Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Serial Storytelling

ENGLISH 72N

“TV’s Lost Weekends,” trumpets a Wall Street Journal headline about our modern habit of binge-watching prestige television shows, as though spending a weekend watching Breaking Bad is the moral and emotional equivalent of an alcoholic bender. Commentators today love to talk about the right way to watch television. But as long as there’s been a mass audience for narrative, there’s been anxiety about “right” and “wrong” ways to consume it: 50 years ago, critics compared those who checked out too many books from the library to addicts desperate for a fix of plot; 100 years ago, reviewers debated whether particular novels were best read in serial installments or as whole volumes. These debates, then and now, reveal a host of buried cultural anxieties. On the one hand, commentators worry about who is reading—in the past, the reading habits of women or poor people were often denigrated by critics. On the other, talking about the timeframe in which we consume narrative reveals assumptions about the ways people are supposed to behave around art: get absorbed in plot? Stand back and examine it critically?

This class will involve both deliberately slowed-down serial reading and viewing, and deliberately accelerated binge-reading. We’ll also try re-reading: how does a work change the second time through? How does it change with historical distance—does The Wire look different in the wake of Black Lives Matter, or Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in the age of #MeToo? How does the medium in which we consume a narrative—serial installment or volume; live broadcast or on-demand streaming—change our understanding of its form and potential?

Meet the Instructor(s)

Michaela Bronstein

"Like many of us, I watch a lot of TV. But as a scholar of the history of reading, I’m fascinated by the way discussions about TV in the last decade echo conversations from more than a century ago about how people read novels. I’ve always been interested in time in narrative—both the time it takes to read a long novel and the ways historical distance changes our relationship to texts. Most of my research, including my recent book Out of Context: The Uses of Modernist Fiction, examines the ways literary works find audiences and new uses beyond their own moment. I’m always excited to think through the connections between the past and the present."