Friday, August 22, 2008

The Novel in the Digital Age

When The Sopranos ended a year ago, John Freeman wrote an article in The Guardian asking whether Tony Soprano had "whacked the American novel." The Sopranos, Freeman says, "developed characters to a degree unparalleled in American television, save that other current HBO drama, The Wire, which is, in fact, occasionally written by a novelist, George Pelecanos"; like The Corrections, it wrestled with great novelistic themes in its exploration of how each generation attempts to correct the mistakes made by the generation before; and it's written in a quintessentially American vernacular language.

But more than that, The Sopranos seems perfect for its media culture. Not only do we live in a world saturated by old movies like The Godfather, old music like Springsteen's or Van Morrison's, and television ads promising the American dream, but we spend our lives looking at screens rather than reading books:

More and more Americans spend their day waking up, checking their email, travelling to work, clicking through their Blackberries, sitting at cubicles, staring into a monitor, and then coming home, to look - once again - at a screen: the television. The eye has been trained to scan, and to receive, and less and less to read.

It feels somewhat ungrateful to complain in today's television environment, with so many well-written, superbly acted shows available, that the screen is destroying the page. But it's true, especially if you pause to consider that reading fiction is something that requires time, time away from a screen. More and more, though, Americans don't have the time to think, let alone to read. They are working harder and less efficiently than ever (and in many cases, for less money than ever). In this environment, there is no better delivery system than the image for themes which transport - because that's how our eyes work the rest of the day. The Sopranos does the imagining; our eyes need only follow.
This seems important not least because, as Virginia Heffernan points out in the Times, web-based serials that consciously imitate television (or gads, the novel) appear to be foundering:
Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

By contrast, Web serials smack of planning and budgets and all that vestigial Hollywood stuff. The earliest ones were interludes in existing fiction franchises like “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Office.” The natural audience members for serials are obedient and obsessive — the John Edwards supporter who just has to know everything about him, the “Battlestar” viewer who can’t stand a few months’ hiatus from the show. From Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop” to radio’s “Shadow” to Fox’s “24,” serials have always attracted completists. Serial fans don’t trawl YouTube for crazy junk they’ve never seen before; they turn to reputable sites for “more information” on their beloved franchises. They’ve seen one installment and feel dutybound to see what comes next.
So we have three terms here: the novel, television, and the internet, each of which seem to be vying for attention as the literary-cultural forms of the day (or maybe of yesterday). Add to this mix Clay Shirky's "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus" and its opposition of television to digital culture:
Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan's Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

And it's only now, as we're waking up from that collective bender, that we're starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We're seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody's basement.
As an explanation of where people find the time to blog, comment, and edit Wikipedia articles, Shirky's disjunction is great; as a positive disjunction between television culture and digital culture, it's miserable. Clearly, a good portion of the content of the web originally comes from television, from fan forums and YouTube clips to movie reviews and analysis of political ads. The best and often the most successful TV shows -- The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica -- create a virtuous circle between television and the web, as viewers watch the show, go online for previews and spoilers, check back to summaries of old episodes, debate their merits, upload early screeners, and so on. It's an entire digital ecosystem.

And this is why I think The Sopranos is so important. It doesn't just whack the novel; it whacks television, by gathering up all its tropes and genres, demolishing them in the process. And it does it in a genuinely new form. That tagline, "It's not TV, it's HBO" isn't just good marketing. The Sopranos has very little to do with broadcast television or even the movies. It's long-form, subscription-supported (i.e. no commercials), no censorship, no laugh track, no traditional "seasons" dictated by the calendar (each nominative season is in fact a distinct series). It's shot with a movie camera, shown in 16:9 on digital cable, digital video discs, or digital downloads on digital television and computer screens. There are generic predecessors, from the network miniseries to the BBC, but this is really new.

Shows like The Wire almost seem to work against their broadcast format -- until you realize that the show is watched almost as much on DVD, in a digital download, or on cable On Demand as it is by viewers who dutifully sit on the couch every week. It's a show designed to be watched a disc at a time rather than an hour at a time; the one-hour divisions are just convenient chapter breaks, giving you a chance to take a breath and get a drink before you sit back down and click ahead to the next one. (Also, like the novel's chapter and page, it gives you a convenient way to reference moments in episodes when you're talking about them.) Lost gives you cliffhangers; The Wire gives you catharsis.

The serial form gives you the space you need to explore character and milieu, and the uninterrupted length and cinema-style production give you the forms you need to explore them with seriousness. But this already implies that there are at least two digital cultures at work, and maybe working at cross purposes; the culture of the large screen and the culture of the small screen. In your living room, on your HDTV, you watch the digital cable novel; on your computer at work, or on your iPod in transit, you gobble up your viral YouTube videos, catch up on The Daily Show, or wring your hands over the newest Obama commercial. My favorite five-year-old likes to call YouTube videos "commercials," and indeed, that's what they're like -- that's how they're constructed, as the logical culmination of broadcast television. One is intensive: we obsess over our serials, their characters, the turns and twists of plot. The other is extensive: we can watch a hundred different YouTube videos a day, all from different sources, forward them to our friends or upload them to our blogs, and never return to them again.

I don't want to throw up a firm value or even genre distinction between one form or the other, but it seems important that we seem to be compartmentalizing our consumption in this way. It also suggests that as the screens continue to change -- as laptops get smaller, or handheld devices get more video-savvy -- we might see new forms start to emerge.

The page is a screen, kids. We've got our novels and we've got our pulp newspapers. What I'm waiting for is our avant-garde poems, our explosive neo-dada videos that scramble all of this up; maybe even our digital Ulysses.


Robin said...

Aghhhhh I totally agree. Re: that last bit. Everything preceding but the last bit especially. Jeez, not even Ulysses -- how about something that just feels correct and comfortable here? On this screen? W/ all these linky-links?

I wish you could have seen my presentation at the Creative Commons salon recently in SF, Tim -- you would have liked it and, more importantly, I would have loooved to talk to you abt it afterward. The talk was all about new forms, about all the unexplored "possibility space" in video (on the web), and how we need to lower our standards for a bit now to let some of the good stuff happen.

Tim said...

I'm not totally sure what you mean by "lower our standards" -- I would argue to the contrary that what we might need is a really well-pulled-off exemplar (like The Sopranos or Ulysses) that shows what you can do in a new space.

In particular, The Sopranos and Ulysses are both omnivorous creatures of the best and worst of mass culture and the best of worst of high art and spit them out to make something new. You get a lot of bad stream-of-consciousness novels after Ulysses but also Mrs Dalloway and The Sound and the Fury, and you get a lot of bad Sopranosesque series but also The Wire and Mad Men, shows that wouldn't get a chance without their very successful forebears and which really seem to expand the form.

So we come back, as all discussions tend, to Isabella Rosselini. Green Porno, again, seems to be a real effort to think of a different kind of art for the digital small screen, but it's like the pre-Ulysses s-o-c novels, pre-Sopranos HBO series, or other experiments in form: it's coming together, but not quite to the point of saturation and fully realized expression.