Thursday, 19 February 2009

James Bradley on Mad Men & Big Novels

Further to recent remarks I've been pleased to learn that James Bradley (pictured) lately wrote an excellent piece for the Australian ('The idiot box grows a brain') about long-form narrative in television drama series and in the novel - occasioned, I suppose, by some much-praised recent instances of the former:
"Mad Men, made by American cable network AMC, is only one of a growing catalogue of ambitious [TV] programs distinguished by not just by their complexity and intelligence but by their urgent engagement with the world we inhabit. Taken collectively these shows, this new television, constitute nothing less than a revolution, a revolution that has transformed series television, late in life and perhaps improbably, into our most vital cultural form... No longer tidy, predictable, generic, at its best the new television commands the richness and breadth of vision that was once the sole preserve of the novel."
James also summons The Sopranos and The Wire to his argument:
"Indeed, in the ambition, complexity and detail of its depiction of the corruption of Baltimore's public institutions, The Wire quite deliberately (and sometimes a little too self-consciously) has in its sights the great social novels of the 19th century and their ambition to represent the whole of society from top to bottom and, more importantly, to tease out the way the destinies of the greatest were intimately connected to the fates of the most insignificant. The novel abandoned this ambition some time ago. Although the English still dabble in the great social novel - Richard Kelly's Crusaders and Phillip Hensher's Booker-shortlisted The Northern Clemency are recent examples...'
I might say that it's a fine thing to be cited in such a debate and in such a manner. But the case James makes for the New Television is very compelling and, in a highly well-minted way, expresses a lot of what I've heard anecdotally from quite a few other informed observers. It does make me worry for the poor old novel, though. As James puts it:
"Some critics - see Zadie Smith's New York Review of Books piece on Joseph O'Neill's Booker-shortlisted novel Netherland - argue that the novel, or at least the realist literary novel, has reached some kind of logical end point, its polite but reflexive aestheticising now an end in itself, unable by its very nature to engage with the world as it is."
Clearly, then, it's counter-revolution time. More long novels, comrades! And make 'em as radical as reality itself, to steal the words of Lenin from before he got on the train.

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