The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Writer apartheid

The following quote is taken from the Feb. 16 posting at Chekhov's Mistress. The post is about a book by David Kipen entitled The Schreiber Theory (link in quote), and, while it focuses the workings of the film industry, it has relevance for the topic of this site as well:

Like it or not, we avid movie fans subscribe to the auteur theory. French for “author,” this school of film criticism focusing solely on directors has permeated the industry since emerging about 50 years ago by critics-cum-directors Truffaut (who coined the term), Godard, Rohmer and others. David Kipen, in The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History, says “auteurism has conditioned us to concentrate on the themes and motives common to a given director's filmography, all at the expense of those poor, obscure hacks who only wrote the damn pictures.”

He's right. Aside from Charlie Kaufman, I find it difficult to think of any writers whose work excites mention among the press or my friends in the same way a director would. Who says “Have you heard about Steve Zaillian's latest movie?” You might if you knew he's credited for writing Schindler's List, The Falcon and the Snowman, Gangs of New York, and Searching for Bobby Fischer....

Kipen's beef is not so much with directors, but with the institutionalization of the idea that directors are the dominant creative force in film. In fact, he duly acknowledges the collaborative effort of filmmaking, as critics of auteurism have always done, but wants to put writers - schreibers in Yiddish, the mother tongue of many of America's first screenwriters - back into the spotlight they deserve.

I'd take Kipen's argument -- and Bud Parr's commentary on it -- a step further. The irony of the movie industry is that while it is so culturally powerful, it has such a capacity to diminish the creative power of the individuals involved in it. The plight of the screenwriter is a good illustration of this.

People with the ambition to become film-makers often find themselves in a situation where they have to compromise so much in order to get a project green-lighted, that the "auteur option" ends up receding endlessly from one's grasp. This despite the central place that movies occupy within our culture as a whole. But then, it's all perfectly logical: the cost of making a movie is so high that of course compromises have to be made.

In the publishing industry, a different economic dynamic is at work: because sales of literary fiction in particular are shrinking, the problem faced by the writer is not the cost involved in making a book (expensive, but nowhere near as prohibitive as a film), but the walls that publishers have built around themselves. Publishers these days have to perform an elaborate set of calculations in order to decide which "project" to green-light. PR people have gotten involved in editorial processes. Compared to screenwriters, the literary author finds him or herself involved in an cultural industry at the other end of the spectrum of mass popularity. The great irony is that both figures -- screenwriter and novel writer -- fight an endless battle against marginalization.

And, yep, therefore the point I keep hammering at: a need for new forms that merge the good points of each while sidestepping the really enormous costs of making a movie.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Screen-novel Manifesto 3: On Pure Originality and Synthesizing Originality

One reaction that I receive to the idea of a screenplay-novel is that it simply isn't very good; it's seen as a form of sell-out (ie. inherently Hollywoodesque) or not original (people have concocted the idea of multi-media books before, etc.)

Dealing with the second opinion first: When I came up with the idea of writing a novel in the form of a screenplay, I didn't do so because I thought I was being terribly original; after all, the foundation of the concept is the screenplay -- a form that has evolved over decades within the film industry itself. Screenplays don't exist to please audiences; they exist to please directors, producers, actors and crew. This explains their pared-down simplicity.

If you ever take the trouble to read a screenplay (you can find several net sites devoted to them), one experience you will probably have as a reader is to be surprised by how vivid they are. Of course, the screenplays posted online or, these days, published in book-form as marketing tie-ins to movies that have been released, are of movies that you may also have seen in a theater. It's arguable that this sense of vividness is an effect of the memory of the vividness of the movie and its images -- not the screenplay. In other words, if you've seen a movie then read the screenplay, of course you will imagine intense imagery ... you are simply remembering it, not inventing images or scenes as a novel-reader must do.

However, if you read a screenplay of a movie you haven't seen, chances are good you will still imagine rather intense imagery. This, at least, is my experience. When you consider it, it is a somewhat surprising psychological phenomenon; after all, the screenplays are written in a form of short-hand. They are extremely minimal where description is concerned. Detailed description still remains one of the fortes of the novel. Nevertheless, there it is: the screenplay "works". Whether you, as a reader as well as movie viewer, "know" this screenplay, it retains the ability to create a very compelling drama in your head.

