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Imagine, if you will, a society in which one form of entertainment has dominated the cultural scene for a few decades. It is extremely popular, but most people think it’s frivolous. Some worry that it might even be dangerous. At best, it seems to be turning lots of us into mindless addicts, so engrossed that we forget our more severe duties; at worst, it serves up troubling values which we absorb thoughtlessly, transformed into its docile dupes. Those who take this entertainment seriously charge that it is degrading the whole culture, its light, easy diversions pushing us to lose touch with more elevating and demanding art forms.
And yet, imagine that this entertainment has taken a turn, recently. In one or two sectors of the industry, a few makers have started to experiment with the form. They have offered long but artfully plotted serialized narratives. These grapple with weighty contemporary questions, often wittily, but also searchingly. They showcase new techniques for representing social ills and relations. They surprise and intrigue critics. For audiences who missed the original publication in serial installments, or for those who want to re-experience each story, the industry has bundled the parts together in volumes for purchase. A clever lending library has figured out how to circulate these volumes to a large and varied audience, allowing increasing numbers of people to sample the series for a small monthly or annual cost. On the margins, a number of intellectuals and artists are beginning to see these narratives as thrilling sites for artistic innovation, though most of the taste-makers are feeling nostalgic for an earlier, more thoughtful age.
This is a story of producers and consumers, form and content, market innovations and artistic originality. It is a story of a globalizing capitalist culture in the process of rapid change, torn between a sense of loss on the one hand, and a restless, exciting innovativeness on the other. It is a story of serious artists emerging out of popular culture, at once raising the status of low entertainment, and facing the challenges of working in a disparaged medium. It is the story of the Victorian novel. And it is the story of the new serial television.
But if there are striking similarities between these two forms, the jury is out about how to make sense of their correspondences. Is the new serial television the Victorian novel’s legitimate heir, carrying on its traditions of realist and reformist social understanding, borrowing its strategies, and even learning from its modes of circulation? Perhaps one of the founders of Netflix was influenced by an account of Mudie’s Circulating Library, dimly recalled from a college English class.  Certainly the plots and characters resonate across time. “Like the bulky tomes of Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton,” Thomas Doherty writes, series like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones “are thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty.” Doherty praises the new serial television on both aesthetic and political grounds: “exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel, where small gestures and table manners reveal the content of a character molded by convention, class, and culture.” From this perspective, television is now a medium of great value, drawing the richness, aesthetic depth and subtlety of the Victorian novel into our own time. But others have suggested, by contrast, that it makes more sense to see television series like The Wire and The Sopranos as the novel’s illegitimate heirs, drawing on the novel’s elite cultural status as a way of boosting its own cachet without in fact doing the novel justice. “Stop comparing the HBO series to Victorian novels, already!” pleads Salon’s Laura Miller, arguing that this is merely a way of “asserting the legitimacy of television dramas as . . . ‘timeless art.’” This troubling move works in the other direction too, as a cheap way of making the novel sexy and relevant. As an alternative to thinking about inheritance, then, perhaps we should understand both the novel and the new serial television in yet a third way, as responding to comparable social environments, their similarities emerging out of ongoing economic and political pressures that shaped Victorian England and continue to structure social and aesthetic possibilities in the United States today. Jennifer Hayward sees serialized narratives across the past century and a half as engaged in an ongoing struggle “to consolidate and hold a mass audience” (1). But perhaps too much emphasis on continuity, too, is problematic, given substantial differences in specific social context, production process, and form. Jason Mittell argues that “The Wire is a masterpiece of television, not a novel that happens to be televised, and thus should be understood, analyzed, and celebrated on its own medium’s terms.” Too great a stress on similarities might obscure crucial differences.
This special issue of RAVoN asks how and whether we should link the Victorian novel to the new serial television. All of its contributors begin from a shared starting point: we are all scholars who have immersed ourselves in the Victorian novel, its forms and genres, its contexts, its publication processes, its audiences, its political and social values, its blind spots and its extraordinary artfulness. We are also all scholars who have respect for the televisual, and treat television shows as serious art forms worthy of critical attention. And we share an urgent sense that it is important to get right how we connect then to now. What divides us, however, is precisely how we think one should approach historical difference and formal similarity.
Sean O’Sullivan and Susan David Bernstein invite us to move back and forth across historical time to consider the common operations of the most notable form shared by nineteenth-century novels and contemporary television: serialization. O’Sullivan makes the case that serial narratives have disappointed audiences both now and then because we have long assumed that these stories promise to end in “satisfaction.” But, in fact, the serial form yields precisely the opposite: the fragmentary, the partial, the incomplete, which, he claims, are actually “the defining elements of serial art.” Reading Middlemarch, Mad Men, Lost, and Great Expectations alongside responses to them, O’Sullivan suggests that we readers have never learned how to be dissatisfied. Bernstein argues, in a similar vein, for reading serialization across time. The stoppages of serial fiction, she suggests, lend themselves to processes that are crucially like those of psychoanalytic transference and countertransference, encouraging us to tack back and forth between the world of fiction and our own affective lives. “We blur characters in books with real people we meet in everyday life—often with unmistakable pleasure or with hostility, just like the ambivalence of ‘erotic’ and ‘negative’ transference Freud identifies,” Bernstein writes. Both Victorian and contemporary serial fictions urge us to pause to reflect on those transferential processes, using the enforced gaps in the serial to think about the movement back and forth between storyworld and our own affective lives. Reading George Eliot’s narratorial interjections alongside HBO’s In Treatment, Bernstein understands “realism as transference.” And, along the way, she suggests a method that itself enacts a kind of historical and theoretical transference and countertransference: Victorian fiction laid the groundwork for psychoanalytic practice and, in our own time, psychoanalysis has found its way back into realist fiction, each allowing us to read the other.
