The Competition

Continuing the CoR's Film&Fiction Weeks, I've finally found a pretext to liken James Joyce to a football coach. It was about time!

Why did the arts modernize in the early years of the 20th century? “In or about December 1910, human nature changed” is the hypothesis submitted by Virginia Woolfe. Focusing on literature, Michael Blowhard offers a more plausible view (emphasis in original):
The impact of movies on literary fiction. Not just as in what your English prof told you -- simultaneity, cinematic cutting, all that. But also in more down-to-earth terms, as in, "Good lord, now that movies are here, what are we gonna sell???" Movies after all offer an attractive, compact, intense, and accessible fiction-package that includes story, performers, visuals, and music. How can on-the-page fiction, mere ink and paper, compete? The response of certain writers to the advent of movies was to try selling something else entirely -- to abandon narrative and character in the conventional sense, and to try selling structure, pyrotechnics, experimentation, vision, poetry, whatever. The birth of movies, in other words, helped kick off Modernist literary writing.
I’d never thought of that one. Which is surprising because I’ve long been aware of an analogous explanation for why painting modernized: The impact of photography. If photography is simply better at representing stuff, painters must find something else to do. But there are differences between the two comparisons. With the very notable exception of colour, early 20th century photography simply blew anything painters could do in terms of representation out of the water. This is not true with respect to the films-literature comparison.

In “My Three Stoges” Tom Wolfe lists four strenghts of the realistic novel:

1. The scene-by-scene narration of the story

2. The use of realistic dialogue

3. The representation of a character’s inner thoughts and feelings, enabling the reader to “see through someone else’s eyes”

4. The use of “status details”, allowing the novelist to convey to the reader a character’s rank in society

With respect to the first two strenghts, Wolfe says (and I agree), film clearly has an advantage as you really see those scenes and hear the dialogue spoken (the latter being only true from the 1920s onwards). With respect to status details, Wolfe thinks that films tend to overdo it and suffer from their lack of ability to explain stuff.

But the elephant in the room is obviously #3. Although films do use techniques to represent a character’s thoughts, such as voice-over, these are considered “unfilmic” and shouldn’t be overdone. (Apparently a friend of overgeneralizations, screenwriter Syd Field said that plays are about what people say, films are about what people do and novels are about what people think.)

In other words, whereas photography made realistic paintings almost superfluous, this is not at all true of movies and novels. Two points:

1. To an extent, modernist writing can be seen as an attempt to capitalize on the strenghts of the novel relative to film: Ulysses and To the Lighthouse are almost all inner thoughts and feelings. In this view, Joyce is remindful of a football coach who has many tall players at his disposal and tells them to hoof lots of high balls into the box when playing against a team of midgets.

2. I earlier hypothesized that the larger the audience an artist has to cater for, the lower the rate of innovation will be. This explains why in painting (one buyer) there was a much stronger movement towards being original than in ficition (ideally, millions of buyers). A complementary explanation is that for novelists there was less pressure from the competition.

Human nature, I think, has nothing to do with it.

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