Monday, February 28, 2011

Books on TV

I'm reluctant to be negative about any TV promotion of books, and one's initial response to the recent spate of programmes is pleasure and even gratitude, since, taken together, they would seem to convey the idea of books as a significant aspect of culture. But I think a look at some of the more subtle messages they are sending is in order. I've written disparagingly about the first series of Channel 4's TV Book Club (though I haven't watched the second series and it may have improved) and I read recently on Twitter that Anne Robinson started off her new books programme by saying, rather like some of those early TV Book Club panelists, that she didn't actually read (or even like?) books very much. If the idea here is to woo those viewers who don't much like books either, by making them identify, I'd say that at worst it's something of an exercise in shooting oneself in the foot, and at best it's just too apologetic about books altogether.

While Sebastian Faulks has, on the contrary, conducted his series about fiction with great enthusiasm - and indeed the assumption that it's essential to us - I find the format to have been a denial of the real nature of fiction, and a devaluation. He has presented fiction as merely the sum of its characters - episodes have been on Heroes, Heroines, Snobs and Villains - discussing them to the exclusion of all other aspects of novels, thus giving us a singularly reductive (and realist) view of fiction. This has been compounded by a simplistic assessment of some of those characters themselves (he presents Miss Brodie, for instance, as simply a snob) and a clumsily utilitarian approach: essentially, the characters are there to teach us how to live. We 'love' them or 'love to hate' them, he says (because of what they can teach us about life), a relationship between reader and character which must exclude, for instance, those novels, surreal and/or satirical, in which character is not the main focus. He also goes so far as to say that we can feel we know them better than we know those close to us in life. If we do feel we know characters in books better than real-life associates, I'd say it's because when we read a novel we are gaining privileged access into someone else's mind, that is, the author's, and sharing in a creative construct, one aspect of which will be the characters. However, Faulks' words imply a more immature concept of characters as people in their own right, with 'a life of their own'. While I accept that during the actual reading process we do suspend disbelief and relate to characters as 'real', I'd say that it's a very different thing to transfer this suspension of disbelief into the context of discussion of fiction. The filming of this series seems specifically designed to facilitate that. Many people have commented that every single novel Faulks discussed was illustrated by a TV (BBC?) drama adaptation (dramatisations, for a start, often skew novels by foregrounding character in ways they may not be foregrounded in the original novels) and a striking, and to me, shocking feature was the way that these dramatisations were framed. The producers had gone to a great deal of trouble to find locations for Faulks' commentary that matched the locations of the drama clips shown, and not only that, Faulks was shown in these locations in an attitude of watching, and cuts made which turned him into a voyeur within the drama. Thus we had him looking through the window at Emma talking to Mr Knightley, and more hilariously, spying through another with Notes on a Scandal's Barbara on Bathsheba seducing her schoolboy, and more hilariously still, about to trip over Lady Chatterley and Mellors in the wood. Someone on Twitter objected to me that this is exactly what we do in novels, spy on the characters, but I would disagree: what we are invited to do in novels is to join the author in inhabiting the (constructed) minds of the main characters. It's an act of intellectual and emotional empathy. And while, yes, this is one way that novels can indeed expand our intellectual and emotional horizons ('teach us about life') it's a far more complex and dynamic process than that implied by portraying characters as inhabiting the same plane of reality as commentators and readers. And making this the main point of a series about fiction, is to reduce and patronise fiction in the extreme.
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