If the forms of serialization have made their way from then to now, it is intriguing—and disturbing—to learn that the politics of Victorian realism may also have stayed surprisingly intact across time. Amy M. King argues that NBC’s Friday Night Lights deliberately invokes a fictional place that is both recognizably local and metonymically national and so, like Cranford or Middlemarch, works to stabilize the nation as a whole. Thus the television show “replays both the Victorian novel of everyday life and the regional/provincial novel that flourished in the nineteenth century.” King makes the case that readers of Victorian fiction are especially well equipped to understand the politics of this contemporary series. Liz Maynes-Aminzade argues that the nineteenth-century novel invented brilliantly effective tactics for understanding socio-political relationships, and like King, suggests that the new serial television is shrewd to borrow from Victorian realism. Dickens, she claims, widened the scope of narrative to tie together characters so widely dispersed across the social world that they are unaware of their impact on one another. Through techniques of “macro-realism,” readers come to learn what characters do not—that our lives are intertwined with others’ even while we live in ignorance of those ties. “By revealing the depth of social interconnectedness,” Bleak House and its heirs—Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and The Wire—“radically engage the moral imagination.” My own essay considers a different realist technique, which I call “the shock of the banal,” a jolt of surprise that emerges, paradoxically, from a recognition of the routines of the everyday. Having experienced this shock in contemporary serial television—the murderous Tony Soprano’s struggles with the mundane details of suburban life, Mad Men’s images of children running blithely around in dry cleaner bags, and the turn to Roberts’ Rules of Order in the violent underworld of The Wire—I then realized that the novel had invented this technique, but that it is sometimes difficult to grasp from our historical distance. Reading Adam Bede, Bleak House, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I argue that realist narrative does its best political work when it makes daily routines seem strange, horrifying, or funny.
If the bulk of us cheer on the comparison between Victorian novels and contemporary serial television, two voices in this issue warn us not to be too quick to join them together. John Plotz cautions that the dominant and familiar aesthetic norms of our own time might so powerfully shape our readings of art works from the past that a superficial historical parallel then obscures important differences. Assuming the value of serial unfolding, for example, which we have learned to love from serial television, might prompt us to miss the particular force and texture of novels concerned with the single case, “the non-serial novel, let us say, by the same retronym process turned guitars into ‘acoustic guitars.’” Putting all of Hardy’s novels together into a Wessex series obscures the important ways in which each one takes on a different and isolated instance. Ivan Kreilkamp, similarly, suggests that while we are tempted to think of neo-Victorian adaptations as signs of our continuing debt to a beloved past, a look at contemporary adaptations and responses to the novel, including “The Dickensian Aspect” episode of The Wire, South Park’s version of Great Expectations, and Ishiguro’s rewriting of Daniel Deronda in Never Let Me Go, suggest much more ambivalent, and even hostile and aggressive relations between fiction now and fiction then. Kreilkamp insists on the crucial historical gap between the two moments, suggesting that rather than depending on updating the Victorian novel to bring it into our present, “the best and most fitting tribute we can pay to our favorite Victorian novels is . . . simply to leave them alone and so to acknowledge their intractable difference and distance from us.”
We do not agree, then, on the best analytic approach to two forms that invite comparison across a gap of more than a century: continuity or break, distance or closeness, indebtedness or rebellion, analogy or inheritance? If this seems like an unsatisfying conclusion, perhaps we might see such indeterminacy as part of the value of a kind of critical serialization, an invitation to continue the practice of reading across scholarly time, and to continue arguing about how one might link two fictional moments that seem uncannily alike while being, perhaps, also incomparably distant and different.
This is speculative, but as plausible as any account, since the founders themselves in fact tell conflicting and deliberately simplified stories of where they got the idea for the company (Thomas).
- Doherty, Thomas. “Storied TV: Cable is the New Novel.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 17 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 May 2013.
- Hayward, Jennifer. Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1997. Print.
- Miller, Laura. “The Wire is NOT like Dickens.” Salon 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 May 2013.
- Mittell, Jason. “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling, and Procedural Logic.” electronic book review 18 Mar. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
- Thomas, Owen. “Netflix's Forgotten Cofounder Says Reed Hastings Is Lying About How He Came Up With The Idea For The Company.” Business Insider 4 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 May 2013.