On literature and soaps

What should I blog about now, I wonder? Should I blog about the recent London riots? Of course, I have my views and opinions – strong ones at that – but since I have no particular knowledge to offer of their causes, nor any particular insight into wider political or sociological significance, let me not add to the cacophony. Let me continue instead to muse on how we talk about books.

All too frequently, when discussing books, we fall back on set formulae, to set words and expressions, without giving sufficient thought to what we mean by them. So we describe certain writing as, say, “sentimental”, or as “melodramatic”, without thinking clearly about what precisely these terms mean, what we take them to mean, how the reader may be expected to interpret them, and why such qualities should be Good or Bad Things. I am not, incidentally, excluding myself from criticism on this point: I am as guilty as anyone of using expressions  indequately defined, and passing judgement merely on such inadequate basis. But my purpose in focusing on this issue here is not to point an accusing finger at anyone, but to come to a better understanding of how we read books, how we talk about books, and how we judge books.

One expression often used when talking about books is, I find, “soap opera”. I have seen works even of the quality of Hamlet or Anna Karenina described as “soap operas” – sometimes approvingly, sometimes not. When the BBC dramatised Bleak House a few years ago, they presented it in the format of a soap opera (twice weekly episodes of thirty minutes each occupying the slot normally reserved for Eastenders), they all seemed to fall over themselves to tell us at every possible opportunity that Bleak House really was the soap opera of its day. And yet, predictably, there is never the slightest effort to articulate just what it is about these works that makes them resemble soap operas.

To address this question adequately, one needs first of all to analyse soap operas, and identify their distinguishing marks. And here, I find myself at a disadvantage, since I do not watch soaps, and nor have the slightest interest in doing so, even for the purpose of research. I gather that there is a considerable variety within soaps: there are those whose opinions I trust who tell me that Coronation Street, for instance, is often very well-written. I do not doubt them, although it’s worth remarking tangentially that “well-written”, like its sister expression “badly written”, is yet another of those expressions we often use when talking about books that communicate precisely nothing. But “well-written” though some soaps may be, soap opera is just not a genre that interests me, and, given how hard-pressed I am to find time even to keep up with what I like, I am not in any great rush to spend time with something the very thought of which leaves me, at best, indifferent, and, at worst … well, let’s not go into that here: being myself an aficionado of Hammer horror films, I am in no position to look down my nose at tastes I do not share.

Furthermore, soaps come in different colours: there are those soaps that present sensational events – armed sieges, kidnappings, murder, long-lost relatives turning up, etc. There are others that focus, some would say doggedly, on the everyday. How can such a variety be comfortably accommodated within a single category?

But there is one salient element common to all soap operas that is apparent even to non-viewers such as myself: soaps – at least, the ones shown on British television – are not conceived or written with any end in sight. The series is intended to continue for as long as there are sufficient numbers of people watching, and the plug will only be pulled (as was notoriously the case with Eldorado back in the early 90s) when viewing figures are judged to be irreparably low. Once again, I am at a disadvantage here for not watching soaps, but I would guess that while skilful writers may be able to give a sense of dramatic structure to individual episodes, I cannot see how, given the lack of an end towards which the drama is moving, any shape or structure can be applied across wider spans.This in itself makes soap unlike any work of literature: a play or a novel, no matter how long, no matter how far the end may be from the start, is, nonetheless, a discrete unity, and can, therefore, even across long spans, be structured; I’d be happy to be corrected by those who know soaps better than I do, but I cannot see how long term structure can be possible within a drama that is intended to continue indefinitely. War and Peace or Bleak House, long though they are, are carefully paced and structured over their considerable lengths in a way that, given their formats, is not possible with Eastenders or with Coronation Street.

But leaving aside the issue of structure (vitally important though the issue is, since all art requires structure), what is usually meant when certain works are compared to soaps is, I suspect, that these said works deal with themes that are commonly thought to be the provenance of soaps – everyday things, such as births, marriages and deaths; falling in and out of love;  friendships and enmities, adulteries and divorce, misunderstandings and reconciliations – all those things that make up the sum total of our humdrum lives. Of course, as noted, there are certain soaps that go out of their way to present the sensational, but nonetheless, it is these unexciting, everyday matters that still seem commonly to be the stuff of soaps; and when novels or plays are compared to soaps, the comparison is usually made, more often than not, on the basis of this shared content. But is shared content in itself sufficient to claim a parallel?  Ever since 19th century novelists turned their backs on Romanticism they have dealt with the quotidian, striving to find significance in the apparent trivia of our day-to-day lives; but merely comparing something such as, say, Madame Bovary to a soap opera purely on this basis doesn’t really tell us much. Indeed, it tells us nothing at all.

I do not mean to be dogmatic on this issue: if comparison of a novel to soap opera is at all appropriate, then by all means, let us make the comparison: but let us state clearly why we are making the comparison, on what basis a parallel is being drawn. Otherwise, to describe Bleak House or Anna Karenina merely as “the soap operas of their times” may be classed as another of those pieces of criticism that tell us absolutely nothing about what is being criticised, or why.

4 responses to this post.

  1. NIce post and I completely agree with you on the vacuity of making such a comparison without validation. Regarding the structure however, I’ve previously compared the composition of chapters in some of Dickens’ serialised novels to episodes of soap operas; both in terms of their use of subplots and because each chapter/episode is required to conclude in a manner that piques the readers interest so that they tune into the next weeks installment. The device is notably apparent in the opening chapters of Great Expectations.


    • Hello Rav (if I may be so bold as to shorten your screen name!)

      Looking back on what I have written, I think I omitted the most important point of all: I think the biggest problem I have with comparing works such as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations to soap operas is that doing so implies that that the comparison is a reasonable one to make. And I really don’t think it is. Anna Karenina and Great Expectations are among of the most extraordinary products of the human imagination; soap operas, frankly, aren’t. Making the comparison seems to imply that they’re all somehow at the same level. This implication is, of course, quite consistent with the modern ethos of relativism in the arts – this feeling that nothing can be objectively better than anything else, and that it’s all really just a matter of personal opinion, and that any personal opinion is as good as any other. Not only is none of this true, but such ideas have, I think, seriously diminished our ability to understand and to appreciate what the arts, at their best, have to offer. If people come to works such as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations with the impression that they can be taken in much the same way that an episode of Eastenders – if they think that literature is really just soap for posh people – then it is highly unlikely that they will be able to understand the intricacies and the profundities of writers such as Dickens or Tolstoy. To engage with serious works of art, the reader has to bring to these works more – much much more, than is required merely to take in episodes of soap opera. One needn’t look too far round the net to find inadequate responses to works of depth and complexity.

      But yes, as you say, Dickens did like ending his episodes with a cliffhanger in order to encourage the reader to buy the next episode. Of course, Dickens started his career as a popular entertainer, and even when he was writing his later, more artistically considered works, he did not forget his literary roots: he continued using the various devices and techniques he had mastered earlier in his career. What is remarkable is the use to which he put these techniques and devices. For all his ending each episode with a cliffhanger, works such as Bleak House, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend are all very intricately structured. I’d posted some thoughts on Dickens here.


  2. I pinched your argument or definition for today’s endless Trollope post.


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