Reviews 2016

Seriality and Texts for Young People: The Compulsion to Repeat

Seriality and Texts for Young People: The Compulsion to Repeat. Ed. Mavis Reimer, Nyala Ali, Deanna England, and Melanie Dennis Unrau. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 292 pages. $95.00 (hardback).

Series fiction has been an influential and popular part of children’s literature from its very beginnings; scholarship on the genre, however, has been very limited: Seriality has, for better or worse, been connected with popularity, and this has stood in the way of its reception in the academic world. Luckily, the tides are changing, and seriality is becoming a much more frequent topic. This development is not only perceivable in children’s literature (and the present publication is of course the best marker for that); seriality is also becoming an increasingly important field of interdisciplinary media studies, game studies and (popular) cultural studies.

The present collection covers a wide range of topics. Laurie Langbauer’s analysis of the Tin Woodman in the Oz series [L. Frank Baum, 1900–1918] employs Walter Benjamin’s theory on mechanical production and (predominantly Freud’s) theory of the uncanny to show how the tin woodman as an example of the mechanical man "specifically signifies seriality" (51) at the same time as it questions human subjectivity. Laura M. Robinson examines the intratextual references of books in text and merchandise, and, using the Anne of Green Gables series as an example [L. M. Montgomery, 1909–1921], argues that "serial fiction can offer a critique of earlier texts while at the same time trading on their popularity" (58—59). Rose Lovell-Smith discusses Kierkegaard’s understanding that repetition is appreciated more through feelings rather than intellect (74) and supports this argument with a reading of the Howl’s Moving Castle Series [Dianna Wynne Jones, 1986–2008] as actively playing with readers’ expectations of and delight in repetition.

Eliza T. Dresang and Kathleen Campana trace the way Harry Potter [Joanne K. Rowling, 1998–2007] uses repetition intra- and intertextually, employing Deleuze’s and Guattari’s understanding of repetition as adaptation (i.e. "repeating always with a difference" 96) to explain the practice of re-reading. Analysing fans’ social media interactions, the authors conclude that these have "served to change, expand, and speculate on the original published text, bringing a new significance to both intertextuality and intratextuality" (108). charlie peters explains the repeated use of fear in the Dear Canada series [2001–present] as an implicit effort at nation-building: The girl diarists’ fear of state violence establishes them as active chroniclers of nation-building processes. Similarly, Michelle J. Smith follows questions of nationhood but concentrates on collective and individual identity formation. In her analysis of School Paper, a compulsory reading material at Australian schools from 1896 up until 1927, the author argues that the seriality of the publication increased its effectiveness as a nation-building tool because of its combination of repetitive and altering messages about national identity. Looking at a similar medium, Kristine Moruzi explains that the 19th century British middle-class magazine Atalanta strengthened girl readers’ enjoyment of and commitment to reading as a central educational goal as well as a central aspect of femininity. The repetition of scholarly content, Moruzi argues, actively encouraged readers to pursue scholarly activities and achievements.

Brandon Christopher turns to a different medium and gives an overview and sound analysis of the serial aspects central to super hero comics. Drawing on Butler’s theory of performativity, Christopher highlights the circular way comic book authors use citations first to construct a narrative of origin and, by repeating this narrative of origin, to give credence and authority to the narrative.

Promising that the graphic novel Red [Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, 2009] "can offer significant insights into the range of verbal and visual texts that operate by adding discrete new sections to a sequence of existing ones" (188), Perry Nodelman argues that repetition from one media to another is a form of recontextualisation and links his findings to the wider field of popular cultural studies. Debra Dudek touches upon the relationship between adaptation and repetition and highlights the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997–2003] play with genre expectations and modalities. Though this contribution is a very interesting read, it stands out for its concentration on content rather than theory, which makes it welcome change from an otherwise theoretically packed read, at the same time as leaving it a little flat in comparison.

Margaret Mackey takes a more theoretically charged approach to making Peter Lunenfeld’s idea of the "unfinish," i.e. a frame of mind that "laud[s] process rather than goal" (218), usable for the study of children’s literature. Mackey compares the 1940s and 1950s Roy Rogers television series with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series [Jeff Kinney, 2007 – 2011] and concludes that the former’s embracing of the unfinished set the pace for the postmodern, digital era version of the unfinished as exemplified by the Diary series.

Larissa Wodtke conceptualises the MP3 format and the possibilities and (repetitive) media practices associated with it. Highlighting its importance to a culture of repeatability in the digital realm, Wodtke argues that the format forebodes a change in consumer culture that may result in a challenge to consumer capitalism. The anthology closes with Nat Hurley’s analysis of the appropriation of Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid" [1890] by transgender youths. Drawing on Greg Urban’s concept of rogue circulation, Hurley argues that the story offers identificatory potential and emphasises agency particularly for deviant teenagers.

The anthology’s concentration on theory is, on the one hand, a clear bonus, and befits a collection that aims to open up a new field. At the same time, the focus on theory is sometimes to the disadvantage of the analysis of the primary texts, an issue that is particularly virulent in the introduction: From psychoanalysis via philosophy to political studies, the editors touch upon a vast field of related theories in a very illuminative fashion, but often neglect to connect them to the (literary) subject at hand in a sufficient way, which makes the text a little disjointed. Furthermore, some related research, particularly from game and media studies, has not been incorporated, and neither have theoretical texts from other languages (most notably Frank Kelleter’s Populäre Serialität [Popular Seriality]). This is nothing particularly new as publications in languages other than English have a notoriously hard time getting recognition within English-speaking academe, but it remains a shame. With its strong focus on repetition, the collection also tends to neglect other aspects of seriality. Particularly vexingly and despite what is promised in the title, the idea of compulsion is not taken up, and so a whole array of questions is not addressed.

The anthology’s aim is to open up a new field of study within children’s literature research. It achieves this by approaching the subject from various insightful angles and with a consistently and remarkably sound theoretical foundation. That being said, the diversity of topics and angles gives the anthology a slightly disjointed feel, something that could have been remedied with the help of a tighter over-arching structure and/or a concluding chapter. Overall, however, Seriality and Texts for Young People remains a highly instructive and insightful publication that opens up the field to further studies.

Marion Rana
University of Bremen, Germany

Work Cited

Kelleter, Frank. Populäre Serialität: Narration - Evolution - Distinktion: Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert (Kultur- und Medientheorie). Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012.