the novelodeon 11.26.2007, 12:40 PM
posted by ben vershbow
This past April, as the final season of The Sopranos hit the airwaves, with seemingly the whole country bracing for impact, I'd still never seen a single episode. Gradually, my indifference turned to concern. It felt like every talk show, news culture section and conversation on the street was about the fate of Tony Soprano -? a latter-day American anti-hero, a titanic figure with the air of myth about him. I began worry that I'd missed out on something big. A cultural touchstone of rare proportions.
So, as the end drew near, I took a deep breath and decided to start from the beginning.
Six months, 86 episodes, and over 70 combined viewing hours later I'm finally done, and while I may have missed out on The Sopranos as a broadcast event -? seven seasons of weekly appointments with Tony, Carmela, Meadow, AJ and the whole crumbling world of New Jersey gangsterdom -? I got to experience something perhaps more satisfying: a hyper-concentrated, solitary viewing experience, curled up nightly in bed with my laptop. Episodes flowing into each other almost seamlessly like chapters of a book. The pause button like a dog-eared page or bookmark inserted as my eyelids began to droop. An experience not unlike reading a big novel.
Book lovers frequently insist they could never get in bed with a computer, but it seems that this is happening all the time. Any of you who have indulged in a multi-season TV binge can probably attest to this -? hours spent prone, the laptop huffing away, plowing through disc after disc (Bob made a similar observation a while back). Substantively too there's something that recalls leisure reading. It has oft been remarked that The Sopranos heralded a major shift in television into terrain once solely occupied by the novel: serial dramas that transcend their episodic structure and become a new kind of literature. Big cross-seasonal plot arcs. A broad social canvas. Intricately interwoven narrative. A large cast of deeply drawn characters. Not to mention a purchase on the country's imagination that recalls the popularity of the great serial fictions of Dickens a century and a half ago. With the spate of high-caliber TV serials originated by HBO and then proliferated by channels across the television spectrum, film has moved onto the novel's turf, matching not only its narrative scope but its expansive dimensions. Stories as big and sprawling as novels can now be told in moving pictures, and thanks to a host of new individualized distribution channels, experienced as intimately, on a laptop or iPod.
Of course I'm not suggesting that film and prose fiction aren't very different things, just that their roles seem to be converging. From its early days, film has been in conversation with the novel, frequently operating on canvases as vast as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations, but it necessarily has had to compress, select and distill the worlds it shows into something in the vicinity of two hours. When a film edges toward the three-hour mark it is considered epic. Simply in terms of duration of story and investment of time by the viewer/reader, movies and novels have always been very different kinds of fiction requiring very different sets of commitments from their audiences.
The shift arguably began with the multi-episode adaptations of classic books pioneered by the BBC in the 70s -? shows like I, Claudius, on through the 1995 hit rendition of Pride and Prejudice, right up to last year's Bleak House. Here, television began to stretch out novelistically. And indeed, novels were the source material. Still, the solitary "reading" element was absent here. These were broadcast events, viewed in living rooms at an appointed time set by the channel, with little or no control by the spectator. Soon enough, however, VCRs entered the home and television audiences became time shifters, capturing and bending the broadcasters' schedules to fit their own. From there the die was pretty much cast. A parade of new "narrowcast" technologies -? DVDs, TiVo, personal computers, iTunes, bit torrent -? imbued these shows with book-like qualities: reader-driven, personal, portable... an intimate cinema of one.
Immediately upon finishing The Sopranos, with the pangs of withdrawal already setting in, I found solace in Wikipedia, which has extensive articles on each episode and character from the show. With the help of the external links, I soon found myself on a strange digital dérive through various arcana: press clippings, blogs, and an forums debating the show's ambiguous ending, personal web pages of supporting cast members such as Joseph R. Gannascoli, who played the gay mobster Vito Spatafore, and from whose site one can purchase such fine collectibles as t-shirts emblazoned with "I Love You Johnny Cakes." Through the drifts of trivia, I eventually dug up several interesting quotes from contemporary authors ruminating on the novel's place in American life and the increasing overlap with television. The first bits were from John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, who published a piece in The Guardian during those fevered months surrounding the Sopranos finale entitled "Has the novel been murdered by the mob?"
