The first time someone asked me if my novel, “Talent,” had “screen potential,” I was living in Los Angeles. I thought the question was a quirk of the place—a city where most writers are screenwriters and lots of people are paid to read novels instrumentally, with an eye to adaptation. So I laughed and said something to the effect of “you tell me.” My novel contains footnotes and the rambling notebook entries of a made-up author; it does not contain meet-cute sex or much in the way of nonverbal excitement. How’s that for an elevator pitch?
But the Hollywood lens was not specific to Hollywood. I’m from New York, home of the publishing industry, and I now live in Washington, D.C., which is distinctly not L.A. In both of those cities, I’ve had people ask me if I’ve “sold the screen rights” or if I wrote the novel because I “hope to write for television.” When I insist that Netflix is not my goal, my questioners seem skeptical. Surely, they nudge, I’m secretly hoping that some studio or other will option the novel. Undoubtedly, they imply, my hidden desire is for a film agent to set me up with a script-doctoring gig. Better yet, this agent might help me sell a pilot to NBC.
“Do you have anyone in mind to play the lead?”
My inquisitors have the best intentions, I’m sure. The early readers who said that the novel would “make a good movie” were probably casting about for a compliment. They didn’t quite know what to say about my odd little project, so they went for what sounded, to them, like the highest praise possible: This book is so good that it doesn’t have to be a book!
Their logic unsettles me. I grew up in the nineties, a time when New Yorkers thought Los Angeles was a ridiculous place and would brag that they didn’t own a television. Even though my family did own one—and I watched quite a lot of it—books had a different, loftier status, and bookish people went around smugly with their tote bags and unexamined cultural authority. I’m confident that Donna Tartt was not asked at parties if she’d written her début as a way to get on Hollywood’s radar. “ ‘The Secret History’ . . . catchy name for a series!”
When I was a bookish teen-ager, I thought the best thing I could do as an adult was to write a novel. As an adult, I continued to believe that the best thing I could do is to write a novel. That aspiration has always been a bit silly, I concede, both unambitious (other people fantasize about the Presidency or going to outer space) and selfish (teachers and doctors actually help people). Still, I never imagined that, if I achieved my dream, it would be perceived as less than—less than Hollywood.
Of course, I understand the dynamics behind that perception. There’s money to be made in the screen arts but not so much in the literary arts. Few people read fiction every week, but many people watch fiction every day. The children of those television-mocking intellectuals have now grown up; they’re more likely to swoon over “Game of Thrones” than the winner of the latest National Book Award for Fiction. With rare exceptions, literature does not take center stage in the cultural conversation. And those exceptions, with remarkable frequency, are the result of adaptations. Catch the series on HBO, then maybe consider reading it. That’s the way we live now.
I understand, too, that some novelists do dream of Hollywood. A number of contemporary novels, moreover, would indeed make good movies: those taut, realist dramas that prioritize character development, or, on the other end of the spectrum, range-y fantasies with twisty plots and battle scenes. Sometimes the conversion to the screen is all too easy to see, as if the novel were just a way station on the road to Hollywood. All of which raises an uncomfortable question: Why bother to write a novel at all? Why not just skip that step altogether?
I don’t begrudge any writer her chance at the kind of audience that the screen can provide. Yet I am left wondering about the future for myself, and for others like me, the unadaptable, who grew up under the delusion that the best thing they could do with their lives was to write a novel.