A location scout came through my parents’ neighborhood last month and slid a letter printed on blue paper into each house’s screen door. The letter had HBO’s (fuzzily reproduced and definitely not hi-res) logo at the top and announced in all capital letters that a production team had descended on Mount Vernon, N.Y., in hopes of finding a “HOUSE WITH AN ATTACHED GARAGE.”
It happens that Chez Aronstein has one of those, and my mother found a copy of the letter when she got home from work. She called me in Chicago.
“Look, I won’t keep you,” she said, in a greeting that has become standard for our conversations, “Someone from HBO came to our house. Have you read that book called — what is it — ?” I could hear her rustling some papers on the other end, “The Corrections?”
“They want to film the TV series at our house,” she said.
In a short essay written for The New York Times Sunday Book Review last month, Craig Fehrman points out that HBO has recently decided to pay attention to serious fiction — or what used to be known in the TV industry as “Stuff We Don’t Buy.”
Last year, the premium channel acquired rights to The Corrections for a full four-year series and convinced Jonathan Franzen to write the scripts. Noah Baumbach will direct at least a few episodes. HBO execs also swiped up Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as two of 2011’s best-received novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. In the case of the latter two, it seems as though the TV rights were negotiated along with publishing rights, so quickly did HBO decide to option them.
Writers have long been squeamish about selling their work to Hollywood directors, let alone to television (not all writers, of course). In his own famously crotchety essay “Why Bother?”, Franzen offers the familiar lament that television dumbs down cultural consumption. He argues, “Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units—half-innings, twelve-minute acts — the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites.” To the Franzen of 1996, when compared with television (the Internet wasn’t yet on literature’s radar as an existential threat), the so-called “social” novel simply can’t match up on the issue of popularity. Neither can it win a resource war. “Few serious novelists,” he adds, “can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity.” Viewed as an enemy combatant, television competes directly with novels for eyes, attention, and dollars. Franzen’s essay ends on a hopeful note for books, but the assumption remains that TV and other forms of media will win away the majority of readers. Literature gets the consolation prize of mattering to an important few.
The Franzen of 2011 had a very different perspective when speaking with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival. Describing his involvement with the HBO series based on his book, he excitedly insisted, “We had an opportunity here — because it’s not a miniseries, it’s an actual series — I think to do something that has not been done.” I don’t assume that an individual’s intellectual positions have to remain consistent over a lifetime, but this marks a pretty significant shift — and one that characterizes what seems to be a growing number of writers. TV no longer stands as the primary enemy of fiction, as long one can write for the right kind of TV. Or: getting a contract with folks like HBO has become the new ideal.
For one thing, the rise of premium cable has produced practical advantages for authors. Higher production values and an emphasis on multi-year serial dramas allow for financial security, giving them an incentive to stay involved with television projects. Moreover, HBO has demonstrated a willingness to allow novelists to maintain control of their work, offering folks like Franzen (and Egan, who turned down the opportunity) the opportunity to write the scripts. And perhaps most importantly, the popularity of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Homeland — all of which find a place in what Fehrman rightly dubs “post-Sopranos” cable — enables producers to make compelling cases for slower, unfolding, deliberate narratives. Slower, unfolding, and deliberate narratives comprise the bread and butter of literary fiction. Perhaps television audience tastes have simply come in line with the tastes of readers, while new content-delivery preferences make it possible to exploit the similarity. Tivo and OnDemand everything allow viewers to string together episodes of series on their own schedules — to cater their media consumption to individual attention spans.
But especially interesting about Franzen’s position with regard to the series is his insistence that TV has allowed him more creative room to explore the themes of The Corrections than did the novel itself. In the same conversation with Remnick, he explains:
Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time — that is spread over thirty years — and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool.
By his account, it turns out that television will present freedom to explore plotlines that the novel limited or foreclosed. For the reigning king of American realist fiction to confess this point — and to do it readily — marks a sharp change of direction, suggesting that perhaps we need to start thinking differently about the relationship between television and fiction.
I don’t mean to make hasty qualitative or hierarchical distinctions between TV and novels. It’s easy to say indignantly “Novels are better than TV, you sell-out jerks!” like a petulant writer with exactly zero novels to his credit. (I’m working on it, OKAY?) But I don’t think anyone should begrudge writers like Egan or Franzen for working with HBO. At the very least, Franzen sounds a lot happier than he did 15 years ago, and the fact that The Corrections will reach millions more potential readers on HBO (and on DVD) sounds like an unmitigated win for literary fiction.
Nevertheless, we do need to think about the implications of suggesting that television’s aesthetic capacities can complement, or even supplant, those of novels. For once, we might not have to ask, “Will the novel survive?” Instead, we need to ask what it means that the novel’s future depends on a relationship with TV — and whether this relationship will be a productive one in the long run.
I started thinking about all of this when it suddenly became possible that The Corrections would be filmed at the house where I grew up.
For young(ish) writers, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has for a long time seemed like a kind of prerequisite to engaging in literary practice: writing, reading, thinking about novels and their future or lack of future, or whatever else. When I was in college, the book seemed a kind of talismanic object, a guidebook, a blueprint to follow if I ever wanted to write serious fiction. At the same time, 18-year-old A-J secretly worried that Franzen’s depiction of American middle-class despair and loneliness, and the concurrent self-torture about the shallowness of this despair and loneliness, obviated the need for anything I would ever come up with to describe same. (It’s possible 18-year-old A-J should have been worried about other things, sure, but this is how the story goes).
