On a visit to New York, I meet an old novelist friend in a café in Greenwich Village. He's enthusing about Breaking Bad, the acclaimed American drama series about a chemistry teacher with lung cancer who, faced with prohibitive medical bills and an insecure future for his family, starts cooking illegal methamphetamine. My friend tells me TV drama has finally achieved the status of high art to rival the Victorian novel.
He suggests that Charles Dickens was the TV dramatist of his age. Being serialised in magazines such as Household Words brought Dickens' work to a mass readership. It also enabled readers to respond while the story was still taking shape, just as modern dramas are subject to constantly updated viewer ratings, reviews, blogs and fanzines.
But why is Breaking Bad the break-through drama, I ask him, the one that has elevated the form to Dickensian heights? He tells me it's because it achieves genuine artistic coherence. The Sopranos, though beautifully crafted episode by episode, under the pressure to generate fresh story lines while maintaining the essential dynamic on which its success depended, descended to the level of soap opera. Most original dramas are like this. Expensive to make, they have to be commercial products first and works of art second. And nobody knows if they're going to last one season or ten. Uniquely, Breaking Bad followed the logic of its opening premise, taking its characters through life-changing experiences, resolving dramatic instabilities by smashing through into even greater instabilities, and finally resolving into a single coherent narrative structure.
Suddenly my friend looks gloomy. 'So where does this leave us?' he asks me. 'What are novelists for, now?' I understand his concern. But television is the least of our worries. On the plane from London I was reading a piece by Will Self, arguing that the literary novel isn't dying, but only because it's already dead. In fact it's been walking around in a zombie state for three quarters of a century, ever since James Joyce took it as far as it could go, and beyond, in Finnegan's Wake. What does the future hold for serious fiction? In Self's view, within twenty years it will have been squeezed out of cultural significance by the distractions of social media and our addiction to instant information.
It's a bleak outlook. Leaving the café, I console myself with the thought that among anxieties about possible futures for the planet, the decline of the novel rates fairly low. I find myself outside the Strand bookstore, the biggest, longest surviving independent bookshop in Manhattan. Inside I find fiction prominently displayed, heaped on tables labelled Modern Classics, Just Arrived, and Best of the Best. I seem to be looking at all the novels I've ever read, all the novels I've ever thought of reading, and vast numbers of novels I've never heard of. It's a big scruffy space estimated to hold 2.5 million or 18 shelf-miles of books. It's crowded with young people. And they're all buying.
Joe Treasure is the author of two novels: “The Male Gaze” and “Besotted”, and teaches creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Read more of him at http://joetreasure.blogspot.co.uk/