The TV-Novel Complex

Throughout its history, television has often relied on literature for a shot of self-esteem. In the 1950s, when TV lost its luster as a luxury item, when it became a mass product, it looked to literature for a boost – especially in Europe, where broadcasters in Germany and England adapted thousands of plays and novels for their “high cultural value.” Later, in the 1970s, American broadcasters needing to hook viewers over long stretches of time copied a hyper-literary “British” model that relied on adaptations of novels, old and new. Thus was born the television “miniseries,” or “novel for television,” the most noteworthy example of which was Alex Haley’s Roots, adapted by ABC in 1977.

Today, though, with the rise of prestige and streaming TV, the nature of the relationship is blurred and maybe even reversed. To be sure, when the growing army of TV critics needs an epithet to describe a serialized TV show that is particularly layered and robust, it conjures up the ghost of Charles Dickens — it relies, to an extent, on the past glories of the Victorian or Russian novel. On the other hand, the cultural power wielded by TV in its current (and seemingly endless) Golden Age means that it is free to instrumentalize its former friend. On its way to America now is a series called Dickensian that chops and screws the works of the dead novelist into a murder mystery. Ongoing, now, too, is the BBC-produced adaptation of War and Peace, which remakes Tolstoy’s essay-novel into a version of Downton Abbey, which was, in and of itself, an adaptation of a never-existing British novel.

Like any change in relationship status, the new arrangement between TV and the novel is weird, a source of elation and anxiety for both partners. Things are moving fast. This month alone, we’ve learned that two of the most read and revered literary novels of the last year have given themselves over to adaptation. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity will now be adapted into a 20-episode drama starring Daniel Craig. We’ve also learned that Franzen himself will co-write the series, in a move that will remind many of the Hollywood turns of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Dos Passos. And just a few days prior, Europe’s Sky network announced that it will adapt each of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels into an eight-episode season. Fans of the quartet are already dreaming up their fantasy casts.

What do we call this new relationship between prestige and streaming TV and the literary novel? Well, to suss it out, we must first admit that the mutual influence of the two cultural forms extends beyond mere literary adaptation; the two now shape each other in peculiar, formal ways — like lovers who share an apartment, they’ve started speaking and looking alike. This is to say that while any relationship is marked by willful tenderness and even deceit, many of the interactions between the two are managed by forces that are beyond the control of either. These interactions are often subconscious.

The only name I can think to give this new relationship is the TV-Novel Complex, and I mean “complex” in the Freudian sense that it is neurotic and anxious. I also mean it in the sense of the “military-industrial complex,” which implies a network of producers with money who seek advantage in their union — Scott Rudin comes to mind. Now, I’m sure by this point that many readers have guffawed at my assertion that the cohabitation of these forms is a new development; I’m not saying that. But I would also point out that when Eisenhower spoke of the military-industrial complex, both the military and industry already existed and exerted influence on each other. He just meant that their “conjunction” and “posture” had intensified.


Just as Eisenhower was a former general, a man versed more in military strategy than industry, I am a literary critic who knows more about the novel than I do about television. On this basis, I can tell you that the contemporary literary novel, especially its American variety, increasingly looks to televisual forms that are often rooted in the most adapted novelist in literary history: Charles Dickens. This is to say that, more and more, literary novelists look to recreate the “seriality effect” of Dickens’ fiction, even if their novels aren’t published in serial form.

Several things align to create this Dickensian effect. To begin with, the novel needs to be fleet, it needs to have an episodic, page-turning quality that favors layers of plot over labored characterization or mood. In order to achieve this quality, it relies on the fuel of both the TV show and the Dickensian novel: coincidence. Increasingly, the contemporary novel is one of coincidences, which require many pages to play out convincingly. This also explains why novels are getting longer.

Let’s just look at some of the most discussed novels of the last year. There is, of course, Franzen’s Purity, an episodic, ensemble novel that relies heavily on coincidence; even its title character, Purity “Pip” Tyler, takes her name from Dickens’ Great Expectations. There is also the superior, Man Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. Its author, Marlon James, calls himself a “Dickensian” and cites the latter’s “plot, surprise, cliffhangers.” It was no surprise when HBO optioned the screen rights to the novel in December; nor did it seem unusual when James pitched his forthcoming novelistic project as an “African Game of Thrones.” And then there is Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling A Little Life, a page-turning novel of coincidence. When the novel was taken to task by Daniel Mendelsohn for manipulating its readers, its editor defended Yanagihara by comparing her to Charles Dickens.

