right. The book maintained its hegemony because it is far more portable and user oriented than television scheduling. I can sit with my paperback and dip in and out as I please. I can read on the bus, the beach and in the bath. I don’t have to stop reading for commercial breaks or wait until chapter 17 appears next Wednesday night. The book as a delivery method for story delivery on demand was still top dog.

Until now.

At the weekend, we started viewing the first series of Deadwood. Now I know I’m behind in my viewing, Deadwood having started in 2004, but then I still haven’t read Middlemarch which was first published, in serial form, in 1871. Now, as with books, I can choose when I view.

We have it as a DVD boxed set, but I could rip it to a hard drive or download it from iTunes and watch the episodes on an iPad. I can view it in bed, on the bus or the beach (though I grant you, the bath is still too risky) as I please. The experience of a movie is now as deliverable on demand as easily as the experience of reading a novel. It is also possible that as more books become digital they may be measured more aggressively against other digital products.

As Neil points out, television can be just as well written and as compelling a vision of human experience as any novel:
In Jamesian terms, I think the two greatest literary novels of the new century were television programmes: The Sopranos and The Wire.

This is of course the crucial point. If the experience of visual storytelling is as good or better than the novel and if it can capture the nature of humanity the way we are now, then why would we not seek a  more contemporary, more relevant relationship with story not based so strongly (or perhaps even weakly) on the printed word?

Neil reflects on the ratio of his reading has shifted from fiction to non-fiction. If I look at how my own consumption has changed then there is, likewise, a big shift. I still read and enjoy novels but increasingly I find myself watching something like The West Wing, in just the same way as I once read novels, four chapters a night. Unlike the 1950’s harbingers of doom for the novel, this isn’t speculative futurology, its what I’m actuallydoing.My need for story is undimmed, but perhaps its route to my imagination has already changed its path.

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2 thoughts on “‘There’s a new sheriff in town’

  1. okay, i realise this has been up for awhile, but life is a bit nuts right now. that being said, i love this post. i have nothing intelligent to add (it’s sunny and a long weekend before life moves into autumn and am v. v. lazy right now) and it makes me miss our morning talks even more and wish you could come over for wordstock.

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