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Thomas Sutcliffe

Thomas Sutcliffe: No, TV is not the novel of today

The BBC's controller of fiction, Jane Tranter, picked a good week in which to suggest that television had supplanted the role of the novel in addressing the big social issues of the day, an argument she made in a speech to the Royal Television Society on Monday night. Not very long after she finished speaking, BBC One began transmitting Criminal Justice, Peter Moffat's ambitious five-part series about a young man who finds himself on remand for murder after a one-night stand goes badly wrong. And if the essential subject matter here wasn't startlingly original, the manner of its transmission was – stripped through every night of the week so that those hooked by the excellent opening episode didn't have to wait too long for their next fix. There have been weeks in which Tranter's jab at the established cultural hierarchies could have looked a bit unsubstantiated – but in this one, at least, she was solidly backed up by the Radio Times.

And in one respect her contention seems to me to be undeniably true. The 19th century novel – which was her main point of comparison – was that century's dominant form of narrative entertainment, easily eclipsing any other art form with regard to what television professionals call "audience reach". What's more the audience was a great deal more varied than you might casually assume. Accounts of illiterate East Enders clubbing together to buy the latest instalment of a Dickens novel and having it read out to a rapt gathering provide evidence that the great novels of the period were water-cooler events. It's still true, of course, that reading novels isn't an exclusively elite activity but for most people on most days the drug of narrative is supplied by a box, not by a book. And that it can have the scope and the density of a big Victorian three-decker is also indisputable. I'm halfway through The Wire and its account of Baltimore crime and punishment gets richer with every episode.

What is far more debatable though is Tranter's suggestion that television is putting the novel into the shade as far as content goes. During her speech she name-checked some recent successes to press home the point that a drama cupboard that was bare as recently as 2000 was now a cornucopia of good things. Ashes to Ashes was mentioned, as was BBC Four's Curse of Comedy season, Criminal Justice and White Girl, a touching one-off about an English girl who takes refuge from her dysfunctional life by converting to Islam. "I could give you that list over and over again with different and equally potent examples for each channel," Tranter concluded. Well, I'd be interested to hear her do it, because I suspect that after a relatively short list of dramas it would become clear that certain kinds of narrative were massively over-represented and others were missing altogether. Even allowing for the extraordinary reach of the weekly soaps in covering topical subject matter, I would guess that the range of television drama is nothing like as unpredictable or inventive as the range of the contemporary novel.

The novels I've read just in the last few months include Ismail Kadare's The Siege, about a historical clash between Islam and Christianity, John Burnside's The Glister, a fantastical account of child abduction, Will Self's satire on liberal bad faith The Butt and Salman Rushdie's historical novel The Enchantress of Florence. They're by no means perfect, but they are distinctive in a way that much television drama currently isn't – and in that they represent a broad truth about the two forms that Tranter didn't quite acknowledge. Enter a contemporary bookshop and the palette of potential subjects and treatments is dizzyingly polychromatic; turn on the television and you will find that the crime fiction, romances and hospital stories take up most of the floor space.

There are simple reasons why this should be so. It takes pen and paper for Salman Rushdie to summon an epic spectacle of Mughal society which, if filmed, would swallow an insupportable chunk of the annual drama budget. And crime fiction, at its best, can be very good at sidling sideways and incorporating broader subjects. But it's still the case that if you want narrative invention it's harder to find it on television than in print. I haven't seen a story on television in the last six months that can touch Adam Thorpe's novel The Standing Pool in combining the verities of contemporary domestic life with a gripping thriller plot. Tranter is right to say that there's nothing inherently inferior about television drama – but for the moment its publishers are still playing far too safe.