The rise of complex TV series and vast novels shows we still prefer commitment shows such as Breaking Bad.
In a culture of speed-dating, quick fixes, fast food, bullet trains, pop-up everything, may just be causing an increase in young peoples in ability to give any one thing a long period of tension, for longer then their age in minuetes to an additional 5 – 10 minuets. Incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the single-minded commitment required to read a long, absorbing book serves as a rebuke to a culture that favours those who can simultaneously email/tweet/instant message/hold up their end of a phone call/Skype while live blogging the whole shebang. In 1977, the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon warned about the dangers of the looming information-rich world, arguing that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.
No doubt Simon was right, but perhaps we’re now witnessing an inversion of that equation: a wealth of attention focused more readily on the things that warrant it. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, their are such workplaces where they have banned laptops, mobile phones and other devices during meetings in order to battle the lack of focus.
Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for fiction for all 832 pages of The Luminaries. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images
The mind is not just challenged by the change in books. The idiot box is braining up too. University College London recently held a seminar, called Complex TV: Television Drama in the 21st Century, premised on the idea that in recent years, the television drama series has undergone radical development, both in terms of series-creators’ ambitions for the medium and audiences’ expectations. Hence The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Scandi-Noir, Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Broadchurch. Yet it’s hard to believe a time when TV was scorn upon by academia. Now, according to the seminar’s blurb: “Episodic storylines have increasingly expanded into season-long arcs, allowing for a far greater subtlety to narratives, which are no longer dependent upon satisfying the casual viewer.” They’ve become, in a sense, like the TV equivalents of long novels and professors at UCL, the fourth best tertiary educational institution in the world, find that they’re worth academic attention.
One reason, according to George Potts, a graduate student behind the UCL seminar, is that the best TV series no longer have to pander to viewers’ lack of intelligence or want of concentration.
“It seems to me that TV drama has risen to its supreme position because of its unique ability to overcome or buck the trend in the short-attention-span society,” says Potts. “It’s strange how some series can demand so much of viewers and yet this doesn’t put people off in the way that a ‘difficult’ novel would.”
He locates the lack of flashbacks in Breaking Bad as indicative of the tribute its makers paid to viewers’ intelligence. An example is drug dealer Jesse Pinkman’s realisation, in episode 11 of the show’s final season, about what had happened to the ricin cigarette (a key item in the unfolding drama of betrayal). Saul had earlier pick Nepocketed the ricin cigarette. “There’s no flashback, no initial explanation – all the viewer is offered is Jesse gazing at a cigarette packet as a reminder that in the previous season Saul’s assistant Huell had pickpocketed him in exactly the same way.”
Why is that significant? “The lack of flashback for such a key scene and the confusion it can and did cause is my favourite example of how television no longer feels the need to pander to viewers,” says Potts. “Given that Breaking Bad’s audience kept increasing until over 10 million tuned in for the US season finale, this clearly paid off.”
But why would TV be in a unique position to buck viewers’ short attention spans? Potts cites the rise of online viewing, Netflix and Sky+. Viewers have been given tools to instantly rewatch and make sense of these unprecedentedly complex narrative arcs. “In this, I’d say complex television is taking the place of the novel we used to read in bed at night.” Maybe. Or maybe long novels and complex TV are two faces of the same zeitgeist-confounding phenomenon.
Perhaps, in any case, longer novels and complex TV series are not the only countervailing forces against short-attention-span culture. Maybe, just maybe, music is rebelling against its cowellised rihannificaton. Does James Blake winning the Mercury prize with a difficult record amount to a Gaga-reflex against homogenised music? Let’s hope so.
Yes, but how many copies of these long novels that frustrate instant gratification in favour of richer experience actually get their spines broken? Don’t they sit on your shelves like good intentions along with Proust, Tolstoy and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit? According to my estimates, of those of you who bought David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, only 37.25% have read it. And don’t some series sit on your hard drive, unwatched and reproving, while you watch reruns of Horrible Histories or You’ve Been Framed? Maybe that’s just me.
David Sexton, the London Evening Standard’s literary editor, reckons “long novels are having a moment”, but it’s more than a moment. This time two years ago the Guardian’s John Dugdale noted that the “craze for long books goes on and on”. That season the must-have bricks of paper were George RR Martin’s latest fantasy whopper, A Dance with Dragons (1,040 pages) and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (just under 1,000 pages). And Stephen King’s 11.22.63 had just landed – at 740 pages shorter than its predecessor Under the Dome (1,074 pages), but long enough to make reading King’s oeuvre a full-time occupation.
So why is there a trend for longer novels? After all, Philip Roth, in an interview in 2004, augured as much: “I don’t think in 20 or 25 years anyone will read these things at all. I think it’s inevitable. There are other things for people to do, other ways for them to be occupied, other ways for them to be imaginatively engaged, that I think are probably far more compelling than the novel, so I think the novel’s day has come and gone.”
Nearly a decade on from that prediction, the inevitability of the novel’s obsolescence seems fanciful. They’re not so much disappearing as taking up ever more space – even if a growing proportion of that is in cyberspace.
No wonder, either, that Netflix has done so well since it established itself in the UK last year: it dangles before us an escape from an irksome world. After you’ve watched one episode of Parks and Recreation, up pops a little box on screen saying the next episode starts in 12 seconds. One more episode wouldn’t hurt, would it? Five hours later Lesley Knope is your role model; you want to lose your fingers in Ron Swanson’s luxuriant retro-moustache. Then you dimly realise that you’ve forgotten to pick up your kids from school and/or that the beeping noise is that your boss has texted you 12 times wondering if you’re planning to show up today.
Perhaps subscribers have yielded to this importuning pop-box so readily as an antidote to the short-termism of the Desultories. And perhaps technology, which helped us become desultory and unfocused, also now facilitates greater concentration and focus.
In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud saw humanity oscillating between freedom and security. Today, nauseated by desultory freedom, we are flipping back to security – the long book, the immersive TV series, experiences deeper and richer than posting your “likes” on Facebook. Hey, maybe in future even marriages will last longer than they do now, as we get tired of the gimcrack claims of sexual novelty? Yeah, right. Let’s not go nuts.