Literary Approaches Towards Serial Narration on Television, Or: Is This Really Necessary?

Literary studies are faced with the fact that these are intermedial times. The fields of interest are no longer only located within the mere realms of literature but go far beyond the traditional concepts of wordily textuality.
For some literary scholars, the last two decades were a complicated period, because their traditional field of expertise was constantly challenged with falling behind further due to an increasing interest in more popular art-forms that are often perceived as the successors of literature within the broader public. The resulting defensive stance taken by many scholars was very comprehensible: to legitimate literature within the context of emerging new art forms like the graphic novel, film, popular music or video, these media have often been depreciated1, ignored and categorized as a threat to culture2.

Especially television seemed to harbor the danger of pushing literary works of the edge:

“Literature‘s ability to coexist with television, which many take for granted, seems less likely when we consider that as readers turn into viewers, as the skill of reading diminishes, and as the world as seen through television screen feels and looks more pictorial and immediate, belief in a word-based literature will diminish.” (Kernan, 1992: 151)


Comparative Literature & TV-Series

A lot has changed during the last 20 years and most of the reservation and reticence are gone within literary studies. Especially Comparative Literature — a discipline that was always fond of inter-art relations due to it‘s constant pressure to accentuate itself next to the established national philologies — focuses on the relations of text to other medial forms with an impressive implicitness. Medial relations between text, film, music, visual & fine arts are now an integral part of the academic curricula3. No one would argue that literature cannot only coexist next to these artifacts, it can actually benefit greatly from them since there is a lot to be learned about forms and functions of literature in contrast to other media (cf. Simonis, 2009, 4).
So if these times are so open and intermedial, why is a study about the relation between literature — literary narratology to be precise — and television-series even necessary? Or put another way, why for instance have the film and the graphic novel entered university‘s literature-classrooms, while others are still waiting to gain entrance?
It is more than obvious that series such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Damages, Dexter, TheSimpsons, FamilyGuy and many others have surpassed the widely assumed simplicity4 while remaining deeply rooted within popular culture5. There is an ever growing list of publications concerning various aspects of what is generally acclaimed as the brilliance of new US-American television-series, but there are few studies that systematically analyze the relationship between literature and television-series, whereas this debate is heavily featured in the feuilletons of various internationally renowned newspapers6. Here, the series is often pictured as the cineaste transcription of the novel for the small screen. The time to tell a story, develop characters and subplots experiment with different forms. Something similar cannot be found in literary criticism where the series is still perceived as a byproduct of cinema. There is not need to specifically mention TV-series in the all-absorbing field of intermediality:

“The problem is that intermediality has tended to be discussed without clarification of what a medium actually is. Without a more precise understanding of what a medium is, one cannot expect to comprehend what intermediality is.” (Ellestrøm, 2010: 13)

This citation is not meant to start a debate about mediality in general but to highlight the problem that television-series are seldom perceived as a medial entity in its own right.
To render this state more precisely, television-series are often treated as films since they use exactly the same semiotic codes within an identical medial framework. Often a single episode of a show is taken out of context and treated like a sequence of a movie7, a DVD-box-set is often compared to a long movie and so on.
This does ignore that there is more than one way of watching a show; unlike a movie that is usually consumed in one sitting8 a television show is perceived in a way that is dictated by its serial nature: from week to week. There are always cracks within the narrative, dictated by the gaps between the episodes and seasons9. A single episode is always framed by the previous and the next episode, so it is always contextualized and rarely demands to be seen autonomously by itself10.
It is specifically this aspect that creates a link to 19th century epic novels which were published chapter by chapter in newspapers and magazines. But this is a mere starting point for this project that intents to explore various relations between television series and literature with an emphasis of narratological11 aspects.
If we can overcome the dichotomy between the worthy, serious champion Literature on the good side and the cheap and entertaining contender television-series on the other we might get the best of both. We can use the corpus of research done on literature to apply it on television series, modify the devices and tools of analysis whenever necessary and eventually understand how these two art-forms work alike.
Some of these topics are: how do we really perceive the series, how many ways of reception are there, how does narration work within the series and in-between episodes, does the idea of a (cinematic) narrator apply to series and could the television-series be the 21st century novel that never found its place in cinema?

To be continued...