Why is this? I think the answer is both simple and profound: we are now almost all of us citizens of a culture that is saturated in image-based media, and we have become so used to the movie as a means of expressing narrative that we are, in a sense, movie directors ourselves. Our imaginations have been cultivated this way. We make movies -- we do this instinctively, reactively. When presented with the form of a screenplay, we find it extraordinarily easy to translate that into a satisfying narrative experience in our minds.

Of course, the screenplay has to be good -- it has to work as a narrative. And this brings us to the first criticism of the idea of the screenplay novel: that it's tacky ... a form of sell-out.

There's nothing more inherently good or bad about screenplay-novels than there is about traditional novels; they are well-written or they aren't. For people who genuinely prefer reading traditional novels, there is no good reason to insist that they change their reading habits and embrace the idea of a screenplay novel.

But here's the 21st Century thing: novel readership is suffering. There is an immense malaise within the publishing industry, and it is worsening the atmosphere of literary production. Pity for a moment the poor MFA grad who has invested so much emotional energy into "honing craft" only to suddenly realize that all -- from Veddy Naipaul to the marketing sharpie at some publishing house who himself secretly can't stand reading -- are ganging up on the writer's dream. It's too much, really. It's just too damn depressing, this being-a-writer-in-the-post-literate-world thing.

The idea of the screenplay is clearly not an original idea. The idea of putting it into book form is not a new idea, either: these days, the public is becoming increasingly used to buying a screenplay as well as seeing a produced movie.

But the idea of writing a novel as a screenplay and unapologetically seizing upon the cultural energy of the first form while retaining the creative freedom of the latter is, as far as I know, new. One thing is for certain, there is still an enormous amount of resistence to the concept of marrying the two concepts. If the idea does not possess the radical originality of inventing an utterly unique form, it does possess synthesizing originality.

It is also worth noting -- in fact, it is crucial to note -- that the screenplay-novel is not merely some screenplay that never got produced and so is thrown out into the public arena as an attempt for a frustrated cinema-type to generate a little income; the screenplay novel only uses the format of the screenplay -- it still follows the more complicated narrative rules of the traditional novel: greater development of character, more lengthy dialogue and progression of emotion and plot. The screenplay novel is not identical to the screenplay. It is its own form.

Perhaps it's time that the agenting and publishing industries started taking this idea more seriously. It's not meant to replace the traditional novel; it is only meant to be
a form that might appeal to an audience of readers who can appreciate intelligent, uncompromising narrative, but would prefer it as something similar to a movie ... similar to a screenplay.

The crisis that currently exists in the publishing industry is very real. This is true for many types of writing, but is especially true for literary fiction. Countless good writers, editors and agents are slowly having their hearts broken as work that they care about deeply is ignored and shunted aside by a public that is not only buying fewer and fewer literary novels, but also buying a narrower range of them. It's time for the literary publishing industry to consider a little more experimentation. This is already happening with graphic novels. Why can't it happen with the screenplay-novel, too?

Monday, February 13, 2006

interns, triage, and the deeply ill patient

Incidentally, on the topic of injustices of the publishing world, the following from Book Face is worth a look. The argument is simple: publishers -- ever-eager to manage the overwhelming volume of material they supposedly receive (what? they'd prefer too few submissions?) hire armies of underpaid, but, unfortunately, callow and inexperienced interns to sift through their slush piles.

Interns are cruel, and despite their lack of life experience, knowledge of literature, and business sense, most manuscripts sent to literary agencies or publishing houses are rejected by them. The fact that 20-year-olds are used to separate the chaff from the wheat could be moderately upsetting to a writer twice their age, if only they knew. Well I'm here to tell you. There are too many writers, too many manuscripts, so they use college kids who get wasted in a double room in a dormitory on Thursday night and maybe get lucky and put the little scrunchy on the door and then stay up late talking about what it's like, man, growing up in an affluent suburb where people just don't understand you (!) -- then wake up for their internship and pass judgment like they are the supreme literary authority.

I'm not sure I buy the argument in its entirety -- my own experience is that the major publishers deal with new submissions by not dealing with them at all: they've downloaded that task to agents ... a group that, although they vary in quality and sometimes are excellent, have a depressing tendency to define literature according to standards even more shallow than those of the hapless interns. The situation has become somewhat analogous to a hospital emergency room where the security guard is the one making the initial decisions about who "really needs" attention.

