Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why books are better than TV, Part II

I copy-edited a review this week of a new television show about killers whose work "is frequently horrific beyond anything any normal TV writer would ever think up."

"Thankfully," the reviewer wrote, "we don’t see [the murderer] killing the tykes, just their remains, unearthed along with the poor dead kids’ dollies. We do get to spend quality time, however, with the lunatic, as he torments some of his still-living 8-year-old victims."

"Disgusting," he concludes, and I'm apt to agree. But that's not the point. Rather, the point is that his review sounds like a rerun of the torture-porn debate that has cropped up in discussions of crime fiction for a few years now. Once again, television follows where crime fiction has already trod.

Where else has it done so? Think of The Wire. What inevitably capped the litanies of praise for that much-praised show, with its large cast and season-long story arcs? "It's just like a novel!"

Why is fiction the standard by which dramatic television is judged? Does TV inevitably follow trends rather than set them? If so, why? Has any critic ever said that a novel is "just like television!"? Was this meant as praise?

***
My paper's critic also wrote that the show's investigator-protagonists "will pursue the evildoers, constantly explaining to each other, and to an audience that apparently abhors ambiguity, exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it."

Here's part of what I wrote two years ago in my original "Why books are better than television" post:
"That shortcoming is especially noticeable in shows about forensic investigation, where characters will recite aloud to one another lines like "In some respects, he meets the typical profile: White male, 30 to 35 years old, lives alone, good job, some graduate school. You know, I bet he tends not to have many friends and has trouble forming relationships with women." Real investigators would know this stuff and would not need to spout it to each other. The actors' delivery is invariably wooden, and the scenes destroy the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for drama or fiction to work. In fiction, this sort of thing is called an information dump. In television, it's called Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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39 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hmm. My feeling is that television fare is a few notches below the average bestseller. Television programs really do have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and in addition the viewer's attention span is extremely limited by distractions from visits to the fridge and bathroom and arguments between family members.
On the other hand, television viewing has left its imprint on recent books. You get spoiled by having things easy while reclining in front of the set with a beer in your hand. Writers have learned from television. They try not to burden readers too much. They tell the story in short words, short sentences, short paragraphs, and short books. Of course, the story must be mostly dialogue, just like a television program. Short dialogue. The rest is just a matter of shocking them awake now and then.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

You hit my TV hot button with this one. The constant need to make sure everyone gets everything, explaining it in detail and repeatedly, has driven me away from virtually all television, except for JUSTIFIED. DETROIT 1-8-7 started out promising, letting you wonder what else was there in the subtext, but by about the tenth episode if had become like the rest.

Among the hundred things that made THE WIRE stand out was Simon's and Burns's willingness to not only trust the viewer to pay attention, but to force him to. Books can do that, though it seems agents and publishers would prefer them not to; too complicated for their expected audience. The ones that do are the keepers.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

Another key feature of TV crime is the sentence of the 23 or 46 minute window to solve the crime in. Invariably any novel adaptions of crime series that work -- such as Inspector Matalbano or one of the several adaptions of Wallander or the more recent Inspector Gentley-- take off when given much more time to do so. Compare that to the confusing cut down that passed as Rebus adaptions. Not bad writing. Good characterisation and acting. But no time to tell a story in.

But Montalbano says so much of what TV doesn't do. These are excellent adaptions - mostly loyal to their originals -- but watching the program and reading the book are two totally different experiences such that so much of the essential joy of Montalbano series is lost.

Similarly, so much TV crime is (often wooden) story telling by numbers -- prime example is the CSI franchise.-- and the primary mistake these episodes make is the presumption that crime plus perpetrator merely requires some one to solve and finger the culprit in quick time --someone with beautiful coiffure and snazzy clothes.

So at best, the pitch will rely on a central character or characters to supply the hook: Columbo, Monk, Castle, etc -- with some quirk going for them.

Nonetheless, the alternative approach that can and does seem to work but seldom used is the ongoing storyline with a rich narrative core. The Sopranoes is a great example of that as was the US adaption of Life on Mars.

