For this year’s Year in Reading, I wrote about my 2019 reading grump—a restless disinterest in many of the novels that literary and social media were excited about. As readers we all go through these ruts. For whatever reasons, we are fickle—impossible to please, hungry for work that will stimulate and nourish our intellect, emotions, and spirits just so.
Enter the dramatic TV series.
Backing up: One of the reasons I feel disconnected from contemporary literary fiction is that it’s become a largely middlebrow medium. This assessment is admittedly vague, subjective, and not necessarily a wholesale critique. I really don’t expect anyone to agree with me, nor do I feel impelled to convince readers who love/admire the books in question that they should feel or think otherwise. Generally speaking I embrace subjectivity in relation to art: let’s disagree, let’s have varying experiences—all for the greater Good and pursuit of Beauty.
But what do I mean by “middlebrow?” I mean this: The story is centered around familiar types of modern people dealing with modern problems, including something related to race and/or social inequity and/or complicated romantic and familial relations; the protagonist(s) is (are) both earnest and flawed; pathos and wit co-mingle in good measure; the prose “flows,” i.e. is “well-written” and propulsive such that the reader does not trip over it, is guided along from sentence to sentence as if by a kindly butler or gentle ocean wave; there is a balance of interior (thought, reflection) and exterior (dialogue, action) drama; there are no more than two or three high-conflict scenes, which may be vividly unpleasant though tolerably so.
Another way of putting it is that a middlebrow novel need only be read once, perhaps in three or four sittings, and the reader will be satisfied by this experience, which is relatively passive while also still engaging. Yet another way of putting it—more grumpy—is that there is no strangeness or disturbing difficulty at the heart of the narrative or the characters, nor in the language or structure used to form them. The reader is not inclined to pause in mid-scene or mid-sentence—to take a moment to metabolize or review or recover—because these novels are meant to be smoother and more manageable than life, and thus no such slowing-down in response to unsettledness or confusion or wonder or alarm is demanded.
I have nothing against this experience of propulsive absorbedness. I enjoy and seek out this experience regularly. I just think: This isn’t what literature as an art form is/does/should do. Literature is not about smoothing out prickly spots or sharp corners or the essential misshapenness of existence; in a word, literature should be, at minimum, more courageous than life.
If this seems snobby, let me offer an analogy, which may seem equally snobby, but hopefully at least clarifying: I am not someone who wants my candidate for president to be primarily someone I can “have a beer with.” I want that person to be smarter and better than me—much smarter and better—a little intimidating, someone who will lead, challenge, and enlist me to participate actively in the greater good.
And so, these days, I am passing on middlebrow, aka “relatable,” novels. I think: For satisfying manageable engagement, why not watch good serial TV instead?
Prestige showrunners like David Simon (The Wire) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) have both spoken of their multi-season series as having been conceived “as a novel.” Each might be understood as a Great American Social Novel—the former roving through multiple sectors of urban life in a major city (Baltimore), season by season; the latter spanning socio-cultural transformation between 1960 and 1970 via New York City’s advertising world. In centering its many storylines around Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, Mad Men is perhaps more character-driven than The Wire, whose real main character (despite a richly complex ensemble cast) is the city of Baltimore itself. Yet neither is protagonist-driven, strictly speaking.
As someone interested primarily in the mystery and complexity of human personality—as reader, viewer, and writer—the series that has me thinking most about TV drama-qua-novel then, is The Good Wife.
For seven seasons (2009-2016), viewers followed the eponymous wife, Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies), through her mid-life coming-of-age—her journey the very model of an adult bildungsroman. In the pilot, we meet Alicia in high crisis: Her husband, Illinois State’s Attorney General Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), has just been convicted of corruption, while simultaneously exposed as a philanderer. With Peter serving prison time, stay-at-home mom Alicia is not only humiliated, but must now earn a living for herself and their two teens. Trained as a lawyer, Alicia sets off to interview at corporate firms for associate positions usually reserved for recent law-school grads. Between her resume gap and public profile, her prospects are grim, until by chance she runs into an old flame from college, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). Will is dashing, confident, a partner in his own firm. He says, “Call me sometime,” and when Alicia becomes desperate for a job, she does. Will gives her the break she needs, hiring her as an associate at Stern, Lockhardt & Gardner, where she thrives and advances quickly. In the midst of disaster, Alicia begins to not only find her footing, but also her latent talents and ambitions.
