A lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about TV’s influence on children. It’s something I’ve begun to be asked about as an author, and I know the answer I’m supposed to give. TV rots the brain and saps the imagination. It doesn’t stretch you or challenge you. It’s the enemy – to paraphrase Roald Dahl, we ought all to throw our TV sets away and install lovely bookshelves on our walls.
It’s a brilliant poem and it’s a heartfelt sentiment – but, for once, Roald and I have to disagree. To me, TV isn’t the enemy of books, or imagination, nor do I think that it ought to be banned from children’s homes.
Because I love TV. I’ve been an avid TV watcher since I was very young. Aged five, I was so obsessed that I used to sit and watch the test card before cartoons came on in the morning (remember the clown test card, children of the 1980s?) – and what pulled me to it, and kept me there, were the stories. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sonic the Hedgehog, Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers (and now you know exactly how old I am) – I watched every episode and used them as the starting point for my own bizarre and complex fantasy worlds. Aged six I spent about half my time as Princess Sally and half as Dick King-Smith’s Sophie, and I don’t know which I enjoyed more.
It was the TV shows I watched, rather than the books, that first inspired me to write my own responses. As a teenager, I spent days in my room watching Supernatural, Veronica Mars, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy and Stargate Atlantis. I read blog round-ups of each episode, I watched fan videos, I read fanfiction … and then I began to seriously write my own.
Before this point, I’d always struggled with writing stories. I was good at making up ideas and characters, but not great at what to do with them once I had them. I didn’t know how to spin a tale, and so all of my original fiction attempts died somewhere around Chapter 3. Fanfic changed all that. I realised I could take baby steps into plotting by mimicking the beats of an episode, or creating a story scenario that felt manageable and safe (X and Y go to the fair. Hijinks ensue! There are monsters). I could respond to prompts from other authors, collaborate, expand on someone else’s work – and my efforts were critiqued (both kindly and harshly) by my readers.
To any adult who observed me slouching out of my room at two in the afternoon, I probably looked like I was wasting my life. But adults worry too much. I went to university to study English (you’ve read Fangirl? I was Fangirl, except not famous), I joined the university paper (as the TV editor), and suddenly, when I thought about writing original fiction, the idea didn’t seem so impossible. After all, a book was just fanfic about your own characters.
I’m absolutely certain that without TV I wouldn’t be a published author today. I wouldn’t have had the technical ability to write Murder Most Unladylike, much less the courage to show it to anyone – television is a huge part of the reason why my books exist, and I think that you can still tell that I’m an author who’s been influenced by TV. I write very visually, I love writing dialogue and I think about story in a way that’s close to the beats all TV shows are based on. Writing a TV show is still one of my life’s ambitions – I think it’s important to remember that scripted TV is as much the product of a writer or writers as a novel, and as such it has real value. And to people who say that TV doesn’t give the viewer room to dream, I can’t agree. It’s only human to take a story and use your imagination to fill up the spaces around it, whether you view that story on a screen or read it in a book.
Because, ultimately, it’s stories that are important. People take Fahrenheit 451 as a great example of a book about how important books are, but its message is a lot more complex than that. Granger and the other exiles aren’t trying to preserve books, necessarily – what they’re trying to save are stories. Even when the books are burnt, their contents can live on if people remember and retell them – and I think that’s a wonderful way of thinking.
Of course, it’s important to have moderation in all things – it’s not really healthy to just watch TV, or just read books, or just do any one thing to the exclusion of all others. But I also think it’s foolish to assume that one medium is intrinsically worse than another. TV is as full of possibilities as the printed word, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t embrace that. Long live television!