Two arts epochs appear currently to co-exist: the Death of the Literary Novel and the Golden Age of Television. I say ‘appear’, because evidence for the death of the literary novel is offered either in terms of declining sales figures (which can be misleading because they often neglect the interface between literary and popular novels), or critics’ opinions that the literary novel is losing the central space it once occupied in our culture.
Definitions are simpler with the Golden Age of Television. The epoch began in the early noughties with American series like The Sopranos and The Wire (though some may say earlier with The X-Files and 24), and now every TV-producing nation on earth is following the yellow brick road.
In Australia, the rise in pay TV’s popularity, combined with ubiquitous subscription services and free-to-air’s renewed interest, sees the golden age continue apace. It’s reached the crazy point here where producers are actually looking for Australians to create original Australian fictional TV content. Even five years ago, reality TV enthralled producers would have laughed you out of the room, Big Brother house or kitchen for pitching original fictional Australian television to them. But if the literary novel is indeed in decline, why aren’t Australian publishers learning from what this golden age is telling us about how audiences like to engage with stories?
The first reason is that most major Australian publishers don’t care whether or not the literary novel is in decline. If particular fictional modes or genres don’t turn a profit (without even considering here the parallel important question), then they won’t publish them. The big guys (and they often are guys) are out to make a dollar, which means backing winners and playing it safe.
These publishers will, however, happily publish literary fiction if they are convinced it will sell. This mainly means bringing to Australia titles from hyped overseas authors, award-winning international tomes or works by authors who have previously populated international bestseller lists. If these big publishers happen to decide to invest in an Australian work (invest is the key word), they will convince themselves and audiences of the book’s literary credentials by developing a huge marketing campaign that reads in block letters: you need to read this book because we’re publishing it and therefore it’s good. It’s all as transparent as the assessment one publisher at a medium-sized Australian publishing house offered me:
“Literary quality is not the only reason books get published in this country, Paul.” The fact that I needed to be told, of course, displays my naïve and high-minded idealism.
But a perhaps more interesting reason why Australian publishers aren’t learning from how we engage with television storytelling is because they think there is no difference, beyond the obvious, between literary novels and TV series. Here is the standard thinking: series have episodes, novels have chapters; the series has an overarching plot, so does the novel. They both develop characters over a long stretch, cover major life themes in a detailed manner, and can be comic, tragic, romantic, sci-fi, crime-based, political or dramatic (or, of course, a combination).
So they’re the same, yeah?
Well, some TV series and some literary novels do have a lot in common. But I don’t think The Wire’s creator David Simon helped when he called his seminal series a ‘visual novel’. Because The Wire, held up with Breaking Bad and The Sopranos as the doyen TV series of the Golden Age, has more in common with the short story cycle (or short story composite, depending on which theorist you read).
Both The Wire and the short story cycle, such as Tim Winton’s The Turning and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, are works with independent parts that interrelate to form an holistic experience for the viewer/reader – similar to but not identical with what the novel offers. The key factor here is the significant amount of ellipsis and unexplained gaps in The Wire and the short story cycle.
…if the literary novel is indeed in decline, why aren’t Australian publishers learning from what this golden age is telling us about how audiences like to engage with stories?
These works resist the neat closures inherent to the reader’s experience of a novel, even though, when it comes to the distinct genre that is the short story cycle, most publishers call it a ‘novel’, ‘short story collection’ or nothing at all (think Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Tony Birch’s Shadowboxing, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Joyce’s Dubliners, and Hemingway’s In Our Time).
Publishers should be more aware that the short story cycle, however they decide to market it, shares successful formal characteristics with the Golden Age of Television series. Both involve fulfilling sections that include ellipsis, either across episodes or seasons or both. I’m thinking here of the way characters experience major life events in The Wire between seasons, and how these events invite little or no comment from characters in subsequent seasons. And how in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, a four-part series based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning eponymous short story cycle, significant life events occur between episodes without remark.
There’s a reason these series still offer fulfilling narratives: by marginalising the characters’ major life events and the epicentres of emotional experiences attached to them, audiences are left to focus on the ripple effects. In this way, the major life events resonate for us more powerfully than if we deal with them directly. In addition, these series, like the short story cycle, work with an open-ended approach to narrative closure that postmodern audiences relish.
In short, pardon the pun, it is worth considering whether or not the short story cycle is truer than the novel to the episodic, open-ended, fragmented lives we live now. If the literary novel is dying, there is already a genre that fulfils readers’ expectations – were publishers to take the risk to engage with it, and use some marketing dollars to educate and enliven the reading public.
Paul Mitchell’s episodic novel (or is it a short story cycle?) We.Are.Family. (MidnightSun Publishing) will be launched at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in August and released in September.