As Film and TV Steal Its Narrative Thunder, Literature Has to Do What Only Literature Can Do

This morning at The Guardian, Thomas McMullan wrote about how “challenging writing” is growing in popularity, at least if the prizes being awarded to experimental novels — like Eimar McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing — are any indication. This, obviously, is heartening news for anyone who bemoans the general dumbing-down of so much pop culture, or just anyone who loves weird, difficult writing and wants to read more of it.

McMullan suggests that revived appreciation for inventive writing may have something to do with the kerfuffle over the 2011 Booker Prize, when many reacted against the idea that “readability” should be a prize-winning virtue — and some others responded with arguments against the idea that difficulty should be one, either.

But what is truly exciting about experimental novels is not that they’re difficult, but that they’re doing something only they can do — not just something only the writer can do, but something only the novel can do. As McMullan points out,

games are becoming more sophisticated in the way they tell stories, while box sets and Netflix continue to scratch the general narrative itch for a large part of the population…. As the basic need for storytelling is catered for to a large extent by TV dramas, it may be that readers turn to the novel for something else, something new.

In many respects, even highly “readable” novels are already the most difficult way to get a story into the brain — reading is more active than watching TV or movies and, if easier on the thumbs, still requires more brain power than your average video game. So if a consumer is only looking for a compelling story and nothing else, they’re increasingly going to look to other media. In fact, I’d argue that, for a variety of reasons, most movies are better than most books — but the best books are better than the best movies (a cinephile might take issue with me on this, but I don’t have one handy).

As narrative art forms mature, they inevitably get better and better at what they do, and TV and movies are getting really, really good. But across the board, the most interesting material comes when the form is as essential to the story as any other element. Linklater’s Boyhood has been getting so much attention lately because, yes, it’s an incredibly ambitious project and, yes, a touching film — but it’s also doing something only film can do: capture a real person’s progression over time in a way that’s both narrative and visual, and thus meld his experience with the fictional one.

In the same way, for books like Infinite Jest or Tom McCarthy’s C, their essential novel-ness is part of the story. They couldn’t be presented in any other way, and the response they evoke couldn’t be elicited by another art form. Even epistolary novels or books with extremely voicey narrators (think The Catcher in the Rye) have an edge on the others because they present a kind of storytelling we just don’t get anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I like a straightforward narrative novel as much as the next guy, but if I’m not being surprised on the sentence or concept level, I sometimes wonder: would this be just as good — or better — as a movie?

On the other hand, the bestseller list is almost invariably topped with books that might as well be movies: thrillers and romance novels that are accomplished in their own rights, but are built mostly of plot and genre convention and very little literary experimentation or innovation. This is reading as escape, satisfaction, and pure entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that television can often do it better — which means that, long-term, we may see fewer and fewer people choosing books. And as other narrative art forms get better in their own niches, novelists may look to push their own form as far as it can go, and as far away from other forms as it can get — not at the expense of story, and not just for the sake of experimentation, but for the sake of keeping novels uniquely essential to the human experience.