Series that are designed to end by running their course.

However i think the major complication for so much TV crime is its moral rigidity. The preference is for easy 'heroes vs villains' divides that can be packaged within the space between commercials. In that sense TV crime -- in the US anyway -- becomes a major ideological message rammed home night after night that 'evil' will always be caught and punished. (Although we are spared the US penchant for capital punishment as standard denouement.) It's a comfortable reassurance that the mean streets outside your door are being controlled by the crime fighters on the box each night.

The irony being that the murder and mayhem on the TV is statistically so far away from the everyday reality where murder is so often impulsive and spontaneous rather than TV conspiratorial.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., that's pithy and plausible. WOuld you care to name any examples of television-driven books?

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, that sounds like an observation I made recently about American late-night talk shows. The hosts have always driven me nuts with their preening and their mugging, and I finally figured out why they do it. The host tells a joke, then he's silent for half a beat. Then he makes a face. Then he hunches his shoulders and says: "Huh! Huh? Huh!" until the dimmest, most distracted, least attentive of the millions of viewers finally gets it.

February 17, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I think thrillers tend to qualify. But the stylistic characteristics are often discussed on authors' "how-to-write-a mystery" web sites. (Along with "how-not-to-write-a-mystery.") The insistence on much short dialogue comes directly from television watching. I give you Robert B. Parker, for example.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dave: I'll answer your comment at greater length later. For now, though, it reminded me of Adrian McKinty's observation about the great disparity between the number of white people killed in New York City and the number depicted on television as being killed there.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: Interesting that short dialogue and long, borign information dumps should both characterize television.

I am in the midst of a huge Hammett binge now, so I'm loath to denigrate brevity merely for being so.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I think you'll notice a trend, cable shows of 13 episodes or less are more serialized and network shows of 24 episodes more episodic. Cable shows are sometimes praised as "novelistic" but rarely network shows.

I don't think this was something that was planned. I had a meeting at a TV network this week and one of the development execs asked me why I thought this was. I said I thought because the serialized stuff, the personal stories, are what audiences use to make a connection with the characters so there needs to be more of it if there are fewer episodes.

But I know that's not true. I know that the programmers of network shows know that for the most part the audience members are doing something else while they have the TV on and so the story needs to be simple and the information needs to be repeated. Over and over.

But other than maybe Richard Price, there have been few novels with the breadth of characters of The Wire. I wish there were more books like that, but Dana is right, agents for sure, and publishers maybe a little less, are more interested in novels with fewer characters and simpler stories - more like TV shows.

February 17, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Brevity in and of itself isn't suspect, in my view.

Camilleri writes shortish books, with a lot of quick dialogue...yet his books are enjoyed immensely. (I can't get the tv programs.)

Parker's quick, snappy dialogue can be very enjoyable--and witty.

And Hammett is a master at writing with brevity, intelligence and wit. Even if a sparse style, he says a lot. He wrote phrases and sentences one can savor and also ponder later, although he was frugal with words.
But that's an art in itself, when so many writers are so ponderous--and one wants to edit half of their words out of the text.

I really enjoyed "The Thin Man," which I read recently. It's humorous in addition to being well written. Hammett said everything he had to say in an econonmical way, but with well-chosen words.

February 17, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Also, another example of brevity. Hakan Nesser writes very tightly-worded books, with snappy one-line comments that makes the reader sit up and take notice, and often say, "Wow. Where did that come from? It's surprising but right on target, now that I think of it."

He says a lot without over-writing, yet he has interesting characters, plots, dialogue, denouements.

So I think it all depends on the quality of the writing, not the length.

Some books can be long, but awful, boring, just verbose.

And some mysteries are way too long, as if publishers told writers to write more, or pay by the page--and they can be cumbersome to read.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

That TV show sounds repulsive. I sincerely wish it ill.

