Sequels And Series: This Is Not The Rant You're Looking For

We here at Olivia Waite enjoy smashing together different narratives and seeing what happens as a result. Toy Story 1 and 2 actually ask some of the same questions as the Iliad and Sophocles' Ajax, in case you're wondering. Ovid's epic poem about the Roman calendar, the Fasti, is not unconnected to the fact that we had a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of red wine for lunch yesterday (happy belated Bloomsday, everyone!). Lately, there have been three cultural narratives that have come to our more particular attention:

  1. Our attention spans are getting shorter, on account of Twitter and Tumblr and blogs and Wikipedia and the internet and text messaging and solar flares.
  2. Everything is a sequel or a reboot. ZOMG we're running out of ideas/trapped in our own nostalgia/at the mercy of corporate franchises!
  3. Everything is a series. Don't even try to think about selling one book on its own, or—heaven forbid—a short story or novella. Unless it's a series of novellas, or a set of linked short stories like Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.

{Editorial aside: I'm going to embed the PowerPoint chapter from Egan's book because it is easily the most mind-bendingly good story I've ever seen in PowerPoint and I want it on my website. You can either watch it now, or keep reading this post and come back to watch it afterward. It's really, really good.}

Now back to business.

Now, Narrative No. 1 is a scary thing. Some forms of human art take a great deal of concentration: reading, writing, a brilliant opera performance. The idea that our collective attention span is shrinking reads like a threat to the human species—even though there is, you know, no such thing as a collective attention span. Because people are not a hive-mind. Except on Twitter. And even then, it's easy enough to click on one of the trending topics and see a vast spectrum of opinions.

It is possible that what we have is a collective cultural realization that life is too short to waste with things that aren't giving us the kind of satisfaction we want. Your blog post has three paragraphs to impress me, then I'm tabbing over to that other interesting article. Your novel has to do something interesting on the first page, or the fiftieth, or wherever each reader's individual goalpost is—because the idea that we have to finish a book is growing less urgent in a time when there are literally millions of other, better books we could be reading. Every year. (For a smarter take on this idea, Linda Holmes from NPR has you covered.)

But then you think about how many new series you've seen lately, and how many sequels, and you realize: sequels and series mean that we are trying to pay more attention to the stories that speak to us.

We don't always do it right—seriously, there are millions of fucks I do not give about The Hangover 2—but we're still trying. We want to build worlds that reward lengthy exploration. We don't expect as many answers from a single movie or novel as we used to—take the X-Men franchise, which has its ups and downs but which continues to ask interesting, relevant questions via sci-fi and metaphor. (Here you can find an excellent post from Ars Marginal on parallels between the X-Men story and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.)

Or take the story of Cinderella, which I've talked about before. This story gets retold every year in countless romance novels both modern and historical, for adults and teens alike. Do we really need all of them? Probably not. But are some of them going to be wonderful? Certainly.

To retell or revisit an earlier narrative is not necessarily a mark of creative bankruptcy. Eloisa James has different things to say about Cinderella than does Gail Carson Levine, or Malinda Lo. Tim Burton has different things to say about Batman than Christopher Nolan does. The important parts of Harry Potter are going to take seven books to work out completely—and more than seven movies.

When you think of series and sequels in this way, you escape that terrifying sense of culture as an encroaching desert where anything green is dying. What we have instead is a conversation where we're trying not to automatically simplify the answers. Interestingly, it's also something that looks remarkably like what Latin literature was doing back when Augustus took Rome into the imperial age.

So bring them on, the series and the sequels and the revamps and the combinations! Because some of them may drink from our very lifeblood (though, still, not The Hangover 2).