In Defense of the Novel

In which I completely and utterly fail to defend the honour of even the worthiest novels.

More than once, I’ve gotten myself into an argument online about whether the novel is “better” than a television show or movie.

I often find myself in these arguments with other writers, which usually means that the vast majority come down on the side of ‘yes’. For a long time, I was among them – anyone who said otherwise was clearly mistaken.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I will love novels until the day I die. I want to be a writer, not a director or an actor or a special effects artist or any of the hundred jobs that goes into filmmaking. I very definitely and unequivocally think that novels have strengths that television and movies do not.

But better than?

Let’s examine the arguments.

Usually the arguments I see fall into one of several categories. First and foremost, in a book, you can write things you simply can’t show on screen. Second, that watching rather than reading stories is inherently a less cognitive activity, and therefore the book is better on an intellectual level. Third, that books can contain more depth, and thus, more substance, because they are longer, even if only in terms of hours spent consuming media. Fourth, that books are more portable, and not dependent on battery life or other technological circumstances. Fifth, the tactile experience of a book is superior.

So, I’ll get the quick one out of the way first: Books are more portable and convenient. It is a fact that a power outage or connection issue will kill your ability to watch television, phones are battery powered and can run out of charge, as can laptops, and streaming is dependent on an Internet connection. However, if we’re talking about books and movies as media, we kind of have to acknowledge that e-readers run out of battery, too. So, it’s not like battery life is a restriction inherent to only movies and TV shows. But let’s narrow the field to just paper-and-ink books for a moment. It’s not like paper-and-ink books don’t have portability issues. A single book can sometimes be the size (and approximately the weight of) a household brick – compared to a phone you can fit in a pocket or small bag. Your phone might run out of battery, but you also might forget your book. A power outage might kill your television, but the same power outage will leave probably two things: A torch to read your book by and the battery life on your laptop – often enough for at least one movie.

On another note: Why is portability a reflection of the medium? Why does a book have inherent worth over a TV show or a movie just because you can experience it in different places? The ability to travel with a book doesn’t change its content, its writing, or its thematic discourse So this argument can safely be discarded – there’s too little difference and it’s beside the point of quality of the medium.

The other quick one – tactile experience – is similarly dismissible. If we’re talking just about the quality of the medium, then the tactile experience has absolutely no bearing on the content. Now, I’m in no way arguing that it’s wrong to prefer books over TV shows because of the tactile experience. That’s your prerogative as a human being with opinions. But to say that the smell of a book (new or old) or the feel of turning pages makes the book a superior overall experience to all people? To say a book conveys tone or message or theme better because it smells better? I’ll have to see some pretty compelling evidence before I take that one seriously.

The third point I have discussed before – books can definitely contain more plot, and therefore have more opportunities for depth than a movie (whether or not they capitalise on this is up to the individual book and the individual reader). But a TV show? I tend to equate one novel with one season of a television show, in general, so we’ll use that as an estimate. Even one season of a show (using American standards: half-hour to 40-minute episodes and a 22-episode season) will take the viewer at minimum 11 hours to watch; a TV show with six episodes per season and 45-minute episodes takes 4.5 hours to watch. Contrast this with the average novel: Take the average reading speed to be 300wpm (estimates I have seen range from 200wpm to 350wpm, with a few instances of “250-350wpm”), and the average book to be 90,000 words long (a very short fantasy novel, but a very long thriller).  That works out to the average book taking the average reader 5 hours to read. So, really, a TV show has more time in which to introduce concepts to the reader, more time in which to flesh out motif and symbolism, and more time to develop characters and plot. Sorry, kids – I think the TV shows are overtaking us on this one.

Now, the thorny issue. Books are inherently more cognitive than movies or TV shows.

Hoo boy. Where do you even start?

Usually this is presented somewhere along the lines of “But in a book, you have to use the words to imagine what the characters and places look like! In a movie you just watch it all handed to you on screen!”

To which I say OK, yes, alright. You got me – it’s harder to use your imagination on a TV show or movie. But at the same time … is imagining a character’s face really the only thing that’s going on in a story that makes you think? And isn’t that really just a trick – arranging letters into things that mean specific images to make your brain display those images?

It sounds a bit odd to say, but isn’t saying “Alice had blue eyes and red hair, in sharp comparison to Bob, whose hair was dark brown and whose eyes were nearly black” pulling exactly the same trick as “Quick, don’t think of a pink rhinoceros!”?

