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What a Novel Can Do That Film and TV Can't (Plus, Win a Free Copy of Office Girl!)

Award-winning author Joe Meno (Hairstyles of the Damned) explores the differences of what a novel can do that other narrative forms—such as film, television, stages plays, video games—can’t or don’t necessarily seemed suited for. PLUS: Win a copy of his latest novel, Office Girl. Click through to learn more.

This guest column on The Writer's Dig is from award-winning author Joe Meno (Office Girl).

Over the last decade or so, I’ve begun to think hard about the differences between the novel as a narrative form and other story contemporary mediums. Through my various novels, I’ve begun exploring what a novel can do that other narrative forms—film, television, stages plays, video games—can’t or don’t necessarily seemed suited for.

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Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is a winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and was a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the author of five novels and two short story collections including Hairstyles of the Damned, The Boy Detective Fails, and Demons in the Spring. His latest novel, Office Girl, is in stores now. His short fiction has been published in One Story, McSweeney’s and broadcast on NPR. He is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.

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GIVEAWAY: Joe is excited to give away a free copy of his new novel, Office Girl, to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. CONTEST HAS ENDED. WINNER IS smrtlbstr87!

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The first obvious difference is language—the ability to explore the dramatic possibilities of single words and words used in succession, the exquisite, the vulgar rhythm and sounds of human speech as presented on the page in small black marks. For centuries now, prose writers have exploited this important difference, though to be fair, the stage play and even a few films and TV shows have a highly developed sense of language. HBO’s The Wire or Deadwood are pretty amazing examples of scriptwriters borrowing from the poetry of prose.

There’s also a large difference between the novel and these other narrative forms when it comes to form and inter-textuality. Most novels are built from various prose forms—scenes, letters, script forms, notes, how-to’s—which don’t quite translate to film, television, or the stage play. Hearing a character read a letter out loud is not quite the same as reading the letter yourself as the prose reader. There’s also something incredibly appealing to me about the juxtaposition of all these forms physically—the look of a letter on the page, the look of a scientific abstract—that is almost impossible to capture in these other mediums.

Then there’s the issue of scale; I think a novel has a different sense of scale than film or TV or even stage plays, because all of these forms rely on a somewhat similar kind of dramatic intensity. In films, we typically see large-scale dramatic events—epic human struggles that have to be resolved within one hundred and twenty minutes. Dramatic TV shows and stage plays are also similar in that the kinds of conflicts they tackle are usually pretty intense, while at the same time limited by the length an episode or stage play can run.

Novels seem to work in an entirely different way. They are not limited by length of time, which means the dramatic events in novels can be more complex, more detailed, more sustained. It seems a number of esteemed contemporary literary novels make use of that specific breadth and scale, traversing multiple eras and introducing multiple characters. If anything, it seems like the novels of the 21st century has more in common with the novels 18th or 19th centuries, the only difference being that contemporary novels seem to reflect our current polyglot culture, weaving in tangential scientific, historical, economical information: a book as encyclopedia or book as internet browser.

But this predisposition towards bigger, more complex novels, novels filled with more and more information, ignores another interesting dramatic possibility in terms of scale. Unlike film, unlike television, unlike the dramatic play, a novel can focus on the narrow confines of a particular relationship, it can create an intimacy between reader and characters in a way almost no other narrative medium can. Maybe it’s because a novel is not actually finished until the reader the words and actively imagines their meanings, where as films, television, even stage plays don’t actually need an audience. They can still function and exist whether or not anyone is watching. But a book needs a reader to be completed, and this dependency builds a unique sense of understanding between the reader and the characters. Also, unlike these other narrative forms, which are often more communal, novels demand to be read alone.

So it seems the novels is perfectly suited not just to telling the most complicated, the most expansive stories, but also the most focused, the most quiet, the most intimate as well. Yet there are very few contemporary examples of authors exploring this particular possibility. Everyone seems to be excited about the vastness, the elaborate, the largess of the novel, both in page length and scale.

After thinking about these ideas for the a few years, I decided to try to build a novel, employing these various novelistic ideas—the heightened use of language, the possibility of multiple forms, and a narrative focus devoted solely to two characters and their singular relationship. The resulting book, Office Girl, follows two young people in their twenties during a few weeks in the winter of 1999 who decide to start their own short-lived art movement. It also contains text, drawings, photographs, a zine, and other artworks that the two young people, Odile and Jack, create during the course of their relationship. I tried to use these various visual elements to capture Odile and Jack’s developing connection. Whether the book succeeds or not, I feel like the attempt—the intention of trying to take advantage of what a contemporary novel can do that other narrative forms can’t—is one of the ways in which the novel will continue to grow, develop, and sustain itself in this latest period of narrative uncertainty. Instead of building novels to be more like other narrative forms, I think using the novel to do what it only truly can do may actually help the form to endure.

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