Thursday, September 11, 2008

Idea Anniversary

It has now been a little over three years since I started my first site, The Screenplay-novel Manifestos. As the site's name suggests, what I wanted to do was promote the idea of the screenplay-novel: a novel written in the form of a screenplay but retaining the depth -- the accretion of detail, the slow but artistically necessary build-up of event, dialogue and characterization -- that makes the novel a singular narrative form. As well, it seemed to me that traditional novels had become too top-heavy with what I like to refer to as "stuff writing" -- the literary equivalent of the stuff painting that was considered obligatory in court and salon art until the end of the 19th Century, and that, while pleasing to the eye (a certain kind of eye; or perhaps the eye in a certain frame of mind), was swept away as unnecessary by Impressionism, a mode of painting that possesses a vigourous and intelligent species of minimalism.

I didn't have to blog on the subject of the screenplay-novel. Even when I started that first site, the activity of blogging was already the centre of a 21st Century kulturkampf, with certain writers (often representing institutional interests) eager to denounce the unevenness and occasional amateurishness of any wholly democratic medium. But blogging was easy ... easy to start up, at least. It was a genuinely new mode of expression using a new form of technology, and its capacity to be instantaneous -- its push-button publishing, as the little promotional doohicky on my Blogger page says -- was both a blessing and a curse. That phrase, push-button publishing, possesses a degree of profundity, because that is, literally, what one is doing; one is presenting written or visual work to the world, and it is, in its availability, truly published, even if the Internet does not yet provide any serious workable model (that I know of) to make any money from what appears on it. (For those of us without independent incomes, this is a, ah, not inconsequential problem.) However, that didn't seem relevant at the time, because I had a new idea that came to me in a flash and I wanted to publicly stake a claim on it.

I live in South Korea, and published screenplays are very popular here. They are sold in bookstores as movie tie-ins, obviously, but are also used as educational tools; since the spoken English employed by cinema can be of a particularly difficult kind -- filled with idioms and method-acting mumblingness -- published scripts are necessary for non-native speakers to make sense of them. My wife had a book of this kind lying around the house, Kurt Leudtke's script for Out of Africa. I'd already been toying with the idea of writing short stories in script form, but then I thought, why not write an entire book this way? At the time, I thought the concept of the screenplay-novel was so original yet so necessary that it would only be a short matter of time before the larger world started paying attention.

As those whose creative work (whether intellectual or creative) appears online already know, it isn't quite that simple. Push-button technologies lead to push-button attention spans and push-button discardability. No one was all that enamoured by the idea of the screenplay because no one except a very small audience was reading my blog. And it turned out there were other precursors of the screenplay-novel. These weren't really what I was doing. Two were labelled by their authors "screen-novels"*, and one of them, by the screenwriter Darrian Scott Cole (entitled "The Priest of Sales") was a screenplay written in novel form -- the opposite of what I wanted to do. Another, "The Lost Woman", by Rick Ferreira, was a screenplay which was published. It retained the minimalism of the screenplay as an existent artistic form but did not build on it. (Ferreira's book, which can be purchased online, has an average word-count of 100 words a page and a little over 170 pages, giving it an approximate word-count of 17,000, compared to the minimal word-count of a novel intended for adult audiences, 50,000.)

Then there were writers whose work wasn't registering with English-language audiences because they weren't writing in English. For example, a writer from France named Claude Chounlasane, was kind enough to mention my site as an inspiration for a "scenaroman" he was working on -- a work available at his site of the same name. (Chounlasane, in turn, distinguishes between the qualities of the screenplay-novel and the scenaroman.) And finally, there was work by writers who were incorporating screenplays into larger, conventionally written narratives. One example that was mentioned to me by a fellow writer (Gordon Sellar) was Michael Turner, whose "American Whiskey Bar" is a screenplay-within-a-novel. (I haven't read the book yet, but I saw a live television production of the screenplay's script on City television in Toronto.) Sellar mentioned the Turner comparison because he, Sellar, had seen Turner at a reading at which Turner mentioned no one had ever written fiction in this form before. Turner's pride in breaking new ground is understandable; many if not most artists want to be seen as the creators of things that are utterly new. This impulse has its sources, as just said, in pride, and also is sourced in the economy of contemporary canon-formation -- newness is a currency; it can be interpreted, using the crass discourse of ad-speak, as a way of branding oneself. (This eagerness -- almost a fever at times -- to be perceived as doing new work is particularly prevalent in the visual arts, where the dominant ideology for several decades now has been that of an institutionalized avant-garde; I mention this not to approve of or condemn the contemporary art scene, but simply to observe that newness itself can become both goal and fetish. This dual characteristic is perhaps a little more pronounced in the larger galleries of contemporary art in Seoul, which industriously add big names, primarily from New York and London, to their collections, than in North American galleries, where newness for-its-own-sake-by-big-names is now viewed with some skepticism. The tragedy for some contemporary Korean artists is their work, which is often just as fine as that from the West (sometimes better) can be shouldered aside and ignored, until they, too, go to the stadiums of Art Fame Accrual, and carve out reputations of their own in the gladiatorial combat that takes place on a weekend-basis in Soho, Tribeca, the Bowery and the East End.)

