Mini-series

In an austere climate for publishing, one innovation is booming: brief studies of single films or TV shows. Diane Negra considers the commercial and scholarly implications

June 17, 2010

In an era of fiscal and intellectual uncertainty in academic publishing, where both the traditional monograph and the anthology are under stress, publishers of media studies books are seemingly in agreement about the attractions of one particular form: the short single-film/TV series study.

Running at about half the length of the conventional monograph and organised to attract both scholarly readers and bookshop browsers, titles of this kind represent a relatively robust area of publication in the discipline. Where once the British Film Institute Classics/Modern Classics stood alone in the category, other series devoted to such books have proliferated in recent years. One can now point to examples such as American Indies from Edinburgh University Press, Spin-Offs from Duke University Press, TV Milestones from Wayne State University Press, Studies in Film and Television from Wiley-Blackwell and Cultographies from Wallflower Press, among others.

The rise of this sort of book as an intellectual/commercial phenomenon has occurred (not coincidentally) in tandem with the popularisation of the DVD box set and the expansion of "serious" internet commentary about media, some of it by academics writing for forums such as FlowTV, In Medias Res and Antenna. It also accompanies the much-lamented (if arguable) death of popular film criticism in print.

It is easy to see how the single-film/TV series short book might be perceived to be the right format for a fast-changing environment, pitched to cash-strapped, attention-deficient readers for whom traditional tomes constitute too great a financial and intellectual burden. And yet the rise of this publishing form inspires a number of questions, among them: who do the authors and publishers of these books think they are for? In this instance, the assumptions on each side may be far from equivalent. How do such books intersect with questions of taste, cult and the canon? To what extent do/should they function as platforms for a new mingling of academic and fan roles? And perhaps the biggest question of all: is the short monograph part of a process of media studies repositioning itself intellectually, institutionally and economically?

It is apparent that many of these new series are founded on certain gestures towards de-canonisation, parting company decisively with more orthodox criteria of worthiness. Where once they might have operated as showcases for reflections on film by public intellectuals (Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz, Camille Paglia on The Birds), it is now not uncommon for a book of this kind to have a first-time author. Troubling the question of which are and should be the "touchstone texts" of the discipline and dispensing with older notions of aesthetic and sometimes cultural value, they are bringing us more Bewitched and less Boudu Saved from Drowning. The selection criteria now in operation also mean more titles in television studies, although their pedagogical applications may prove limited at smaller institutions where television and new media studies have been slow starters and "appreciative" approaches to the study of media still predominate.

Annie Martin, acquisitions editor for the TV Milestones series, says that the decision to found a series of short single-study books on television was based in part on what Wayne State University Press was hearing from media studies teachers who wanted more teachable television scholarship. According to Martin, TV Milestones is "a pretty young series just hitting its stride" (its latest tranche of titles includes books on I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Doctor Who and Angel) and the press' investment in it probably means that it will publish fewer full-length monographs.

Wayne State finds that the books are particularly pleasurable to work on, often serving as "labours of love" for contributors and written in a more accessible, personal style (authors frequently use the first person). According to Martin, non-academic authors do not flourish in the form, demonstrating "a lack of knowledge that's apparent". A particular challenge for authors of the TV-focused books in this format is the ability to synthesise and compress vast amounts of material, judiciously choosing examples from among hundreds of broadcast hours.

Wayne State's series, like the ones at Edinburgh and Wiley-Blackwell, puts pedagogical concerns at the forefront. This seems to be a unifying characteristic across all the series, most of which fuse a dedication to the rigour and nuance of high-quality scholarship with readability and teachability. American Indies nominates a category of exceptional yet popular work, commercially successful films unconstrained "by the formal and ideological parameters often associated with mainstream Hollywood cinema". The Edinburgh series includes books on Brokeback Mountain, Far from Heaven and Lost in Translation.

The rise of the short book series may be a function of a more general increase in the appeal of standardisation and differentiation. They are cheaper to produce because their publishers do not have to innovate a new design strategy for each one, and the success of one title can work to "pre-sell" the next. In some cases, logics of temporal and historical completeness are proffered. A glance through Rutgers University Press' most recent film and media studies catalogue shows that it is rather obsessed with decade periodisation: a large percentage of its output is classed into one of two anthology series, Screen Decades, whose books offer a year-by-year chronology of the selected era, and Star Decades, which works similarly with selected film stars.

Given patterns of diminishing library acquisition at many institutions, what are the commercial prospects for the short film/TV series study? If it is true that such books lend themselves to "impulse" buying, this may be because their design positions them as particular objects of aesthetic pleasure while their series structure accommodates a "collector" mindset. My experience and anecdotal evidence from colleagues suggest that students seem to buy these books more frequently than weighty textbooks, possibly seeing them as leavening aspects of work with elements of pleasure and classifying them as vaguely approximate to CliffsNotes study guides, with their implications of lucidity and digestibility.

What is clear is that these books have emerged in a publishing and bookselling climate of severe austerity that may or may not be showing early signs of a post-recession recovery, and at a time when notions of the reading public are shifting in as yet poorly understood ways. The short single study may seem appropriate for an era when "you liked the book, now see the film" and "you liked the film, now read the book" notions of reconsumption proliferate.

It may also suit students with new expectations (in the age of texting and tweeting) for compressed and focused text. As a student of mine rather aptly put it: "People seem to be constantly craving information: they just want it miniaturised." The short study may also be well suited for a reading culture that, as Jim Collins argues in Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (2010), is more social and synergistic, driven by the integration of reading and popular visual media. It is possible that these books work at least partly in the mode Collins identifies as "the cine-literary". The question of how they lend themselves to iPhone or Kindle use and an electronic reading future that is starting to come into being will no doubt prove an urgent one.

At their best, these books' concentrated focus, conversational tone and high production values mark them out as important channels of argumentation and insight, a powerful means for communicating film and television studies scholarship to a readership beyond the discipline itself. Yet it is evident that there are a number of intellectual, pedagogical and commercial issues specific to this expanding form of scholarship that are still very much in flux: the exact nature of the factors fuelling the apparent rising popularity of single-text studies for readers, authors and publishers seems elusive.

One concern is whether these series are perpetuating a neglect of obscure works (or even just those produced outside the US and the UK). Another has to do with whether they are intensifying taste-driven and sometimes commercial trends. We might ask whether the style, size and design of these books operate as responses to a broader cultural environment in which academic authority is expected to account for itself in new ways.

For the moment, it is clear that the short single-study book represents for publishers and authors a credible (if unproven) means of attracting a fluctuating audience.

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