Thin on story … thick with introspection

The [new Great Gatsby] film won’t come close the power of the novel, but not simply because Gatsby is a book, and, as the cliché insists, the Book is Always Better Than The Movie. Film versions of Fitzgerald’s masterwork inevitably fail because of the kind of novel Gatsby is—frankly thin on story, but incredibly thick with introspection, thoughts unspoken, intricately woven metaphor, and long, dazzling descriptions of otherwise mundane things like sunsets, front lawns and angry wives that are only special because of how the narrator describes them.

Not every book is better than the movie, after all. … [Fight Club and The Godfather] made such good movies because their plots are visual and action-packed. Gatsby‘s plot isn’t. … The novel’s genius is in how Fitzgerald can invest mere tabloid fodder with some sort of epic grandeur. He delves deeply into his character’s thoughts, Nick’s semi-omnipotent narration describing motives and sensations that simply don’t translate well to the screen.

Movies, for all their scope and power, and for all the CGI/3D technological whiz-bangery, have never been any good at expressing human thought.

Hampton Stevens

This is something I’ve often thought about / discussed before. How I often enjoy movies (or TV series) based on books I didn’t like (or know I wouldn’t like, based on past experience). And of course part of it is that good actors turn stock characters into nuanced ones  and similarly, that good cinematography can turn bland descriptions of place into stunning visuals. But part of it is also this, i.e. that some material is more suited to film than books and some material is more suited to books than film. Anyhow, what I was wondering is if this can be related to ebooks vs. pbooks. As in ebooks are perhaps more suited to plot-based reads, books where the story is more important than the writing (how the story is told). Books where you can be a little distracted and it doesn’t really matter. And correspondingly, pbooks are perhaps more suited to character-based reads, books where how the story is told is more important than the plot. Books that require undivided attention, where all the benefits of ebooks and ereaders would not actually be beneficial. As in, the pbook is better suited for this kind of reading than any ebook (with accompanying distractions) because this kind of book was developed for the pbook. Whereas the plot-based story has been around forever and is easily transferable from one medium to the next—but is perhaps best-suited to media other than the pbook.

Further, while plot-based stories have universal appeal (I don’t mean that everyone likes every story, but that everyone likes some plot-based stories), writing-based stories do not. Writing-based stories have always had a smaller audience. It’s a niche market.

So I think one of the reasons the “death of the book” argument seems to go round and round in circles is that you have two groups of readers and two groups of writers who think they’re discussing the same thing, but really aren’t. When every story was packaged in a pbook, they were all booklovers and it was all good. But now, with choice of medium, the divisions start to create this content/format clash. For example, I think this is why you get people saying stuff like content is what matters; format is irrelevant. By “content” they’re thinking of the story, the plot, which could be told in any medium. But to a writer/reader who leans toward writing-based stories, this makes no sense. To them, of course it’s important where the words appear on the page, what typeface is used, whether Britishisms have been Americanized, etc. Because it’s about the writing… as an art, I guess. As opposed to a craft. Yes, I guess you could think of it like that: art vs. craft.

I tried to start a discussion about this at TC once but it didn’t go so well. I think I was misunderstood. It’s not about one style being better than the other. They’re different. One has a wider appeal; one has a narrower appeal. But there are always going to be plot-driven stories that appeal to those who generally like character-driven ones and vice versa. Just like classical music vs. pop. Or modern art vs. Etsy crafts. Both have their merits and it is totally possible to find both appealing (but probably for different reasons). Both require skill, but different kinds of skills.

If you think about modern art, for example, when people look at a piece, they often say, “I could have done that.” But that’s the key: they didn’t. The execution of the piece may not have required a great deal of skill, but the skill is in the idea, the concept, the meaning of the piece. On the other hand, a craft might not have a “big idea” behind it, but it can nevertheless require a lot of technical skill to execute. The artist needs to continually be coming up with new ideas (i.e. “wow, where did that come from?” ideas). The crafter needs to be able to replicate (or riff off) successful pieces. They’re different, but (done well) neither are easy.

I think you have to start from that point, that both kinds of story can be good (and also: both can be terrible) in order to even have a discussion where people are actually listening to each other and not just shouting that the other is elitist or dumb or covering their ears and going, “lalala I can’t hear you.”