Are TV shows now better than books?

An Irishman’s Diary

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman and Laura Prepon as Alex Vause in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman and Laura Prepon as Alex Vause in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

 

When I was an aspiring author at a Boston high school in the 1970s, turning in quirky English essays and contributing a satirical column to the school paper, the Nobel Prize was my benchmark for literary achievement. Each year I kept tabs on the sometimes obscure applicant the Swedish Academy had deemed to be the world’s premier writer and then calculated my career trajectory accordingly.

If I were starting out today, however, my sights would be set in a different direction. Instead of pining for acclaim as a novelist, playwright or short story writer, I’d be looking to make my mark on a digital platform, concocting worthy TV scripts aimed at the streaming services.

In an earlier age an abundance of mass circulation magazines and pulp fiction outlets in the US – publications such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s as well as Astounding Stories and Weird Tales – offered encouragement (and handsome sums) to emerging novelists and sci-fi authors. Today, HBO, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime are the global digital age equivalent.

In recent years, for example, serial dramas such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, and Game of Thrones – more so than any novel or short story collection – have gripped the popular imagination. And audiences now await the next series of their favourite show with more enthusiasm than the Dickens fans who crowded the New York piers for the latest instalment of David Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities.

Box sets are the new novels, pop songs the new poetry. As a result, ambitious young artists these days are more likely to work out their angst via a social media post – crooning or acting out their take on modern life – than through the vintage vehicle of the printed page.

Just as print technology brought oral culture to an end, the digital domain is having an equally momentous effect now. When Johannes Gutenberg mechanised the printing press in about 1450, he consigned scores of storytellers and oral historians to the scrapheap.

Communities that once relied on the recollections of their elders to assert their standing in the world could now consult the printed page – once they learned how to decode this new-fangled app. Similarly, some digital zealots maintain that printed books will become museum pieces by the middle of this century.

I’m no zealot, but I’m convinced that if Dickens was alive today, he’d be scripting multi-episode moral dramas for Netflix involving ill-fated homeless families, clerical sex-abuse victims, and greedy financiers. Mark Twain would be performing standup comedy 300 nights a year and hawking DVDs, T-shirts and posters after each gig. Emily Dickinson would be a wildly popular performance artist on college campuses across the US, employing mesmeric lighting and moody silences to enchant her acolytes. And Edgar Allen Poe would be creeping us out on Amazon Prime each week with his tortured explorations of the human psyche, all executed with the latest special effects.

The reason for this cultural shift is simple: Unless you belong to a certain generation of literary practitioners – in the US the likes of Alice Munro and Anne Tyler, Don DeLillo and Richard Ford – being a writer of novels or short stories is not enough these days. A film adaptation of your work or a college teaching post now comes with the territory if you want to make ends meet.

Of course great literary works are still being created, but most authors now earn their stripes in prestigious and pricey creative writing programmes – spawned by what’s been called the literary industrial complex – and the result is often a kind of cloistered prose heavy on interior monologues and short on convincing dialogue.

In 2016, the Swedish Academy validated a cultural shift when it awarded the literature Nobel to Bob Dylan. As I see it, it’s only a matter of time before another milestone is achieved. When TV dramatists such as Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Jenji Kohan (OITNB) start showing up on Nobel Prize shortlists, then I’ll know the novel is officially dead and the times they really are a-changin’.

In the meantime, I’m hopeful that the digital universe will always contain a quiet corner devoted to the kind of print-bound stories and essays I produce.

Even if they receive nothing other than a kind word from a bemused editor.

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