Which is better: novels or television? On Feb. 20, Kenyon students, faculty and community members gathered in the Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater to watch a live-recorded podcast debate this oft-discussed question. Their argument centered around the novel High Fidelity written by Nick Hornby along with a Hulu adaptation which flips the gender of its protagonist.
Two podcast teams of Kenyon alumni joined forces for this event: Margaret Willison ’07, Kathryn Van Arendonk ’07 and Andrew Cunningham ’08, the hosts of the podcast Appointment Television, as well as the hosts of Overdue, Cunningham and Craig Getting ’08.
High Fidelity is the story of Rob Flemming, a mid-30s man who works at a record store in London. He makes “desert-island top-five lists” for seemingly everything: from his favorite and least favorite things to the awful things he has done to people in relationships. In an interview, Hornby explained Rob makes these lists due to, “a male impulse of controlling and investigating your emotional response to things.” In this way, Rob focuses on the misery in his life rather than the choices he made to contribute towards it.
“It’s striking how much maleness is central to Rob’s understanding of himself,” Willison said. Despite this, Willison also said that she found herself identifying with him. This surprised her, as it rejected the book’s implication that only men could feel these emotions.
Willison felt the TV adaptation validated her feelings as “these things that are presented as exclusively male are actually ways that any person can be dumb and emotionally messed-up.” The TV show explored this through the flawed female version of Rob. Van Arendonk mentioned one episode in which one of the supporting characters had his own backstory episode. The viewers learned important events in his life they could not discern from Rob’s point of view, demonstrating Rob’s single-minded, completely egocentric view of the world.
“TV has this capacity to do this stand-alone episode and then come back without spoiling some bigger arc of the season,” Van Arendon said.
The panelists then moved beyond High Fidelity to debate the merits of Kenyon alumni in the fields of novels vs. television.
The novel side, led by Cunningham and Getting, first mentioned Laura Hillenbrand ’89, who wrote Seabiscuit: An American Legend as well as Unbroken. Both books spent months at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list and were adapted for the screen. Next on their list was Bill Watterson ’80, who wrote one of the most popular comics of all time, Calvin and Hobbes. Lastly, they mentioned John Green ’00 who wrote The Fault in Our Stars and has a successful Youtube channel.
The TV side chose Josh Radnor ’96 from How I Met Your Mother and Allison Janney ’82 from The West Wing and Mom. Willison explained that both actors brought their characters to life with “Kenyon intelligence and verve.” Thirdly, they mentioned fellow alumnus Jonathan Winters ’50, an important actor in 50s television as well as the first person to be filmed on color television.
After they were done presenting their arguments, the audience applauded for their favorite side: Television, they decided, was superior.
This event was many attendees’ first experience listening to a podcast. However, a few students mentioned they had previous experience with podcasts. Amanda Waterstone ’23 said she listened to “one on Spotify about creepy stories … strange behaviors.” The event did not sway her much in the debate between novels and television.
“I still like both equally,” she said. Others felt differently. Valerie Kakos ’23 said that she “still preferred books.” However, she felt that “the discussion was beneficial, as it let me see both sides of the argument in a broader way.” She also felt it showed her “exciting Kenyon alumni success stories in both fields.” Kenyon students may find their experiences prepare them for similar successes, whether in novels, television or even, potentially, podcasts.