Alicia is both Hillary and not-Hillary: She stands by her man, but her public image could not be more different. Nicknamed by the press “Saint Alicia,” she eschews public attention, is temperamentally calm, deferent, laconic—feminine in the ways a “good wife” should be—slender and smoky-eyed to boot. Building each episode’s plot around a court case (or two), the strength of the series is in interrogating, challenging, redefining over and over this notion of “good” as it applies to “wife”—and to woman more generally—along with professional ethics. Through the vicissitudes of Alicia’s life over seven years, we come to know—or think we know and then realize there’s yet still more to know—the conflicted, hungering inner life of a character whose defining external traits are self-denial, quiet intelligence, and caution.
Series finales are high-stakes balancing acts: writers must satisfy audience, art, and network (CBS, in this case). To their great credit, The Good Wife writers stuck that ending (see in your mind Simone Biles, feet planted and arms stretched to the sky after her floor routine). They hit that surprising-but-inevitable sweet spot in a way that sent me right back to rewatch earlier episodes—not all of them, but particular ones that sent up pricks and sparks of resonance as the series’s final moments rippled back through the seven-year narrative like an electric current.
The upshot: Alicia, now truly free of Peter, arrived and confident (professionally, sexually, emotionally) at the same time she is thoroughly battle-scarred—is less “good” than we thought she was. More importantly, she is less good than she thought she was. Her relationships to the law, ambition, colleagues, money, friends, lovers, children—all these have both deepened and darkened, grown more complicated and more simple in thought-provoking ways.
This is true of our relationship to Alicia as well. After seven seasons of rooting for her, we find she is not so exceptionally sympathetic after all. She is—has either always been, or has become, or both—as self-serving and transactional as anyone. What we are left with then is the essential question of how we feel about that.
Is it more or less “good” to be (a) sober-eyed, seasoned, willing to claim your success and take your pleasure or (b) naive, soft-hearted and deferent, ever-longing after but unsullied by the triumphant sumptuousness of the big-bad world? This either/or proposition—how to be “good”—is a woman’s question; certainly it has been. (Perhaps, hopefully, this is changing). A woman cannot—in 2016 in Chicago, in 2020 anywhere in America—mindlessly, without cost, inhabit and manifest her Alpha dog, her Nietzschean mensch. The question is urgent, difficult, infuriating, and real.
But the incarnation of the how-to-be-good conundrum at the end of The Good Wife, open-ended and unsmooth, is to my mind comforting in its courage. This was network TV, mind you, the very breeding ground for middlebrow, redefining a “good woman” as a complete woman, a full person—neither relative object nor idealized vessel, but multidimensional Subject. She may or may not be likable; she is as disappointing as she is inspiring. She is no saint, and even publicly rejects religion (despite the entreaties of her earnest daughter and a straight-shooting African-American minister). In the finale’s final seconds, after her moral character and physical body are at once dealt a stunning blow, Alicia smooths down her pencil skirt, then lifts her chin. But that ending leaves a rough taste in our mouths: the messes Alicia leaves behind her and now faces before her are what lingers. As novelistic vision, this for me rises above middlebrow. It’s unmanageable. And true.
Serial format is inherently populist and thus fraternal with middlebrow: The serial novel, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries à la Dickens, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, Dostoevsky, et alia, made novels accessible to poor people (a periodical or installment was less expensive than a bound book) and even those who couldn’t read (excited readers would gather to read the latest installment aloud). Serialization has been good for creators and producers alike, generating communal conversation about the most recent installment and anticipatory predictions/hopes for what comes next, all of which bolsters interest and sales.
