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Salman Rushdie defects to television: “It’s taken the place of novels.”

June 15, 2011

He kinda looks like a benevolent alien, doesn't he

You can view this either as a) a disheartening sell out, or b) as an only slightly exaggerated statement of fact, but Rushdie has declared television the dominant narrative art form of the 21st century.

For a full list of summer programs offered by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the website at

Of course, as anyone paying attention to the cultural landscape over the past 20 years knows, the correct response is “b” tinged ever so fragrantly with “a”.

I mean, it was at least 15 years ago that I first realized television was no longer a vast wasteland and that we were in the midst of a new Golden Age of televised drama. I realized it because my erstwhile colleague Tom Jicha said as much as a passing remark.

The TV critic at the Sun-Sentinel, and one of the best in the business, Jicha brought me up short. As a book guy, my motto at the time was: “It’s better to read a bad book than to watch a good TV show.” But Jicha’s remark forced me to rethink my position.

Consider some of the top American television dramas of the 1990s: “Northern Exposure.” “thirty-something.” “ER.” “The X-Files.” “Party of Five.” “My So-Called Life.” “Law & Order.” “NYPD Blue.” “Picket Fences.” “Homicide: Life on the Streets.”

I didn’t watch all of these shows regularly, and some of them I only saw in the company of a girlfriend, but I could not deny that they were dramas of extraordinary narrative sophistication, and one of them — “Homicide” — probed so deeply into the lives of its ensemble cast as to gain something approaching a novelistic texture.

As a child of television — like all Boomers, I’m a member of the first generation that cannot remember life before TV — I’ve always had a weakness for the boob tube, no matter how much I scorned it in my literary snobbery. The first show I know of to demonstrate the narrative possibilities of TV drama was the 1970s detective show “The Rockford Files,” which turned all the cliches of the genre upside-down and inside-out.

The next evolutionary step came in 1981 with “Hill Street Blues,” a character-driven drama about the denizens of a Chicago police station. It’s great innovation was adapting the serial storytelling, until that time confined to soap operas.

By the late 1980s any number of dramas had taken the lessons of “Hill Street” and ran with them, led by the lawyer show (first of very, very many), “L.A. Law.” These developments, in turn, gave rise to the flowering of drama Jicha directed me to in 1995 or thereabouts.

And, of course, a new watershed in television storytelling came in 1999, when HBO aired the first season of “The Sopranos,” which showed, once and for all, that virtually no limit exists to the dramatic possibilities of long-form televsion. The 2000s have more than delivered on that promise, with shows like “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Lost,” “Deadwood,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “The Shield,” “24,” “Dexter,” “Damages” and “Rome.”

Today even light entertainments like “Bones” or “Castle” or “Supernatural” features sharply delineated characters, information-rich storylines and pacing that would have left the average 1950s viewer breathless and confused.

So it’s no surprise that a writer like Rushdie would be drawn to the form. After all, he’s not only a first-rate international novelist, but he’s also savvy about popular culture — his 2000 book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll novel of all time, and maybe the second-best book of his career,” or so says the L.A. Times.

The appeal of television, Rushdie says, is two-fold: The medium reaches a much wider audience than novels, and the writer (or writer-producer) is often completely in charge, unlike movies, where writers are more like sharecroppers. Think David Chase, Joss Whedon, Amy Shermin-Palladino, David Simon, J.J. Abrams, Alan Ball, Shonda Rhimes…

“It’s like the best of both worlds,” says Rushdie in the Guardian. “You can work in movie style productions, but have proper control.”

Not everyone is without skepticism regarding Rushdie’s change of focus: If I were the agent of a novelist whose greatest success came 30 years ago, I’d endorse the opportunity to bring literary sophistication to a populist medium, too,” sniffs the Telegraph‘s Michael Deacon.

But, as always, Rushdie is refreshingly frank about his motives: His American agents suggested he might thrive in U.S. television, where he could have creative control.

