- Contemporary Seriality:A Roundtable
The following has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Sean O'Sullivan.
I'm Sharon Marcus—I'm a Professor of English at Columbia University: I'm a Victorianist, and I work on nineteenth-century French literature, so I'm well-acquainted with the history of seriality. I'm also the Dean of Humanities and Editor of publicbooks.org. I would like to thank Lauren Goodlad and Sean O'Sullivan and Eileen Gillooly and everyone at the Heyman Center for putting this on today. I am going to introduce our panelists, although they don't really need an introduction. They say of great actors that you would be happy to listen to them read the phone book. I think we can say of our panelists that we'd be happy to hear them write a review of the phone book, write a novel based on the phone book, or produce the phone book as a radio podcast. [laughter] But rituals are important, so here we go: Lev Grossman is the author of five novels, including the #1 New York Times-bestselling Magicians trilogy, which is now an [End Page 109] hour-long drama on Syfy; he has also been Time magazine's book critic for the past fifteen years. A. O. Scott is a chief film critic of The New York Times and Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University; he's the author of Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, published earlier this year by Penguin Press. Julie Snyder has been the guiding force behind two of the most successful ventures in audio broadcasting; she is the co-creator of the podcast Serial, which debuted in October 2014 and has been downloaded more than 200 million times, making it the most-listened-to podcast in the history of the form. She has also for many years been the senior producer of the public radio show This American Life, which is heard by more than four million listeners each week.
I'm going to start by posing some questions; and then we'll open things up to discussion. I wanted to start with just a very basic question, which is: how has seriality affected you, either in the media you work in, or the media that you focus on as a writer? Lev, for you that would mean, what has it meant to write a one-volume novel that became a trilogy, and a literary work that has been adapted into a TV series? Tony [A. O. Scott], I know you have strong views, you're on record as having views about sequels and franchises—we can come later to TV vs. film, but maybe start with film. Julie, if you could just talk about what it was like to, in some ways, invent the idea of a serial podcast, or popularize the idea of a serial podcast—and working specifically in radio, what makes a radio serial different from a literary one or an audio-visual one? Whoever wants to go first.
Work down the aisle?
All right—I'll go first. I do have some experience with serial forms—I entered into them slightly backwards, and always in exchange for money. [laughter] I wrote a novel called The Magicians; I wrote it as a stand-alone, it was published as a stand-alone. I then afterwards changed my mind, and I expanded it into a trilogy; and then that trilogy was turned into an hour-long drama on Syfy. And I guess I would say my reflections are that it was surprisingly traumatic to watch the story, really on its structural level, be transmuted into a TV series; it had a little bit the feel of a really bad transporter accident on Star Trek. [laughter] Things that I learned right off the bat were, one: there's sort of a maximum size to the kind of narrative unit that you can deploy when you are telling...