Ffion Davies, Bath Spa University
Contemporary societies obsession with crime and mystery narratives are reflected in everything from the literature we read, to the television we watch, to the news stories that we fixate over. This is hardly a new experience for British culture, echoed in literary sensationalism of the 1860s. However, there is a distinct change in the way in which we consume contemporary narratives due to the differing demands of a digital age. There is a general critical consensus that serialisation becomes devoid in contemporary society, because ‘the art of deferred gratification has vanished from our instantly downloadable culture.’ Serialisation and crime fiction have a long history together; however, many argue that the digital age, which is intensely wrapped up in notions of instant gratification, is working against traditional methods of consumption of these texts. However, this paper seeks to explore how contemporary texts, specifically linked to the genre of crime fiction, have become the new sensation fiction and have adapted serialisation to the new demands of a digital era.
To look at how the digital age utilises serialisation, one must look at the history of sensation fiction and serialisation. The roots of crime fiction are intrinsically imbedded within the sensation novel, popularised in the 1860s. The rise of the novel in the Eighteenth Century created a strict divide between the literary elite and popular fictions. Sensation literature was simply considered popular fiction, with little to no academic merit, and was often published serially in periodicals of the time. An increase in literacy levels throughout the middling classes of the Victorian era resulted in the serialisation of novels into periodicals. Some of the greatest writers of the Victorian period founded these periodicals, such as Charles Dickens’ and his periodical All Year Round. Dickens used his periodical to publish his own works as well as others, including Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which many have dubbed the first detective novel, which became a paradigm for later crime fiction texts. These novels developed such success due to their serialised release, allowing for a wider readership for a fraction of the cost of a novel. If, as Wynne remarks, ‘literary sensationalism as the dominant discourse of the 1860s' then this paper seeks to argue that there is a different kind of literary sensationalism that is dominant in the Twenty-First Century, one predominantly concerned with the audio or visual text. Sensation fiction in the digital age comes in the form of podcasts, YouTube videos and Netflix series, often releasing a text which results in world-wide sensationalism.
Victorian critics ‘found themselves best able to discuss sensation novels in terms of the consumption of food'. This notion that sensations fiction was 'a tasty alternative to the bland fare of the domestic novel' is something that has lingered into contemporary ideas around consumption of texts. Whilst Victorian audiences enjoyed ‘tantalising portions’, contemporary audiences are seen to overconsume and ‘binge-watch’. The word ‘binge-watch’ was Collins Dictionaries ‘Word of the Year’ in 2015, and is defined thus; ‘to watch multiple episodes of (a television programme) consecutively or in rapid succession’ or ‘in intensive or extended bursts.’ We are still referring to these texts in terms of consumption of food and it is not that narrative of the texts have changed drastically, it is that societies appetites for sensation fiction have grown.
An example of this would be the award-winning podcast, Serial. Released in 2017, the podcast focuses on true crime narratives and ‘tells one story – a true story – over the course of a season.’ Released episode by episode, the podcast is 'designed to keep the readers at a fever-pitch of suspense' and has reportedly been downloaded over 250 million times. A reporter describes her experience, throughout and after the consumption of the text, as follows;
‘I only tuned in once six episodes had aired, but then it became a binge. A dinner with a friend interrupted me and I was palpably impatient, restless, wanting to get back to my listening. And then, when I was done, my appetite not quite sated, I satisfied my 21st-century curiosity in a prosaic way: I fired up Google.’
This insatiable hunger for the text, even after it has ended, is highly indicative to the changing appetites for these narratives. Consumers, still hungry, seek to satiate themselves through their own research, thus creating an amateur sleuth as a biproduct. This hunger becomes monstrous, an uncontainable beast that cannot be gratified, created through serialisation, and thus making Serial ‘one of the most successful podcasts in history.’
Netflix’s show Making a Murderer had a similar effect on its audience. Released on the online streaming platform, Netflix, the show was an instant hit. Unlike Serial, the whole first series was released at once, allowing the consumers to ‘binge-watch’. At first glance, this notion of mass consumption seems to clash with the ‘deferred gratification’ of serialisation, however, it seems that serialisation has adapted with the changing appetites of society. Streaming platforms like Netflix have given in to the consumers appetite, serialising by series, as opposed to by episode. By allowing people to ‘binge-watch’ a series and wait the excruciating months for the next, the episodes become chapters, and the series becomes the fractured parts of the novel by which the text is serialised. As ‘consumption habits shift to meet an on-demand culture’, serialisation has been forced to adapt to an ever-increasing appetite.
Another example would be the YouTube series, Buzzfeed Unsolved, which varies slightly from Serial in that it dedicates each thirty-minute episode to a different unsolved crime, instead of one continuous narrative. Again, the popularity of the show is very much based on the production of sensations of fear and mystery. The show does not produce the usual structure in serialised sensation fiction of a singular serialised narrative over a long period of time - beginning with gathering facts, followed by the bulk of the story connecting the dots together and then finally, the big reveal or solution. Buzzfeed Unsolved instead produces quick, cyclic narratives in single episodes, making the show an ideal ‘binge-watch’ for a sensation seeking audience. Just like the Victorians would commune in coffeehouses to discuss the latest instalment of periodicals, contemporary consumers take to social media to create their communities, giving them the opportunity to ‘build a simultaneous conversation around a story as it develops in real time.' Buzzfeed Unsolved hold a Q&A after each session where watchers can tweet in questions and have them answered on the show, thus actively directing the narrative. This symbiotic relationship between reader and writer is reminiscent of how 'Dickens composed his books as they went along in parts’, so as to ‘register his audience's reactions, [thus] have[ing] a unique dialogical relation to that audience.' Serialisation creates a unique author-reader relationship where 'the reader [is] no longer [only] the consumer, but a producer of the text.’
At first glance, serialisation and the digital age seem to be working in conflict with one another, however, a closer examination suggests that otherwise. While it is true that serialisation has indeed changed since the sensation fiction of the 1860s, it does in fact exist in contemporary society, just not quite as one would expect. The introduction of the audio-visual text coupled with narratives of crime and mystery have become the modern-day sensation fiction, having a drastic affect on the consumers of these text. Dickensian serialisation and ‘deferred gratification’ are still as prominent as they were in the 1860s, playing an intrinsic role in producing feelings of suspense in these contemporary texts. Nevertheless, the form has had to adapt to the monstrous appetites of the modern-day consumer and it seems that the digital age has in fact provided ‘a new opportunity for the rebirth of serialization.'