April 22, 2015
Readers may binge, but they do not purge.
by Taylor Sperry
Last week, we asked if the groundswell of enthusiasm for series like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy suggests that we’ve entered the age of not just the binge-watch and the binge-listen, but also of the binge-read.
Is it worth a rapid-fire production schedule to release all three volumes of a trilogy (plus an omnibus) in a single year? And is it better to split a potential doorstopper into several volumes and release them consistently over the course of several years, each a well-timed fix for the readers you’ve got hooked?
All signs point to yes–even for literary fiction, which is kind of surprising.
But are the impulses to binge-watch really the same as the impulses to binge-read?
My instinct is No, not the same. It’s one thing to just wait there while Netflix gives you, like, 15 seconds to snap out of your House of Cards stupor before it automatically starts playing the next episode; it’s quite another to continue carrying a more than 400-page volume of My Struggle around on the subway, or to keep an extra bookmark at the index at the beginning of The Story of a New Name because you can’t remember who’s who since My Brilliant Friend a couple of months ago (this girl). Not to mention the disparity in time-commitment.
But maybe this isn’t so much a question of medium (TV vs. books) as it is one of attitude, or experience. In an article for Vulture, Adam Sternbergh articulated the fine semantic distinction between the binge-watch (“the manic desire to consume every unwatched episode of a great show as quickly as possible”) and its evil twin, the purge-watch (“the modern sensation of feeling compelled to finish a show that you don’t really like . . . that feeling of dreary feeling of obligation”).
Totally different experiences, both totally, viscerally applicable to the way we watch TV. But I think that while readers may binge, they don’t really purge–not for lack of stamina, but because publishing is most successful when it offers that manic joy, not a guilt-ridden sense that “you’ve come this far, you might as well bang out the rest”–which I’m not even sure we’d be able to capitalize on if we wanted to–and not when it offers a mindless escape. (For more on escapism and insularity, read Mark’s excellent piece on “Fierce Imaginative Possession.”)
So while readers’ habits might still be reduced to terms most commonly associated with eating disorders, I think readers themselves have already met the challenge that Sternbergh presents in his article:
Just as we’ve trained ourselves to watch several hours of episodes nonstop, we now need to train ourselves to remember that five hours is five hours, whether you spend it finishing off Daredevil in a state of grim resolution or you spend it watching Fellini’s Satyricon twice. What was meant to signal liberty now ironically signals obligation, and we need to free ourselves from that freedom. Binge-watch, yes, but purge-watch, never.
With that, binge away.
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.