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Serialized Storytelling in the Internet Age?

Daytime drama is dying! …Earlier this year, CBS cancelled the longest-running series in broadcast history, Guiding Light (which debuted over 70 years ago, on radio), and earlier this week, announced the cancellation of the 54-year-old As the World Turns (ATWT). This is considered a “big deal” by soap opera types b/c ATWT is the last remaining show produced by Procter and Gamble, who helped give “soap operas” their name by advertising their household cleaning products to housewives during the shows they sponsored. When ATWT goes off the air, there will only be 6 soap operas remaining across all three major networks (it used to be at least nine, if not 12), and the ones still kicking have all had their budgets radically slashed (it is much cheaper to produce the tenth hour of The Today Show) and seem constantly threatened with cancellation. Folks who follow the genre say it’s been in steady decline for a decade or longer, but lately it seems to be hemmoraging.

So you are probably wondering why on Earth I’m here on Big Other talking about (what many consider to be) the lowest of lowbrow culture.

Confession time: I’ve been attracted (sometimes shamefully and sometimes shamelessly) to soap operas specifically and serialized storytelling more generally for most of my life. I’ve watched various soaps off and on for years. In third grade, my favorite show was the nighttime drama Sisters, because I loved listening to women like Sela Ward and Swoosie Kurtz argue passionately, get drunk, screw one another’s ex-husbands, fire off shotguns at weddings and weep over their childrens’ leukemia.  I grossly overused the expression “to be continued” in stories I handed into my second grade teacher. In middle school, I wrote several “episodes” of my own soap about two warring families who ran competing resorts in the Poconos. Also in middle school, I enjoyed novels by Charles Dickens. My senior year of high school, I gulped down Armistead Maupin’s absurd and escapist Tales of the City series. At Sarah Lawrence College, I produced and aired, on the campus radio station, the pilot episode  (I think I failed all my classes that semester simply on account of all the time I spent on that single episode… so it ended up being too much work to continue past a pilot) of a soap called Liberal Art about the tangled lives and dastardly manipulations of a group of students at a small liberal arts college near NYC. The tagline was “Liberal Art: where artists is just another word for bitch.”

Soaps are infamous for their outlandish plot twists — spouses back from the dead, babies stolen and switched at birth, men drugged into sleeping with dastardly women — but most longtime soap viewers will tell you the bedrock of soap opera storytelling, like much good fiction, is characters, and stories derived from characters. In fact, some argue the erosion of strong, character-driven storytelling is one of the primary causes for daytime soap operas’ declining ratings. And as much as soaps revel in heteronormative couplings, those same couplings are also constantly, constantly threatened… nearly every storyline is about trying to stabilize relationships and families that will never, ever be stable (esp. because barring cancellation these shows are never over), which is hi! kind of delicious.

Anyway, what I actually want to talk about here is what the demise of daytime soaps means, if anything, in terms of the role fiction and narrative play in our culture. Cheap news shows and reality programs replacing fictional programs doesn’t seem that dissimilar from craptastic memoirs replacing novels on bookstore shelves. (I am not making an argument here, just suggesting possibilities to ignite a discussion).

A lively conversation recently took place on a Fictionaut discussion board about serialized storytelling online. Participants in this conversation wondered — will folks read serialized pieces? How many folks followed Big Other contributor Shya Scanlon’s serialized novel Forecast 42 from blog to website to blog? How about Grant Bailie’s serialized novel at Necessary Fiction? What about this Rick Moody-Electric Literature twitter dustup?

Some argued they didn’t think contemporary readers had the attention span to follow extended stories. Which reminded me: Although daytime soaps may be going the way of the dodo birds from Mauritania in my favorite digression from Gravity’s Rainbow, nighttime soaps seem to be enjoying a Renaissance of sorts. Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty (derived from a Spanish-language telenovela),  revivals of Melrose Place and 90210. Even those crappy Jerry Bruckheimer police procedurals seem to be including more connective tissue, more evolving relationships between characters, across episodes. The biggest difference between nighttime soaps and daytime soaps (aside from production values) is, I believe, pacing. While on a daytime soaps, two characters will stand around a country club for an entire week having the exact. same. conversation, entire social worlds rise and fall during a single episode of Gossip Girl.