From coast to coast, from white-wine sipping yuppies to real life mobsters, The Sopranos has had Americans talking - even those of us not familiar with the difficulty of illegal interstate trucking or how to bury a body in packed snow. While the New York Times called upon Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly to resurrect the serial novel in its Sunday Magazine, critics were calling Chase the Dickens of our time. The final episode roped in some 11.9 million viewers. One major question, though, remains. Has Tony Soprano whacked the American novel?
....America's most powerful myth-making muse long ago moved in to Hollywood (and the White House press room), so the ascendancy of The Sopranos to the level of quasi-literary art should have been expected. Indeed, this wouldn't be troubling were Americans reading other, actual novels. But they're not - at least not in the numbers they once did.
Freeman cites two authors, Gary Shteyngart and the late Norman Mailer, both of whom have discussed The Sopranos as a story of novelistic proportions. First, here's Shteyngart, in a Slate dialogue last year with Walter Kirn:
Our time...is more mutable. Change occurs not from year to year but from day to day - ?the fiction writer's job of remaining relevant has never been harder. And I don't think this will be true only of the present age. I think we are entering a period of unprecedented acceleration, of previously unimaginable technological gain that may be derailed only by the kind of apocalypse found in Cormac McCarthy's latest novel.
The Internet, I both fear and hope, is only the beginning.
But the emotional need to connect with a story remains. One of the folks behind the popular HBO series The Wire recently said that he sees each season as a novel, with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. The Sopranos, which may one day be acknowledged as the definitive fiction of the early 21st century, puts an emphasis on detail, setting, and psychology in a way that could resonate with a reader of, say, A Sentimental Education.
And here's Mailer, in a 2004 interview on Poynter Online:
The Great American Novel is no longer writable. We can't do what John Dos Passos did. His trilogy on America came as close to the Great American Novel as anyone. You can't cover all of America now. It's too detailed. You couldn't just stick someone in Tampa without knowing about Tampa. You couldn't get away with it. People didn't get upset if you were a little scanty on the details in the past. Now all the details get in the way of an expanse of a novel.
You can take a much broader canvas with nonfiction ... and Americans want large canvases because America is getting so confusing. People want more information than you can get from most novels. You can read a novel about a small subject like the breakup of a marriage, but that's not a wide enough approach for some. It takes something like "The Sopranos," which can loop into a good many aspects of American culture. As I said, I don't think the Great American Novel can be written anymore. There will be great novels ... forever, I hope ... But the notion of a wide canvas may be moving to television with its possibilities of endless hours.
I think it's this element of time that lies at the heart of this over-drawn analogy. The storytellers of television are driving a golden age of magisterial fictions roomy enough to capture the full flow of time. TV serials used to be a way to kill time: repeatable formulas, the same story told again and again, a tradition that's alive and well in shows like Law & Order. You can check in, check out, it doesn't really matter. TV has always been sort of timeless in this way. Whereas prose fiction has long had a special relationship with time. Time, in its fullness, takes time for the author to convey, and the time it takes to read book-length fictions is I think equally part of the reward -? it's an endurance sport, long-distance running. I always assumed that only a book could show me the landscape of time in this almost bodily way, but my recent odyssey with the Soprano family appears to have blurred the usual distinctions.
Tim on November 26, 2007 8:26 PM:
Ben, if you flipped this much over The Sopranos, I have to say I don't know what will happen when you watch all four seasons of The Wire. (Seriously. The Sopranos is the pinnacle of serial television -- The Wire is an honest-to-goodness television novel.)
DVD sets, Tivo, season-pass downloads, BitTorrent, and cable on-demand are changing the way television is produced and consumed -- and arguably equally changing our long-form entertainment (especially the novel). You can watch a full season of Arrested Development and it plays like the tightest, funniest, longest, most complicated Hollywood comedy. Ditto any HBO series (drama, comedy, or a bit of both) and the best of broadcast television.
Also, your thought about the privacy of consuming the DVD on a small screen reminded me of David Denby's New Yorker article, of maybe a year back, about the changing nature of viewing movies based on new screen sizes, as the giant home-theater system begins to be swappable for the widescreen theater, and the laptop, portable DVD and iPod begin to be swappable for smaller TVs of the past. Eight-year-olds today can read the Harry Potter novels AND watch the movies by themselves, heads under the covers. And it's quite possible that very soon, they'll be able to do so on the same device, and the DVD and the paper book will no longer be an integral part of either experience.
