The End Of Serialized Fiction

For some reason I decided to run a Twitter search to see how often Dan Slott, the writer of the previously-mentioned Amazing Spider-Man #700 and vocal defender of Secret Empire, has told readers with comments, complaints, or questions about a story in progress to “wait and see” how it ends. I had to limit myself just to the ones from this week.

I don’t, of course, think this literally is the case, but these tweets read something like a canned auto-response to my 2,500-word takedown of this very idea.

When you write serialized fiction, you are not putting your reader into a matter transporter, sending them to their destination, and asking for an opinion on how they like it there. Instead, you are driving them cross-country to their destination, and they are going to have opinions about the scenery and the route along the way.  You can’t tell readers to get into the car and shut the fuck up until you get them to the opposite coast.

Any writer of serialized fiction who methodically and repeatedly makes the argument that you can is abusing the relationship between writer and reader, and they should get another job.

It’s not entirely clear to me whether it was sparked by the Secret Empire controversy raging on Twitter or something from the world of television, but another aspect of creator entitlement reared its ugly head Sunday night.

Don’t like a comic book? DON’T READ IT.

Don’t like a TV show? DON’T WATCH IT.

Don’t like a movie? DON’T PAY FOR IT.

the end.

Where did this disease of an idea come from that “don’t read it” is anyone’s only option for a problematic work of pop culture? Pop culture isn’t somehow divorced from reality, so you don’t have to worry about some work problematic fiction because it won’t impact anything.

You can not read something and yet also doggedly pursue that something’s problematic nature. Or continue to read something problematic and vocally discuss those problems. That’s allowed. Sometimes, arguably, it’s required. You can’t leave the cultural impact of a problematic work solely to the people who read and enjoy it; that’s nonsense. That attitude is nothing but a sense of entitlement on the part of some creators, who I guess think that the communal conversation about culture belongs only to them and their fans.

Yeah, no.

Fuck anyone with that view of art. “Don’t like it, don’t [read|watch|buy it], the end.” That is not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

The important part there, of course, is “the end”. This wasn’t a call to, say, give your own self a break by not subjecting yourself to works you don’t enjoy. Rather, it was a fatal admonition. While on the one hand comics creators like Wacker, Slott, and Spencer want the ability to provoke while being protected from the provoked, some television writers apparently simply want the conversation to be the domain only of their celebrants.

“The end.”

“It’s really that simple.”

It’s reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite examples of creator entitlement, which occurred during Amazon’s first-ever pilot season.

It was 2013, and Amazon had offered up it’s first slate of comedy and children’s programming to be viewed, considered, and voted on by the streaming public. Amongst the selection: the almost universally panned Zombieland: The Series from the same writers as the originally movie, featuring the same characters but not starring any of the original actors.

Legitimately terrible—I’d actually considered it one of those circumstances where it was possible to argue that something was objectively terrible—the performances, especially by the new Tallahassee but possibly excepting the new Little Rock, were uninspired or just plain bad. The morality both of the script’s treatment of other survivors and of the protagonists’ reactions to their deaths turned it into a spectacle of sociopathy akin to watching the cast of Seinfeld trying to navigate the zombie apocalypse. The four of them all were pretty reprehensible people.

So it was with no small hilarity that I read the tweets of Zombieland writer Rhett Reese in the wake of Amazon’s decision not to take the pilot to series.

Zombieland the movie unquestionably had some dark humor, and if you wanted to you could take up arms against the terribly gleeful ways in which it celebrates the destruction of zombies (the running “kill of the week” gag always was great), arguing that while they might be undead now they were actual people once upon a time. But the movie’s humor rarely came at the expense of other actual living people, the sole exception being to some extent its glorious Hollywood cameo, but there it’s a real person playing themselves and fully participating in the joke, so it works.

The pilot, on the other hand, almost entirely was built around the premise of laughing at the demise of other survivors, the joke being that the main characters keep trying to bring in new people, but then promptly and fully ignore them until they get killed. Then they shrug it off or behave as if the affront and the offense is theirs, that they have been put out by the experience. Not, say, the fellow survivors they just failed to protect.

(This, weirdly, is almost the exact same attitude Wacker, Slott, and Spencer have exhibited about readers they’ve provoked: “It’s not me, it’s you!”)

It’s ugly. The characters are terrible people. And the cast mostly is terrible at being those terrible people.

One the darkest sides of fandom is the sense of fan entitlement, in which among other things certain (very vocal) contingents of this fandom or that fandom insist and demand that creators—be they writers or actors—owe them the presence of certain characters, the treatment of them only in particular ways, or the telling only of certain stories and not others. Sometimes they even insist and demand directly to the creators’ faces, even if typically it’s “just” online.

(To be clear, I am not talking here about pushing back against a lack of diversity and representation or a over-reliance on tropes that don’t necessarily strike writers from more limited or privileged backgrounds as problematic.)

The flip-side to fan entitlement, however, was plainly on exhibit in Reese’s tweet. Zombieland fans own him no particular allegiance, or a least not the unquestioning kind. The disappointment was understandable, but (and it’s important to remember it wasn’t just fans who were down on this pilot) no one owed Reese a good review. No one owes any other creator a good review. No fan was or is obligated to remain silent despite legitimate reservations or criticism.

Creating for the public, and therefore creating in public, is a dangerous thing. I’m not completely sure why creators frequently seem to forget this fact.

Fans of course should be wary of thinking creators exist only to fulfill their whims and desires, but creators should be careful not to take their fans for granted, and should remember that sometimes—sometimes—fans (just like critics) turn out to be right. Sometimes what you’ve made just isn’t very good.

You get to tell your story. You don’t also get to tell the story of what people think of it. That’s the deal.

Once creators make something, they cede, for a time, the cultural venue to the audience. In the case of serialized fiction, that means creators must cede that venue to the audience on a regular, ongoing basis, every single time they publish or air a new installment. Contrary to Slott’s weird obsessive gaslighting on this issue, “wait and see” very much is not “a truism of serialized storytelling”.

Albeit in different ways, some writers are obsessed with “the end”. Thorne and Hughes argue that the audience’s only question is to read or not to read, “the end”. Slott (and Wacker, and Spencer) argue that opinions expressed while a story still is ongoing are irrelevant, if not insulting; just “wait and see” what happens at “the end”.

But “the end” of serialized fiction—or, more accurately, the ends of serialized fiction—is not at all wholly about the destination. No story wholly is about the destination, even stories told in singular, complete parcels.

Serialized fiction is about the journey, too. As with any road trip, there might be a driver and there might be a planned route, but the passengers are not silent partners. In serialized fiction, the audience never simply is along for the ride. Stories don’t just have foreseeable provocations but unforeseen impacts. Neither means a writer necessarily is obligated to alter the story, but they both mean the writer needs to know when it isn’t their turn to speak, it’s the audience’s turn to respond. As I wrote before, stories told in this manner are how we struggle to make sense of the world around us.

We can’t wait until “the end” of a serialized story to decide what it means to us, and how it affects and impacts the world around us or the lives of the people in it, any more than we can wait until “the end” of our actual lives to talk about what they mean to us. We live our lives serially, we tell our stories serially, and we find the meaning of both the same way.

The end.