Binges, stories, and audience

I wish I could recall where I first saw the idea that reading a Victorian novel is really binge-reading, since many were first published in serial form. I’d like to “unpack” this idea (as they say) by comparing literature and television.

Amber Regis, of the University of Sheffield, counters the idea that Netflix is today’s version of Victorian serial stories. Victorian readers couldn’t binge; sometimes Dickens himself didn’t know what would happen in the next installment.

So one needs to go back to television in the 1950s and 60s, and comic strips even earlier, to experience Victorian serialization.

When I was a kid, there were comics I never read, because I didn’t know what had happened before (Mary Worth and Prince Valiant come to mind). Some television programs, like soap operas, were so inherently episodic that to miss an installment was to get hopelessly behind. Those with discrete episodes (Star Trek, Twilight Zone) were the short stories of the genre, and were self-contained.

Today’s scholars, at least those interested in story-telling, could likely explain to me the creative impact of knowing that binging will occur. When Netflix releases a whole series at once, surely the writers are aware of this and create the story accordingly. Quite a few (Riverdale comes to mind) continue with the cliff-hanger habits of serial episodes, but there is an awareness that the whole series may be viewed in bulk. We no longer need to remember whether that starship had a particular capability from last year’s episode — we can go back and see. This must make it hard for writers to change things. Perhaps that’s why serial shows like Riverdale and The Bodyguard have taken to killing off central characters, just to create surprise. Bodyguard creator Jed Mercurio even referenced the old TV shows:

“I remember watching TV as a kid and, whenever there was some sort of jeopardy involving the hero, I could reassure myself that they were what I’d call a ‘can’t-die’ character, so everything would be OK. Even though you’d just seen a completely crazed Mr Spock strangle Captain Kirk to death [in Star Trek], you’d know that a few minutes later there would be some bizarre twist involving the timespace continuum and Kirk would be alive on the Starship Enterprise.”

Can’t-die characters, of course, do die in novels (for which I will never forgive George Eliot, although she certainly wasn’t alone). I remember crying when I first read Little Women. But here the killing off of main characters is, I think, connected to the problem of the 21st century serial program. But, as with Victorian authors, the creators of the works make the decision to do this (except, perhaps, for a grumpy Arthur Conan Doyle, who was forced by the public to revive Sherlock Holmes).

In reading Victorian novels that were serialized, however, we are defying the intentions of the creator of the work. I am currently listening to the Librivox audio book of Dickens’ Hard Times (beautifully read by Librivox volunteer Phil Benson). It is the version that appeared in 20 installments in Household Words in 1854. I didn’t know this when I downloaded it, but it has turned out to be a good mode because I listen to it on my morning walk, which takes about 25-30 minutes. The result is that I’m getting the work in approximately the way it was intended.

So why is any of this important? To me it has to do with the “white space”, or thinking time, of the reader between episodes.

Truly episodic or serialized stories assume that space exists between the installments. This space could be used in several ways: to think about the previous episode, to form judgements, to talk to others about the story. I recall people watching Days of Our Lives before calling each other on the phone to discuss it, hallway conversations at school about last night’s episode of Dallas, even DJs on the radio mentioning a recent M*A*S*H episode.

Such processing space would be assumed by the author of a serialized story (and in the case of those writing as they go along, perhaps even necessary to the story itself). So when we binge-watch a series on Netflix that was not intended to be seen together, or when we read a book in novel form that was never intended to be read as a book, to what extent is the viewer/reader changing the work itself?

Binge-watching means that the “consumer” of a story is impacting the story, but surely this isn’t new. Even when people read the whole novel Hard Times, it’s unlikely they do it at one sitting. That’s what bookmarks are for (the tangible kind, not the web kind). Books are written not knowing when the reader will pause. Television used to be more predictable: the show was 7-8pm on Thursday, so that’s when everyone was watching. Networks are currently trying to create a similar experience, even in a market with so many options.

So perhaps Netflix’s series are inherently more like a novel than a serialized story. Viewers can binge, but they can also “bookmark” whenever they want, pause and have a meal, or take two weeks off, or not finish at all. Perhaps there’s no need to experiment with book publication in response to Netflix binges, or make comparisons between the two eras, or write scholarly articles on the revival of the serial novel. But we should consider the white space: is it good? is it necessary? is it social?

In today’s theoretical constructs, objects (like books or programs) are often given a sort of “agency” — scholars focus as much these days on how objects create “causes” as they do on how the objects reflect social, political, or economic trends. We know that novels and programs have an impact on people. It’s likely that the reaction to a work also influences it, particularly with serials. If people were begging Dickens not to hurt Little Nell, and Doyle not to leave Holmes dead, then the “audience” influences the work that follows. (Of course, if George R.R. Martin is right, it doesn’t always.)

Media scholars probably spend a lot of time studying the interplay between the media and the audience, and I suspect that’s a lot of fun (after all, I’m doing it now instead of writing about H.G. Wells or planning my spring courses).  Even though I’m exploring Victorian periodical study at the moment, I don’t know much about the interplay of text and audience, but I’m certainly interested.

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