Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives: An Interview with Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (Part Two)

A reader asked me whether the book included a discussion of soap opera, which would seem to meet many criteria of vast narrative, but doesn't fall as squarely in the geek tradition as science fiction series like Doctor Who or superhero comics like Watchmen. Pat does include a brief note about his own experience watching soaps with his grandmother. What do you see as the relationship between "vast narratives" and the serial tradition more generally?

Soap opera is definitely a missed opportunity for us. We had intended to have at least one essay on the subject, but it fell by the wayside as our contributors came aboard and our word count ballooned. We had also intended to have more essays on more purely literary topics; as it stands, Bill McDonald's essay on Thomas Mann seems a little lonely in the middle of all that television. We had wanted at least an essay on Faulkner, probably one on Dickens, and some others. But it's exactly there that Third Person would have started to tip over into more traditional areas of literary history, theory, and narratology. We think one of the strengths of the series is the unexpected juxtaposition of very different fields and genres. So in the end, we opted more for the digital.

The serial tradition seems to us to be a huge and maybe indispensible part of most "vast narratives." Comic books and television especially follow very naturally from the serial tradition exemplified by Dickens. In all cases, the story unfolds in the public eye, as it were: David Copperfield appeared in monthly installments, as do most modern comic books; TV serials are generally weekly. In all cases there's ample opportunity for the public to respond to plot developments and offer feedback.

In David Copperfield, for instance, you have the strange character Miss Mowcher, who appears first as a rather sinister and repulsive figure, but when she reappears is pixie-ish, friendly, and plays a role in helping David. What had happened in the meantime is that the real-world analogue of Miss Mowcher (Catherine Dickens's foot doctor) had recognized herself in the installment and threatened to sue. And as we understand it, the characters of Ben on Lost and Helo on the new Battlestar Galactica were both intended to be short-term minor characters, but proved so popular with viewers that they were promoted to central recurring positions.

There are plenty of artistic problems that arise from serialized storytelling, one of the most serious of which is the potential for unbalancing the narrative. Writing an unserialized novel allows you to edit, revise and generally overhaul the story before the public sees it. To serialize a story forces you to go with your thoughts of the moment, which may change before you finish the story, whether because of new artistic ideas of your own or because of outside forces (TV cast changes, editorial shifts in direction, Miss Mowchers, etc.). The Wire is one of the strongest televised serials ever aired--arguably it's simply the best--and that show was blessed with a strong writing staff with long-term narrative plans, substantial freedom from editorial direction, and as far as we're aware, very few unplanned cast changes. David Simon and the other creators like to talk about Dickens in reference to the show, but The Wire is in fact much more narratively balanced and formal in structure than most of Dickens's novels.

At the same time, a lot of exciting art happens in exactly the improvisational space that seriality provides. The writing staff on David Milch's Deadwood seems to have, on a daily basis and under Milch's direction, group-improvised nearly all of the Deadwood scripts. The end result is a constantly surprising story that still somehow appears as a tightly-structured drama, even down to following, more often than not, the Aristotelian unities of time and place. (And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that Sean O'Sullivan does great work discussing seriality both in his Third Person essay, and in his essay in David Lavery's collection Reading Deadwood.)

First Person experimented with placing a significant number of its essays on line and encouraging greater dialogue between the contributing authors. What did you learn from that experiment?

One thing we learned is that putting a book's contents online, which previously had mostly been done with monographs, could also work with edited collections. MIT Press was happy enough with the results that we followed this practice with Second Person and will do it again with Third Person. We'd like to see this practice expand in the world of academic publishing, since we now have some evidence that it doesn't make the economic model collapse (it's other things that are doing that, unfortunately, to some areas of academic publishing).

Another thing we learned is that, while blogs were already rising in prominence by the time we started working with Electronic Book Review on this portion of the project, the kind of conversation encouraged by something like EBR isn't obviated by the blogosphere. In general, blog conversation is pretty short-term. People tend to comment on the most recent post, or one that's still on the front page, and this is only in part because blog authors often turn off commenting for older posts, as an anti-spam measure. EBR, on the other hand, solicits and actively edits its "riposte" contributions (returning them to authors for expansion and revision, for example) and ends up fostering a kind of conversation that still moves more quickly than the letters section of a print journal, but with some greater deliberation and extension in time than generally happens on blogs. These different forms of online academic conversation end up complementing each other nicely.

As you note, comics have had a long history of managing complex narrative worlds. What lessons might comics have to offer the new digital entertainment media?

Digital media has already absorbed a lot of helpful lessons. In Third Person this can be seen in Matt Miller's chapter on City of Heroes and City of Villains, which goes into depth on how Cryptic translated comics tropes into workable MMO content.

The place to speculate might actually be the reverse of the question: what comics could take from contemporary digital media. We don't have any idea what a Comics Industry 2.0 would look like, but we suppose it's possible that DC and Marvel could take some of the pressure off themselves by integrating user-generated content of some sort; overseeing, funding and formalizing fan web sites, or who knows.

Every so often the industry does try something like this: back when we were growing up, there was a comic series called Dial "H" for Hero, in which a couple of kids had some sort of magic amulets that would turn them into different random superheroes when activated. The twist was that all of the names, costumes and powers of the heroes were reader-generated. Readers would send in letters with drawings and descriptions of superheroes they'd invented, and then those heroes would be integrated, with the appropriate credit, into later issues. This sounds extremely childish, and it was. There were no opportunities for readers to affect anything except the most replaceable elements of the story. (Although we do give DC credit for making it a boy-girl team, so that one of each pair of superheroes created would be female. Trying to build female readership is an ongoing problem for the big companies.) Later in the '80s, DC did give readers the opportunity to alter the narrative, when they ran the "A Death in Family" storyline in Batman. In this case, the Joker attacks, beats and blows up Jason Todd, the unlikeable second Robin, and DC established a 1-900 number which readers could call to vote on whether Todd lived or died. Well, they voted for him to die, and so he did, but the whole thing is regarded, rightly, as pretty distasteful, and they never bothered with anything like it again.

So the impulse toward interactivity exists in the industry, though it's never really gone anywhere. We suspect that some type of formalized interactivity will be a part of the comics industry going forward. What it will look like, we don't know.

More to Come