If we want to talk about tricks that make our brain fill in the blanks of an image or sequence, let’s go ahead and talk about montages for a bit. Montages are an amazing and fascinating piece of cinematography, simply because it’s a series of barely-connected images threaded together in such a way as to trick our brains into implying chronological sequence. Think about it – in any other situation, showing the same person one day, then suddenly two months later after one cut would be cause for adding some sort of explanation for why so much time has passed, or some sort of explanation of what happened during that time. But string enough of them together in a row, and the audience gets the impression that we’re watching time pass. Similarly, add music to that, and you give the idea of what the end goal is – is this a Rocky montage, where we’re training on the way to achieving victory? Or is this a montage of someone spiralling further and further away from victory? Add a different song in the background, and Rocky could very well be losing himself in his training until he forgets the real world, only to realise that no amount of training could prepare him, and his last hope is shattered. On that note, imagine a montage where there was no music, or the music changed throughout the montage, with each cut, just like scene music. Wouldn’t it get choppy and confusing? But adding music makes the brain make the association that this whole stretch of jump cuts is actually one scene in and of itself, and then infers that it is a scene designed to show large amounts of time passing.

Cinema tricks like that are the cinema’s version of describing a character’s “eyes darting around the room and finger tapping on the side of their coffee mug” and expecting the audience to infer that the character is either nervous or impatient. Varied sentence and paragraph length, and prose style are to novels what colour and lighting, and camera angle are to movies and TV shows. Cinema has a very different set of tricks for conveying implied information, but they still imply and use shorthand just like a novel. So, no, I don’t think a novel is actually more cognitive. In fact, if your TV show isn’t a cognitive experience, then you’re probably missing something. Whether or not you consider that a good thing is between you and your DVD shelf/Netflix subscription.

Which brings us on to the final point, and by far the most common: You can show things in a book that you can’t show on screen. This is by far the most common, and the most vehemently argued. But it misses the point in a similar way to the point above.

A great example of this I saw on the Absolute Write forums (unfortunately the username of the poster has been lost to the imperfection of the human memory and the search function) was “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass”. Is that technically a colour? No. But did a colour spring to mind when you read that? It’s quite possible that yes, it did. For me, it’s a very pale, almost translucent, blue in a summer sky shade.

In a movie, you’d have to actually colour the thing blue. You’d have to make that decision, rather than letting the reader make it for you.

But here the question is begged – why would you want to use language that way? What does “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass” suggest that “pale, almost translucent blue the shade of summer sky” not suggest?

Well, first of all, it suggests that the colour is not really a colour – that the senses are getting their wires crossed. On a very practical level, this may be an excellent way of demonstrating a character has synaesthesia. On a more fantastical level, it could be a way of demonstrating that the situation the character is in has transcended the laws of physics, or that a particular stimulus has overwhelmed them so much that they are no longer able to distinguish their senses, or entirely make sense of what they are experiencing.

Similarly, a book need not worry about a special effects budget – when I discussed limitations and rushing, I listed this as one of the advantages of a novel: That the novel has no special equipment or effects budgets to worry about, and thus won’t be limited or restricted on those fronts. This remains true, and it remains an advantage to novels. However, it is getting steadily less true as CGI becomes cheaper and more sophisticated.

But let’s think how a movie might show that same thing. Say what you will about the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it did an excellent job of demonstrating that whatever Dave was experiencing, it was not within the realm of his comprehension. Swirling colours and close-ups of his eyes darting around, looking for something that made sense all came together to create a sense of chaos. It did this by showing the audience chaos and then interspersing it with shots of the character reacting, indicating Dave was just as confused as we were.

Side note: I invite anyone who believes that a movie can’t achieve the same sense of a fantastical world as a novel to watch any Terry Gilliam movie.

So, I’m not sure that the book has the edge in ability to indicate things without stating them outright, either. I’m not even sure books will have the edge in special effects for long, either.

This does sort of paint a bleak picture of the future of the humble novel, which is why I think a lot of writers tend to reject the idea. If a book isn’t any better than movies or TV shows, then what is to stop people from reading books altogether? After all, movies and TV shows are in chunks more suited to today’s generation who can’t concentrate for as long as it takes to read a whole book, and contributing to the decline of literacy!

More seriously, and on a less extreme level, what’s to stop all the classics and the pieces of culture that make up our understanding of the world from being lost, if nobody wants to read them anymore?

Well, whether or not that’s a bad thing is a whole ‘nother debate, but let’s just slow down for a second.

Nobody said that novels are going away. They probably will eventually, but they’re not going away anytime soon, that’s for sure. They are still a vastly different medium from the TV show or the movie, and they have a different metalanguage and always will, so it’s highly unlikely that TV shows and movies will ever replace the experience, though they may eventually grow more popular than it, just like short stories and poems haven’t disappeared, but they are much less commonly read than the novel nowadays, when previously poetry or verse was the primary form of literature (at least in Western civilisations). Even if novels aren’t ‘better’ than newer media, they’re for damn sure still ‘different’, and that’s enough to keep them going.

I, for one, am glad to have different options available for telling stories and conveying theme and message, and different vehicles for different stories.

But I’m just as glad that, for now, I won’t need to learn how to properly compose a camera shot in order to tell stories myself.