Do contemporary readers and viewers truly have considerably less patience? I understand many of us are inundated with information, but I’m hesitant to latch onto such big sweeping, unresearched statements about cultural norms and practices. I worry that, “contemporary readers have less patience” is the kind of discourse (and I apologize for the jargon term, but in this case I think “discourse” truly is the best word, b/c what is happening here is the production of an entire body of knowledge, purely through public conversation and its framing, about contemporary viewers and readers and their inclinations and behavior) that very quickly creates the reality it claims to describe, regardless of its initial accuracy. …Are “today’s” readers too trigger-happy for serialized storytelling? What do y’all think?

(An aside: For folks interested in tasty, soaps-oriented cultural criticism, Becca Thomas and Mallory Harlen’s Serial Drama is quite crackly and totally hilarious.)

24 thoughts on “Serialized Storytelling in the Internet Age?

  1. Can you summarize your post for me? It seemed interesting, but I got distracted halfway down and clicked on a link to the Big Other Contest #2. I LOVE the number 2.

    This comment is to be continued…

  2. My response, pt II.

    I do feel like certain contemporary behaviors, such as surfing the internet, compromise the ability to focus. After spending a few hours online, for instance, it requires serious concerted effort to focus on reading a novel without looking around or fiddling with something or listening to car horns or basically doing anything other than reading. I end up reading lines over and over, or getting to the end of a page without really any idea what I’ve read. This passes, after a while, but it takes effort. Likewise, after a few days without computer use (or iPhone, which I see as both an incredible tool and devilish device) I find it less difficult to attain focus. I’d say that’s not uncommon, and it’s something pretty serious that anyone who’s both an avid reader and “surfer” must contend with.

    But I don’t think this should detract from the success of serialized narrative. Look at how most people watch television: they have like ten shows they follow, all of which have relatively complex story-lines and multiple characters, and they keep track of them all. So it’s not some kind of capacity issue.

    I do think there’s room for text-based serialization. And I agree that it’s about pacing. In an article I wrote for Faster Times, I argue that part of it has to do with the use of suspense: http://thefastertimes.com/books/2009/10/26/stay-tuned-on-the-future-of-web-serialization-pt-i/

    1. Hi Shya (and Tim),

      I think I’ve had the exact opposite response. Computers and the internet and cell phones—because of the ways in which they make me feel fragmented and distracted—have led me to take more solace in novels and other writing than ever before.

      For a while now I’ve been refusing to allow myself to use my computer in the evenings. Instead, I read for a few hours. I can’t say I do it every single night, but I try.

      And I’ve been much happier because of it. And I find that when I do use computers, I’m happier, too. They feel much less omnipresent.

      As for serialized writing, I think I’d be more likely to wait until it’s all done before I read it; I like to read things in their entirety. For instance, I used to buy Dave Sim’s amazingly innovative long-running comic book Cerebus, but eventually I gave up with the monthly issues, and waited until he finished the whole thing in 2004. (The project runs 300 issues total). Last year, I bought the “phone book” collections and started reading the whole thing. I find it more satisfying that way (which probably isn’t what Sim wanted to hear back when he was putting out the monthly issues, and no doubt living hand to mouth).

      But I did used to be a Star Trek Deep Space Nine fan, and waited eagerly each week for new episodes. And what I liked about that show was its serialized nature (as well as its honey-gold lighting—and the fact that their camera crews made rather heavy use of a cucoloris).



      1. Hey Adam,

        Garak! …I saw him speak at a convention once. I mean no I didn’t. The soap opera confessions were indicting enough, the Trekker history can remain hidden.

        I find what you are saying abt the space you deliberately carve out (and feel compelled to carve out) for attention-demanding activities really interesting. Possibly admirable.

        I agree I prefer to watch or read something serialized all in one sitting when possible. Total immersion is often a richer experience.

        At the same time, if I am very eager to find out what happens next, I cannot wait for all of something to become available …so perhaps impatience, in certain instances, actually works to benefit serialization?? I should read Shya’s piece abt the use of suspense, I have shamefully not clicked it yet.

        The more I ponder this topic, the more I feel like what challenges serials is not attention span, but time, carving out the time necessary to devoted oneself to following something w/ a protracted arc. For some reason, I am much more comfortable making broad, collectivizing statements abt time and busy-ness than I am attention spans, for instance, statements like, “America’s is a culture of overwork.” Perhaps because I feel like the worst thing that can happen as a result of such a statement is the institution in the U.S. of lovely Europeanish practices like siestas, or more extensive paid vacation time. Then while on vacation, we can all read “Forecast” and watch all five seasons of “Babylon 5” (far better than DS9) in one sitting.

