July is the month we say goodbye to writers who are aging out or moving on to new adventures, and this is Josh’s last post. Josh is a founding member of the post calvin, manages the technical end of the website and designs our anthologies, and has been writing with us since the very beginning in July 2013.
Around the time television sets became a staple of every American household, “serious writing” cut playwriting and its progeny out of the will. English curriculums at the university level ceded playwriting courses to the theater department. The emerging disciplines of film and television studies were claimed by the communications department without opposition, leaving aspiring auteurs to form alliances not with their bookish peers, but with the more pragmatic students aiming for careers in public relations, marketing, and human resources.
Since barred the heights of “important literature,” writing for film and television exists as a lower class of art. Movie scripts don’t belong in the canon. Television is vernacular at best, commercial at worst. Albert Camus’s The Stranger is highbrow, while Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver is low. George Orwell’s 1984 is prophetic; the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix is entertainment. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is serious; Donald Glover’s Atlanta is casual. A National Book Award shows sophistication, while an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay plays politics. Imagine what Great American Novel the Coen brothers could produce, if they only discarded the crutches of lights and cameras! As a joke that has since been quoted, pinned, and tweeted by thousands of literary gatekeepers, Groucho Marx said, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book.”
“Serious writing” today overlooks anything with a script, leaving The Crucible, Raisin in the Sun, and Death of a Salesmen on high school syllabi like dried seaweed on the shore—inconvenient reminders that Shakespeare’s plays first appeared outside of books; that Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, Langston Hughes, and countless others once crossed freely between the publishing house and the stage; and that Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Williams Faulkner all wrote for Hollywood. F. Scott Fitzgerald did, too, although his eighteen months as an MGM scriptwriter failed to impress the studio. Renowned filmmaker Billy Wilder defended Fitzgerald, comparing him to “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job”—a charitable and self-deprecating justification that reinforced the divide between Baz Luhrmann’s West Egg and Fitzgerald’s East Egg.
Screenwriters have done quite well in their exile. Cut off from the inheritance of literature and left to make their own fortune, they have created a sprawling body of storytelling that has achieved the same goals as “serious writing.” Whether judged by the standard of wisdom, activism, representation, verisimilitude, novelty, or exhilaration, the best writing for film and television keeps pace with the best of books.
“Humanity’s legacy of stories and storytelling is the most precious we have,” said Doris Lessing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. “All wisdom is in our stories and songs. A story is how we construct our experiences.” By this measure, what innate birthright—besides primogeniture—can novels claim that film cannot? In First Reformed, for instance, Paul Schrader dramatizes America’s evolving Christianity and its responses to climate change, a two-hour “serious” exploration of institutional wisdom (and folly). At the level of individual experience, cinematic storytelling more than holds its own with Bildungsromans like Moonlight and narrower stories like The Babadook, which uses horror to metaphorize the experience of postpartum depression.
If “serious writing” requires more agency than chronicling wisdom and experience, if, as Albert Camus said, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself,” screenwriting has also produced its share of prescience. Mr. Robot’s and Black Mirror’s dystopias warn of the dangers of data harvesting, online mob justice, megaconglomerate control, and other near-future horrors. Get Out addresses the black experience of white America. And for more than thirty years, The Simpsons’s 140 writers and co-writers have whispered critiques and prophecies as America’s working-class Tiresias. In apparent but faulty contradiction to the cartoon’s “lowbrow” form, more than a quarter of The Simpsons’s writers attended Harvard, the same alma mater of Henry James, John Updike, and Margaret Atwood.
But what about representation? Storytelling as the voice of the powerless, marginalized, and underrepresented? In his Nobel acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel said, “Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.” Despite a dearth of color in most writing rooms and #OscarsSoWhite at an institutional level, individual works screenwriting have centered the universe on the LGBTQ+ community with Dallas Buyer’s Club, on Black women in STEM with Hidden Figures, on the Korean lower class with Parasite.
If, on the contrary, great writing shouldn’t have an agenda, and if any moralism or ulterior motive dilutes a story’s purity, consider the marital intimacy depicted in Manchester by the Sea or Marriage Story. Or Lady Bird’s believable coming-of-age. Or Fleabag’s honest revelations about sex, trauma, and frustration. “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world,” said Susan Sontag. These writers pay attention.
But all these, by another measure, could be said to amount to little more than imitation. What if “serious writing” must break new ground? What if, as David Shields says, “to write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil”? Here, too, screenwriting delivers. In creating Coherence, James Ward Byrkit eschewed scripts and relied on improvisation and genuine reactions. Terrence Malick combined narrative minimalism and thematic maximalism in his experimental and poetic Tree of Life. Richard Linklater wrote Boyhood one year at a time as his actors aged, trusting in future epiphanies, contributions from the actors themselves, and a few pre-determined plot points to create a first-of-its-kind film that raked in awards and accolades.
A final standard of “great writing,” perhaps the most simple but the most subjective: by whatever means, and on whatever topic, does the story enthrall? “I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness,” said Alice Munro. “I want the reader to feel something is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.” From Alfred Hitchcock to Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan, screenwriters have proven their ability to captivate and delight.
That ability has not only produced “great writing,” but ubiquitous writing. America’s true pastime isn’t baseball; film and television fill the lives of Americans with little variance among age, race, sex, or class. In 2016, the average American watched 3.45 hours of television and/or movies daily—nearly a quarter of their waking hours (1). Reading, on the other hand, occupies significantly less of the calendar. Americans who read regularly average 1.48 hours each day with a book. However, only 19.5 percent of Americans identify as regular readers (3). These statistics should be held loosely; the metrics for television and film consumption don’t distinguish between stories, sports, or news, and self-reporting one’s use of time is, at best, prone to under- or over-exaggeration. But a general conclusion is clear: everyday America consumes far more from Hollywood and 30 Rockefeller Plaza than from Penguin Random House and The New Yorker.
This is not meant to reverse the flow of elitism and declare West Egg the only place worth living—even though by last year’s numbers, film’s new money outgrossed literature’s old money more than five to one (4). This is not meant to pit individual books and movies in dualistic, zero-sum matches. Good writing should be recognized as such wherever it appears. “Serious writing” does not belong to any single institution or medium, and the success of one story does not diminish that of another. Heart of Darkness is still serious. Apocalypse Now is, too.
And yet, without question, film and television have become the dominant art forms of twenty-first-century America. For the novel to improve, for ink-and-paper storytelling to stay relevant, for literature to tell today’s stories to today’s audience, it must look to the work of screenwriters. Not to mimic, acquiesce, or worship—but to learn from and collaborate with. Let universities build those long-neglected alliances between film students and aspiring novelists. Introduce television-style writer’s rooms to the process of planning a book. Celebrate and lean into the truly unique aspects of literary storytelling that the screen can’t replicate, and acknowledge and relinquish the book-based limitations that screenwriters have long since surpassed. The question isn’t whether films and television shows deserve the status of “serious writing”; it’s whether literature’s adjudication will continue to matter.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.