This phenomenon, of episodic buzzy chatter, has clearly energized today’s TV-viewing and the economics thereof. It also, interestingly, has the effect of making serial TV more novelistic: In slowing down the series’ central narrative tension—in the case of The Good Wife, the romantic-sexual-professional relationship between Alicia and Will—we experience the arc of that central narrative more completely. The Alicia+Will connection underwent intensity and diffusion, intimacy and distance; it was a slow, patient burn. Even after Will abruptly and dramatically exited Alicia’s life and the series in season 5, Alicia continued for two years to metabolize—more profoundly than she had when he was present—what had happened and not happened between them. As would be in life, it took the whole seven years.
Meanwhile, each episode, with its bite-sized court case, delivered its smooth, manageable dose of rising action, conflict, crisis, and (generally too-easy) resolution—replete with delightful and entertaining supporting characters and cameos (some of them well developed in themselves, others narrowly typed)—to satisfy the need for passive engagement and propulsion. Even marathon-watching the entire series in a few weeks delivered these shorter- and longer-term satisfactions.
In lieu of the proliferating middlebrow literary novel, might we bring back the serial narrative? Nonfiction has done so, with wild success, via podcast. On the upside, long-form fiction could, like serial TV, hook readers installment by installment and generate a wider base of word-of-mouth consumers (good for authors); on the downside, books with weak, unsatisfying arcs/endings would exploit reader addiction and anticipation (bad for readers and for art). In 2015, Washington Post book critic Hillary Kelly, recognizing that the serial form favors plot-driven work—for example fantasy fiction and YA, both forms currently producing serial publications actively—and/or “literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety,” nonetheless made a strong case for reviving the serial novel, across all genres:
[Serialization] requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum…While the plot of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is nearly as bloody and scheming as a Game of Thrones book, we all know that Anne Boleyn loses her head; it’s the inner workings of Thomas Cromwell’s mind that keep readers delighted and critics astounded…Imagine a Stephen King novella terrifying the readers of Time, a new Jeffrey Eugenides epic unfurling through the pages of the New Yorker or Jennifer Weiner’s curious, energized female protagonists occupying a prominent section in Elle. Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.
Perhaps the revived literary-fiction serial could, like the hit podcast Serial and its progeny, be in audio form. Or some other interactive hybrid that incorporates visuals, hyperlinks, choose-your-own adventure? I don’t know. Perhaps the novel is doing just fine, and I’m the grumpy defector here. I’m just saying: As both writer and reader, I’m rooting for literature and books; but for now serial TV has effectively replaced middlebrow fiction for me. Both the pleasures and substance of long-form TV drama are richer and ultimately more resonant than those of the sort-of-but-not-quite literary novel. Form and content are better matched; there is an integrity between the two. The literary novel, on the other hand, respects and optimizes its raison d’etre in respecting and optimizing language; its eggs are all—should be, more than it currently is—in that basket.
Call me a traditionalist or a dinosaur or whatever: I’m a Gen Xer who came to reading and writing for the richness and poetry of language. I’d be happy to see literary novels become less prosaic in both senses of the word—braver, more language rich and structurally inventive—shaping and challenging more than reflecting existence as we know it. I get excited about the ambitious structuring of a novel like As Lie Is to Grin by Simeon Marsalis, who both creates his own and channels his literary forebears’ language and polyphonic structure (specifically Jean Toomer and Paul Laurence Dunbar). As one reviewer puts it, “as a kind of vellum onto which this novel has been written…” Or the weird, dense sentences, and equally weird, lightly absurdist characters of stories and novels by Joy Williams, all of which invariably add up to something mysterious, vibrant, and sad. Or the precise, mesmerizing narrative voices of Yoko Ogawa and James Salter; the muscular, whirling, linguistic and philosophical energy of Sergio de la Pava.
I want these works too to be widely read, to generate buzzy chatter, to re-energize novel-reading. But I don’t know how that happens. Is there only one way to generate so-called “momentum” in a book? Is it always “what happens next?” Or “relatability” or manageable smoothness? Why not intensity, or depth, or unsolvable mystery—a more vertically-oriented driving energy?
We’re all figuring these things out. The golden age of TV, its captivation of our emotional devotion and resources, has yet to run its course, if ever it will. In the meantime, I wish you all bon courage—good luck and best wishes—but also the Good and the Courageous literally, in choosing your satisfactions.