These are but the most prominent of potentially hundreds of examples of literary novels leaning toward TV-ready plot structure and binge-worthy pacing. But the best illustration of the emergence of the TV-Novel Complex is Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, one of the most televisual novels in recent memory. Hallberg’s 900-page, coincidence-drunk debut, readers might remember, sparked a bidding war that netted him $2 million dollars. Not only that, but Scott Rudin optioned its film rights before it was published; presumably, his eagerness was based on the novel’s deeply televisual structure and ambition — it is, as Frank Rich described, a “Dickens-size descent into New York City circa 1976-77.” When it was published, I was struck by City on Fire’s reliance on TV tropes, given that it was billed as the second coming of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (a novel that attempts to subsume television rather than be subsumed by it). And I wasn’t the only writer who thought so. Writing for The Atlantic, Erik P. Hoel cites the book’s “undeniable televisual quality.” City on Fire, he adds, “represents a natural progression in the aesthetic influence of television — for better and worse.” It was no big surprise to learn that the structure of Hallberg’s novel was inspired by The Wire.


Any relationship, a psychologist will tell you, is a two-way street. And though I’m not a theorist or critic of TV, I have to wonder why it now favors a novelistic form that predates literary modernism, especially given that novels no longer carry the air of prestige they once did — in fact, as I wrote above, they’ve come to rely on television for that prestige.

Maybe it has nothing to do with prestige, outside of the built-in audiences for established literary blockbusters. The truth is that TV in the age of streaming has come to resemble the novel, perhaps accidentally. And this, I think, has to do with a concept that adhered in older theories of television: flow.

In his 1974 classic, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams notes the transition in sequencing from programming, or choosing what kinds of programs to show and when to show them, to flow. “In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organization, and therefore the characteristic experience,” Williams writes, “is one of sequence or flow.” The planned flow of television, he adds, “is then perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form.” The goal of broadcasting, then, was not merely to get the viewer to watch single episodes, but to trap them in a continuous flow of programming, one that engaged them with likable ads and trailers, with brilliant sequencing:

What is being offered is not, in older terms, a programme of discrete units with particular insertions, but a planned flow, in which the true series is not the published sequence of programme items but this sequence transformed by the inclusion of another kind of sequence, so that these sequences together compose the real flow, the real ‘broadcasting’. Increasingly, in both commercial and public-service television, a further sequence was added: trailers of programmes to be shown at some later time or on some later day, or more itemised programme news.

From what I can tell, the concept of “flow” has fallen out of favor in the streaming age. Now that entire “seasons” are made available to binge-watch at one time, the sequencing of multiple programs with promos and ads is no longer a televisual art — the art of the flow is dead. Or is it? From another angle, we could also say that the art of the flow has been perfected. Viewers now engage with the material by binging, by watching entire seasons of “content” for hours and hours at a time (instead of single “programs”). The flow is now seamless to the point that we no longer notice it. Isn’t that why we call it streaming?

Ironically, the concept of pure flow, of perfected televisual streaming, may have been invented by a novelist in the original age of the miniseries. In 1983, ABC looked to adapt Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, a novel about World War II, for television. But when they approached Wouk, he demanded the network remove commercials from the broadcast. From James Roman’s From Daytime to Primetime:

The author wanted a faithful screen interpretation of his work and didn’t want interruptions by commercials for deodorants, toilet-bowl cleaners, and feminine-hygiene products. Within the dynamics of the Hollywood community, it was unheard of to give an author control of the marketing characteristics of the event. The compromise agreement with Wouk, a first in the industry, limited the kind of participating sponsors, the number and length of commercials, the level of network promotion, and the show’s format, and guaranteed that specific scenes from his novel would be included.