The ‘Living Handbook of Serial Narration in Television’ is intended to show how the genesis of literature and Television are connected, and will try to give a comparative view on narrative techniques and dramatic devices in TV serials. We also aim to come up with a provisional terminology, gather examples for miscellaneous narrative strategies that TV series and literature share. We do not claim that this project offers a complete portrait of all aspects, nor does it give the final word on these questions. What we hope the ‘Living Handbook’ will achieve is to lay the groundwork for a deeper, more complex and more versatile understanding of how serials tell a story. Therefore, we want to give scholars a platform where papers on various aspects concerning any of the above mentioned can be digitally published. This ‘Living Handbook of Serial Narration on Television’ is intended to bring together international scholars interested in this topic, to collect their research and make papers and essays available to a broader public.


Jonas Nesselhauf, Markus Schleich

January 2013




1) Two authors who should be mentioned in this context are Adorno and Horkheimer whose essay Dialectic of Enlightenment from 1947 brands popular art-forms like movies or pop-songs as a mass-addling product of the culture industry which are — put simplified — tools of state capitalism that is designed to manipulate mass society into docility and passivity. Opposed to this, true art is not commercially motivated and shall educate the mass towards actively questioning the status quo.
2) An example for this procedure can be witnessed in Alvin B. Kernal’s polemic pamphlet The Death of Literature that is concerned with all those medial outputs that pose a thread of annihilation towards literature: „The television spectacle is seen once in a flash and then [...] gone forever. Those who work in TV are quite aware that their medium does not favour complex meanings, and they adjust their material accordingly. Story and plot are minimal or nonexistent.“ (Kernan, 1992: 130)
3) One could argue that this development goes back to Lessing‘s Laokoon from 1776, but the rigid distinction between high and low arts dissolves with the raising of structuralism and the „anything goes“-paradigm of postmodernism. While relations of arts have been of interest for a few centuries a broadening of what is perceived as art and thus a broadening of possible relations is a rather young development.
4) Beginning with the 1990s, even expensive mainstream-productions within television and cinema were willing to take risks when it came to highly complex narratives (cf. Gymnich 2007, 128).
5) Carl Rhodes brilliantly exemplifies this process in his paper „The Simpsons, Popular Culture, and the Organizational Carnival“ from 2001. TV serials are even said to have a huge impact on Hollywood movies, and actually called the movies' archenemy (cf. Die Zeit 15 November 2012, p. 56 and online: — Please note that we cannot take any responsibility for the content of external links.
6) For instance the New York Times (, The Guardian (, FAZ ( and Die Zeit ( among many others. — Please not that we cannot take any responsibility for the content of external links.
7) Bakhtin encountered something similar when scholars were not used to novels and took out excerpts from the novel to compare them with poetry, an art form they felt more familiar with (cf. Bakhtin, 1981: 147).
8) Following Poe‘s idea in the Philosophy of Composition that a short-story must be readable in one sitting and Hitchcock's comment that the length of a film should „be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder“.
9) This serial frame is still remained on DVD since the single episodes are not compounded to one extremely long film.
10) This is also where series differ significantly from movie-series like James Bond, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rocky etc because even though these movies are connected each of them has to have the potential to work as a standalone film.
11) This is not an attempt to apply Genette‘s concepts of narratology from literature to a medium it was not originally designed for, but to rethink and adjust existing models — not only Genette’s — like Markus Kuhn did with narratology and film (cf. Kuhn, 2010).




Adorno, Theodor W., Horkheimer, Max (1947). Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente. Amsterdam: Querido.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981). The Dialogical Imagination. Four Essays. Austin: University Press Texas.

Ellestrøm, Lars (2010). "The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations". In Lars Ellestrøm (ed.) Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, pp. 11 - 50. London: Routledge.

Gymnich, Marion (2007). "Meta-Film und Meta-TV: Möglichkeiten und Funktionen von Metaisierung in Filmen und Fernsehserien". In Hauthal, Janine et. al. (eds.) Metaisierung in Literatur und anderen Medien. Theoretische Grundlagen – Historische Perspektiven – Metagattungen – Funktionen. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Kernan, Alvin B. (1992). The Death of Literature. New York: Vail-Ballou Press.

Kuhn, Markus (2010). Filmnarratologie. Ein erzähltheoretisches Analysemodell. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Rhodes, Carl (2001). "D'Oh: The Simpsons, Popular Culture, and the Organizational Carnival." In Journal of Management Inquiry. Vol 10, Nr 4, December 2001, pp. 358 - 374.

Simonis, Annette (2009). "Einleitung". In Annette Simonis (ed.) Intermedialität und Kulturaustausch. Beobachtungen im Spannungsfeld der Künste, pp. 1 - 12. Bielefeld: Transcript.

An dieser Stelle entsteht bis voraussichtlich April 2013 eine ausführliche Narratologie der Fernsehserie.