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The Netflix Novel

Is writing for television the future for writers?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

My daughter was eighteen recently. She loves reading, she watches a range of TV, she writes, and she may read English at university with a creative writing module.

She’s a lot like I was at her age. I loved reading, watched too much TV, loved writing, and went on to read English at university and then do an MA in Creative Writing. So is she writing short stories, hoping to become a novelist one day, as I was, back in the nineteen seventies? No, she’s writing TV scripts, hoping to make a career out of that. And she may go to university, but if she can get a job with a TV production company, then she may just avoid that route altogether.

Times have changed. Television has changed. As a teenager in the seventies I mostly expected to watch TV to relax, to switch my brain off. Dennis Potter was at work, doing interesting things, and I remember watching I, Claudius and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but as far as I could see TV was the poor relation of film. There was a clear hierarchy in my mind, and novels were definitely at the top.

It’s different for my daughter. She has grown up in a new golden age of television. She watches, or has watched, shows like The Leftovers, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Deuce, Patriot, Legion, BoJack Horseman, Better Call Saul and of course the great trinity of top television — The Wire, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. I’ve watched most of these too. They’re complex and intelligent TV shows, more interested in character than in plot; they have distinctive styles and voices, and in some cases they’re quite challenging, even experimental. At their best, they immerse you in well-realised fictional worlds, they introduce you to people, places and ideas you haven’t previously encountered, and they send you away with a tangle of concepts, emotions and images flickering in your brain, and in your heart.

Complex, intelligent, distinctive, challenging, immersive — these are all qualities that can be ascribed to literary fiction, which implies that the experience of watching shows like these is similar to the experience of reading a literary novel. Hanif Kureishi recently described a scene in Breaking Bad as ‘one of the most illuminating in all art.’ That sounds like hyperbole, but it does indicate that these episodic TV shows are being taken seriously.

People used to say that Dickens would be writing soaps if he was alive in the twentieth century. I’m not sure he’d have been attracted to that world, but in the twenty-first century I do think he might very well be writing a multiple-season exploration of the rich and poor in modern London. Perhaps each season, as in The Wire, would focus on a different aspect of contemporary life. The media; politics; education; drugs; race. There would be plenty of space in such a show for the usual cast of rich, poor, flawed, hypocritical, struggling, downtrodden or optimistic characters that we expect in Dickens. His anger and his humour would resonate throughout the series, and the city, teeming with life, fractured, broken, would be like a character in itself. I’d love to see that show.

Dickens wasn’t exposed to the temptation of television, but I think there is now a possibility that we’re going to lose a whole generation of potential novelists to the screen. People like my daughter, who wants to be a writer but isn’t interested in writing books. You can see the attraction. It must have been great to work on Breaking Bad, for instance. There were five seasons and sixty-two episodes. This length allowed the show to focus in a novelistic way on the character of Walter White and the theme of his moral corruption. It allowed secondary characters like Jesse Pinkman, Skyler White and Saul Goodman to be properly developed and explored. It allowed grotesques like Tuco and Todd to shine relatively briefly. When you write a show like this, you create an experience comparable to reading a novel, and you may get a viewership in the millions, rather than the meagre readership most literary novels tend to reach.

The attraction is clear. And the thing is, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if writers migrate en masse to the world of TV. Maybe, with the proliferation of MAs, and writing courses of all kinds, there are simply too many people writing novels, and there isn’t a publishing climate to sustain them. In the mid-nineteen eighties, when I did my creative writing MA, there were two to choose from in the entire country. Now, if she decided to do one, my daughter could choose a course out of the one hundred and fifty-five available.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with all this teaching of creative writing. Some of these MAs are excellent. I greatly enjoyed mine, and have very happily worked for the Arvon Foundation many times over the years. I’m sure most of the writing courses run by publishers, agents and others are also good. Everyone should have the chance to explore these opportunities. But, at the same time, I’m beginning to imagine a Black Mirror style world where absolutely everyone is getting novels published. No food is grown, no children are taught, no doctors and nurses are at work, because everyone is busy writing. Forests fall so that more books can be produced. People die at their desks, hands lying limp on the keyboard, one finger pressing one key, so that an ellipsis spills eternally on to the screen. Dot, dot, dot…

I’m suggesting that we’ll cope if there are fewer novels in the world. It may be better if some of the writers coming out of these courses choose television over the printed word. The golden age of TV is absolutely something to be welcomed, and watching something like Breaking Bad is almost like reading a novel.

Almost. Let’s not overstate it. Watching television, no matter how good the show, can’t replicate the experience of reading a novel. In fact, it can’t even come close. Complex, intelligent, distinctive, challenging, immersive — yes. But television has pictures. Novels have words. Television has a meaningful close-up, novels have a deep dive into an interior life. Television thrusts characters’ faces in front of us, and shows us every detail of a place. It uses cuts and camera angles to influence us, nudge us or downright bully us into interpreting the action the way it wants us to. When we watch TV we appreciate it in exactly the way it intends us to appreciate it.

When we read a good novel, something else happens. We read the spaces between the words, we inhabit the negative space. And we fill that space with our imaginations. In TV, the director has done that job for us.

So yes, we can afford to lose some novelists to television, because we arguably have too many of those already. But we don’t want to lose readers to TV, because reading a novel is a unique experience, and because novelists need all the readers they can get. The good news is, I don’t think readers are going to give up novels and settle in front of the screen instead. There have always been distractions from reading, and the novel has always survived. I think the people who watch the kind of shows I’ve been talking about are mostly the same people who will take an interest in literary novels. There’s no reason why it should be either novels or TV, it’s more likely to be both. If you want to have the way you look at the world questioned, if you want to have your empathy developed and challenged, if you want to admire the different ways that a writer can surprise and delight you, then you might watch an episode of Better Call Saul and follow it with a chapter of the novel on your bedside table before you turn off the light.

The current age of television delivers great viewing experiences, and will tempt many writers into its welcoming arms. Fine. I look forward to seeing the work that people like my daughter will produce in the years to come. And after I’ve watched it, I’ll turn off my TV, and I’ll pick up a book. Sounds like a good evening to me.

Mark Illis writes for TV and radio, has written a prizewinning screenplay and has had five novels for adults published. His first Young Adult novel, The Impossible, was published last year; the sequel, The Impossible: on the run, was published in July.

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