Aren’t Television Shows Just Short Stories for People Who Don’t Want to Read?

Many of my bookworm friends tell me they dislike reading short stories.  They claim short stories are too slight, not enough plot and character, to waste their reading time on.  Okay, I can buy that.  But isn’t a 22 minute episode of The Big Bang Theory just a short story?  Isn’t a 47 minute episode of Nashville, merely a novelette?  I’m currently listening to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James that runs 24 hours.  Most current TV shows have a season of 24 episodes.  So if they were collected as an audiobook, the entire season of 30 and 60 minute shows would still be shorter than one literary novel.  Doesn’t that sound like an anthology of stories?

In other words, don’t people still really love the short story?  Some people like to read, others to listen, but most love to watch!  Don’t most of us crave two or three stories a day?

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At one time the short story was very popular in America.  There were hundreds of short story only magazines for sale at newsstands, and some writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald were paid big bucks for a single story.  Even when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, most women’s and men’s magazines would contain at least couple short stories. 

Why did people stop reading short stories?  Why did they fall out of favor?  The obvious answer is they haven’t.  Pulp magazines just mutated into television shows.

How long have humans needed a daily diet of fiction?  Aren’t short stories just oral story telling in mass production?

It seems pretty logical to think folks just switched from reading a thirty minute story to watching one.  It’s also easy to assume that the half hour show is the short story, the hour show the novelette, and the movie is the novella.  But if we look deeper, I think there are some other concepts to consider, most notably the continuing character, the series, and the genre subject focus.

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At the beginning of the 20th century most magazines, even pulp magazines, were general purpose magazines for readers of all ages of both sexes.  But as the century progressed publishers created specialty subject magazines, some devoted to single characters, that catered to particularly reading tastes, and demographics.

If you read the latest volume of Best American Short Stories 2013, the annual anthology that collects the best of literary short fiction, you don’t see stories involving a continuing character, a series, or can easily be pigeon-holed into a micro-genre.  Now there are plenty of genre magazines devoted to the short story that do regularly publish this type of story, but their content seldom gets picked for the annual Best American Short Story collection.  For the last 50-75 years, publishers seem to be zeroing in on the continuing character novel, so that most mystery novels, and many science fiction and fantasy books, are now about popular characters involved in a series of adventures.  Doesn’t that sound like television?

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Television supplanted the pulp magazine, and is now inspiring how many writers write their books.  What happened to the slice of life short story, and the great American novel?  Writers prefer to develop a character and setting they stick to, like those in television shows.  It’s easier to sell, and sells better.

The best literary short stories are tiny slices of life, unique views of humanity.  Most novels from the early history of book publishing were always stand-alone tales, just longer slices of life, with highly detailed unique views.  In the early days of television there were many drama shows that featured a different story and cast of characters each week, the most famous at the time was Playhouse 90, but probably the most famous still somewhat seen via streaming, is The Twilight Zone.

The unique slice of life story was quickly supplanted by the continuing character show.  But that had already started in pulp magazines before the age of television.  I’m curious who the first continuing character was?  Sir John Falstaff appeared in three plays by Shakespeare.  And how many stories did Sherlock Holmes appear in?  Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer appeared in several books, and readers wouldn’t let Louisa May Alcott stop writing about Jo March.  If Louisa was alive and writing today, the March sisters would be a television series.

It seems most people love short stories, about favorite characters, in a setting and subject of particular interest to them.  Other people like stories stretched into novels.  While I love continuing character stories on TV, I avoid them in novels.  But I still love short, unique, slice-of-life stories, either written or dramatized.  I wonder why most people don’t.  I’ve been re-watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone, and some of them are very powerful.

Burgess-Meredith-Time-Enough-at-Last 

However, my brain quickly forgets them, or most of them.  In over fifty years I’ve never forgotten Henry Bemis, or the pig nose people.  If I had only seen one episode of The Big Bang Theory in my life, would I still remember it?  Maybe it’s memorable because I’ve stuck with it for seven years.  Apparently we crave long term relationships with our fictional friends.

Memorable novels are like short intense love affairs we never forget.  By that standard, it seems most people would rather have long term friendships.

JWH – 1/17/14

8 Responses

  1. Funny you should make such an observation. I have my students in ENG 101 analyze a reality tv show in the context of short fiction. One of the major points of the unit is the reason these shows are so appealing is because they mirror traditional storytelling with the added bonus of real people. They are easier and generally quicker to consume than traditional text. However, the episodes can be viewed as chapters or short stories.

    • Now there’s an interesting idea. I wonder if other types of shows lend themselves to a narrative structure? And reality shows are strongly character based. I watch Survivor with friends, and we talk about the contestants as if they were characters, and the show as if it had a plot because of their scheming.

      • I think you are right…. TV has supplanted the reading of short stories… remember 30′s 40′s magazines had short short stories mixed in with the news…. Of course the mini series is always better than the half hour show… Connell

  2. If I was you, I wouldn’t start my writing career trying to write short stories. It’s a very difficult genre. There you must be witty, design a good plot, create some good characters, and manage it all in rather few words. Tricky!
    I would start attempting to write a sequel to something (fan fiction, if you like). Much easier when you have some ready made characters, world to inhabit and most of the background.
    You will find that just consistently making the characters speak differently (rude, feminine, smart, boring, etc.) is not so easy.
    I have tried :)

  3. Short stories should appeal to younger readers, those who are addicted to technology, because they don’t require the same level of commitment. My 18 year old son has just started reading novels again four years after he stopped. Interesting piece James, and I agree about sitcoms being like short stories in length but not in nature. I’ve also noted the trend towards novel series, where the same characters go through different, though often not very different, situations. CSI is an example of that type of television show. If I invented Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter or James Bond, I would probably keep telling stories about those characters too.

  4. Reblogged this on Potent Pen Perusal and commented:
    TV vs. Books – love the concept Mr. Harris writes here –

  5. I actually think that some television is becoming more like novels, with series such as The Wire or Deadwood creating long narratives in weekly chapters. To me a film is more akin to a short story in its content, dipping briefly into the lives of a group of people, then moving on.

    • That’s why I prefer for novels to be adapted by HBO than for the movies. Can you imagine each volume of Game of Thrones as a 2 hour movie? Each season of Breaking Bad was like another novel in a series.

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