But in any case, h
opefully an interesting comments thread will develop at that site.

Survey says

Thomas at The Anatomy of Melancholy has been kind enough to mention this site, as has Michael Allen at Grumpy Old Bookman. Therefore, seeing that I have not reached total narcosis in terms of blogobscurity, I am going to ask for a little feedback in terms of this site itself.

Michael Allen had several comments to make of the constructive criticism sort. There was commentary on the idea behind the site, but also its look. In terms of the idea: this is a debate I'll deal with at more length in a future post. In trems of the site's look, perhaps the most glaring mistake on the page was the weird coding for the excerpt I posted from my screen-novel The Runner. Don't know how that happened. Computers are an eternal mystery to me, and the truth is they frequently make me break down in frustrated sobs and/or screams. Posting English language on Korean software doesn't seem to help, though I'm not sure why. (Something about conflicting software and not the language itself, I'm sure.)

I chose an "arty" template for the site.... We sophisticates laaaaahhv black, dontchya know? But the fact of the matter is, I like that black background. Easier on the eyes (I've got an old VDT monitor.) Others seem to feel the opposite. It's too hard to read, they find.

Well, what do you think? Many years ago, I worked at a survey company. (That's how far back Thomas and I go, incidentally.) So, I'm looking for input, people! Yes, I realize that a survey based on the one or two people who visit this site might be, ah, statistically questionable. ("80% of the respondents like the "minima black" template, within a margin of error of, oh -- all the respondents"). However, the numbers aren't the point. Just tell me what you think. But of course, as always, keep it polite.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

It's a man's world but a woman's house

Some time in the 1980s the idea that men don't read fiction -- specifically, literary fiction -- took hold in major publishing houses. It's an idea that has grown deep roots, and, for those with some knowledge of the inner workings of the publishing world, it's pretty much accepted as gospel.

The debate these days isn't so much over whether the generalization is true, despite the fact that it's imperative to remember it is a generalization. It's also imperative to underline that what I'm talking about here isn't the percentage of male or female writers who are published, or the inequities in the publishing industry at large, such as its increasing ageism and looksism. These are very interesting topics, too, but for another posting.

Instead, what's at issue here is the fact that the demographics of the sales of literary novels consistently reflect that significantly more women buy and read novels than men do. (For evidence of this, read a piece by Ian McEwan. It's a few months old, but still very timely.) This is just a reality of the book-buying market. The more interesting questions, though, are why this has happened, and the degree to which the industry may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Given the tenor of our times, the most popular explanation for men's relative lack of interest in literary novels is genetic. Men and women's brains are different, the reasoning goes. Men are better at spatial reasoning, women better at verbal reasoning. Men are interested in facts. Women are interested in relationships. So it is, that novels, with their emphasis on the minutae of emotional interchange, have more interest for the latter.

These beliefs have been reinforced by study after study. We may ask questions about some of the presumptions of these studies -- for example, a recent one of male vs. female behaviour on the Internet repeated the idea men liked "facts" ... and then included the male fascination with porn as evidence of this. Well, I guess porn is a fact of a sort....

These ideas seem so undeniably true to most of us that we don't really question them. But here's the thing: if men are genetically predisposed to prefer not reading fiction, then why was this not the case for the several centuries when literature existed but was a realm of endeavor dominated by men? (See countless academic articles from the 1970s to 1990s that question the male-centric quality of the canon.) The predominant answer to this question has always been feminist: society was patriarchal, so of course men dominated in literature, just as they did in all else. Still, the answer leaves other, more subtle questions: were all those men -- who, recall, are genetically designed to prefer activities other than novel-reading -- just faking it? Were they bossing their way around the pages of the culture more for the pleasure of feeling like they ruled the roost than out of any heartfelt passion for literary culture itself?

The answer to these questions is obviously no. Men who wrote, publishing and criticized literary fiction were as passionately engaged with the form as any human can be. Their only failing was the aforementioned patriarchy, which led them at times to exclude or diminish the work of women.

So the question remains: What about now? If men once loved literature, why has the idea that they don't -- in fact, that they can't -- taken such a firm root?

Why do many people in publishing nowadays believe men are not interested in literary fiction?