by Juliet Lapidos
A friend who works in the movie business was ranting about the popularity of television and waxing nostalgic about the seventies, when his preferred medium was culturally ascendant. When I asked him why he thought television had dethroned film as the mass medium that matters, he answered that it offered a higher potential return on investment.
It takes an episode or two for a television viewer to meet the main characters, get the gist of a new show, and decide whether or not she likes it. If she doesn’t, she can drop it; if she does, she can look forward to a full season or even several seasons of programming. In exchange for an hour, she might secure dozens or even hundreds of hours of entertainment. Movies don’t work that way. At the end of a positive 90-minute experience, the still-hungry film viewer has no choice but to move on to another, self-contained work of art, which she may or may not find as pleasurable. Calculating enjoyment in terms of time, there’s no chance of a jackpot payoff.
We don’t binge on television because we like it, we like television — more than movies — because we can binge on it.
If binging is the objective, the popularity of serialized entertainment more generally — from multi-episode podcasts (like Serial) to franchise films (Batman, Superman, Star Wars, Fast and Furious) — suddenly makes perfect sense. Of course, the book world is in on the trend too, with serial novels across genres raking in cash for publishers: George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone Alphabet Mysteries, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
On a surface level, all this obsessive watching, listening and reading is a mark of tenacity, of dogged persistence. Who says Americans have no attention span? We are so dedicated to our stories that we are willing to submit to them for years! We will lose sleep and skip work to find out what happens at the end of Lost! (Not worth it.)
Looked at another way, though, our preference for binge-able narratives seems lazy.
That label won’t surprise television viewers, who are used to name-calling. It might throw podcast people, though, and book people for sure. We don’t usually accuse readers of laziness, even when they’re reading pap, since we figure they could be doing something perceived as even more lazy — like watching television. It may seem especially strange to say it’s lazy to read not just one, but six long autobiographical novels outlining the banalities of some random Norwegian guy’s private life.
But it’s ultimately easier to absorb series — all series, including Scandinavian literary series — than independent works.
The most demanding part of any narrative art form is the beginning, when everything — the style, the plot, the characters, perhaps even the universe in which the characters operate — is new. You must ask yourself: “What is this place? Who are the people? What are they after?” Series minimize that period of difficulty relative to the total experience. You do the work once, and then you’re free and easy for aforementioned dozens or hundreds of hours of entertainment.
I speak from experience. Like most people I know, I watch what was once considered too much television — at the moment, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Veep, The Americans — and I have all but lost interest in movies. And for the last twelve years, I’ve been addicted to serial novels. Over that time period, I’ve never not been in the middle of one.
I’ve read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, David Lodge’s Campus trilogy, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I’m on volume two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, volume three of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, volume seven of In Search of Lost Time and volume three of Anthony Trollope’s Parliamentary novels (a.k.a. the Palliser novels.) Eventually I’ll get around to My Struggle and Song of Ice and Fire. (I’m brow agnostic.)
I’m not flaunting my resolve; I’m exposing my torpor. Sure, many of the above titles are more seminar-reads than beach-reads. It’s disorienting, for example, to come across the first “Camera Eye” chapter in the U.S.A. trilogy — these contain autobiographical stream-of-consciousness writing — but by the third or fourth, they’re old hat. Difficulty decreases as familiarity increases, so I encountered less resistance, on the whole, reading U.S.A. part II (1919) than part I (The 42nd Parallel).
If instead of reading the U.S.A. trilogy I’d read three books by three of Dos Passos’ contemporaries, I would have had to expend far more intellectual energy.
It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with laziness. In my humble opinion, sloth was always the oddest of the seven deadly sins, and since our culture now shrugs off even the more obviously capital of the capital vices (greed, hubristic pride, lust etc.), idleness is surely no big deal. Besides, we’re busy, so it makes sense that we stick to what we know we like instead of taking the time — and doing the work — to try something new. Another, kinder word for our laziness is efficiency.