“They said to me that what I should really think about is a TV series, because what has happened in America is that the quality – or the writing quality – of movies has gone down the plughole,” Rushdie says.

The result: “The Next People,” a drama Rushdie is developing for Showtime. The author describes it as “a sort of paranoid science-fiction series, people disappearing and being replaced by other people,”

Good luck with that, Sir Salman. Showtime has a mixed record with sci-fi, giving us hits like “Stargate” and the rebooted “Outer Limits.” But the premium channel also pulled the plug prematurely on a promising end-of-the-world drama, “Odyssey Five,” for no better reason than the fact no one was watching.

I’ll give it a chance. Despite the high quality of television drama these days, there’s only so much TV I can watch. I’ve never seen “Mad Men,” for example, or “Damages.” It remains a pernicious medium that has as much in common with say, crack cocaine as it does with War and Peace.

Watching even the best television drama — yes, even “The Wire!” — I eventually feel my brain start to die as my soul leaches out of my body.

So on balance, I still think it may be better to read a bad book than to watch a good TV show.





6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2011 11:00 am

    I think Rushdie is a tad late to the party. Maybe he’ll be the next David Simon but I doubt he has the necessary agility for today’s market.

    TV viewing has been going through a steady decline for some years now, especially among the 49 and under crowd. No one can agree what is causing it but the main theory is there is just too many other bright shiny objects out there to compete for attention. Granted, there are some stellar series lately (I’m hooked on The Killing and love Madmen). But the audiences for these off-network shows are small compared to the mass audiences network shows used to enjoy. New media is transforming televison, just as it is for books, facturing audiences into ever smaller niches that fnd content increasingly via YouTube, iTunes, Amazon original ebooks — transmitted by all the little gizmos that spring to life with the touch of a finger.

    Popular culture is changing at the speed of light. Video killed the radio star. That was just the start of the masacre.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 15, 2011 3:14 pm

      Yes, and eventually the market will be so fragmented that we’ll all be creating for our own amusement. Which is the artistic equivalent of onanism

  2. June 15, 2011 8:52 pm

    If he can pull it off, more power to him. I think HBO and Showtime, Starz, etc are not only producing entertainment superior to almost anything at the movie houses these days, but they are also pushing the boundaries of what’s permissable. I have to admit some of the shows like Game of Thrones or The Borgias or Spartacus are really too violent. One hour of Spartacus was all I could stand. Haven’t watched it since. It will be interesting to see how Rushdie adapts to what is now his preffered medium.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 15, 2011 10:04 pm

      I loved Spartacus as good cheap fun, but I only watched the first five episodes, which were free on the Starz website. I didn’t feel compelled to pony up for a subscription. At the time, I already had HBO and Showtime, and except for Dexter and True Blood — also bloody, if not quite so tawdry, and much smarter — hardly worth the price. I’ve since canceled those subscriptions, so I haven’t seen Game of Thrones. I did love the description I saw somewhere, I think it was Entertainment Weeky: “It’s as if Lord of the Rings were made by the Playboy Channel,” or something like that. But I did recenty read the first book in the series, and I was surprised how much I liked it. The writing is good enough,and the characterizations are superior.

      I think you’re more mature than I am, Duff, and unlike some Boomers, I don’t mean that as a backhanded complement.

    • June 16, 2011 11:13 am

      Was about to agree with you that HBO etc is producing better stuff than movies but then I watched “True Grit.” (the remake). What a good old-fashioned slam-bng movie.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        June 16, 2011 6:10 pm

        True Grit, and others of its quality, are the exception rather than the rule. Television — even cable and sometimes network – is superior to most cinema these days, and premium cable regularly kicks the movies’ ass. Metaphorically speaking.

        Partly it’s a matter of form. A two-hour movie is the narrative equivalent of a short story, but a television show, especially one like The Sopranos or The Wire, has the time and space to delve into its stories with the attention to detail of a novel.

        But partly it’s that the movie business has become craven, cowardly and degenerate. Notice I didn’t say “greedy,” or “shallow”? It’s always been greedy and shallow.

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