Regardless, my copy of The Corrections bears the scars of obsessive, borderline psychotic reading: highlights and underlined passages; exclamation points and YESes; check marks and squiggles (most of which have no significance to me now). As an overzealous (and, it can’t be overemphasized, really obnoxious) undergraduate I wrote a chapter of my rambling 120-page thesis (a ponderous object titled “Realistically Speaking: The Politics of the Contemporary Realist Novel”) on Franzen’s work.
I also bought a copy of The Corrections for my father one Christmas and distinctly remember telling the family it was my favorite book. I later found it on a bookcase in our living room, wedged between How to Clean Practically Anything and The Bible for Dummies, its spine un-cracked.
I started giving my mother a précis of this personal literary history, but she cut me off and asked whether she should call HBO. She added that they offered anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 for every day they were filming. My response was something along the lines of:
“YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM THAT YOU WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FILM THIS SHOW IN OUR HOUSE.”
The fact that our house could play a central role in The Corrections validated a long-held suspicion that our Mount Vernon abode — scene of my childhood — had something quintessentially American about it. Its “ATTACHED GARAGE,” its magnolia tree and vegetable garden, its slate walk and bay windows could stand in for Franzen’s work. He may have written a book about such a house. But I lived in that house.
[For anyone else keeping score, it’s Aronstein, unpaid freelance essayist and freshman writing teacher, 1 – Franzen, National Book Award-winning author and American literary icon, 0].
I excitedly wondered how HBO would transform my parents’ home into that of the Lamberts, the family at the heart of The Corrections. Some rooms wouldn’t need any modification at all. For example, our garage seemed ready-made for Lambert patriarch Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The production designer wouldn’t have to move anything. The boxes marked “For Yard Sale” and the 1960s-era rocking horse, the Tupperware containers packed with quilts, and the workbench populated with dusty shot glasses all fit almost too perfectly with Franzen’s vision.
Then again, how would this transformation (or lack of transformation) warp my own reading of the book? And more unnervingly, how would the depiction of my childhood home on screen, written into the scripted version of a novel I’ve read at least four times, change the way I remembered and wanted to write about my own experiences? The translation of this particular novel to the screen seemed to have more personal ramifications than those of a general conversation about the relationship between cable and novels. It had to do with my own source material for fiction — and the potential consequences of seeing what Franzen would do with the scene of my childhood.
And that idea weirded me out.
The formal challenge of novels has always been to represent human experience in a way that attempts to transcend limitations of language: to create something like a shared consciousness among readers of a common text. That this shared consciousness takes place entirely in the realm of thought grants fiction its unique identity, distinguishing it from visual forms of media. What a novel leaves unsaid is often as important as what it does say, and for this reason a piece of fiction’s textual construction of narrative requires a lot of mental work on the part of authors and readers. It has less to do with the scope of a novel’s plot, and more to do with the depth of its inquiry into consciousness.
When we read, we take a mental inventory of the objects and people that inhabit our world and map them onto whatever the author offers us. No matter how meticulously an author creates an environment from words, we still find ourselves spending part of our time with a book trying to match up our own life, possessions, sensations, ideologies, misunderstandings, and relationships with imagined plots, settings, and people. We have to imagine how the sunlight glints through the magnolia tree, how a mother’s voice shouting “MEATLOAF” resonates off of light fixtures, how the wallpaper peels off the walls, how the dog howls at shadows on the ceiling during dinner. Regardless of the size of the screen or the total length of the movie/series/miniseries, visual forms of representation take away this pressure (and pleasure).
That is, in my reading of The Corrections, the Lamberts’ house has always felt and looked like my parents’ house.
What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them — and to know them on our own terms — drives us to read.
Then again, once we see Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, it’s difficult to imagine him any other way. Once Rooney Mara walks into the frame as Lisbeth Salander, all we can do is hem and haw about how her interpretation of the character either matches up with or fails to meet expectations that have been molded by books. And I worry that once Ewan McGregor puts on a midwestern accent and a pair of leather pants, I won’t be able to imagine myself as Chip Lambert ever again. Movies and television shows have the uncanny ability to restructure the way that we read novels because they gives us definitive answers about how to see them. When we say that movies fail to live up to expectations created by novels, it’s not just because they don’t comport with our individual imaginings of how the world of a novel is supposed to look. It’s because they rob us of the sense that we have a claim to a private interpretation.
Or more simply: even if I had always imagined our house standing in for the Lamberts’ house, I didn’t want the television to tell me that our house had to be the Lamberts’ house.
What makes novels unique when compared with television has little to do with having enough room to explore certain plotlines in a more detail. What distinguishes them from (even the best, most tasteful, best-acted and directed) television arises from the form of textual engagement itself. Serial dramas on premium cable might in some ways be able to increase the size of the canvas available to fiction writers, and certainly expand the reach of their work. They might demand more mental work than forms like the sitcom. But a novel like The Corrections can seem limitless to readers precisely because it leaves meanings open, leaves parts of characters’ lives only implicitly explored, allows readers to fill in the blanks.
It’s these blanks that I’m worried The Corrections on HBO will fill in.
A representative from HBO came to my parents’ place. After walking around for about 30 minutes, he told them that the house was the right period, but likely too small. To film the scenes properly, they would need a lot more room for the cameras and crew.
It was likely the kind of house that they wanted, but they couldn’t film it effectively.
And, I think, it’s just as well. I’d like to write about that house one day.
Photo courtesy the author.