Television and Literature

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Television and Literature

The spectacular growth of television in the latter half of the twentieth century has had a profound effect on the ways in which many people view "literature." Small screen adaptations of literary works ranging from the classics to contemporary genre fiction now appear alongside the standard television fare of sitcoms, soap operas, and hour-long dramas. Nevertheless, a tense détente still exists between proponents of television and those of literature, with purists from the latter camp often decrying the travesties inflicted upon the classics by TV producers hoping to package literary works for mass consumption in the electronic age. At the extreme, such critics see television as an "idiot box," a means to anesthetize the minds of the viewing audience by pandering to sensationalism, cheap melodrama, and vacuous humor. They view the industry as a corrupting influence, and produce compelling evidence that television has eroded literacy. Such commentators lament the processes of simplification and abridgment required by the temporal and financial considerations of adapting lengthy works of literature for television as processes that might compromise the work itself or the imaginative spirit of its author.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who see television as simply the chief medium of popular entertainment in the present era—akin to the stage in Shakespeare's England or the novel in the Victorian era. Such commentators tend to focus on the malleability of television as a medium, and consider its substantial possibilities for literary expression. They note that, in addition to offering its own genres (the sitcom and soap opera being the most easily recognizable), television has also proved a serviceable means to introduce younger generations to the literature of the past, from works of the popular detective/mystery, horror, and romance genres to the dramas of Shakespeare. It has also been successfully used as means of education for young people, a fact demonstrated by the broad selection of programming designed to both teach and entertain children. More recent critical works have surfaced that point to a broadened acceptance of television programming as a serious topic of literary inquiry, as scholars begin to apply the tools of literary critical interpretation to contemporary video "texts."