  3. I think it’s possible that the cultural norm for the span of patience varies over time, but I guess “less patience” bugs me because it implies there’s some kind of cultural default to compare it to. As if there were a fixed point for our culture that is normal, and everything that happens is more or fewer, greater or lesser, in relation to it. More sex, less patience, more religion, fewer morals, blah blah blah. Wherever there’s a taint of “humankind/America/the youth is just going downhill!” I kind of get miffed.

    I think a lot of nighttime dramas that aren’t considered soaps really are soaps. Dexter. Big Love. Etc. I never watched Guiding Light, but I eat up Dexter & Big Love with every spoon in the house.

    1. I don’t know, Rachel. I see your point, but I don’t think patience or attention span are “issues” in some abstract, absolute sense. They negatively affect some intentions (like, the intention to read a novel) in a very concrete, particular way. And it’s in that sense that I think the they’re worth addressing and/or correcting.

      1. “Do we have shorter attention spans than people had in the 1950s?” is an addressable question.

        “Do we have shorter attention spans?” is not.

        Shorter attention spans than what? Unless the argument is that we have the shortest attention spans of any culture at any time, then we need a point of comparison.

        I think people tend to assume that America in the 1950s is the default setting for cultures. It sort of operates as the unspoken end to sentences like “Do we have shorter attention spans…” and that’s a problem, particularly since so much rides, politically, on the pretense that the 1950s are natural in some way (which is the assertion of all that completely unfounded evolutionary psychology speculation which somehow assumes that cave families looked like Leave it to Beaver).

        1. Hmm. Where do you get the 50s thing? I actually think the argument has some merit at even a much smaller scale: I have a shorter attention span now than I did ten years ago.

          Have other people’s reading habits been affected in a measurable way even during your adult reading life?

          1. I think there is a tension in this part of the conversation here between statements about the collective’s attention span and individuals’. I think there’s also some biological vs. cultural tensions — biological/material realities vs. how they are interpreted and discussed.

            I think Rachel and I are both suspicious of larger claims abt our collective attention span, esp. without clarity abt what data is supporting that claim and what the basis for comparison is.

            At a micro level, I absolutely agree staring at a computer all day seems to alter my brain chemistry.

            1. Yes, you probably articulated that better than I did.

              I wouldn’t know whether my attention span is affected by the computer or not. I think the general experimental data they’ve been able to do has trended toward indicating there is an effect, but I don’t know if it’s reliable.

            2. I agree. But surely when talking about the collective attention span we’re talking about the mean change in attention span among individuals. So I give evidence using the only data available to me.

              1. Yeah, but you can’t be sure that’s reliable data. Does attention span generally decay with age? What other factors contribute? Are you actually correct in your perceptions of your own attention span? (There was some recent data suggesting people are really bad at estimating what their attention spans are like.)

                I mean, I wouldn’t normally bring that up because it’s kind of rude… if you say that your attention span is more limited now, then I believe you, it probably is. But if we’re going to extrapolate from self-reporting, then it’s kind of important to evaluate the usefulness of that.

                I feel like this is a problem with a lot of trend reporting.

                Anyway, I’m sorry if I’m derailing or off-topic or being rude!

                1. No no, I think you’re totally right to question what I also believe is something that’s begun to be taken for granted. But I have also paid quite close attention to my own behavior exactly in this regard, and feel pretty confident in my conclusions, tentative though they may be. That is, I’m definitely open to an alternate hypothesis, but until one comes along, I’ll stand by what seems to be a causal relationship. I know I’m in danger of committing a logical fallacy here–it could just be a correlative connection–but after being online a while, my mind seems to keep acting like I’m still online for a while, until I either wait it out or train it to quiet down.

    1. Yes, it absolutely explains the Jem thing. The villain on Jem was named Eric Raymond. Does a soapier name exist than Eric Raymond? (The answer is yes. Multiple examples exist, but one that comes to mind immediately is Damian Grimaldi).

