Editor’s Note: Points welcomes a new guest blogger today for a nail-biting series on narrative form and addiction. Anne Moore received her PhD in English Literature from Tufts University in May 2012 with a dissertation (from which her guest series is derived) entitled “After the Break: Serial Narratives and Fannish Reading.” It considers the way that 19th-century novels and contemporary television use the serial format to worm their way into your heart and your head, turning readers into compulsive, over-enthusiastic fans. Other writing of Moore’s can be found online at Parabasis and In Media Res. She lives in Somerville, MA with her partner Ariel and their daughter Isadora. The television show to which she is currently addicted is “Friday Night Lights.”
It’s 3AM. Respectable people have long since been in bed. You think of yourself as someone who’d be in bed by now, too, but you’re not. Just one more, you think, then I’ll be done. The next morning, your eyes are red and you’re embarrassed to tell anyone what you’ve been up to. You finally started watching LOST on Netflix, and made it through the first season in the space of a weekend. All day long, you find your thoughts drifting back to the Island: what’s in the hatch? Will Kate choose Sawyer or Jack? Just watch the first episode, your friends told you, and you’ll be hooked.
This compulsive relationship to serial narrative is hardly a new phenomenon. As this joke on the website Hooded Utilitarian demonstrates, there is an intuitive parallel between the contemporary television serial and its closest formal predecessor, the Victorian novel. TV shows and Victorian novels share a host of formal characteristics: huge casts of characters, multiple story lines, twisty plots, fully realized settings, not to mention the most obvious parallel of their piecemeal mode of consumption. Although critics have rightfully called into question an easy equation of two such disparate forms, what I will be exploring here on Points for the next three weeks is how similar it feels to read a Victorian novel and watch a TV serial: both forms call up in their readers an oscillation between desire and frustration that mirrors the cycle of addiction.
If we understand the story’s ending as the moment of anticipated payoff, then serials are all about extending the wait for that moment (again, think of LOST). Each installment or episode contains its own moment of formal closure but also gestures toward some larger, more satisfying ending that is somewhere down the line. The structure of serial reading thus mirrors the structure of addiction: obsession with relief from obsession. For instance, the smoker who’s trying to quit knows all too well the conviction that a cigarette will cure her unbearable craving—even though the truth is that smoking the cigarette will only start the timeline of craving over again, stronger than ever. With each new installment, the promise of relief is renewed—and reneged upon.