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Did "The Sopranos" succeed at the expense of novelists?

July 5, 2007 |  1:09 pm

Brits opening up the Guardian’s book pages today will find an interesting piece by John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, about the decline of American culture and the displacement of books by other forms of media.

Certainly not a new subject for an essay, of course, but this time the argument is framed in response to the enormous success of HBO’s "The Sopranos." The series, Freeman writes, has been praised in lavish terms once reserved for novels, and its creator, David Chase, has been called "the Dickens of our time." This troubles him. He writes that readers are being stolen by a medium that "does the imagining; our eyes need only follow." Too many things compete for the public’s attention, he argues (rightly), and the time required to revel in a novelist’s vision just doesn’t fit into most people’s calendars anymore. So it’s no wonder that the series captivated many people who once would have spent their evenings reading Philip Roth or Norman Mailer.

Even though much is familiar in these arguments, I don’t mind reading another lament over the state of American readership; in fact, I agree with Freeman (who has written for us on occasion) on several points: How often have I heard people say they just don’t have time to read books and, what’s more, don’t care? But "The Sopranos" is hardly in the same category as TV entertainment that creates easy images and does the thinking for mindless viewers. Freeman doesn’t exactly say that, but he blurs the distinctions. The widespread debate over the meaning of the show’s final scene, of course, won’t be resolved anytime soon (unless Chase has mercy on us all and one day explains what he had in mind). Throughout the series, there are elusive scenes that prompt a "What just happened?" response and an analytical effort--worthy of Harold Bloom--to figure it out. Freeman writes that "the screen is destroying the page"; I understand why he believes this, and I feel somewhat the same way--but then I remember all those dreadful three-decker novels that stole readership from the Victorian greats, who managed to survive nonetheless.

Freeman’s piece is wonderfully insightful on why "The Sopranos" appealed to so many of us. Check it out. His evaluation is one more indication that Chase has raised the bar on storytelling and reminded writers that they can’t take their audiences for granted.

Nick Owchar