Newness is not an inherently virtuous quality. But it is a necessary quality when the old way of doing things has become dysfunctional. And this, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments in favour of the screenplay-novel: in a time when people are turning away from reading, the novel, for the sake of its own survival, needs to develop new narrative strategies. The decline in reading among the population at large is a statistical fact borne out on a daily basis by subjective observation. Its causes are a little more complex than the explanations that are commonly given. Usually TV and something called "digital technology" are blamed. I have yet to see a serious discussion of whether one reason why people read less fiction these days is because ... a lot of it isn't especially good. The screenplay-novel is an artistic strategy for cutting through the heavy fabric and tonnages of verbal silk -- the stuff writing -- which weigh a lot of contemporary novels down. It is also a way of holding the attention of readers who have become acculturated to the language of movies. It's worth noting that any writer, no matter how obscure, needs an audience. It is not the audience's size which is as important as its enthusiasm. Art forms which cannot acquire genuine audiences whither as certainly as plants without water. The metaphor is almost palpable in its description of cause-and-effect. It is snobbery of the worst kind to insist that great art can be created over the course of a entire career without thought for its audience.

But the screenplay-novel, as I envision it, has another aspect as well. It is a way of making the novel more visual. This can be accomplished through its use of language. At this point, the strengths of the conventional novel also must be mentioned: good writing is by its very nature "visual" when it is not musical (another virtue of fine language). The arts have an interplay, and good writing in conventional novels has to be visual in some of its effects just as good writing must remain a self-conscious artistic aim
in screenplay-novels; screenplays that are written for actual production are not only very short, but they tend to use a language which does not even possess the power of minimalism well-written (think Carver or Hemingway). Instead, actual screenplays are all too often hobbled by language that is lazy, even ugly, writing. The screenplay-novel has to avoid this. (Tad Friend once profiled a well-established screenplay writer whose success was founded on a writing style that was so militantly cloying it was vomit-inducing: it included lines of this type: "And then she takes his hand. And holds it. Looking at him. Longingly." This isn't writing, or even, as Capote called it, typing. It's a form of imbecilizing.) So the screenplay-novel allows the writer to minimize, to reduce, stuff writing. However, it must never descend to crap writing. Its usage of language to create visual effects must always retain its source in the same artistic labour that all good writers engage in.

And, of course, the visual can be accomplished through the use of ... the visual. Screenplay-novels are a form of narrative that can integrated very effectively with visual art. This art can be in the form of "stills" -- photographs taken from the screenplay-novel, which, in turn, is a movie that only exists in the studio of the mind. Or this art can be in the form of drawings -- "storyboards" -- that create a hybrid form that owes a considerable debt to comics.

I started blogging on screenplay-fiction three years ago. Since that time, I have continued going to book stores as often as I ever did (a lot). (And perhaps it's worth mentioning here that my wife and I don't currently own a TV and I've watched very little TV over the past twenty years; this would be neither here nor there, except that the antagonism which is sometimes directed toward the mere suggestion of writing novels in the form of screenplay-novels is often is based, I think, on the knee-jerk presumption that this is a polluting idea only a TV-addict could dream up.) And I have surfed the literary sites of the blogosphere, the small-mag-o-sphere, the e-book-sphere, and even though I have come across examples of screenplay-inspired fiction writing such as the ones mentioned above, I have yet to see work that is quite like what I am doing at this site.

This is an idea with parallel ideas. The screenplay-novel is similar to the screen-novel, but it is written with different aims. It is intended to be a novel; not a screenplay with literary language, nor a screenplay that is published in book form. It also has its progenitors: writers who use screenplay-like scenes within larger, traditional narratives. It even has a fairly significant sources in the satirical "screenplay shorts" of Mad magazine and Monty Python. In the end, though, it is not quite like anything that is, as yet, found elsewhere. It is a new idea, and I write that claim with the knowledge that its worth as an idea will ultimately be not merely be in its newness, but the artistic calibre of each particular screenplay-novel. In other words, the screenplay-novel is a form that deserves to be given a chance within the larger world of literary creation . But its success or failure will be as it should with any novel: its worth as a work of art.

*It's worth noting I originally thought of calling my idea the screen-novel as well, but decided against this when I realized the term had already been taken and meant something different from what I intended to do.


  1. Jacob Russell3:18 pm

    Great minds and all that... I love the screen play form and have thought using it for a long poem. when I was having difficulty pulling my first novel (The Magic Slate) together, I finished as a screenplay--a way to find the bones in the soup, and I have a number of chapters in The Magic Slate in modified screen play format.

  2. Jacob Russell3:24 pm

    I have one of those screen format chapters on my blog: Magic Slate: the movie.