Sam J. Miller on November 26, 2007 10:28 PM:
Broadening our understanding of what a novel can be is going to be more and more necessary as we are forced to re-evaluate just what a "book" is. How has cinema-television-video games-blogging transformed what we look for in books? What do we expect from a book? To what extent is a book, and our expectations of it, shaped by the exigencies of the market - and what will they look like when "books" are no longer defined exclusively along the lines of expensive-to-produce-and-distribute-and-promote paper books?
The Mailer quote is also great, and should lead us to a deeper discussion of why the great american novel is no longer possible. One reason is because, while they still exert a disproportionate and disturbing amount of power over most every sphere of life in this country, the power of white straight males to define "America" via literature is crumbling. Puts me in mind of James Baldwin, in "Nobody Knows My Name": "We have a very deep-seated distrust of real intellectual effort (probably because we suspect that it will destroy, as I hope it does, the myth of America to which we cling so desperately)."
Tim on November 27, 2007 8:21 AM:
Aha! I found the New Yorker article I mentioned above. ("Big Pictures," January 8, 2007.")
In a theatre, you submit to a screen; you want to be mastered by it, not struggle to get cozy with it. Of course, no one will ever be forced to look at movies on a pipsqueak display-?at home, most grownups will look at downloaded films on a computer screen, or they'll transfer them to a big flat-screen TV. Yet the video iPod and other handheld devices are being sold as movie-exhibition spaces, and they certainly will function that way for kids. According to home-entertainment specialists I spoke to in Hollywood, many kids are "platform agnostic" - ?that is, they will look at movies on any screen at all, large or small. Most kids don't have bellies, and they can pretzel their limbs into almost any shape they want, so they can get comfortable with a handheld device; they can also take it onto a school bus, down the street, into bed, cuddling it under the covers after lights-out.
Syven on November 27, 2007 1:13 PM:
For the next concentrated dose I suggest travelling back 30 years in time and obtaining the "Rich Man Poor Man" mini-series DVD - which has been so hard to find until now.
Google "Rich Man Poor Man" DVD for more information but in terms of novels turned into a serial, IMHO that for me is still the tops.
Going though seven seasons of Sopranos in six months is quite a feat in itself - and that requires the kind of viewing stamina that I do not personally possess, so I am not qualified to comment about this particular experience, suffice to say that you have proven to me that this humanly possible :-)
bowerbird on November 28, 2007 2:15 PM:
i was thinking of making a t-shirt that says:
> ben watched 70 hours of "the sopranos"
> and all we got was this lousy blog entry:
watch out, cafe press, here i come... ;+)
p.s. bill jannsen, an e-book person at parc,
has been making the general argument that
books have segued into web-sites and that
novelists have migrated to episodic television
-- and will soon shift to even newer forms --
for several years now, and is quite convincing.
bowerbird on November 28, 2007 10:49 PM:
bill janssen! i only rarely spell his name correctly...
Kate Pullinger on November 29, 2007 9:02 AM:
Here's a quote from Ben:
With the spate of high-caliber TV serials originated by HBO and then proliferated by channels across the television spectrum, film has moved onto the novel's turf, matching not only its narrative scope but its expansive dimensions.
The use of the word 'film' here is odd, but I think this must be a typing mistake, because you go on to elegantly define current differences between viewing tv vs film - 'The Sopranos' is absolutely tv, and bears no relation to film, especially film as it is currently made (or not, given the strike) by Hollywood. 'The Sopranos' is hugely novelistic; the murder of Adrianna had more impact on me than any death in Dickens, with the possible close second of Nancy in 'Oliver Twist'. But it isn't a novel, because we don't 'see' it in our heads, we see it on a screen. The act of reading, of conjuring images from the words on the page, is absent. I find all of this, as a novelist, very interesting, but also puzzling. What does it mean for the future of the novel? Was Mailer right, that the novel is too small for our times, too closely detailed?
Kate Pullinger on November 29, 2007 10:47 AM:
It's perhaps worth noting (sorry, can't stop thinking about this!) that (popular) genre fiction, like crime and sci-fi, goes in for sustained and lengthy series of interconnected novels, following the same character, or inhabiting the same worlds, over a period of many years. Maybe it's only (unpopular) literary fiction that has failed to get the particular joys of novel-length serialisation.