In my last post, on a trilogy of novellas, I talked about how I thought the serial format–the need for three short plot arcs–might have crowded out some of the world- and relationship-building, and my mixed feelings about the trend of serialization in romance fiction generally. Often it seems largely designed to boost buzz and raise the price of a novel rather than to experiment with a different narrative form.
Well, I read a couple of things today that made me rethink, or at least refocus, these points. The first was The Toast‘s announcement of a Middlemarch/My Life in Middlemarch book club, which will be a serial discussion of sections of the novel (tweeted by Rohan Maitzen, who developed her own Middlemarch for Book Clubs site). The second was Ruthie Knox’s post on writing a romance serial. Knox reminds readers that serially-published Victorian novels were often read aloud, the whole family listening and commenting. She suggests that today’s serial reading (fanfiction, sites like Wattpad) is similarly a social activity, and that’s part of what people enjoy about it. The other thing they like is anticipation, something we also enjoy in the serial story-telling of television:
serial fiction has its own built-in payoffs — payoffs we’re more familiar with from TV than from fiction. It insists that we take time to speculate, and it encourages us to speculate together. What will he do next? we ask each other. Did you notice that she hasn’t told us what happened to so-and-so yet?
I can’t wait for Monday, we say to our friends. This is going to be so great.
Both of these posts reminded me of what I love about serial, social reading, rather than why I’m suspicious of it.
I Miss Shared Anticipation for a Story
I pretty much don’t watch TV anymore, and when I do, it’s on Netflix. Not because I’m a TV snob but because I make my work schedule flexible by doing some in the evenings, and then there are three soccer practices a week, etc. etc. But I used to love group watching with friends. In grad school we had a weekly get-together for 90210 and Melrose Place (we needed a break from the highbrow). We’d dissect, speculate, criticize, applaud, but most of all look forward to our weekly time together. I miss doing that. I miss feeling “I can’t wait to see what will happen next!” Anticipation, as Carly Simon knew, is a special kind of pleasure.
But Actually, I Do Social, Serial Reading All the Time (Doh!)
You know, at work. In the classroom. I just never thought of it that way. One reason we assign a novel in chunks over 2-3 weeks is so as not to overburden students. But another is because it allows us to discuss the slow unfolding of plot, characters, and theme, to watch how our reactions change over the course of a book, to go back and reconsider what we said and thought at the beginning once we get to the end. This kind of reading is immensely rewarding and fun (to me, anyway), especially if done in a group. When I tried to read Middlemarch in sections and blog about it all on my own, I fizzled out after a post or two. Reading with others can keep up interest and energy in a big project. Maybe I’ll read along with The Toast.
Serialization Can Be Partly For Buzz/Sales and Still Be Good
Because, you know, Dickens was trying to hook readers on his stories and sell more numbers of Household Words. And obviously TV series are full of tricks to keep us watching week after week–cliffhangers, Very Special Episodes, guest appearances. These things can feel purely manipulative when they don’t work very well, but done right, we enjoy them. We know the story-teller is manipulating our emotions, but we surrender to it because it’s fun, because these are emotions we want to have and to share with others. We are along for the ride. (In a similar way, Knox’s post was obviously written to generate interest in her serial, but it still had interesting things to say about the pleasures of serial reading/viewing, and the reasons it won’t work for some readers).
Some Kinds of Serial, Social Reading Are Not For Me
I have no interest in a social experience that the creator is part of, joining the discussion or just hovering in the background. That does seem primarily meant to generate buzz and fannish (in the sense of uncritical squee) enthusiasm, rather than thoughtful engagement. Fan engagement can, of course, be critical: the desire for “more” that fan fiction responds to can be a desire for “more of the same goodness,” but it can also be a desire to fill in a perceived lack in the canon, the feeling that the original work offered “not enough” of something. Since I don’t have first-hand experience with fandom, I’m not sure whether people post critical comments on others’ fanfic–that is, about each other’s creations. But I’m thinking people reading, say, a Ruthie Knox book posted serially on Wattpad are not likely to start making critical comments on it (though I could be wrong). And that’s fine–I wouldn’t either, in such a situation. But it’s also why I didn’t go there to read it.
I’m interested in some kind of serial-reading book club, whether what we read was serially published or not. Although reading a serial together as it comes out would be cool. Except like many of you, I’m sick of hype and promo and don’t want to feel I’m adding to the noise. So I hope you’ll weigh in with your thoughts about this.