  4. my attention span sucks now. i had a serial this week up at nanoism and i couldn’t even bring myself to check in every day to retweet. maybe my ability to focus in on pimping myself is waning? that would be a good thing probably.

    i had a lot more to say but then my two kids came in yelling and suddenly i’m getting everything jumbled. i do think it’s really cool shya is weighing in.

  5. A decade ago I wrote a serial. My comments on serial writing derive from that experience.

    It took place on a weekly to bi-weekly appearance over a two year span of time. There were two main characters, a brother and a sister. The appearances were in e-mails sent to a listserve with an audience of roughly 120 people.

    On the question of ‘attention span’ it became fairly obvious that appearances should not cause the reader to need to scroll.

    All appearances ended with a ‘to be continued…’ teaser with an intimation of what may, or may not, be coming next.

    The interest demographic of this audience was narrow, very narrow and I believe that narrow-focus of content matched to a specific audience interest is a key element of future serializations, particularly on the internet.

    I believe a reason for the demise of soap operas is not a case of an aggregate loss of attention span, it is that people have the freedom to pay attention where they care to pay attention.

    If all you can buy in the store is white bread then you buy white bread, but then when there are 100 types of bread to choose from the fact that everyone does not choose white bread does not indicate that they did not choose bread. Used to be the monopoly on American reading entertainment was the Bible. That was before the television, the radio and public libraries.

    The contemporary serializations mentioned in Tim’s blog will be read by a smaller audience than say there was for Star Trek. The original audience of my serial will likely never overlap to read anything of the contemporary serials that Tim references. Though we all live on the same planet we also live in separate worlds.

    Identify your audience. Know your audience. Work to the audience.

    If asked the subscribers to my serial would admit that they sometimes read books, sometimes read fiction (though most of them only read non-fiction) and some of them enjoy writing. All of them would shun the idea that they may be asked to read a poem, they were long since scared away from that in school. None of them were actually trained in writing, though a small number are professionals.

    What I particularly enjoyed was the reader feedback.

    They got engaged with the problems of the characters and wrote in what they thought the characters should do next. [There was a tumultuous side to the affair that included people who DID NOT think any form of fiction was appropriate within the realm of their narrow band of professional interest, and they wanted the characters dead and me silent.] Then again I would meet enthusiastic subscribers in the real world and our adventures would then become thinly disguised fuel to parody out in the serial fiction.

    Eventually we had bumper stickers and t-shirts.

    Readers to this day continue to bring up the characters as a reference point to something or other going on in our shared world.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Gabe. It makes sense to me that the audience for things like serials is perhaps becoming more fragmented and specialized. I heard somebody somewhere suggest the internet and other media are “retribalizing” global culture.

      Your serial sounds fun. This made me laugh:

      “There was a tumultuous side to the affair that included people who DID NOT think any form of fiction was appropriate within the realm of their narrow band of professional interest, and they wanted the characters dead and me silent.”

      1. Tim:

        I wish that it had felt funny at the time. Some folks take themselves too serious.

        Retribalizing global culture sounds like a neat way to put it. I think a lot in terms of our having increased opportunity to develop personal cultures — forget tribes, fragment it down to autonomous individuals who interact via venn bubbles.

        I have read about how people share in a mythic context, say that everyone who came up in life reading the Bible could relate to an author throwing out an easy to convey metaphor about rainbows, or arks, or Lucifer… but nowadays the context seems to be increasingly fragmented as well — I can talk about rilem tubes (jargon) w/ sea monkeys, language as an isolation mechanism that also defines the boundary of the tribe, or we can write about something a larger number of readers can relate to without need of a specific personal reference, like sex, or death.

        So in part I wonder how the decrease in interest in a ‘general’ mythic culture, the lengthy history of the television soap opera as an example, begins to no longer fit to the needs of the audience that has become more personally acculturated?


  6. Sisters was such an amazing show. I record General Hospital every day.

    Even though people often look down on soap operas, they do have a real knack for telling an engaging story.

    It is very difficult to pinpoint the demise of the soap opera but I don’t know that it has as much to do with attention spans as it does with the wider range of entertainment options we now have available. Soaps used to be the only game in town and they aren’t anymore. With on-demand television and the Internet, our viewing habits have changed. I also think that many soaps have jumped the shark, firing mainstays, reducing budgets, etc.

    I will be devastated if they ever cancel GH.

    Great post, Tim.

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