Literary Chat

What is there to watch on television these days? No literary talk shows, that is for sure. So I turn to the evening news. There is a murder, followed by a calamity on the freeway, and then an ad for this and then another for that, and then several more before, it’s back to the news.

There is a war, there is a rebellion, and then there’s an ad (“Talk to your doctor.”) and then several more of them. Then there is more on the war, horrible scenes of death and destruction, and then there’s a flood and a fire and then the collapse of a bridge and the collapse of a marriage. And then more ads (“Ask your doctor.”)

But there is nothing about the poetry written that day or the symphony that excited the matinee crowd or the forthcoming literary festival in Memphis or the movie festival down the way and nothing about the new novel that is exciting the public and lo and behold, also the critics. Obviously they are not as newsworthy as a fire, flood, lost child, or serial murderer on the loose.

What is one to do? The other day I read a long article by Vanina Marsot about the literary talk shows on French TV. I was bowled over by their number and variety; I counted at least eight (8) that she described. In one way or another they are modeled after what Marsot calls “the golden age of Bernard Pivot and his legendary Apostrophes.”

There are the shorts (2)— two to five minute author interviews, or a passage from one of their books, or a short biographical sketch. Then there are the longs (6) that involve a range of formats—hour long literary discussions with a single or a group of writers or critics, some interspersed with biographical films, some with a studio audience. Others consist of more general conversations about literature or cultural issues. Debates are the format of one, another is designed for high school students who are invited to question an author.

Marsot wonders if people are watching these television shows and if so how many. No one seems to care, the ratings are irrelevant. Discussing literature is sufficient. “But maybe their very existence makes the most French of points: literature, and by extension and association, philosophy, journalism, and the arts, are important and are to maintained, period.” Please, put me on the next flight to Paris.

Still Marsot confesses she “often found her patience tried while watching the long programs, but I have to wonder how much of that is about my TV viewing has been trained by our infotainment culture, as opposed to the content of the shows themselves. Concentration is required…” We all know what has happened to that.

And then in a brilliant psychological insight she concludes, “In retrospect, I feel more fondly about my experience of watching them than I did while actually watching them, which may speak to the notion that having knowledge may be more agreeable that acquiring it.” However, I don’t think this reflects anything about the programs themselves.

Rather is it not often a feature of any human experience? Traveling can often be a tedious experience until you come back home and realize wandering around all those musty museums and steep hill towns of Italy was the best trip you ever had. Or that terrible statistics course you took from that boring old professor at 8 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a lab at 8 on Saturday is, on reflection, the most useful academic experience you ever had.

Do literary talk shows have any future in this country? At least one is about to give it a try. Known as Amateur Thursdays, its producers say it will be a five minute segment with writers that will be posted each week on its website. “We want to make a show as mesmerizing and fun as reading is to us.” I truly wish them well. But I wouldn’t bet the family jewels on its success given the recent history of Titlepage, a similar Web-based book discussion group that was dropped after only a few episodes were shown.