I love it when writers go off on tangents and get a bit crazy and undisciplined and even make the readers work a little bit.

I hate those novels which are all formula all the time as if from a kit.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Kathy

Have you ever read The Man Without Qualities or A Suitable Boy or War and Peace? Big, awkward, cumbersome books and a huge hassle to lug around but completely worth it. Life is way too short to read drivel no matter how conveniently packaged.

You can get Bud Lite everywhere and it requires a little bit more work to get a six pack of Dogfish Head, but the work is worth it.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I've recently reread The Maltese Falcon twice: once as it was originally published in Black Mask, and once in the revised novel form we know today. Each serialized installment after the first in the Black Mask version would begin with what amounted to a recapitulation of what had gone before, though the recap was integrated into the body of the story. So I have some sympathy with the necessity for repetition in serial storytelling.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I like Bill James' gorgeous descriptions as much as I do Hammett's concision. (One reason the latter works may be that its form matches its content. Hammett's Continental Op and Sam Spade are no-nonsense guys who live to get the job done. One could say as much about their creator. Perhaps Hammett's own detective experience has something to do with this.)

What it all adds up to is that I'll read terse prose and lavish prose as long as it's good prose. I will say that recent decades -- say, the past eighty or ninety years -- have favored concision over leisurely storytelling. But again, Hammett's version has aged better than that of some of his contemporaries. I just read a story by Raoul Whitfield, a friend and contemporary of Hammett's and one of the better Black Mask writers. He would strive for concision by eliminating conjunctions. So you'd get sentences like "He drew his gun, entered the room, looked around" or "He swore, grabbed his hat, stuck a cigarette in his mouth." This can get awfully dsitracting awfully fast, and requries conscious getting-used-to.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I'd forgotten than Hakan Nesser could be terse -- unlike his celebrated late countryman Stieg Larsson.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, here’s the review. The reviewer says much the same as you do about wishing the show ill.



I've never thought about writing that makes the reader work. This could be because I'm a lazy reader, or because reading never feels like work to me. Having gone on at some length about concision, I will say that Bill James' gorgeous prose, examples of which I cite here from time to time, is its own reward, irrespective of what it may contribute to the narrative.

February 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd like to add The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Adrian's list, but I'm afraid it's 2,750 pages of pure joy -- nothing cumbersome about it except possibly in the physical sense.

February 17, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'm not against long tomes, as long as they're well written, crime and non-crime fiction.

A few of us were remarking at Yvette's blog about "perfect" sentences; she has written quite an excellent definition of this concept.

A blogger brought up Barbara Kingsolver's book, "The Poisonwood Bible," a very well-written, riveting and politically astute book, which took her ten years to write, as she worked on every paragraph. It's long. It's worth the time to read it.

I would read Indridasson's or Hyland's books if twice as long, or Nina Revoyr's (The Age of Dreaming), or books by Kjell Eriksson, Malla Nunn, and many other authors, too numerous to mention.

I was just complaining about books which are way too long, and don't need to be--and become ponderous to read. And mysteries which are too drawn out. Or books which need lots of editing and tightening.

February 18, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Speaking of the joys of copy-editing... Today I was confronted with an abstract that began: "This is a brief but expansive overview..." <= Is that possible?!

February 18, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Kathy

I'm not sure I'd wish Indridasson's books twice as long. I'm struggling through Jar City.

February 18, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

You let him keep Skeeve City?

February 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"This is a brief but expansive overview..." Is that possible?!


In its own concise, sprawling way, why not?

February 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, my appreciation for "Jar City" was purely intellectual the first time I read it. I thought Arnaldur made ingenious use of the Icelandic setting, but the story felt ... I don't know, hermetic and cut off. I liked much better when I reread it later for some writing I had to do about him, and after I'd read some of his other novels.

It's the first of his books to have been translated into English but not the one I'd read first.

February 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Skeeve City! Two girls for every-- Oh, crap! That was Surf City, wasn't it?

