Writer in Residence

Television as the New Novel

By Carey Toane

One late afternoon many summers ago, I found myself on a sunny balcony with a bunch of writers. Naturally we were talking about television. When one of us admitted she hadn't seen The Wire, I jumped in with the kind of enthusiasm that comes with being two beers in on a sunny balcony after a long winter of mainlining all five seasons of The Wire. "Blah blah Idris Elba blah blah Omar. It's a layer cake of society, with an arc like a symphony, written to completion before it was aired," I crowed. "It's the Great American Novel!"

If anyone wanted to burn me at the stake that day, they didn't say so aloud. I don't recall any serious cut eye, even. But I do understand how saying this kind of thing could make a girl unpopular in a room full – or say, a blog full – of writers. So let me explain.

I am loathe to identify with what, in what is perhaps my favourite explanation of how we as a culture respond to change, Adam Gopnik terms the Never-Betters, that societal group that claims the present as the best-ever time in history. As an Ever-Waser, who takes the long historical view, I find all of this "golden age of television" talk a bit suspect. At the same time, I lived through a time when the majority of television programming was terrible, and then reality TV came along and it got so much worse. Of course now I'm opening myself up to the vitriol of intelligent writers who will unironically die on the hill that is The Bachelorette or whatever-your-pleasure, and to you, dear reader, I apologize for any offence.

Book people generally refer to television as low art because, as David Foster Wallace exposits at length in his brilliant essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, of its desire to please as many people as possible. "Quality television cannot stand the gaze of millions, somehow," DFW writes in 1993, two years after Twin Peaks was cancelled and a year before My So-Called Life premiered. These aborted favourites aside, it appears that we have made a bit of progress since the Grunge era: while Wahlburgers isn't putting up any serious competition for our time, 30 Rock died a natural death after seven Emmy-laden seasons. Somewhere between Tony Soprano and Laverne Cox, television decided that we weren't as stupid as you'd think we were. That viewers wanted to think and be challenged and would respond to these high expectations of their intellect, even as they were relaxing and eating fatty foods on the sofa.

The Never-Betters would cite the advent of Netflix and streaming television as justification for the title of this article. Who among us did not, in the middle-distant past, binge out on a whole season or even the entire series of say, Battlestar Galactica or Deadwood in approximately the same number of couch-hours it would take to read Oryx and Crake or The Orenda? For a parody to prove a point, try Portlandia. The Ever-Wasers would speak up at this point, reminding us that this is in fact the second Golden Age of television, the first being way back in something called The Fifties, and arguably every decade since. Some might even reach back further to point out that Dickens and Joyce were serialized in newspapers and little magazines at a time when the only thing streaming was fish. The Better-Nevers are wringing their hands and blaming all of this for the woes of the publishing industry. Or something. Let's not think too much about them today.

The point is that the quality of what once would have been called prime-time television is approaching literary quality, and for those of us who like to read books, this is a happy thing. The plots are subtle and complex, the characters irresistibly flawed, the production values are sky high, while the societal commentary is deep. There is a distinction (often moot) between a hit series and a quality series; you can watch simply for plot, but if you spend some time with these shows, the rewards are rich. And finally, you can watch them in succession without waiting a week, which has changed the way that we experience a television show to be more immersive. All of the above are characteristics of Very Good Books and Serious Dramatic Films, but more rarely of television.

It's also great news for writers. It's the writers who are in control, and the writers we have to thank for the upswing in quality of television viewing that has resulted in the title of this post, which has already doubtless irked many of you (if you're still with me, thank you). The talents of David Simon and Joss Whedon and Tina Fey and Amy Sherman-Palladino and Louis CK and Dan Harmon and, yes, even that sentimental motor mouth Aaron Sorkin have ushered in the era of the star writer. I'll bet you can name at least one excellent program each of the above have made great — and that is what distinguishes this Golden Age from any that came before.

The strength of The Wire, the genius of Community, the saving grace of Gilmour Girls is in the writing. It's the writing that makes the actors stars, and not the other way around. You could print out and read these scripts and enjoy them, well, nearly as much (because Idris Elba) as a novel. This part freaks book people out, because we love books and people keep telling us they're an endangered species. But never fear. If TV is the new novel, that doesn't mean the novel is going anywhere. Black isn't going anywhere because Piper wears orange. It just means that writers (even capital-N Novelists like Salman Rushdie) can venture outside books without kneeling to the lowest common denominator. And however you look at it, that's a good thing.

To that end, I've rounded up some Toronto-based television writers to talk to them about their art and craft. Over the month of May we'll hear from some novelists and authors who write for television, as well as some who are writing novels and poetry about television, and from an agent who will share some secrets about getting your work onto the small screen. Stay tuned.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Carey Toane is a librarian, journalist and poet. Her first collection of poems, The Crystal Palace, was published in 2011 by Mansfield Press. She lives in Toronto, where she is currently working on a collection of poems inspired by and dedicated to Twin Peaks. She is on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/careygrrl

You can contact Carey throughout the month of May at writer@openbooktoronto.com