Tag Archives: HBO

Novels are losing the narrative arms race

Humans like stories. In fact, it’s fair to say we are obsessed with stories. And never has our society been richer in stories. Today we have access to all the books, films, TV shows and other story media ever made, with more being made all the time.

Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.

But if you wanted to lose yourself in a story in 17th century England, where did you go? Most likely to the church or to the Bible, to have biblical myths read to you. Or you might read them yourself if you were among literate minority. Theatre of course, in cities or when a troupe travelled on tour. Possibly to a storyteller to hear a folk tale or two, or maybe some some bawdy stories told in drinking holes. But all said and done, your options were somewhat limited.

When novels began to arrive in the 18th century, as the costs of printing decreased, they arrived in to an environment starved and hungry for stories. And they provided stories stories that were far more complex, original and engaging than the competition. Unless you had a very good vicar, it’s unlikely his storytelling held much a candle to the serial fictions of Mr Charles Dickens. Little wonder then that novels became a huge cultural success story – the television, movies and video games of their day.

Novels allowed the telling of more sophisticated stories. And novelists quickly innovated new tools for the telling of stories. Novelistic techniques that we simply take for granted today, such as limited 3rd person point-of-view, simply didn’t exist in the early days of novels. Stories were told either by the writer as omniscient narrator, or through formats like the epistolary ‘novel of letters’ that allowed the characters to speak for themselves. A large part of the work for students on a creative writing course is to learn all of these novelistic techniques, so that they can write novels to the standards expected by readers today.

The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel.

Examined from a technical perspective, a novel like War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy is an amazing storytelling achievement. It doesn’t simply tell one story but many, weaving through multiple points of view over a timespan of many years. It chronicles major events in human history, and illustrates them through their human dramas. It leads the reader to ask the big philosophical questions that underly the events. What is war? What is peace? How do we best live in either circumstance? There are other comparable literary achievements – Homer for instance, although the Iliad’s poetic form makes it a tough read for most – but the novel made this kind of complex storytelling widespread. And hugely, hugely popular.

Film took the development of story in a different direction. Filmic narratives are highly compressed, simply to fit in to the typical 120 minutes of time a feature film occupies. The film, in its narrative compression, is far more like the short story than the novel. Film also has an immense capacity for spectacle. You aren’t just watching a cowboy story, you’re seeing a real man firing a real gun. In the modern era of CGI, that spectacle has grown to epic proportions. The kind of slow, subtle character development novels thrive on is hard to achieve in film, and rarely tried today, when explosions and superheroes are so much more profitable.

Storytelling on television was hobbled for decades by that medium’s dependence on advertising, and the advertisers demand that television shows appeal to the lowest common denominator. Episodes of television drama were relatively short, sometimes only 20 minutes when advertising was removed. And networks did not allow producers to advance the storyline across episodes. The TV miniseries – often adapted from novels – allowed some great TV drama to be made, in particular shows like I Claudius and Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy in the UK.

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The HBO “box set” series is designed to be sold directly to the audience (as opposed to attracting advertisers) and consequentially aims for a far higher standard of narrative. It typically gives 10 hours of screen time in 1 hour chunks dedicated to telling one coherent story. Each 1 hour episode has its own discrete plot and subplots, but they all feed in to the over-aching series plot. They feature an ensemble cast of characters – as opposed to the single protagonist of most films – all of whom grow and develop (or die!) as the series unfolds. And they deal with complex human situations and relationships. They are, from many perspectives, highly novelistic. And in all honesty, the best of them leave War & Peace and many other great novels, eating their dust.

The Sopranos. Madmen. Band of Brothers. House of Cards. Game of Thrones. My new favourite, True Detective. Individually the best shows in the HBO format (there are now other producers) are the equal of any stories ever told. And in many regards, better. Taken as a whole, there is a strong argument that they are part of the most amazing flourishing of story in human history. They combine the complexity of novels with the spectacle and film. And they bring another element almost unique to television. They are written collaboratively by teams of writers and script editors. These shows aren’t just the product of one superb imagination, but many of them, working in unison.

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The novel, having pioneered the complex high quality storytelling it is clear audiences hunger for, now struggles to match the best of that storytelling in other mediums. Novels can’t touch the spectacle of film or the new king of that hill, video games. And they’re outgunned in the sheer richness of storytelling the best television shows can achieve. Not because the novel can’t match that quality, of course it can, but because doing so is very difficult. And the number of writers capable of producing stories of that quality is very small.

It’s easy to set up shop as a novelist. It’s ridiculously hard to actually write high quality novels. Writing a great novel is an achievement on the scale of making a major scientific breakthrough or winning a significant military battle. That’s why in British history Jane Austen is remembered alongside Isaac Newton and Horatio Nelson. And yet very few writers seem willing to pursue the long, hard path towards that kind of achievement. Absurdly, there’s a common conception among writers that they don’t even need to learn to write before putting their work in to the world. How many scientific breakthroughs are made without decades of learning? How many battles won without years of collective experience being deployed on the battlefield? Why expect making art to be any different?

