Written by Grattan Street Press Social Media & Marketing Officer Joseph Carbone.
My Gen-Z brain gifted me an eye-opening, isolation-induced epiphany recently: life is relentlessly, unflinchingly episodic. When we recount memories from our individual histories, our lives take their sprawling form, and we’re pulling single sentences from our own five-book, seven hundred page-per series. Sure, we thumb the index if it’s a particularly blurry memory, but we still get to our final destination using broad reference points.
Said reference points can include relationships starting or ending, a certain mood that settles on us for a period of our life, locations we’ve lived in, animals we’ve owned, the list goes on. A life is an epic tableau of interactions and experiences, and compartmentalisation helps us organise everything.
And what’s that about art imitating life? Storytelling depends on breaking up narratives into manageable chunks. This is true on the micro level (think scenes, chapters and paragraphs; the ‘nuts and bolts’ of narrative construction) as well as the macro (single episodes or movie instalments in a longer series), and our lives show similar stitching.
The series is, at its core, more than a simple continuation of narrative or shameless cash grab, instead it is a representation of certain aspects of the human condition. We live and organise our memories and stories episodically, so our art mirrors that accordingly.
Exemplifying this is the fact that the series that we read in our formative years have a significant impact on who we become as we grow up and plays a key part in identity formation. My introduction to serialised storytelling was through books. I was incredibly privileged as a child to grow up in a household with parents who prioritised reading to me, encouraged my own independent reading and managed to convince me that spelling was fun.
I have distinct memories of Mum reading the Harry Potter books to me before bed every night. Just as engrossed as me, she would often continue reading after I’d gone to sleep, only to grumble the next night that she was re-reading sections. By the time the final book was released I was ten and had competently read the earlier releases several times over without assistance, meaning Harry Potter marked an important step in my independence. More shocking to me than Snape’s unrequited love for Lily Potter, however, was the fact that Mum had been mispronouncing Sirius’ name as some ungodly combination of the words ‘sear’ and ‘ice’.
Regardless, the Harry Potter series and subsequent film adaptations were an impetus to my long-standing relationship with series. For myself and the rest of my generation, growing up alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione was no different to growing up with your schoolmates. Every loss was our loss and success was shared with a captive readership.
The further I recollect, the more apparent it becomes that different series helped define different stages of my development. Before Harry Potter there were Anna Fienberg’s Tashi books and the Deltora Quest series, teaching me how far my imagination could expand. For the teen years there were the incomparable, pulpy Cherub books that made being an orphan seem exciting and fun, before Lemony Snicket said otherwise. To this day, the only book that has ever made me cry was Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, the capper on his epic Eragon series. When Eragon and Saphira left their homeland for adventures I couldn’t join them on, a section of my heart shut up shop for good.
I soon realised that a series doesn’t need to be based strictly on one story. Different works can be thematically consistent and still have the desired effect. This was key to the keen interest in short story collections that I developed over the years: drawn to the way one writer’s voice and philosophy can sustain interest over several different narratives.
My relationship with storytelling has morphed and progressed over the years, chapter by chapter and book by book, not just by simply moving from children’s books to adult fare, but by learning that the series represents more of our lives than I’d originally thought. Everything we watch, read and listen to has a narrative thread running through it, morphing our consumption into a story of its own.
These days, more and more of the serials I consume are on screen. Breaking Bad, The Leftovers, Community and HBO’s recent Watchmen adaptation spring to mind first when thinking about my favourite series. I still read, but TV and movies have significantly encroached on my time for reading. And in any case, it’s been a veritable age since I invested in a multi-book series, save for my most recent Harry Potter read-through.
I’ve yet to figure out why this is. Is it a case of reading burnout, with all the books I’ve loved before and university readings to blame? Is it that the film and TV industries–particularly the latter– have flourished since the turn of the millennium and consistently churn out cultural and artistic triumphs on a larger scale than print publishing? Is it an oversimplification to assume that I do more watching than reading nowadays because my brain has less work to do when visual styles are dictated directly to me rather than having to paint the canvas myself with only the printed word as a guide? I’m making an effort to read more, I promise, but this chapter of my life is being dominated by a different medium than the one from the chapters preceding it.
Hollywood has figured it/me out. Netflix was the first to properly capitalise on our insatiable need for series, dumping hours of content on our laps for us to binge at our leisure, and the rest of the industry has followed. (It is worth nothing that the current health crisis has significantly increased demand for video streaming and books alike).
I’m a ‘completionist’, no doubt. If I’ve started something I need to see it the whole way through. I finish books I don’t like, I get frustrated when I miss a single frame or word of dialogue, I do all the dumb side quests and find all the collectibles in video games, and I’ll see every Marvel movie until they stop or I die, I’m unsure as to which one will be first. But the shared-universe aspirations of every superhero movie and the constant, gratuitous remakes and sequels do give me pause, and I wonder if my rose-tinted glasses are corporate in nature–before heading to the theatres again.
If corporate greed has indeed latched onto nostalgia trips and consumers who will pay to see every new addition to an ongoing series, and I think it’s safe for us to assume It has, I would only advise people to do whatever they want. Our tale of consumption is for us to write, so listen to whoever, and do whatever. In today’s content-rich entertainment landscape, the only certainty is that there is no limit to what our next chapters can be.