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We am a camera.

Why have I got it in for the novel? Because it has been shifted away from life, whatever, as Wittgenstein put it, is the case, these last fifty years. Circumstances have imposed this shift. It is not the novelists’ fault. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was at one remove from life. But since the advent of film and television and sound recording it is at two removes. The novel is now generally about things and events which the other forms of art describe better.

All the purely visual and aural sequences in the modern novel are a bore, both to read and to write. People’s physical appearance, their movements, their sounds, places, moods of places—the camera and the microphone enregister these twenty times better than the typewriter. If the novel is to survive it must one day narrow its field to what other systems of recording can’t record. I say “one day” because the reading public still isn’t very aware of what I call mischanneling—that is, using the wrong art form to express or convey what you mean.

In other words, to write a novel in 1964 is to be neurotically aware of trespassing, especially on the domain of the cinema. Of course, very few of us ever get the chance to express ourselves on film. (Having one’s book filmed is equivalent to having a luxury illustrated edition; it is not expressing oneself on film.) So over the novel today hangs a faute de mieux. All of us under forty write cinematically; our imaginations, constantly fed on films, “shoot” scenes, and we write descriptions of what has been shot. So for us a lot of novel writing is, or seems like, the tedious translating of an unmade and never-to-be-made film into words.

—“I Write Therefore I Am,” John Fowles

A charge that all of us who sell film rights have to answer is that we wrote our books with this end in view. What has to be distinguished here is the legitimate and illegitimate influence of the cinema on the novel. I saw my first film when I was six; I supposed I’ve seen on average—and discounting television—a film a week ever since; let’s say some two and a half thousand films up to now. How can so frequently repeated an experience not have indelibly stamped itself on the mode of imagination? At one time I analyzed my dreams in detail; again and again I recalled purely cinematic effects: panning shots, close shots, tracking, jump cuts, and the rest. In short, this mode of imagining is far too deep in me to eradicate—and not only in me, but in all my generation.

This doesn’t mean we have surrendered to the cinema. I don’t share the general pessimism about the so-called decline of the novel and its present status as a minority cult. Except for a brief period in the nineteenth century, when a literate majority and a lack of other means of entertainment coincided, it has always been a minority cult.

One has in fact only to do a film script to realize how inalienably in possession of a still-vast domain the novel is; how countless the forms of human experience only to be described in and by it. There is too an essential difference in the quality of image evoked by the two media. The cinematic visual image is virtually the same for all who see it; it stamps out personal imagination, the response from individual visual memory. A sentence or paragraph in a novel will evoke a different image in each reader. This necessary cooperation between writer and reader—the one to suggest, the other to make concrete—is a privilege of verbal form; and the cinema can never usurp it.

Nor is that all. Here (the opening four paragraphs of a novel) is a flagrant bit of writing for the cinema. The man has obviously spent too much time on film scripts and can now think only of his movie sale.

The temperature is in the nineties, and the boulevard is absolutely empty.

Lower down, the inky water of a canal reaches in a straight line. Midway between two locks is a barge filled with timber. On the bank, two rows of barrels.

Beyond the canal, between houses separated by workyards, a huge, cloudless, tropical sky. Under the throbbing sun, white facades, slate roofs, and granite quays hurt the eyes. An obscure distant murmur rises in the hot air. All seems drugged by the Sunday peace and the sadness of summer days.

Two men appear.

It first appeared on March 25, 1881. The writer’s name is Flaubert. All I have done to his novel Bouvard et Pecuchet is to transpose its past historic into the present.

—“Notes on an Unfinished Novel,” John Fowles

There’s more; enough to make me want to go back to A Maggot, especially since it wasn’t because I wasn’t liking it that I ended up putting it down. —I’m not saying I agree, mind, but I don’t disagree; Fowles is appealingly cranky, and here I am at the end of a long day thinking about Scott McCloud’s point that comics as a source of Saturday-morning glee no matter how well done face an uphill battle against the goshwow that movies (and videogames) can supply today that they couldn’t in the far-off Golden and Silver Ages, and I’m not saying I agree with that, either, but I don’t disagree, which is I think what I mean when I say “I’m thinking.” I mean, I’m thinking of other stuff, too. Anyway. Wormholes: my current commuter book.

  1. c.baldwin    May 5, 06:37 PM    #
    It's funny how little difference i feel between in cinema and comics when I'm working on my graphic novel, but otherwise it is very absent in both my writing and comic strip. With bruno it's rare when suddenly i say "oh hey, throw in a splash spot, isn't that nice" and blow it out of the water. otherwise it's about uncinematic as can be imagined. My writing, almost more-so. My first novel was clunky with everything in that regard, all just talkies.

    Of course my next novel, which I've been pondering, is all metaphors and lush language, while at the same time aspiring to the minimalist reporting style of Hemingway.

    Hrm. have I lost the string? Either way, nice post, got me thinking.

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