TV had to learn everything novelists already knew: an example from The Sopranos

From Vanity Fair’s brilliant Oral History of The Sopranos:

ALLEN COULTER (director): Sopranos gave the lie to the notions that you had to explain everything, that you always had to have a star in the lead, that everybody had to be ultimately likable, that there had to be so-called closure, that there was a psychological lesson to be learned, that there was a moral at the center that you should carry away from the show, that people should be pretty, that people should be svelte. The networks had essentially thrown in the towel on good drama. It’s like changing the direction of an ocean liner. But Sopranos did it. They changed the game.

It’s strange to read this, because it feels to me like novelists have always known this, or have at least known it since the 1920s. I think of writers like Henry Miller or James M. Cain, who were experts at unlikable characters and showing the only “psychological lesson to be learned” is that there is no psychological lesson to be learned.

Later, I think of someone like George V. Higgins, who specialized in unpretty, ungainly characters. But I wonder if TV took so long to learn these lessons because a) it was a mass medium that required appealing to everyone and b) because up until recently, there were only a handful of real outlets that could afford to produce real shows. So there wasn’t the same kind of experimentation that novelists could conduct, since a novelist needed nothing but time and paper (or, today, time and a computer) and a publisher.

Today, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and the Internet more generally are creating another shift, to the point where you don’t even need a publisher. We’ve already seen some fruit from that shift in the form of Belle de Jour and Tucker Max. Instead of the “ocean liner” that is television, writers get to pilot skiffs and other small craft that go places the big ships can’t or won’t go. In doing so, writers chart the courses that might one day be followed by the video people, who are so encumbered by budgets and specialization and accountants and executives.

(See also Edward Jay Epstein’s Role Reversal: Why TV Is Replacing Movies As Elite Entertainment.)

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch's Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch’s Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

How could Twitter not change how protests happen?: Egypt and the history of the novel

There’s been a lot of talk about the role Twitter, text messaging, and other communication mediums are playing in the unfolding drama in Egypt. Malcolm Gladwell basically says the role isn’t great: “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

But I am not convinced this is true: by lowering the friction of communication, thus making it real-time and instantaneous, Twitter and other technological tools are almost certainly changing what is said. Quantity has a quality all its own, and how we speak has a habit of changing what we say.

Gladwell’s post (and others) remind me of the arguments in English literature the field around the development of the novel as a genre (see, for example this post on Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History). Basically, a lot of people want to argue about the development of the novel without taking into account the printing press.

To me this is silly because mass cheap printing was a precondition to the novel as we know it. Without that, we would have fictional prose narratives of some length, but we probably wouldn’t have them alluding to one another, we wouldn’t have large portions of the population reading them, and we wouldn’t have (relatively) large portions of the population with enough disposable income to avoid them. If you look at surviving works that we would now classify as fiction that were written prior to ~1600, almost all of them are religious in nature because only the church had the resources to fund writing, maintain large collections of writing, and bother writing anything down.

After ~1600 (or ~1500, if you prefer, but that’s about it), you have a lot of things written that would previously not have been considered “worth” writing down because writing and copying manuscripts was so expensive and time consuming. Technology did change what was said. How something was said changed what was said. Technology is doing the same thing now. I don’t know how the current drama will play out; if you looked at the printing press around the time it was first created, it was mostly used to print religious stuff (hence the “Gutenberg Bible”). Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change describes some of this. By the nineteenth century, however, writers are grappling with the idea of a world without God, per J. Hillis Miller’s Form of Victorian Fiction, or a world where “God is dead,” to use Nietzsche’s famous and misunderstood proclamation: he wasn’t saying that people would stop believing in God or that would religion would stop being a force society, but rather that religious studies were a dead end and people would cease to attribute everything in their life to God or God’s will.

In 1500, the material published via printing press looked basically continuous with what came about in 1400. By 1850, things are looking pretty different, and the diversity of printed materials has fundamentally changed what people could say. The printing press allowed people with grievances, to use Gladwell’s formulation, to communicate with each other much more efficiently than they previously could, which leads to a lot of political, social, scientific, and philosophical developments that most of us living today approve of. How many of us want to return to being illiterate serfs toiling in fields for distant masters?

Gladwell is right in one sense: the media is probably overstating the importance of Twitter and SMS. But both of those still play an important role in what’s going on. Somehow, people with grievances against monarchs and dictators weren’t all that successful on average in the years prior to ~1600. After that, they got more and more successful, to the point where a fair bit of world’s population now lives without dictators. Part of the reason is because ideas about freedom and good governance could be disseminated cheaply, where before they couldn’t, and everyone spent most waking hours covered in shit, farming, and hoping they’re not going to starve to death in late winter / early spring.

Mark at the computing education blog says, “A particularly interesting anecdote for me is the below: That the Internet was turned off in Egypt, but the protests continued. So what role was Facebook and Twitter playing, really?” Depends on the timeframe. Various technological tools helped people initially organize and helped the conditions for organization come about. They will probably do so again in the future. In the long term, such tools will probably create the conditions for much larger projects that we only dimly perceive now. I would predict what those will be, but things have a habit of turning out much stranger than random prognosticators like me can predict.

Richardson proclaims Clarissa is boring before you even start the novel

Here’s what Samuel Richardson wrote about his novel Clarissa (1748) in its “Preface:”

From what has been said, considerate readers will not enter upon the perusal of the piece before them as if it were designed only to divert and amuse. It will probably be thought tedious to all such as dip into it, expecting a light novel, or transitory romance; and look upon story in it (interesting as that is generally allowed to be) as its sole end, rather than as a vehicle to the instruction.

