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Amandla Stenberg in a scene from a book-based movie you may have heard of called "The Hunger Games" (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Lionsgate)
Amandla Stenberg in a scene from a book-based movie you may have heard of called "The Hunger Games" (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Lionsgate)

Russell Smith

Reports of the novel's death have been exaggerated Add to ...

On Monday, Globe and Mail TV critic John Doyle argued in a column that, "Mad Men stands as an example of how cable-TV series have replaced the novel as the most significant storytelling form of our time." This is Russell Smith's response.

Twitter gives us access to the collective id, the seething irrational thoughts that went unexpressed before the age of universal instant expression. Recently it gave us a glimpse into the state of racism in America, and incidentally into how novels work, when a twitterversy arose about the film The Hunger Games.

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Dozens of tweets appeared, mostly from teenagers who had just seen the film, expressing outrage and disbelief that two of the characters, Rue and Thresh, were black. These viewers had read the young-adult sci-fi book by Suzanne Collins, and felt that they knew the characters. Although Rue is described as having “dark brown skin” in one line (and Thresh as “the same dark skin as Rue”), they somehow missed that, and they made it through the whole book thinking that Rue and Thresh looked just like them. The fidelity of the film to the book actually enraged viewers in this case.

The racism in the tweets is quite open and automatic, and reminds even the hippest among us of why unfiltered, instant, totally democratic expression of emotion is not always the most progressive thing to hope for.

But just as interesting is what it shows us about how people read novels. They don’t retain physical descriptions of people, for one. We fill in the blanks when we read fiction: We do the set decoration, we do the casting. We all make, in reading, our own film of the book, and the fictitious worlds we imagine – that is, rewrite – tend to have similarities to our own.

Reading, as the theorists like to say, is also writing: It demands an act of creation on the part of the receiver. Language and pictures work differently on the brain. Language is not a direct representation: It is made up of symbols that must be interpreted. Language as a descriptor of objects is much vaguer than pictures are. Words refuse to be pinned cleanly to a single idea, colour or thing. You try to pin them once and for all and they always split up, wriggle away (and if you try to pin those smaller wriggling parts then they too split and squirm; you will be dividing forever). Pictures – particularly crisp, bright-coloured moving pictures – are relentlessly precise. Everyone sees the same Don Draper. There is no room for interpretation of what he looks like: He looks like Jon Hamm.

This is why we don’t need to put written narratives and visual narratives in competition with each other. They have never been in competition: They have quite different rules and roles. To suggest that one art form is more “significant” or fundamentally more real or generally superior to any other is like saying that once we have music we no longer need dance. It’s like saying that if we enjoy architecture we won’t get anything from painting.

If it is possible for one art form to evolve into a position of aesthetic superiority over another, why do we still have theatre? Why do we have poetry?

Why do we still have novels if, decade after decade, the novel is declared dead? It certainly has been declared dead – or at least “in crisis” or “irrelevant” or “exhausted” – at just about every juncture in its evolution. It “died” when it shifted from courtly romance to social realism in the early 19th century; it “died” when social realism was infiltrated by introspective modernism in the 20th century, and then it really died – really convulsively, publicly this time – in the mid-20th century when the French experimentalists and Roland Barthes and American postmodernists like John Barth pronounced realism toxic.

And then it rose to die again, repeatedly – like a caricatured movie monster who has to be stabbed and hammered and exploded and keeps sticking his mutilated hand out of the rubble to grab you again – it died angrily in the 1990s and 2000s, gleefully assassinated by elitists and populists alike who announced variously that it could not compete in the age of hypertext, video games, YouTube, the financial crisis, good television ... you name it.

Every single new thing kills the novel monthly in the pages of cultural journals. Goodness, the novel has been dead for longer than my learned colleague John Doyle has been alive. And yet novels still serve as blueprints for the most lavish and successful of visual spectacles (such as The Hunger Games), and people who enjoy television continue to write them and read them.

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