The work of literature in the age of Netflix


The Girlfriend and I are at different points in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, having both finished vol. 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m sure we are hardly the only couple to both be making our way through these two Major International Literary Events, which are so often paired. In some ways, this phenomenon is puzzling, because what binds the two — memoiristic detail — is hardly unique to either of them, and in any case Ferrante’s focus on her friend Lila is radically different from Karl Ove’s obsessive fixation on Karl Ove.

Why are Knausgaard and Ferrante both such literary darlings, at this particular historical moment? I propose that the reason is precisely the fact that both have produced series, and the series-form is the signature form of our age. I’m not thinking only of the ways that young-adult fiction, most notably Harry Potter, has shaped the reading habits of those who are now adults (in addition to the adults who read them while already being adults) — though this is obviously hugely important, insofar as it took the series-form, once the redoubt of sci-fi and fantasy nerds, and mainstreamed it. No, even more than that, I’m thinking of the High Quality Cable Dramas that are virtually replacing the novel for many knowledge workers today (and here I must shamefully include myself to some extent).

We are used to investing time in exposition for TV shows, but only if they eventually “get good” and can therefore promise us an ever-expanding reward of ongoing entertainment immersion for our efforts. Literary fiction is a poor fit from this perspective, because no sooner have you become immersed than you are finished and have to start totally from scratch. Even in mainstream movies, the one-off format is becoming intolerable, as “franchises” dominate the scene — so how should we be expected to put up with such a poor ROI on a more labor-intensive format?

The giveaway is that people talk about the two canonical Literary Events in the same way as series. “You have to be patient with the first [book/season], it only really gets good 3/4 of the way through” — am I talking about Ferrante or Boardwalk Empire? Similarly with the loyalty: I’m not sure I’ve met any reader of Knausgaard who isn’t in it for the long haul, despite the widely acknowledged drop-off in quality in vols. 3 and 4.

In an era where TV feels like literature, we want our literature to feel like TV.

5 thoughts on “The work of literature in the age of Netflix

  1. I’m definitely in Knausgaard for the long haul, and although volume 5 I think gets back to what was good about the first volume, objectively speaking, he isn’t a great writer. His style can be clunky in a very distracting way and his insights aren’t particularly profound. Yet he’s still compelling, and for reasons I’m not sure I can pinpoint. (This seems to be something of a consensus.) There’s really something monstrous about the whole enterprise; it embodies the egotism of a man I’m not sure has much of an ego to begin with. It almost has the feel of reality TV (this sounds far less generous than I mean it to be) in that we are glued to his narrative despite its near complete triviality. Needless to say, I’ll be inhaling volume 6 as soon as it’s translated.

  2. Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence is particularly is worth reading, ( the TV adapation was terrible) but also his earlier novels of the 1930s. Others to read are Waugh’s Sword of Honour, the novel sequences of Roberston Davies, Lawrence Durrell & Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy (it was in the TV adaptation of the the latter that Ken Branagh met Emma Thompson- and the tv adaptation is probably superior to the books)
    More recently there is Jay McInerney’s New York Sequence (Brightness Falls; The Good Life; Bright Precious Days); something crying out for a Television adaptation is Allan Massie’s Bourdeaux sequence of detective novels examining the moral complexities of life in Occupied & Vichy France.

  3. Since you are already reading Knausgaard – might I suggest a look at his earlier novel, A Time For Everything? Alas, it is not part of a series, hah. It’s the one about angels, and has lots of Biblical-related material and ruminations on the nature of the divine.

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