I don’t think I’m a “considerate reader,” since novels that don’t “divert and amuse” on some level are, in fact, “tedious.” The novel is a 1,000-page deferral regarding whether and who with the title character is going to do it. Although I understand intellectually that this matter was of great import at the time it was written, I can’t quite build up the need to care. Reading about Clarissa is better than reading the novel itself.

Consider this comment, which Keith thinks in The Pregnant Widow:

It sometimes seemed to Keith that the English novel, at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What’ll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall? Well, there’ll be new ways of falling . . .

Notice that Keith doesn’t assert that the central question of the novel is will she fall: only that it “sometimes seemed to Keith,” implying that other times the central question might seem otherwise. But it also asks whether we should care: if she “falls,” that means she’s a person who makes her own decisions, and if she doesn’t—then so what? What’s at stake is a question that doesn’t matter all that much except to the extent the woman involved makes it matter. This brings up an uncomfortable point alluded to by that ellipsis: if it doesn’t matter, then the novel doesn’t matter. And this novel doesn’t matter. So why should we read it?

The “it” is deliberately ambiguous, as it could refer to Clarissa or The Pregnant Widow. Various answers arise: as a historical document; to understand shifting ways we understand sexuality; to trace how the novel developed as a genre.

The Novel: An Alternative History — Steven Moore

Novels really start when an important technology (the printing press) allows novelists to respond to one another.

Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 is a very alternative history that points even more than most histories of the novel to the question of what defines the genre. But it answers that question with less satisfaction: a novel is any prose work of some length that is what we would now call fiction. But the idea of fiction / nonfiction weren’t particularly well established until the late eighteenth century, as discussed in some of those conventional histories, like The Rise Of The Novel: Studies In Defoe, Richardson And Fielding and Institutions of the English Novel: From Defoe to Scott.

Without that epistemological distinction, critics lack the intellectual scaffolding necessary to really talk about fiction: you have a muddle of stuff that people haven’t really figured out how to deal with. In The Disappearance of God, J. Hillis Miller puts it differently: “The change from traditional literature to a modern genre like the novel can be defined as a moving of once objective worlds of myth and romance into the subjective consciousness of man,” but he’s getting at a similar idea: the “objective worlds of myth” turn out not to be as “objective” as they appear, and the “subjective consciousness of man” reevaluates those worlds of myth. We get at distinctions between what’s true and what’s false based on our ability to recognize our own subjective position, which the novel helps us do.

Moore discusses these issues, of course: he notes the standard history I’m espousing and his reasons for doubting it:

And today our best novelists follow in this great tradition [from Defoe, Swift, and Richardson to the 19th Century realists through Joyce and Faulkner to the present]: that is, realistic narratives driven by strong plot and peopled by well-rounded characters struggling with serious ethical issues, conveyed in language anybody can understand.

Wrong. The novel has been around since at least the 4th century BCE […] and flourished in the Mediterranean area until the coming of the Christian Dark Ages.

That’s on page three. I’ve responded to the philosophical and intellectual aspects of what I think problematic, but there’s another issue: Moore’s argument ignores the technological history that enabled the novel to occur. I’ll return to my first paragraph.

Without the printing press, it’s wrong-headed to speak of novels. They couldn’t be sufficiently read, distributed, and disseminated, to enable the “speaking to each other” that I think of in fiction. There wasn’t a “creativity revolution” along the lines of the runaway Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century (see, for example, Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy, which I discuss at the link). Books didn’t react enough to other books; that’s part of what the novel got going, and this aspect was enabled by the Industrial Revolution and the press. The two are fundamentally linked.

Some works that we would now classify as fiction definitely were written or compiled, as Moore rightly points out, but they didn’t gain the epistemological distinctions that we grant novels until much later, and novels evolved with a mass reading public that could only occur when novels were mass-produced—produced in numbers that allowed them to be read and responded to by other writers. Claiming that early quasi-fiction forms are novels is like saying that a play and a TV show are the same thing because both rely on visual representations of actors who are pretending to be someone else. In some respects, that’s true, but it still misses how form changes function. It misses the insights of Marshall McLuhan.

He almost gets to this issue:

Sorting through the various ancient writings that have come down to us on cuneiform tablets, papyri, scrolls, and ostraca (potsherds or limestone flakes), it is not difficult to find prototypes for literary fiction and what would eventually be called the novel. What’s difficult is sorting prose from poetry, and fiction from mythology and theology.

But the problem of sorting deserves more attention. Until it can be discussed with greater depth, it misses essential features of the genre. Accounts of the novel need to take two major issues into their reading: a technological one and an intellectual one. The technological one, as mentioned, is the invention and improvement of the printing press, without which the sheer labor necessary to produce copies of novels would have prevented many writers from working at all; you can read more about this in Elizabeth L. Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change The second is the growth of subjectivity and the acknowledgment of subjectivity in fiction, as also discussed above. Without those technological and the intellectual facets, I don’t think you really have novels, at least in the way they’re conceived of in contemporary times.

The other thing I’d like to note is that Moore is doing more a taxonomy than a history: it has brief sections on more than 200 books with relatively little analysis of each book. This lessens the depth of his book and makes it more tedious as we go from culture to culture without a great deal of discussion about what common items link novel to novel. But that’s part of the problem: proto-novels weren’t linked because their authors didn’t know of one another or of what made fiction fiction and nonfiction nonfiction. Moore is left with this basic shape for The Novel: An Alternative History by his material; in short, form undercuts argument. Too bad, because it’s an argument worth paying attention to if for no other reason than its novelty.

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