From the perspective of streaming television, Wouk’s demand makes sense: he wanted to remove distractions so that viewers of the adaptation of The Winds of War could treat the miniseries like a novel. He wanted a “faithful screen interpretation” of his book. In order to do that, he wanted ABC and Paramount to give its broadcast pure flow.

Now that streaming has achieved pure flow, TV more closely resembles the novel. Episodes are like chapters. The viewer has time to engage with ensemble casts beset by all manner of coincidence in longish storylines. And, like readers of Dickens’ serial novels, they hanker for the next installment, as it is often said, like an addict awaits his crack.


Whatever the similarities between streaming TV and the contemporary literary novel, critics — especially TV critics — are quick to point out that they aren’t exactly the same thing. In a searching piece published at the end of last year, New York Times critic James Poniewozik expressed this sentiment bluntly. “Streaming dramas aren’t novels,” he writes:

But they’re also not just TV shows as we’ve known them, delivered through a different pipe. And they won’t reach their full potential by simply imitating what already exists. The early days of broadcast gave us great shows, like “Playhouse 90,” that were essentially live theater that happened to be televised, but the medium didn’t come into its own until it learned to use what made it distinctive — the ability to tell open-ended ongoing stories. Likewise, streaming needs to learn to use its supersized format better, not fight against it.

The anxiety, the glee, of the TV-Novel Complex is palpable here. Prestige and streaming TV are their own, new things — not shitty old novels. And he’s right. Part of it has to do with differences in seriality. In the novel, seriality is typically just one thing: novels are discrete units — they end, even if they are, as they were in the age of Dickens, sometimes published in installments. But streaming TV, many have pointed out, has more tools: it can rely on the serial, or discrete story delivered in episodes or installments, or it can choose the series, which has no definite endpoint, except for its eventual cancellation. Or, Poniewozik explains, it can learn to exist on a spectrum of the two.

Still, we might add that whenever TV and the novel bunk together, strange things happen to the latter’s “seriality.” Instead of a discrete narrative with an ending, the novel sometimes becomes an unfinished or even unfinishable project. Take, for example, Alex Haley’s aforementioned Roots, adapted by ABC in 1977, arguably the most important entry in the “age of the miniseries.” As a production, it was eventually a huge success; in fact, the only problem that ABC faced, when they wanted to adapt the book, was that it hadn’t yet been finished.

Much the same is now happening with HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, which will, as of this April, outpace the story of the novels. Under such conditions, we might begin to ask whether the show is an adaptation of the novels, or if the books are a novelization of the show. Under the aegis of the TV-Novel Complex, it’s no longer easy to tell the difference.


Where does the TV-Novel Complex go from here? On the level of production, it’s possible that we’ve arrived at its apex, considering the tremendous speed with which novels are optioned and produced. It’s important to remember, too, that the military-industrial complex has not been the most imaginative program under the American imperium — it’s possible that the TV-Novel Complex will continue to churn out Dickensian TV shows and novels for the foreseeable future.

On one hand, there is nothing wrong with this turn of events. The Complex has generated ingeniously coincidence-driven shows and novels that privilege some measure of characterological depth — it’s no big skip or jump from Draper to Gatsby, after all.

But, in the process, both prestige TV and the novel have incurred a sameness — both are more likely now to forfeit the weird in favor of the engaging and deep. There are, of course, exceptions; Poniewozik looks to the show Sense8 as a possible future for TV, beyond the TV-Novel Complex (although he doesn’t put it that way). Even though he admits that it is “by many traditional measures terrible,” he still associates its “sprawling” weirdness with a potential “to create an entirely new genre of narrative: one with elements of television, film and the novel, yet different from all of those.”

There are also sprawling weirdnesses in the realm of the novel. Joshua Cohen’s uncontainable Book of Numbers, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to television, comes immediately to mind. And the novel, to escape the TV-Novel Complex, sometimes takes to an anti-rhetorical flatness that would make for curious television, as in the cases of Knausgaard, Tao Lin, Alexandra Kleeman, and Marie NDiaye (to name just a few). As might be expected, the tactical evasion of the TV-Novel Complex is no guarantee of greatness (or even quality), but it’s fair to wonder if novelists on its periphery are watching less and less TV.