Hemingway once said that to write, all one need do was “sit down and bleed.” When you open a book, you are opening a product of hundreds of hours of labor, of work and love and, if it is a good book, a tiny piece of the author’s world.
That is what a reader is expecting when she opens a novel. She expects to see hints of what another human being considers “truer than truth,” or of the magical world that was painted in another human mind to be transported across time and distance to her own imagination.
Books aren’t purely intellectual creations. They are a product of emotion, of fraught labor and love (except for James Patterson, but that’s a whole other blog post). And when they are great–as “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is–they produce a sort of emotional bargain, where the reader invests in the characters, the world, and the words perhaps even deeper than the author herself did.
So, when I open the novel “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” I am by nature engaging in an emotional exchange. I am agreeing to follow where the author leads me, knowing that I may get hurt, that I may fall in love. My relationship with the author-especially when talking about a book as long and demanding as this one–is invested with a whole pile of emotions. We tacitly agree that promises will be fulfilled, that questions will be answered.
But the relationship of an audience to a TV show is different. Firstly, it’s far more casual. A watcher is by nature less deeply engaged by a TV show than by a novel, simply because she is further removed. Things are happening on a screen, far away.
This means that it takes more for a TV show than for a book to tap into emotional responses. In a TV show, you will be dropped out of the story at the end of every hour. You will not create people in your mind; you will watch other people create yet third, nonexistent people. The actors must deliver the characters to your emotion.
So, the actors now have the role of the author in a novel. They must make the characters bleed, just as the author bleeds for the book. If they fail, the audience likely will not emotionally engage with any other aspects of the work. And the only way for an actor to engage an audience is to get the watcher to sympathize with the character. So what the audience needs in a TV show is immediate and deep emotional space for the actors to work in. If the actors do not show deep emotions, do not draw on the empathy of the audience, then the whole things falls apart.
This got really long. On Friday I examine Jonathan Strange in light of this theory about audiences and authors.