February 18, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I would have read "Hypothermia," if it were twice as long, maybe not "Jar City," or "The Silence of the Grave," or even "Arctic Chill."

"Jar City," isn't one I'd cite on this topic.

I respect economy of words more than I used to, after reading a lot of extra words and pages in too many books, including mysteries, some which should have ended at a respectable 300 pages, but just went on and on.

Hammett shows it's possible. So does Camilleri. And others, too; I'm just giving examples.

Anyway, I know people who write "briefly," yet "expansively," people who really can do that--who can put more in two paragraphs than I thought possible, and then others who think they're doing that, but aren't.

February 18, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I meant to say that I could have read longer versions of "The Silence of the Grave," or "Arctic Chill," by Indridasson--certainly "Hypothermia," but not "Jar City."

February 18, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Kathy, Peter,

Well its WAY too soon for me to judge. I'm only at the exhumation. I love the map though. All books should come with maps. Do they do the map in the Kindle edition? And if so can you draw on the map like you can in the pbk and figure out the driving routes of the characters etc.? I suspect not. You certainly can't draw on the map in the bath which is what I was doing yesterday.

February 18, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Oh, that abstract was a great laugh. Still, there's a moving note of desperation in that line.

Very observant about Indridasson (I refuse to use Icelandic customs on names)giving a feeling of a hermetically closed universe. I also like his books a good deal, but Iceland gives me the shivers. This is partially based on having seen pictures of the place.

February 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, you'd love the exhumation in Silence of the Grave -- or rather the bit that leads up to it.

February 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I agree with your choices among Arnaldur's books. I liked Voices less than I did the other three novels you suggested.

February 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, we have barely begun to imagine the things one cannot do with an e-reader.

February 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., that feeling of being shut in is stronger in Jar City and in Voices. The latter even departs from Arnaldur's usual practice and is situated all indoors.

At the same time, the harsh land swallows people up all the time. Arnaldur's Iceland is not just grim, it's dangerous, too.

February 18, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Speaking of "Jar City"... Has anyone else seen the 2006 film version? I thought the casting of Erlendur wasn't quite right but the supporting players were well-cast. Very faithful to the novel. The dreary urban locations jarringly (no pun intended) contrast with the harsh beauty of the rural landscape.

I very much miss the Arnaldur translations by Bernard Scudder; he died in 2007. He provided the subtitles for "Jar City" and the film (when released in the US) is dedicated to him. Like Stephen Sartarelli, whose marvelous translations of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano novels are such a pleasure to read, Scudder captured the delicate magic of Arnaldur's stories. I don't think it can be coincidence that both Scudder and Sartarelli are poets as well as translators.

The Draining Lake is my favorite Erlendur to date.

February 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The world misses Bernard Scudder. Authors and readers alike mourned him.

I have not seen the movie version of "Jar City," but I hear good reports. And I had not known Bernard Scudder was a poet. Thanks.

I ought to read some of his poetry and, especially, some of Sartarelli's to see if it can enhance my understanding of and thinking about their translations.

February 19, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

YES to Steven Sartarelli! I'm reading Camilleri's "The Terra Cotta Dog" now, and appreciating the language, the translation.

And I just had to read Sartarelli's explanations/glossary in the back, couldn't wait. It's superb and fun.

I have read that Sartarelli has had so much fun doing the translations that he laughs out loud at Montalbano's witty comments as he's reading and working doing the translations.

It's obvious how much enjoyment he gets doing this job.

Now if I could only pull myself out of Sicily and go back to Sweden or Ireland or India or Spain--as the TBR pile is growing again.

February 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I have also read that Sartarelli gets great pleasure out of the translations. I, too, enjoy his explanatory notes.

February 19, 2011  
Blogger Lauren said...

I saw the film of Jar City for my birthday in 2008 - my friend was rather confused by the choice, but agreed it was a very good film.

(And she had made a chocolate cake for me - more appetizing than sheep's head!)

February 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Probably more appetizing than hákarl as well.

February 19, 2011  

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