July 9, 2018
Literary writers are pivoting to television
by Michael Seidlinger
How often do you find yourself binging a TV show instead of watching a movie? The answer varies, but it used to be far more one-sided. The current golden age of television owes much to streaming services like Netflix. But as Joy Press reveals at Vanity Fair, it’s the popularity of the format that’s galvanizing the interest of literary writers who might never have given television, as a creative medium, the time of day.
Television used to be surface — it was dubbed the “small screen,” mere fodder for unwinding after a stressful workday. Turn off your brain and tune in. From sitcoms to daytime soaps, crime procedurals to made-for-TV movies. Not even a decade ago, writers were shy to advertise their involvement with the boob tube. But now, it’s big money, a new wild west for creativity, with writers seeing their work come alive in a more consumable, bingeable storytelling form. The days of the “small screen” are no longer.
Hate to say it, but you’re more likely to hear people talking about Queer Eye or Killing Eve than what might be fresh at the box office. The urgency of the medium is plain as day. If you ever doubted it, now’s the time to take it back: literary writers are jumping ship, finding solace in writers’ rooms everywhere. Truly, it’s continuously exciting to see names pop up in the credits.
Amelia Gray, author of weird and utterly original fiction, her latest, a novel about the life of Isadora Duncan, has made the move to television, first as part of USA’s Mr. Robot and later with the Netflix series, Maniac, written by the literary writer, Patrick Somerville, and starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. “Working as a novelist means you are the god of the story,” but writing for television does afford collaboration and creativity, novelists note the major differences between mediums. Does this become a limitation, be it creative or technical?
Nick Antosca, author of numerous small press novels, seems to think it’s the opposite. Producers want creativity, they want the weird. There’s a need for creativity to fuel a writing room. “You need more writers with a willingness to experiment, more points of view.” Antosca is most known for his role as showrunner for Syfy’s Channel Zero.
It makes sense to hear of writers being successfully courted by the world of television. We’ve seen a shift in the talking points of a book being optioned; it used to be “film adaptation” as the coveted end-all and be-all for a book’s success; however, nowadays we’re seeing the term “adaptation” moving more into the world of the Netflix series, the time and care of having an entire season or two cultivated from a novel’s innermost ideas.
The industry is booming and seeking talent and content. When you hear of Netflix touting the advent of over 700 new shows, the era is very much here and booming. But enough about how television is the “new hotness,” so to speak. Perhaps what’s most central to any writer’s drive to tell stories is to, you know, have them enjoyed and discussed by readers (and viewers) everywhere. A literary writer is like any other in that the labor of love is still a labor made in hopes of finding an audience.
Television is where everyone’s watching. “Wow, people really care,” Gray says, in response to the discovery of message boards full of fans for Mr. Robot. This is the dream, front and center. What more could you want than to be in the minds and in the voice of popular culture? Think about it: every novelist becomes giddy at the thought of someone taking their book off a shelf, interested in its contents; the same could be said about someone adding your show to their watchlist. So, what’s on yours? With so many options, so much excitement staring back at you, perhaps the most important question of all is: What are you binging now?
Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.