When Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon, best known for The Making of Zombie Wars, said television shows were taking over from novels at the session on The Global Novel, he was setting the cat among some truly prized pigeons at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
His co-panelists included Colm Toibin, David Grossman and Margaret Atwood.
“In the United States, no novel comes close to the kind of power that The Sopranos exerted on the popular psyche. Wherever I go, people at parties are not discussing novels. They seem to be only discussing TV shows,” said Hemon.
British-Indian author Sunjeev Sahota, whose second book, The Year of the Runaways, was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize said none of his friends read novels though there was clearly still an aspirational value attached to reading.
“Many of them tell me, ‘I wish I was a person who read novels.’ And many of them do watch TV shows.”
Springing to the defence of the form, Atwood, who won the Booker for The Blind Assassin in 2000, said she agreed that though some television shows were superb, nothing could match the novel. “No one gets into the mind of characters the way a novel writer can! It can take you deeper into the consciousness of the characters than any other art form.”
Taking a dig at Hemon, Atwood asked him if he liked Game of Thrones, the show that has generated the most ratings in the world, as much as The Sopranos?
“The beauty of the novel is that it can be done in isolation and doesn’t require resources. You can have your pen and paper or plod away on a typewriter in a world of your own. But can you write a TV show without people from the channel telling you what the audience wants? It can be as absurd as creating topless women warriors? You may think it is outrageous but if they say the audience wants topless women warriors, what can the TV writer do?” said Atwood.
Toibin cite James Joyce’s Ulysses as an example of the novel in its shimmering glittering form, even after nearly 100 years of publication.
“The more you read Ulysses, you realise how prophetic Joyce was. By focusing on the city of Dublin and the characters you meet in the novel, he was teaching the Irish how to get away from the Empire. By putting a Jewish man at the centre of novel in a Catholic country and making the city the centre of the universe in a country high on nationalism, the book was mocking nationalism,” said Toibin.
“In a way, he was suggesting that, in the future, the country should become open about mindsets, open about sexuality and desire and contradictions. There is another way to live in Ireland other than a nationalist. Allowing a woman at the end of the book to talk about sexuality was revolutionary. Only a novel could do that at that time,” Toibin added.
Sahota said the novel was still “an art form worth living and dying for.”
Atwood drew on neurology to have the last word on the subject: “The brain lights up much more when you read a book than when you watch television.”
Now who can argue with that?
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