Episode 55: Serial Reading Experience

       It’s the final countdown and no I don’t mean that deceptively catchy 80s song. I’ve got less than two weeks before the first leg of my comprehensive exams provide what may just be the hardest academic challenge I’ll endure so far. These next few days are pure reading and practice writing to make sure I’m as ready as a boxer for an upcoming title shot, without all of the pesky weight management. Just gotta remember that this is a go the distance kind of race, not a sprint, so almost breaking hand to cast away fear and get a cool adrenaline rush won’t cut it (long story, don’t ask). Just gotta remember that I have worked out a lot of these ideas before, and this blog is a testament to that. FYI, since I may inadvertantly use the same explanations in comps that I have already done here, let me give a quick shout out to a continental and digital commuter, a Victoran on sabbatical, and a man named of kings (you know who you are), to ensure that I technically can’t plagiarize myself.

One of the big cornerstones of my academic explanations is the concept of serial reading experience. Since the actual phrase pops up on a few sources when doing Internet searches, I hope this blog post shows up near the top of the list. So allow me to define “serial reading experience” and how it pertains to different media in both contemporary and Victorian literature. The simplest answer is of course the most obvious one: it is the experience that reader goes through while being engaged with a serial work. Yes, I know it qualifies under the “Stupid Answers” category in Jeopardy but hear me out. What makes it different from just regularaly reading any piece of literature is that there is a limited time frame from its onset period of publication.

From a narrative perspective, serial reading experience is something that authors really put a lot of thought into when working on their texts. You can’t just write a book, chop into random pieces and then sell off the tinier parts a little at a time. Even if the pieces were in order, I’m pretty sure most readers would not find the process of going through the text in such a way to be enjoyable or even practical. There is a very legit struggle when it comes to making sure that each installment has enough narrative siginificance. Compiling installments and renaming them as chapters of a complete book works pretty well, the reverse might not be the best answer. Each part needs to have enough narrative significance to make the reader feel as if this installment is worth their time and that it really builds on other parts of the story. You don’t need a cliffhanger to keep readers hooked but so help you God if you do way too much filler.

It gets even weirder once you consider the break between installments as having their own value towards developing the story. A good punchline, awesome fight scene, or evd to a plot point are something worth sticking around for and rereading. Sometimes you just need a moment to stop and really take in the coolness, something that you may not feel free to do when so many more pages are ahead of you right then and there. Don’t even get me started on cliffhangers and how you can make the readers just yell obscenities and wonder how this will be resolved. So long as the author keeps proper pacing (check my comments about this in a previous post) the narrative should continue flowing well.

The author is the one delivering events but its the readers who actually go through the experience of engaging with the serial text. The emphasis I use for this part is on readers, with a very definite plural S. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and here’s a rough sketch of what I’m getting at. It’s pretty much human nature that if you experience something that causes a strong emotion (positive or negative) you want to share that with someone else. Not sure if this is a case of relatibility or building a sense of community but I believe it’s an integral part of human nature. In the case of entertainment and literature, we want and encourage others to see the same movies and books as us, maybe to validate that our own tastes are good, but we want to share these moments. (hipster corollary: liking something before it gets to that shared state of mainstream acceptance somehow illustrates a proper sense of individual discernment before the sheeple flocked to it, ie “I was into X before it was cool”)

When it comes to serials, the need to share something awesome takes on a whole new shape. First off, you are only showing other people a fragment, so it’s not too much of a hassle and that part is significant to stand alone. Consider the variant levels of difficulty of showing someone an installment of a webcomic to see if they like it with showing them a paragraph from Moby Dick. Even something as long as a print serial, regardless of length you show them part of it as oppossed to the perceived insurmountability of the whole series. From this point on, you try and convince other people to continue fostering this interest but is ultimately an individual choice. The weird part is when the overwhelming majority of those around you like something and then there is some sort of literary peer pressure as they push books and such at you, to the point that you do not want to get left out. (poser corollary: pretending to like something even though you have never read it to be a part of the in crowd).

The weird thing about serial is that the initial investment in sharing is fairly simple but longterm you are asking for a Hell of an investment when it comes to time, intellect, and probably money. I guess it’s the equivalent to having someone in Dungeon’s & Dragons give out daggers to a bunch of people and then saying, “if you like the feel of that, you should come with me on a lifetime of danger, excitement, and adventure. You’ll love it.” The key is to get people hooked early on in the series, preferably before the first 10% of the story has ellapsed. That way, you end up with someone to share notes with on how the characters are developing, where is the story going, what will happen next, etc. Hence, the serial reading experience gravitates toward expanding the readership, which is just as much a responsibility for the readers as it is for the author. I’m trying to make an analogy about this with black holes and how things gravitate towards the mass of the text but then I remember I’m not actually a scientist and no one knows how gravity actually works so let’s just leave that thread dangling for now.

The key issue for me in explaining the importance of the serial reading experience is that there is a limited temporal window (sometime between onset of publication and a little while after the official last installment is out there) in which you can actually engage with conversations at a community level with the readership about the narrative. I’ll give you a personal example, it wasn’t until very recently that I started reading Harry Potter ( I know, bad nerd) and I still have a few books to go. Every time I try and talk with my friends about this they all look at me with disappointment about how late I got to the party and they deeply struggle with explaining things without giving away spoilers. I think what hurts most as a reader is that the narrative is already set in stone, so outside of literary theories, there aren’t really anymore questions to ask about the story. That sense of wonder and speculation is what makes talking with people about a work of serial fiction so worth it. Sure there are things that may rekindle the serial reading experience, like an old show coming back into syndication, super blu ray 3d editions coming out, or even having the book be an assigned reading in a class to get the conversation going again but it’s not the same as its original run. The context, both historical and emotional, is something you can tell but not something you can feel again. Maybe the saddest part of it all is that given enough time even the memory of the text having a serial reading experience is gone. It’s hard to imagine kids freaking out about Oliver Twist getting shot, back when Dickens was first publishing his story as I did when Roy died in OOTS a few years ago. You get a deeper emotional involvement because your experience with the text is more drawn out and because you are not going through it alone.

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