Among the runaway hits in recent publishing is A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. It’s a novel in the epic fantasy genre, but its success is far more to do with its complex, high quality story telling than the presence of dragons. Martin was a Hugo award winning sci-fi writer at a young age, who then spent two decades working in the word-mines of Hollywood script development, before bringing all of that expertise together in his masterpiece. The books were already massive bestsellers, head and shulders the best books in their genre, before being picked by HBO, where they required little work to fit in to the new television format.

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The response of publishers has been comically absurd. For the best part of a decade now publishers have been flooding their distribution channels with fantasy series in the style of Game of Thrones. But instead of seeking out the few writers who might have the chops to make a new work on the scale of Martin’s epic, publishers have paid peanuts to debut authors to make third rate clones that lack all the technical expertise to equal the original. And this is far from a unique scenario. The publishing industry, instead of nurturing quality writing, has turned itself in to a cloning operation. There are still quality books to be found of course, but they are buried amongst a swill of third rate clones of the rare bestsellers that appear. And this, more than anything else, is destroying the audience for novels. Imagine if HBO, alongside True Detective, also released 200 competing television shows that looked similar but nowhere near as good. They would quickly undermine their audience engagement, just as publishers have. If publishers want their business back, they need to be as obsessed with story quality as HBO.

There’s a bun fight about self publishing in the book trade at the moment. Half the trade are waking up to the reality that self publishing is the future, while the other half are looking for reasons why it shouldn’t be. The number one reason is quality. Self-publishing doesn’t provide a career path for writers, or police quality. But publishers abandoned both these roles long ago. The writers who achieve real quality in their work do so entirely under their own energies. And that small minority of writers are now turning to self publishing as an answer to the serious question, what value are publishers adding if they do not nurture quality? Because, if novels are to thrive as a medium in the 21st century, it is only an obsession with quality that will place them among the best storytelling on offer.

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A Game of Egos

A Dance with Dragons
A Dance with Dragons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Originally published on guardianbooks.co.uk

A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. (Now perhaps better known as A Game of Thrones for the HBO TV adaptation from the original books.)

It is rare indeed for a fantasy novel to receive either the attention or thecritical acclaim heaped upon A Dance with Dragons. Among all literary genres, epic fantasy is surely the most widely reviled and ignored. And it can be hard to identify the genre’s best and most original works when they are surrounded on the shelves by hundreds of third-rate knock-offs.

But in the hands of authors who understand their potential, the secondary worlds of fantasy provide a lens that can bring to sharp focus truths that the chaos of modern life obscures. JRR Tolkien crafted a mythology for the modern world from ancient teutonic sources, a mythology that expressed many people’s deep fears about industrialisation and world war. Mervyn Peake created a dark and painfully accurate reflection of the oppressive British class system in Gormenghast. And China Miéville transfigured Dickensian London and showed the daily exploitation of the poor and vulnerable that still powers the modern city in Perdido Street Station and his Bas-Lag novels.

George RR Martin also draws on historical sources to build his fantasy world. Westeros bears a startling resemblance to England in the period of the Wars of the Roses. One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it. With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South. And the small folk must suffer through it all, regardless of which side wins. Many things change over the course of five centuries, but not politics it seems.

But if Martin had only transposed a historical and political context to a fantasy world his books would never have achieved such staggering popularity. Their author’s real strength is his compendious understanding of the human stories driving the grand political narrative. There does not seem to be a single living soul in the land of Westeros that Martin does not have insight into, from the highest king to the lowest petty thief. Martin does not compartmentalise evil on one side of the map and good on the other. It is a world of high stakes, where the winners prosper and the losers are mercilessly ground under heel. Against this tapestry every one of Martin’s characters is forced to chose between their love for those close to them and the greater interests of honour, duty and the realm. More often than not, those who make the noble choice pay with their lives.

Beheading, dismemberment and being roasted alive have, perhaps fortunately, become less common punishments for the losers in our modern games of ego. And while the throne itself is no longer up for grabs, the same human dramas still play out every day between those who vie for power in the elite spheres of business, politics and the media. The scandal engulfing News International is just the latest example of those archetypal dramas bubbling up in to public view.

Take Rupert and son James. What words pass between the reigning monarch and the heir apparent in private we can only guess. We might think of Odysseus and Telemachus. Too noble perhaps? Hamlet and his ghostly father then? Closer. But the portrait of a father manipulating a son that George RR Martin paints between Tywin and Jaime Lannister seems closest of all to me.

A Game of Thrones has captured the imaginations of millions for the same reason the archetypal dramas of Homer, Sophocles or Shakespeare have lasted for millennia. They show us the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-interest, between the human spirit and the human ego, between good and evil. And when we look up from the page we recognise those same conflicts in the world around us and in ourselves.

 

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A Game of Egos

A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga.

Read more on The Guardian books website.

Damo’s best of 2008

With the new year upon us, I thought I would give all you lucky people a glimpse inside my head, or at least the parts of it that like things, and post a run down of all that was good about 2008 from my perspective. I don’t claim to be at the cutting edge of the cultural wave, but who knows, you might find one or two new and enjoyable wastes of time below.

Continue reading Damo’s best of 2008